May 17, 2011 9:05 PM | jeriaska
Daniel Rosenfeld, writing as C418, has served as the musician and sound designer on Mojang's Minecraft. The critically acclaimed Swedish sandbox construction game received the Audience Award and Seumas McNally Grand Prize at this year's Independent Games Festival ceremony.
Rather than relying on predetermined plot points to motivate progress, what has drawn so many to the world of Minecraft has been the exploration of its procedurally generated environments, which can be mined to create buildings and underground caves. For C418, the challenges in providing music for such an unpredictable gaming environment have been profound.
But the experience has also been profoundly rewarding. The composer has released his score to Minecraft - Volume Alpha through Bandcamp and is at work on the music that will appear both in future updates and later as part of the Volume Beta soundtrack. He will be writing the music score for 2 Player Productions' documentary feature Minecraft: The Story of Mojang. And independent of the game, his next original album is nearing completion.
Despite challenges in determining an appropriate tone for early builds, Minecraft has been met with widespread acclaim prior to its official launch. We had the chance to hear from the musician on his experience creating the first volume of the game soundtrack and his related forthcoming projects.
On your website you had written that you were interested in leaving your engineering job in order to do music full-time. Have you since made progress on that goal?
C418: Actually, yes. I quit my job building and testing dialysis devices back in December, which was really dull, repetitive work. After that I was forced to do what is called "conscription" in Germany. After July, I will hopefully be making a living completely freelance. I started making music six years ago and it's been sort of a dream to be able to do that hobby all my life. That only really became realistic once Minecraft became popular.
Seeing as you and Markus Persson (Notch) are separated geographically, how did it come about that you partnered on developing the sound design for the game?
We met on irc, through TIGSource. He had presented Minecraft as a tech demo and no one seemed to think much of it. Just as much as he was a show-off with his tech in the channel, I was a show-off with my music. He got interested in it and after a short discussion we agreed that I would make music for Minecraft. As of the next update I think I will be responsible for pretty much every sound effect you hear in the game. There are still a lot of placeholders in there, but I hope to change most of it.
During the early stages of development, how were you interested in the music responding to the genre requirements of the sandbox game?
While it was still practically a demo, I wrote what have become the most famous songs for Minecraft, which Notch named "Calm 1, 2, 3." Then multi-player emerged with all the colorful blocks and crazy gameplay. At that point the structures that people were building didn't match the soothing music. That led me to pause for awhile, just wanting to see how the game was proceeding. I tried a different, more childish approach to the music, and people were sort of appalled. After that I went back to making the experimental kind of "Calm" music again and they loved it. I think I'm going to keep doing that.
Dramatic situations in games can help guide the music composition process. But with the procedurally generated environments of Minecraft, which revolve around the player's choices on how to shape the landscape, what is informing your work as a musician?
We had been playing around with the idea of making dynamic music for when a Creeper attacks you, but with an extremely procedural game like Minecraft, it's really hard. A battle lasts like ten seconds, which leads to radical music changes, and the results are strange.
Currently we are still experimenting with the music because Markus's main attention has been on the game itself. In recent updates adding rainstorms, sound is getting more and more important. Right now there is no real difference in where music plays, apart from day and night. Night music is even more calm, and a bit scary at times.
I sent Notch some random noises which he then edited in a really funny way to keep people jumping during the night scenes. They're just jump scares, but they do add some atmosphere to the game for when you're deep in caves and have run out of torches. Black & White was the first game to try a similar kind of atmosphere, and that didn't emphasize music.
Had you anticipated such a widespread following for the title, considering its popularity is fairly unprecedented among independent games?
I think Minecraft is an exceptional game, but at the time I was just happy to be making the soundtrack for a game again. What really surprised me was when it was mentioned by Valve in the Team Fortress blog. I've done quite a few soundtracks but none of these games were ever released. I grew up with a Game Boy in my hands and have never stopped buying videogames and devices, so I think it's a good thing if you can say, "I do it for my living."
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Has the collaboration with Notch allowed you enough creative freedom to write the kind of music that you'd like to make?
He gives me all the freedom I need to make the music sound like I want it to. Pretty much everything you hear in Minecraft has been totally my decision. I don't think that if I were hired to make Mass Effect 3 music that I'd be given this kind of freedom at all.
Are you looking to work exclusively with Mojang in the future or are you open to writing music for other games?
I'd love to continue working with Mojang. I'm not doing the soundtrack for Scrolls, but I hope I can make the soundtracks for Markus's next games. I would also love to make the music for other games if they are really inspirational. 2 Player Productions is making a documentary on Minecraft and I'm going to write the music for that too, which will be an interesting experience for me. They want to interview me at one point as well.
Was there additional work required in order to release the music for the game as a full-length album on Bandcamp?
There was quite a lot of work involved, actually. I did change the music a little bit so that it would be seamless between pauses. I also added an additional fifteen minutes of content so that people would consider spending four dollars on it. I think Bandcamp is the most convenient method of selling music digitally when compared with Amazon and iTunes, which will take 30% or more of sales. Even though Bandcamp is not really well known, they're pretty much the best service to sell your music.
How did you decide on the order of the music that appears on the soundtrack album?
Some of the classic tracks, like "Cat," I wanted to appear further down in the list so that there could be some anticipation for them. "Key" is a little piano arrangement I did of another song, "Subwoofer Lullaby." I had been experimenting with the melody, playing it again on my sequencer, and I liked the idea of there being recurring themes. It gives a feeling of familiarity. Because it was such a quiet and soothing tune, I wanted for it to be a calm introduction to the Minecraft album.
Which tracks have listeners determined to be the most emblematic of the game?
"Minecraft" is the first song I ever did for Minecraft. It was extremely ambient and experimental, building up very slowly before vanishing. I like the simple notations of it. In my mind it's the main song, even if it is really calm. It has sold well on iTunes, so that might be one of the favorites. "Minecraft," "Sweden" and "Clark" were the ones named "Calm 1, 2, 3."
It seems that very early on you had arrived on an idea for the music that is now strongly associated with the game.
Yeah, it's really weird. I was depressed about the music not fitting, because the multiplayer game was so colorful, but people seem to really love that music. Now, with survival mode, it starts to fit again. It's a definite contrast.
The soundtrack album is called "Volume Alpha." Will there eventually be a Volume Beta?
Yes, that's what it means. There's a lot more music coming, since I've quit my day job and am dedicating my life to music, which is quite a drastic change.
What are your thoughts on the potential for incorporating generative music in procedural games?
Right now, I don't think it works. Spore was one of the bigger games that tried generative music and it sounded like random melodies. Computers don't understand the emotional logic of humanity, so you need to enforce some restrictions so that the randomness does not get out of hand. If you prepare the assets for the computer to play, you can do some decent sounding stuff, but I don't see generative music working in games right now. Computers still have to learn to think.
Are you surprised by the amount of creativity that goes into the user-created content?
Some stuff is really insane. It's indescribable. I found servers where there were huge palaces by three people building all the time, the most complex structures I've ever seen Minecraft.
Do you see the game signaling the introduction of more procedural environments or more user-generated content in gameplay?
We now have the processing technology to actually enable procedural games. Eric Chahi's game From Dust accentuates this. There was a Lego-building multiplayer game, and while the idea was great, I think the interface was too complicated for people to catch on. Markus keeps saying that he just makes the games he wants to make, but even during the early stages people found it interesting to explore the worlds and go through caves. I think it's a movement that people are really interested in.
You have a studio album on the horizon. What is the style of music that will characterize this release?
It's a mainstream kind of project, which is unusual for what I do. The album I'm writing now I am doing sort of for other people, sort of just for myself, in order to have a good time making music.
Taking a look at your present situation, would you say it's an exciting time to be a musician? Just five years ago there weren't resources like Bandcamp, allowing composers to upload full streaming albums for a low price, or Kickstarter, making it possible to get a documentary film off the ground through crowd funding.
It makes a lot of things easier to be able to sell music digitally ourselves without having to learn PHP or something. If you aren't that well known as a musician, you can always try to sell your physical copies through Kickstarter without having to worry if they don't sell. I think it's a pretty good time.
For more information on the music of C418, visit the artist's official website. Images courtesy of Mojang.