GDC 2009: MGS composer on scoring games

Norihiko Hibino provides tips and useful information about the competitive game-music market across the Pacific.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Norihiko Hibino, a talented musician best known for his work on the Metal Gear Solid series, shared his thoughts today at the 2009 Game Developers Conference about his experiences and how to do business in Japan. Hibino spoke to a room full of attentive listeners as he went over the basics of the business world, starting from the initial bow to when an invoice is issued.

"You should not talk about money," stated Hibino, who approached the subject of payment playfully. "It's not really polite to say, 'How much can you do?'"

According to Hibino, the game-music business is very similar to the one in the United States, except that composers are paid based on an estimated budget. A musician may not receive any money until much later, and may even need to follow up after a project to make sure he or she gets paid. In Japan, it's also possible to obtain the copyright for the music so that the musician can receive royalties from the soundtrack (but not the game).

The market for video game soundtracks is small. When a soundtrack is released alongside a game, only three to five percent of buyers will purchase the music CD as well. Publishers in Japan generally add an incentive with the soundtrack to entice gamers, similar to what Atlus does in the United States when bundling a free soundtrack along with a preorder.

Hibino knows all of the marketing tricks and uses his business savvy to run GEM Impact, a studio of composers who work on a wide variety of projects. He began GEM Impact in 2005 to have more control over the entire process.

"When you're in-house, you have to get permission from the boss to record anything, even demos," Hibino explained in an interview earlier with GameSpot. "You cannot get a musician without permission, so I ended up paying musicians by myself. It's not really productive, so [I thought] if I could control the budget and hire and select composers, I'll have better results, so I decided to start my own studio."

He did mention in his presentation that in-house composers make a good living, but they work long hours, usually from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Teamwork is also very important in Japan, given that most of the decisions are agreed on as a group.

A jazz saxophone player, Hibino studied at Berklee College of Music, and eventually returned to Japan to work for Konami before starting his own studio. Understanding that a solid education is important, Hibino is currently building a new studio at Life College in Malaysia, along with a new curriculum so that students can have the opportunity to train in sound design.

"What surprised me in Malaysia is that they speak English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and some people speak other languages, so it's a really good hub for a worldwide project," said Hibino, who would like to recruit fresh talent that could work with people in countries that are in need of good sound designers, such as China.

Hibino ended his presentation by discussing how much he enjoyed collaborating with other artists, which was the reason why he made three arranged albums for Atlus' Etrian Odyssey. His latest work includes the upcoming action game Ninja Blade.

Although he enjoyed the thematic style to the slice-and-dice action game, he said that recently he's been fascinated with chamber music. So fascinated, in fact, that he's teamed up with Marc Cellucci (ex-Sega employee) to release Prescription for Sleep, an application that is a collection of four five-minute tracks with dreamlike visuals that can be downloaded from iTunes.

When asked why he decided to go therapeutic, he replied cheerfully, "I was majoring in human science in university, so I was into it."

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