Q&A: Game music composer Jeremy Soule

Music composer of Neverwinter Nights, KOTR, and Guild Wars on the challenges of creating great game music, expansion packs, Steve Jobs, and more.


In his long career as a composer of video game music, Jeremy Soule has worked on some of gaming's biggest and most recognisable franchises. Starting with the Secret of Evermore back in 1995, Soule has since created the music for Total Annihilation, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the Harry Potter game series, Prey, Guild Wars, Dungeon Siege, and many more. GameSpot AU caught up with the award-winning composer to gauge his views on the differences between film and game music, releasing musical "expansion packs," and much more. Soule's music will be featured in PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, which hits Australia's Sydney Opera House from June 19-23.

GameSpot AU: You've worked on many different types of games. Is there a particular genre you like better than others?

Jeremy Soule: I just like working with interesting people who have new ideas and are ambitious. It doesn't matter what the game is--it could be a sports game, or a role-playing game, or a military simulation, or strategy--you name it. As long as there's a real passion from the people who are making the game.

GS AU: Where does the creative process start for you? How early in a game's development process do you start?

JS: I usually try to know what is going in a designer's head, so I try and talk to them a year before they start production. The earlier for me, the better. Even if it's just a twinkle in the mind's eye of the designer, I want to be there as soon as possible, because the music design can be fairly complex. It can take me two months to put together a music design if the game is really ambitious. But there have been times when I've been called in the last three months of a project, and then you just have to go with what you know.

GS AU: What do you think are the similarities between music and film?

JM: They're very similar, but the nature of interactivity offers more possibilities. A piece of music in a game may have to serve seven or eight different functions to be effective. In a film, what you see is what you get--it's a very static process once you determine what the underlying emotions need to be. I have to know how much information I want to communicate through the literal language of music to make the experience more compelling. If you can imagine [if] George Lucas had shipped Star Wars without music, it probably would have destroyed the film. Really great music enhances the experience. Spielberg once said that music can be half of the experience--and I think in the case of Jaws, I think that's very much true.

GS AU: Is game music getting to the same stage as movie music in terms of mainstream recognition?

JM: The role that music plays in supporting a video game or film is still widely misunderstood. I think it's a very mysterious process for many. There's a quote that goes around: Great film music never hurts, and that if the music is doing what it's supposed to do, then you won't notice it. I don't believe that. I believe that there is a role for music to perform in underscore--where it is unobtrusive--but I also believe there are times in a film or game where the music has to soar, that it has to be the focal point of attention. Every part of a film has to work to improve the entertainment experience, and the same goes for games.

GS AU: Can good music lift a bad game?

JM: Absolutely. It happened with Azurik: Rise of Perathia. We were focus-testing, and all we did was put in music, and the scene all of a sudden got better ratings from our testers for gameplay. We focus-tested that sometime in 2001.

GS AU: What are you working on now?

JS: Guild Wars: Eye of The North is really my big focus at this time. We're working on some mobile and handheld games. A cell phone game for me is quite a contrast from an orchestra. You have a very limited sound palette, and it really reminds me of the old days when I was working on the Super Nintendo.

GS AU: You're selling music "expansion packs" through the Web site DirectSong for games like Guild Wars. How has that experience gone?

JS: The expansion packs were really an experiment--and a very successful one. It's a "ringtone on steroids" is how we describe it. I will say upwards of 10 percent of everyone who played Guild Wars got an expansion pack. For the most part, what I love about DirectSong as opposed to iTunes is it gives me direct access to my customers--this is why it's called DirectSong. It's a feedback mechanism for me really. With iTunes, there is no interaction between the artists and the fans. A lot of people have asked me why I haven't released in iTunes format. I say, well, when Steve Jobs decides he doesn't want to be the world's only music store, I'll jump on. In other industries we call that monopoly.

GS AU: Is online distribution the way to go for game soundtracks?

JS: They've sold well. Our traffic numbers at times have surpassed major record companies. It really is a labour of love. Movie soundtracks are a niche, but game soundtracks are a niche of a niche. It really wasn't feasible to physically distribute CDs of game soundtracks--we attempted to do it, but when Napster came along and piracy and downloading came, it pretty much destroyed the industry.

A lot of people said piracy was just hurting the big guys, but in reality it was hurting the small guys even more. If Metallica has 900,000 illegal downloads and they still sell 100,000, well, at least they still sell 100,000. If you take a guy like myself, if we want to sell 1,000 but 900 of them are illegally downloaded, then we're left with nothing. Our margins are so much tighter with specialty music.

GS AU: Jeremy Soule, thanks for your time.

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