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The sounds of a multibillion-dollar industry

By Amy Lohmann '14
December 19, 2011

When the latest Call of Duty video game was released last month, it racked up $1 billion in sales in just 16 days —  a day faster, notes a National Public Radio story, than it took the hit movie Avatar to reach the same number at the box office.

And with video games making many a wish list this holiday season, sales likely won't slow down any time soon.

You don't have to tell Ben Houge '96 that video games are big business. The St. Olaf alumnus spent six years in Shanghai, China, composing music and sound for video games as an employee of the French company Ubisoft. His work included developing the audio for popular video games like Brothers in Arms and Tom Clancy's EndWar.

Now Houge teaches a new generation about the art of video game music as a faculty member in the Film Scoring Department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He says the audience for video games is becoming increasingly diverse, as is the genre of games available. "I really think the idea of somebody who doesn't play games, 20 years from now, is going to be like somebody who doesn't go to the movies," Houge says. "It's just a kind of cultural literacy."

A music theory and composition major at St. Olaf, Houge earned a master's degree in composition from the University of Washington and created the organization Sound Currents. An active composer, this winter he will be doing a project as an artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that will include developing a sonification scheme for real-time sensor data.

He discusses the process of composing audio for video games, his favorite project, and how a chance meeting in Zanzibar led to his job at Berklee.

How do you go about composing music for a video game? Do you compose a song for each level, or is it one big theme that extends throughout the entire game?
Game soundtracks are usually not divided into 'songs' (although some games, particularly sports games, may license popular songs to play at certain points in a game). A game soundtrack is typically composed in a modular way that allows the music to be reconfigured in any number of different permutations, depending on how the game is played. Actually I've found that my music history studies at St. Olaf, particularly aleatoric procedures in the music of composers like John Cage and Terry Riley, have proven incredibly useful as I find solutions to the challenges of this still relatively new medium.

Are the games sent to you fully completed or do you get to join in on the creative process?
Getting the music into a game is typically a lot more complicated than getting music into a film, so it's necessary to start sooner. In an ideal situation, I'm closely involved with the rest of the team, ensuring that the music is closely integrated into everything else that's going on: animation, level design, online interactions, etc. Video games are one of the largest collaborative creative endeavors around these days, and it takes a lot of teamwork to get things to sound right. I was involved in the development of Tom Clancy's EndWar at Ubisoft for three-and-a-half years. On that project I wasn't the composer; I was the audio director, which meant ensuring the quality of every aspect of sound in the game (not just music), providing creative direction to content providers, and working with programmers and designers to design the systems that would play the sound in the game.

Do you play the games for inspiration, or do you go about composing in another way?
Game development is a very iterative process. First you need to just get something working, and then you can refine and tweak it to the point where it's fun and polished. So ideally there's a version of the game available to play early on in development, even if it doesn't look like much to begin with. But on some projects I've had to compose music with very little to go on, some concept art, or sometimes just a text description. I also feel it's important to pull in inspiration from other places, outside the game industry; I avidly attend art events, go to galleries, and listen to a wide range of music.

Do you have a favorite game you have composed for?
I worked on a role-playing game called Arcanum from the end of 1999 through the end of 2000, and that was a particularly rewarding project. To suit the unique premise of the game, I wrote a soundtrack for string quartet, which we recorded with members of the Seattle Symphony. In a first-of-its-kind promotional move, the publisher of the game released the sheet music for free online, which has resulted in a significant number of concert performances over the years.

What has your experience at Berklee been like?
Berklee has been fantastic. I always had respect for Berklee as a training ground for virtuoso performers, but since I've started teaching there, I've come to admire the breadth and diversity of the academic offerings. The story of my involvement with Berklee goes back to a music festival in Zanzibar in early 2010, when I spoke with a trombone player in a restaurant following his band's performance of some Ethiopian music. He turned out to be a Berklee professor, and he recommended me to the Film Scoring Department (of which the video game curriculum is a part). I invited them to a talk I gave on my EndWar work, and they told me they were expanding their video game offerings and asked if I'd like the job. It's been a wonderful experience, with great colleagues on the faculty and some incredibly talented students.

To me, this experience underscores one of my guiding principles, which is the importance of simply getting involved and going out to the kinds of events in which you'd like to participate. If you show a genuine enthusiasm, it increases your chances of getting invited to join in.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or