Interview with Gaming Composer James Hannigan

Last month, I was playing Kris Steele’s Centipede tribute Bad Caterpillar.  It was very impressive.  It felt like an authentic lost chapter in the series.  There was only one problem: the music.  Centipede’s music is iconic.  Replacing it with a generic heavy metal soundtrack that is as far disconnected from the source material as you can get was just plain stupid in my opinion.  And it got me thinking about how music is an often overlooked aspect on the scene.  I’m guilty of this too.  I rarely comment on music here at Indie Gamer Chick.  It wasn’t until Bad Caterpillar that I realized that the wrong music really can take away from the game experience.

So I put out a call on Twitter asking if anyone wanted to do a Tales from the Dev Side on marrying the right music to the right game.  I had a few takers, but the most interesting one came from a gentleman by the name of Joshua Dennison.  His story was a unique one.  He has written hours of music for seven games.  Not one of those games ever got completed, and the music is stuck in purgatory.  Despite my tin ear, I had a listen, and I immediately recognized that the dude has talent.  Just to confirm that, I had my boyfriend Brian and my buddy Alan of Indie Ocean have a listen.  They agreed, the guy has “it.”  And his struggles to land a job with someone who actually will finish a game is a story that ought to be told.

Around the same time, I had another response to the request.  This one came from a man by the name of James Hannigan.  James is not part of the indie scene.  Quite the opposite.  His credits include games in the Command & Conquer series, the Harry Potter game series, and the Lord of the Rings game series.  He’s been nominated for five BAFTA awards and won in 2000 for his work on Sim Theme Park.  Best of all: he’s a fan of the indie scene.  He was open to doing an interview on gaming music, and I figured he might have some words of inspiration for the next generation of game composers.  The problem is, I don’t know shit about music.  Then I remembered Joshua, and decided he would be the right person to conduct this interview.  My hunch was right.  This was a perfect match.  Joshua, the floor is yours!

Interview with James Hannigan

by Joshua Dennison

By way of introduction, let me just tell you that you know James Hannigan. Maybe not by name, but you’ve heard his music for decades, in games like Dead Space 3, entries in the Lord of the Rings and Wing Commander series, and nearly every mid-90s Electronic Arts sports title. He was the in-house composer at Electronic Arts for a number of years before moving on to produce orchestral scores for games and film.

I got to interview him last week, and as a composer, it was fascinating to hear his thoughts on his own history and how he’s seen the industry change. Additionally, he offers some fantastic insight into the role of independent composers, not only in modern games, but in today’s marketplace.

You were the in-house composer in the mid-90s for Electronic Arts. Not many larger studios have that kind of position anymore – what was that like?

I’d say there has been a move towards the current film production model when it comes to music, which sees composers acting as satellites around a project, not working in-house as often used to be the case. The market has opened up in the last decade or two, giving developers more of a choice about who they want to assign to each project, which has made for a much more competitive climate than ever before. It really does vary company to company, the approach taken to music, and even now there are developers who have in-house composers working in a setting not unlike that of the old Hollywood studio system, which had everyone working for hire under one roof or for one studio.

The composers in-house today, I suspect, are more likely to be based within studios focusing on a particular series or genre of game, having a clear vision of how music should be realised and implemented. But at an EA studio, with its fingers in lots of different pies, it made less and less sense for me to stay in-house as a composer, as it was part of a bigger family and ultimately also a publisher as well, with varied projects passing through all the time – and not always ones developed in-house.  It made life interesting (for instance, I could work on a sci-fi space sim one week and an EA Sports title the next) but from the point of view of developing myself and going in a direction I really wanted to go in, I found it a bit inhibiting and wanted to be more of a free agent again, as I had been before.

The approach taken to music has changed considerably since I was in-house. In terms of technology, power and resources have shifted away from the purpose-built recording studio, with its often hugely expensive outboard gear, towards power on the desktop for the ‘individual’ composer or sound designer, so there’s possibly less and less creative work going on within that sort of big studio environment anyway, day by day.

I’ll be inserting some of James’ pieces into this, since posting pictures won’t do much for a feature on music.  This is from Conquest Frontier Wars

Naturally, for mixing and monitoring, recording musicians and dialogue, etc., that kind of space is great – or even essential – to have access to, but it’s considerably easier for composers and sound designers now to do a large part of their work remotely or outside the studio environment, or in their own.  The internet has also provided a useful means of delivery that wasn’t widely in use when I started out.

I can’t really say that I was too unhappy about these changes myself as it suited me very well, but I think there’s still a space for the all-round ‘game audio guy’ (or gal) who does almost everything in the indie arena. The reason being that the results you can get there are very interesting and personal. An individual may more readily equate sound with music if they’re creating both, and see all the elements of the soundtrack as forming part of a whole, putting their own stamp on things at the same time.

A lot of indie games, after all, aren’t seeking to create a full-blown, sprawling Hollywood-style production crammed with gigabytes of content, but may be trying to create something quirkier and with character, more intimate or smaller in scope.  With these ‘cinematic’ AAA games, however, it’s very hard to imagine a single person taking on every audio-related role these days.

The games industry has grown and fragmented so much that it no longer really makes sense to say it has a core to it, or a single direction, but it can support all genres and approaches to games development. Much like TV and film, in fact. You wouldn’t reduce television to being all ‘comedy’ or all ‘documentary’ any more than you would say all games are ‘cinematic’ triple-A blockbusters. So, if you ask me, these sectors are complementary, rather than at odds with each other in terms of what they have to offer people. H

Having a healthy independent sector is absolutely vital to keeping the games industry alive in the long-term, and to keep the scene innovative and relevant. Very often, what’s quirky and at the fringes today ends up mainstream tomorrow in any case. As with film, where you have this cross-fertilization going on between the independent sector and Hollywood, I think a similar thing will happen more in games – if it isn’t already happening.   In fact, we’re already seeing the big publishers acknowledging the existence of the indie scene and influenced by indie output and trends. But it’s a two-way street as well, and clearly a lot of indie games borrow concepts and ideas for games that first emerged in the ‘traditional’ games industry.

What is your process, exactly? Do you compose in a certain way?

Yes, I tend to work through ideas at the keyboard when it comes to orchestral music, but I’m always mindful of the uniqueness of each instrument and what it has to offer, so try to avoid an overly keyboard-centric approach to writing music. The same is true with sound design or what I think of as musical sound effects integrated into tracks.

When working with sounds, I rarely even touch the keyboard, as the last thing I want to convey in my music is the impression of someone sitting at a keyboard!  At other times I notate music directly. It really depends on the approach to music production, style and the way the music will be realized and recorded in the end.

Some things are obvious, like, you’d never match a sweeping orchestral suite with some hot football action, but how do you match the right composition with the right game?

I don’t know if it is that obvious really, because a bit orchestral beauty could, I feel, convey the passion of football at the right time.  Sometimes the ironic use of music is very effective as well, and music can work against visuals to utterly change our perceptions of what we are seeing, and add a new, less obvious dimension.  So although I do agree that there are some obvious ground rules when it comes to stylistic appropriateness, and in the case of the football music the goal may be to create excitement, I suppose it can’t hurt to break these rules as well, if that feels right.

It’s a balancing act between providing what is expected and unexpected, I think. Giving the listener enough expected familiarity and not being so abstract and out there that it ends up alienating them.

I personally don’t feel being creative with music is just about coming up with new forms of music or styles, or being wacky and weird, but is more about how and when you apply music.  That’s half the job of writing to picture and applying music, really.  Ultimately I think what you apply to games and what works in them is a very subjective thing though, and there may be any number of ‘right’ compositions and approaches if followed through and developed.

It just so happens that when people get used to hearing such and such a thing in a given context they expect to hear it there, as they learn through association that this is appropriate. That’s how a musical language (indeed, any language) evolves, I think.  But I feel it’s probably worth spending less time thinking about what’s exactly right for something in some absolute or objective way and spending more time interpreting things for yourself and applying the music that you personally feel works best.

Doing that may be the only way you can give it any authenticity, really, as if your heart is not in what you’re doing and you don’t think it works, then the chances are it isn’t going to.  So I think, very often, it’s about taking an idea and running with it, making it work.

When do you throw in the towel? Do you know early on that a certain song won’t go in a certain game, or do you keep working on the song?

I think you have to learn to throw in the towel a lot working in games or, indeed, any industry. Not necessarily in a career sense, but you do have to let some things go and move on, when it comes to individual cues.  Sometimes it’s worth sticking with things though, and previously rejected tracks can end up being the most important ones in the end.

This is from the latest Command & Conquer.

I can remember writing a track called “Soviet March” for Red Alert 3, which started out as a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to Soviet era marches, but eventually became the game’s main theme. For a long time on the project though it was a barely significant track and there didn’t even seem to be a place to use it in the game itself. You often have to write what gets you excited, as a way into a project, even when you don’t know where that’s going to lead you. Writing for games, I think, should be an organic and iterative process.

Do you find inspiration in your peers? For example, I personally love Inon Zur’s Dragon Age scores. I think they fit beautifully with the fantasy setting while still managing to eschew some of the tropes of the genre. Are there scores you hear that just make you go, “I want to do that!” ?

There are plenty of games I’d love to work on, but not many where I feel I would take the same approach that has already been taken. Composing is a subjective and fairly personal process, so you always feel you’d do things slightly differently if you were on board such and such a project, and I think that is a natural thing for composers to feel.

But I do of course love to hear the work of other composers in general.  There are loads of projects I’d like to work on, of course…  Worse still, there are many huge projects I’ve almost worked on but haven’t for some reason or another that have gone onto become huge successes, and that feels much worse to me!

Especially after working on such mammoth titles like RuneScape and Dead Space 3, is there a part of you that would like to just dial it back and do something more experimental for an indie developer?

Yes, I’d love to. But there’s a kind of polarization that goes on in this market, where you become defined – pigeonholed even – by the kind of work you do, and the sector or end of the industry you work in. For example, if you’re a composer of triple-A games, there could be a perception that you probably don’t do much work in the independent sector, nor really want to. And there’s also a great deal of indifference as well, and only a small number of people even care who is composing for such and such a game.

In my case, I’d love to do more in the independent sector, but I don’t really know how to engage with it that much, despite it actually feeling like something I’m familiar with. I say that because, when I started out, today’s ‘traditional’ games industry was very similar in spirit to today’s indie game scene, and there was a similar feeling of innovation and inventiveness surrounding everything.

Of course, it is true that the financial rewards of working on triple-A games are likely to be higher than on many independent games, but that’s not the only reason you do this sort of work or why you find the work satisfying.  So, yes, I’d love to do something a bit more experimental and perhaps also a bit smaller in scope. Off the top of my head, I’d like to do something sci-fi related that views sound and music as a single entity; perhaps along the lines of the very interesting PS2 title Rez, for example.

On your website, you mention that you’re comfortable with synthesizers and sampling. Do those play a role in your creative process?

That’s just there to make it clear that not all my music is acoustic. These days, a lot of my music is realised by full orchestra, and it’s something you can become very easily associated with among your peers if you’re doing a lot of it, whether you like it or not. Taking that idea even further, you can even become associated with a particular style as well – for example, as a composer of ‘fantasy’ or ‘magical’ music, as a result of working on something such as Harry Potter.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only kind of music you enjoy making, or even what you initially set out to do or want to do in future.  I enjoy making all kinds of music, ranging from chip music to big band jazz, and I particularly like playing with synths and processing sounds when I get the chance to. So saying I’m comfortable with all that is just a way of saying I’m not just the sort of composer who only works with huge orchestras, even though that is (seemingly) what I mostly get asked to do!

I ask about synthesizers and the like because, in many instances, those are the only tools independent composers have. Some might see it as a disadvantage, like, not having an entire orchestra at their disposal, but it also speeds up the iterative process by a significant margin. Do you think independent composers have any advantages over more established names like yourself?

That’s a great question, and you make some really important points. My own take on this is that you use the tools that are right for the job. So, ideally, you use synths/samples for what only they can achieve well, and you use acoustic instruments and ensembles for what they can uniquely add as well.

Part of the freedom all this new technology gives us is to do anything we like, and the orchestral paradigm is one of many when it comes to making music, so I’d personally always try to make the sort of music I know I can realize within the constraints I’m facing in any given situation. One reason I like some of the music coming out of the independent games sector at the moment is, if I’m honest, because I don’t hear an awful lot of pseudo-orchestral music emerging or many attempts at sounding like ‘big’ game or film music, but something different and fresh, uniquely gamey. That’s really great if you ask me.

Many independent composers have trouble even breaking into the industry. Using myself as an example, I’ve composed for seven games, five different developers – but not a single one of them has been able to finish their game. If your work never sees the light of day, clearly that’s a disadvantage, but what’s something that you think independent composers could do differently to make themselves stand out?

I really sympathize with that, because I’ve been through so much myself in years gone by. You do have to be an almost insanely driven and resilient person to get anywhere in this business. Setting out to make a living from music in today’s climate, in the face of all the evidence that it’s going to be incredibly hard to do so, is not always a rational decision one makes, but something more emotionally motivated.

Sometimes composers feel they owe it to themselves to give it a go, just to see if they can end up doing for a living what they really love in life, making it a very personal choice going for it.  As for how you stand out, I think that’s tricky now in a world so saturated by music. I suspect content alone isn’t going to do it, and composers need to explore other avenues for drawing attention to their music.

My boyfriend Brian, a confirmed Command & Conquer fanatic, loved this piece from Red Alert 3.

Many composers today who stand out do so not only because of their music and/or talent, but because of their dedication and professionalism as well, along with the sacrifices (mostly in time) they make in the course of doing their work.  And very often, they become linked with a particular brand or genre of game, a series or a style, and some of their success is by association and the exposure they gain that way. If you think about it, it’s exactly the same with film. Who would hear almost any film composer’s work (no matter how good) if it wasn’t so widely disseminated?

As independent games edge into the mainstream, do you feel like independent composers are an unsung part of that emergence? For example, do you think Austin Wintory’s Grammy nomination (for Journey) is a step towards mainstream acceptance of indie titles?

Yes, it’s really great to have his score recognised in such a way, and it’s excellent for the games industry in general, indie or otherwise, in terms of the way games are becoming perceived as an art form.  But, even though such validation is fantastic, part of me also feels that the games industry shouldn’t need ‘mainstream’ music industry recognition to confirm its output is good.

Most independent game soundtracks are written and recorded entirely by one person. After having worked with such large orchestras and groups, would you find the idea of writing and recording, let’s say, thirty songs, daunting or exciting?

I do that already though, to some extent. Everything that eventually gets recorded by the orchestra has to be mocked up and essentially ready orchestrated, with the kind of detail present in the final version for the orchestra. Writing 20 or 30 tracks for a project doesn’t daunt me, so long as there’s ample time, as I’m used to creating a high volume of music.

Is there a resource or tool you wish you had that would make your process easier?

If it became too easy, I think I wouldn’t want to do it. If it gets to the stage of beaming something out of your brain onto the page, I think I’d leave the music in my head, where it’s always more complete.  I’m quite satisfied with the tools that are currently available, and there’s a lot left to explore.

I’d like to see releases of ‘interactive music’ come about. By that I mean some means of selling or packaging music that present music as it as actually experienced in the game, and not ‘repurposed’ for linear media. Now that I think would be very interesting!

It’s trite and stereotypical, and I’m sure you’ve never answered it before, but I feel it’s my sworn duty to ask how you got into the industry, and to ask if you’ve got any tips for independent composers given our discourse here.

I wouldn’t want to presume to have much to offer today’s independent composers, but I can say what I personally feel makes sense to me, having worked in both TV and games, based on my own experience.

On the whole, all composers are in the same boat when starting out. Realise that unless you’re very lucky, you probably need to do smaller projects to begin with, but at the same time always look for ways of doing bigger projects if you can – if that’s what you’d ultimately like to do. Very often, others will look at you as you look at yourself, so start as you intend to go on in that way. And projects that can seem impossibly daunting to you at first are precisely the ones that develop you and take you in new directions.

Try not to develop a sense of entitlement to being in work or becoming (and even staying) successful, or start blaming the industry for your failures – or even take things too personally when you fail or experience rejection. Failure happens to the best of us, but it’s how you deal with it that counts.

It’s mostly a level playing field out there when you start out and I think it’s a mistake to see anyone as particularly blessed or favoured in terms of their chances of getting anywhere in music. One thing you will have to learn to live with is that luck plays a part in anyone’s success. So try not to feel resentment when you see others getting lucky. Focus on making your own luck, but putting yourself out there as much as you can.

Look at your goals and ask yourself if what you are currently doing is actually moving you closer to realising them. Some people won’t agree with this, but try not to do things for free, because if you aren’t careful it can dominate your destiny!  There’s a deeper reason for saying this though, which is that others are more likely to value your work if you value it as well.  After all, something paid for is often perceived as being more valuable than something given away.

Having said that, doing something for free or as a favour can sometimes be a calculated risk and if you genuinely feel that by doing so you will gain in some way later, then it’s entirely up to you to make the call.

Get in with a group of creative people going places in your chosen industry and hope that as their careers soar, so will yours. Love it or hate it, but the way your music is received and exposed is largely down to the context/product it is heard in, so unless all you’re trying to do is pay the bills with the proceeds of your music-making, try to be selective about what you put your time and effort into.

I know from my own experience that some of my best work has been ignored over the years thanks to being in some bad games and some of my less than best work has apparently been enjoyed more because it is in a good game, and this is a frustrating phenomenon you simply have to live with as a composer.

Look at the film industry for evidence of why relationships matter. Very often, directors and composers form working partnerships that go on for years, and this is the same in games between composers and audio directors, designers and producers. So market yourself to this group as well, rather than only trying to impress your peers, listeners or fellow composers.

Brian also loved this piece from Red Alert 3.

Get a website and a strong reel. Learn to take rejection on the chin.  Learn to finish things you start and learn to finish them even when they feel a little unfinished to you.  Make use of the tools you have and maximize their potential. Nobody is going to listen to your work and make up for all the deficiencies in it just to be kind to you.  Stay objective about the quality of your music and be your own worst critic. I can only speak for myself, but I am only ever conscious of what I can’t do and how I can improve what I already do. And what I’ve already done rarely feels good enough to me.

Finally – and this is just my opinion – don’t talk too much about your process and gear, unless it’s to other composers. I strongly doubt anyone really cares about it, apart from you and others like you, and I’m not sure if the world really needs yet another screen grab from Cubase or Logic. Talking about your art and the motivation behind what you do could be more interesting to the wider world than talking about plugins and libraries, cool though those things are.

To take an extreme example, I’d rather imagine that Jerry Goldsmith was sitting on some sort of majestic space throne soaring through the cosmos when he penned the theme of Star Trek: The Motion Picture than I would thinking of him in a studio or sitting at a desk. Some things are better left to the imagination, I tend to think, and a little mystique surrounding what you do can’t hurt.

Thanks to James Hannigan for his time.  And huge thanks to Joshua for filling in for me to help make sure this wouldn’t turn out to be a disaster.  For God’s sake, will someone who can actually finish a project hire this guy?  Here’s his Twitter.  Put him to work. 

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

10 Responses to Interview with Gaming Composer James Hannigan

  1. Kris says:

    > Centipede’s music is iconic. Replacing it with a generic heavy metal soundtrack that is as far disconnected from the source material as you can get was just plain stupid in my opinion.

    Know thy source material, Centipede has no music. Boops and beeps and the constant patter of centipede feel in all their 8-bit glory.

    I like the Bad Cat music personally and if there is one failing with it, it’s that it is just one song that loops and can get older over extended play.

    Anyways nice interview. Sorry to sidetrack that a bit.

  2. Wonderful interview! As an indie dev my bro & I have found sound & in particular music difficult to approach as we have so little experience. As a film lecturer in a prior life & now game design I often find sound is the most overlooked of conventions yet without it atmosphere could not be effectively established. It’s also great to read an indie composer interviewing an established game composer as the insight is so much more specific.

  3. An good read 🙂

    I do like the way things have shifted towards “power on the desktop for the ‘individual’ composer or sound designer” as being able to work offsite in groups is important for Indie developers.

    The parallel between the early ‘traditional’ games industry and the spirit to today’s indie game scene, is considerable. After all, many of the first breakout games were made by Independents.

  4. An XBLIG Guy says:

    Very interesting article. It’s a little bit generic, and it focuses on medium to high budgeted projects. However, for the XBLIG arena, there are some little notes that I would like to share, based on my own experience as an XBLIG Game composer:

    * For small budget projects, and at the risk of disagreeing with the authors, I think it is best to focus all efforts on keyboard / synthesizers. Let’s face it: it is very, very difficult to find someone that a) has 3 instruments or more, b) knows how to play these instruments, and c) play them the way we want them. On the other hand, if you know your way through keyboards and synthesizers, you can almost create all kinds of music.

    * It’s not just about music: It is about STYLE of the game. Not long time ago, the following article was published:

    Indeed, just as graphics need to have a style, music must have a style too, and it has to be a match (not necesarily the same) with the videogame style.

    * Still, I agree 100% when it comes to sound and music development: The sound used in the game should be compatible with the music used, and that gives a very good player-experience.

    Just my two cents ^_^

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