A Beginner’s Guide to the Video Game Music Composition and Remixing Community

Over the years, video games have developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Today’s games involve millions of hours of work and take years to produce. The music contained in these games, as well as older games, is an equal work of art that is often overlooked. Whereas movie soundtracks have been praised for years, until 2005 video game music was largely a curiosity outside Japan. It is only recently that concerts consisting solely of video game music, such as Play! A Video Game Symphony and Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy, have sold thousands of tickets around the world.

Some games today are even marketed on the strength of their soundtracks’ primary composers.  For example, the 2008 Xbox 360 game Lost Odyssey advertised in its pre-release commercials that its music was composed by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu.  Unfortunately, however, many game music composers and artists remain underappreciated compared to those involved with movie soundtracks.

With the increasing popularity of the Internet in the late 1990s, an online video game music community began to form.  One of the first sites, VGMusic, offered and continues to offer strict MIDI sequences, largely of older (NES and SNES) consoles.  Contributors to VGMusic sequence songs and then submit them for the world to listen.

By 1998, the community consisted largely of independent sites offering MIDI and Impulse Tracker (*.it) files. Some of these songs, which began to move towards “remixing” as it is known today, were mashups of 20 minutes of music from an entire game’s soundtrack.  Searching for songs was a tedious task, because there were no one-stop sources for such remixes.

In 1999, OverClocked ReMix, a site that limited its postings through strict juding, was formed.  Still popular today, the site has received contributions from hobbyists, aspiring artists, and professional composers such as Jeremy Soule.  A panel of judges evaluates and votes on each submitted song, and at the time of this writing, fewer than 5% of submissions are posted.

Compos, or online competitions that challenge participants to produce the best songs, started to appear around 2000, but took a hit when the heavily vaunted Ultima Eternity competition folded. Later, live instrument recordings became popular, leading to the creation of  Dwelling of Duels, a competition where at least one live instrument is required in a song.  Each month, competitors are required to interpret a piece from a specific game or series, and members of the popular game music forum The Shizz vote for the winners.

Also popular early in the decade was VGMix, which was perhaps the first site that allowed composers to post music without judging.  VGMix lived through three different iterations, but much of its music has been lost as a result of security violations.  As of this writing, the site is currently in a state of disrepair, with many of its features broken and registration disabled.

One major contributor that helped bring a great deal of attention to game music was the Mid Atlantic Gamers’ Festival, or MAGFest.  While MAGFest also involves thousands of people playing games with each other in a huge LAN party, as well as events geared towards game development and appreciation, game music has taken an increasingly larger role in the festival lately.  Professional composers have attended, and OverClocked ReMix judges have convened a panel to discuss the site and its community.

The online game music remixing community has grown so large and has such a long history that participants have written hundreds of songs, moved from middle school to graduate school, and obtained jobs in the music industry.  There is at least one instance where two remixers met through the Internet and later married.

As the game music community moves forward, several programmers and composers have teamed up to create a new resource, remixSite, which allows anyone to post video game originals or remixes for feedback.  Because songs on remixSite are versioned, contributors can track their submissions across versions and help each other improve their musical abilities.  This process of incremental improvement is hoped to move the game music community to even greater popularity and visibility.

As more and more companies use live instruments in their recordings and spend more production resources on games’ soundtracks, the future looks bright for game music.  Anyone who has even a passing interest in gaming would be well-served to browse through what the game music community has to offer.