BY Juuso Janhunen
Over the past couple of decades, Finnish games companies have produced a handful of commercially and critically successful titles. Rovio’s Angry Birds and Supercell’s hit games Clash of Clans and Hay Day are as well known around the world as The Simpsons or Lego bricks. This success has made Finland one of the top countries for mobile game development, where new companies are born at a fast pace.
Console and PC game developers are blossoming. Pioneering companies such as Remedy have produced major hits like the Max Payne series, but there are plenty of newcomers in the field, too.
Commercial success and new companies have opened up new opportunities for composers and producers in the previously foreign world of games. When the sequel to the first Max Payne game was released, Poets of the Fall’s song Late Goodbye, which the band wrote for the game, became a hit.
The practice of licensing existing songs for use in games is far more common than a song commissioned for a game becoming a hit, however. Especially sports and driving games tend to use songs by both established stars and newcomers.
At their best, games utilise licensed songs creatively as an integral part of the narrative and atmosphere of the game. Grand Theft Auto, for example, contains music from both stars of past decades and current artists. The songs can be listened to via the car radio as you speed down the highway or while shopping at a store.
Getting their music in the GTA game is a dream for many songwriters – it’s very effective marketing. The latest instalment in the series, GTA V, was released last autumn and has sold over 30 million copies so far. The game made over a billion dollars in its first three days out.
Many game developers are, however, looking for music that creates a unique atmosphere, at the same time as supporting the world of the game and the different scenes in the game. Sometimes a composer who is keyed in to the nature of the game is needed, instead of a known pop hit.
Profession: Game composer
Foreboding forests with their proud fir trees and rugged mountains that bring to mind the legendary TV series Twin Peaks, plot turns with the psychological acumen of the best Hollywood thrillers and music that’s sombre but beautiful – Remedy’s horror game Alan Wake has it all. The game’s cinematic touch and the scope of the production set it apart from other Finnish games. It was released in 2010 after being in development for an uncommonly long period of five years.
It was worth it. The game has sold over three million copies to date and both critics and players have praised it, particularly for its story-telling and chilly atmosphere.
Composer Petri Alanko’s music plays a major role in setting up that atmosphere. Alanko composed a large number of songs for the game, 18 of which ended up in the finished product.
Alanko has been in the games industry for years and now works full-time as a composer of music for games. He is one of the top professionals in the field in Finland. When he was younger, he couldn’t even imagine making music that would be heard in millions of homes.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing, but I never thought game music would end up being a career. There was no demand for it back then,” Alanko says, thinking back to his university days in the 1990s.
Time to spare and an international presence
After his studies Alanko ended up working as a pop composer at a record company and eventually started doing soundtrack work for games, too. He now works solely on games and does not miss writing chart-toppers. His reasons include the fact that he’s given more time to compose when working on games and the fact that the culture in the business is different.
“I never liked having to produce a finished song in five working days or less. That’s basically the reason I gave up writing pop music altogether. In the games business no one breathes down my neck.”
The fact that the industry is international by nature increases its attractiveness. Games cross national boundaries and continents. It follows that the music made for games has a potentially huge audience, too. Alanko uses the introduction of Remedy’s upcoming Quantum Break game at Microsoft’s Xbox One launch as an example:
“That single little launch, or recordings of it, was watched by approximately 100 million people around the world! Music from Quantum Break was played for several minutes. If someone liked what they were hearing, finding a new pair of ears to add to the fan community is highly likely in a crowd that size. And it’s the numerous little streams that, one by one, make a nice little river,” Alanko states.
Making music by a game
Producer-composer Vesa-Matti Mattson still laughs as he recalls one of the stranger professional assignments of his career.
“I needed the chime from one of those old-fashioned typewriters for a song, so I drove around Helsinki, popping into antique stores and looking for the right machine. Couldn’t find one. Eventually I got sick of driving around and started calling stores and asking them to play the chime of the typewriter to me over the phone until I found the right one. There were some confused reactions.”
That sound never ended up on record or radio, because it was recorded for a game. Back then Mattson worked for a variety of games companies as a producer and composer. In 2007 he and his partners started the game company Songhi, which has so far produced an eponymous educational music game.
“Many people want to make music, but lack the financial resources to acquire instruments, theoretical knowledge or the social networks that make learning music possible. We wanted to create a game that would help people make music despite these challenges,” Mattson says.
Much like Petri Alanko, Vesa-Matti Mattson, too, stresses the international potential of a career in game music. Even though the production process and objectives of a music education game like Songhi are very different from the epic productions Alanko works on, it’s still an export product.
“Our game has only been tested in Finnish schools so far, but we are commencing testing all over Europe this spring. We’ve looked into possible projects in China, Japan and Brazil, too, as a part of Finland’s push to export educational products and services,” he says, talking about the company’s plans for the near future.
Sounds like Oceanhorn
Like Mattson, Helsinki-based musician and composer Kalle Ylitalo found his way into writing for games through playing them as a hobby. His friend, game developer Heikki Repo asked him if he’d be interested in writing music for a game. Ylitalo said yes. For the next two years, when he wasn’t working on his freelance projects, he’d write music for Oceanhorn, a game published by Cornfox, a Finnish video game developer. It came out last November.
With the game’s publication, Ylitalo’s music is within the reach of tens of millions of mobile users. He didn’t end up doing it because he felt a burning passion for games, but more as a natural continuation of his artistic work:
“Writing game music felt natural, because I write a lot of instrumental music anyway – music where I strive to create a strong atmosphere without lyrics. I can’t really say I’m much of a game nerd,” Ylitalo says.
Bread and butter
In addition to an international profile, the games industry offers a degree of financial stability that is increasingly rare in the traditional music business. Business is good and especially growing companies are investing in music. A couple of companies, in addition to Remedy and Songhi, have hired a full-time composer or music producer. Many others use freelancers like Kalle Ylitalo.
“From a freelancer’s point of view, the good thing about game projects is the fact that they last longer than most jobs musicians get. So my bread is buttered for a lengthier time than with other gigs,” he says.
Petri Alanko says the rude financial health of the field is apparent in the way projects are realised.
“It has to be said: budgets are in a totally different class. Even though it’s hard work, it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about whether to use eight or 24 string players,” Alanko says.
Working as a musician in the games industry is not all wine and roses, though. Alanko stresses that it requires intense discipline and a lot of patience, because many things change during the game development process, including the music. And sometimes schedules are every bit as hectic as in pop music.
“I’ve never run into a complete catastrophe, but sometimes the faster moves the marketing department pulls off can result in very sudden audio needs, so you don’t always have the luxury of working on something for weeks on end. Sometimes they need it fast and your calendar’s full as it is,” Alanko ruminates.
According to Vesa-Matti Mattson, companies are looking hard for people able to work in many facets of music. Instrumental ability alone is not enough to gain entry into the field.
“I don’t think we’ll see a sharp growth in the demand for musicians, but there’ll always be room for composers who know their way around a studio and are skilled producers,” he summarises.
The composers interviewed see an open mind and passion for the worlds and atmospheres in games as the most important thing. All the tricks of the trade can be learned.
“Writing the music for Oceanhorn was one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve ever had. Courage and openness are the most important attributes to have in the business,” Ylitalo notes.
“You don’t have to be crazy, but it does help quite a bit,” Alanko laughs.
Juuso Janhunen is a freelance writer specialising in games and gaming culture. He writes a monthly column for Finland’s biggest gaming magazine, Pelaaja.
Translation: Arttu Tolonen