Not a member yet? Join APRA AMCOS

Already started a Writer Member application? Continue

7 things we learned at High Score 2023

Tip Published Monday 27 November 2023
Host & MC Angharad Yeo opens High Score 2023. Photo by Jacinta Keefe

High Score, the composition and sound art for games conference, took place on 30 Sept – 1 October in Melbourne.

Thanks to all who came along and made it a raging success.

Between the panels, demos, workshops and keynotes, here are the top things we learned.

Here's our super condensed version of High Score: Composition and Sound Art for Games from flow state and imposter syndrome to iterative composition, collaboration and contracts!

1. There is freedom in limitations

Keynote speaker Christopher Larkin spoke about the power of limiting the range of tools available to you: “You can achieve a lot through just manipulating pitch, time and changing the timbre of sounds through EQ, adding reverb, reversing and bit crushing. Honing these skills will stand the test of time, and will be “something you can hold onto, even as the [DAW & plugin] landscape keeps changing around us.Making a whole track just out of one or two sounds, it’s something that I’ve been doing quite a lot, and I continue to do. It’s a strong way of trying to make game soundscapes.”

These limitations can also give freedom in terms of speeding up your process: “concepts and new ideas can happen really quickly, so if you can work faster it means you’re more able to catch them.”
Speaking of saving time, check out this very useful set of shortcuts below! Thank you Christopher!

Christopher Larkin

2. Variety is key

Avoiding ear fatigue and too much repetition is important in games music.

In the Big Things in Small Packages: Sound for Mobile panel, Jayde Marter, Audio Director at PikPok suggested: “Save your hooks. If it’s background music, don’t use melody lines or hooks in there that will be getting ear wormed into people’s heads. Save your hooks for special moments, for a certain area [in the game], or a certain motif that will pop up and come in and out when you need it. Otherwise you’ll create that ear fatigue.”

Fellow panelist John Guscott, Audio Lead at PlaySlide Studios agreed, and sang the praises of interactive, adaptive composition software like FMOD.

“If you can take control of FMOD, and write directly using FMOD…you will level up considerably as a composer because you’ll be able to build systems within your control, and you’ll be able to build melody lines within your control, and not have that ear fatigue…In the mobile space now you’re seeing fully-interactive game scores as you would in a console… As the game changes, whether you’re in combat, or what time of day it is, the lighting will change as you go into night and then the music will change underneath it. Because it’s tied to game parameters you help avoid that incessant repetition.”

Katarzyna Wiktorski Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Jayde Marter Photo: Jacinta Keefe

3. Start collaborating with developers early in the project

Various speakers noted the importance of working with the game developers early.

Jayde Marter: “We often have our audio designers in pre-prod, when the game is being developed --so that we can influence the game in a positive way with our audio, as well. Collaborating and composing from the start… builds a better experience in the entire title, and the entire game, because the people that are building the game are excited about the audio, it’s not just an afterthought. We’re in there from day one.”

Joanna Fang, Senior Foley Artist at PlayStation in her keynote ‘Into the Weeds: Foley Design for Interactive Media’, noted that foley artists in pre-production: “learn character motivations, and we’re trying to develop a sense of the bigger picture. It’s really easy, when you’re lost in the sauce, to focus on like, one 30-second cinematic, to forget that ‘aww man, this is act two, there’s way bigger fish to fry. We’re just setting things up for later.'”

Blake Collins, Senior Foley Mixer at PlayStation agrees, saying that understanding the broader game context for the music is essential: “If we aren’t reading the scripts, if we aren’t figuring out where in the pipeline this story is taking place, we might not put the right emphasis or emotion behind the footsteps or movement."

Joanna Fang Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Blake Collins (right) Photo: Jacinta Keefe

4. Follow your ears

If the pre-production work doesn’t make sense during production, adapt!

Blake Collins: “We just have to do what sounds good. So as much as we want to hold true to being consistent, if staying consistent is going to be the thing that pulls the player out of the game, then that’s what we’ve got to change.”

Christopher Larkin also spoke about the importance of immersion, and having that guide your compositional process:

“If I can make myself feel that sense of immersion, then hopefully the player will feel it too.
That feeling of empathy, or finding a way to communicate how you’re feeling when you make [the music], reflective in their experience as well.”

Christopher Larkin Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Photo: Jacinta Keefe

5. Even Yoko Shimomura gets imposter syndrome

In her Opening Keynote, Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Mario & Luigi RFP, Final Fantasy XV) spoke about shifting from classical music to games music early on in her career. She recalls the initial struggles, and feeling out of place:

“I started on classical piano, but every [game music] track needs a drum stem. I had dabbled in snare drums just a little bit, but I had never really seen an entire drum set. I would ride the train to work every morning, And I remember sitting there, thinking ‘oh my god, here’s another day where I have to make drum-based tracks. I have no idea, I don’t think I know what I’m doing. And I remember times where I just wanted to cry because the day didn’t go very well. It was a rough transition for sure. I felt like I was a fish out of water...But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to give up. I don’t like to lose, in that sense. And I stuck with it…But I kept learning and I didn’t give up."

Yoko Shimomura Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Photo: Jacinta Keefe

6. Prioritise client needs over your own sensibilities

Yoko Shimomura continued - “I put the client’s needs first and foremost. My work ethic is driven based on making my clients happy, and meeting and exceeding their expectations. That’s what I strive to do when I work with them. So I take my own personal preferences and feelings about what I want to make and I try to set them aside…So my work process, work ethic, is essentially meeting the client’s expectations and trying to figure out ways to interject my own personal style and preferences into it in order to strike the best balance possible.”

Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Photo: Jacinta Keefe

7. “Be proactive, advocate for yourself and the worth of your music”

Marie Foyle, Principal Solicitor at Arts Law Centre of Australia told attendees: “If you don’t understand what your rights are, someone can take them away from you pretty easily. Get your agreements in writing. One tip I usually give people, even if you’re not ready to do the full-on, massive contract, once you think you’ve finished having all the chats that you think you need to have, put it all in an email, everything you think you’ve agreed on, and send it through to the client to make sure you’re on the same page."

Marie also suggests checking out two games music contract templates on the Arts Law website:

- A music licence for games contract template (if someone wants to use your pre-existing music)
- A commissioning agreement (creating music to a brief)

High Score curator and APRA AMCOS Art Music Lead Cameron Lam reminded folks of the importance of becoming an APRA AMCOS member: “The number one thing that you need to do, as an APRA member, as a composer, as someone who creates sound for games, is register your work. If [APRA AMCOS] doesn’t know your work exists, they cannot pay you for it.”

Cameron urged attendees to get comfortable with the legal and business side of their work:
“Customise your agreements, make things work for you. This is a negotiation. You can always trust that the other party is going to be negotiating with their best interests in mind, and you should do the same.

To learn more about music copyright, check out our Nine music copyright tips with Arts Law tips piece.

Cameron Lam (centre) Photo: Jacinta Keefe

Marie Foyle (right) Photo: Jacinta Keefe

High Score 2023: Tools of the Trade recap video