Psst… This blog belongs to a series of blog posts, all about music in gaming. And in case you missed it, you can find our last one here: Using Music As A Core Mechanic.

If I asked you to hum the theme tune to a game right now, which one would you pick? Super Mario Bros? Zelda? Even casual gamers could probably come up with something (probably Tetris).

My point is that you could do it – that’s because music in games plays an important role in creating atmosphere and supporting the narrative. And mobile games are no different. A good theme tune can improve players’ experiences by setting the mood and making it memorable. Let’s have a look at a couple of games which are really nailing the music.

  • Oxenfree is a great example of well-executed music in gaming. Dialogue is key to move the story along, so the developers have made sure that while it plays throughout, it never distracts from this. It also changes as the story does – the earlier music as the adventure begins is upbeat, becoming more tense when the player’s exploring dark new surroundings.
  • Life is Strange also relies on a balance between music and dialogue – the score helps to convey the alarming other-worldly nature of the time travel scenes, to keep the player hooked.

These two alone show how important music can be in immersing a player in your games. But where do you start? Don’t worry – follow the steps below to work out how to use music to take your game from pretty good to really awesome.

Step 1: really understand your genre

It sounds obvious, but you’ll want to identify the genre of your game first. What type of story are you telling? Is it full of suspense? Horror driven? Or puzzle-based? The music you choose will evoke different feelings in your player, so getting it right is key.

You don’t want to be playing an upbeat, jaunty track while the player’s being stalked by a shadowy foe in a dark forest. Or a nerve-shredding eerie tune when they’re solving a friendly, colourful puzzle.

Step 2: decide what you want to achieve

Every game’s different. So you’ll need to decide what you want music to achieve for your game. For example, the game Gris tells an emotional story – so the sound had to evoke feelings in the player. But, as mentioned above, in Oxenfree, the speech is more important than the music, so the music mustn’t distract players from this.

Is your game character-focused?

If the answer’s yes, then music and sound can really help you when forming your characters’ identities. Are they bold and brooding? Or playful and fun-loving? Sound can add an extra touch that reinforces a character’s persona. So make sure you get the tone right.

You might also want to think about giving important characters their own theme tune. Take Hornet from Hollow Knight for example. You battle her twice, and each time she has her own unique battle music, which is instantly recognizable when you’re fighting her again. Things like this can really spice up your game and resonate with your audience.

Hornet actually has her own game coming out soon: Silksong. The developers haven’t included her battle song into the trailer, so it remains to be seen whether it makes it into the game itself. But we think they’ll be missing a trick if they don’t use it.

Does your game have lots of different locations?

Think about having a new tune for each one. Or even just subtly tweaking the main one to add personality. Without new music for new locations, your game could feel repetitive or, god forbid, boring. Look at Sky: Children of The Light, for example. This game has a huge focus on visuals and sounds, and even encourages players to wear headphones to get the full experience of the. Each area and ‘level’ has its own soundtrack, each one supporting the gameplay and location that you’re in.

This is actually quite crucial to casual games, too, as casual games tend to be quite short and repetitive. Changing up the visuals and sound can increase retention in games like this that have less in the way of content.

Still not sure what you want?

Ask yourself:

  • What’s important about my game?
  • What do I want my audience to focus on?
  • How complex (or simple) is my story?
  • What type of emotion do I want players to feel?

Then choose your music to match.

Step 3: do your research

Once you’ve figured out your genre and how you want to use music, you can start doing your research. Have a look at other games that are similar to yours. How are they using music? Don’t stop there either – if your game is about an alien invasion, for example, maybe try watching a couple of films or TV shows about little green men coming to earth for inspiration.

And don’t forget about Spotify (or your streaming service of choice) – searching by genre or mood could get your creative juices flowing.

Step 4: get composing

If all this has you thinking, yes, I have some amazing music in my head but I don’t know how to create it, don’t panic. Some music-focused publishers can help you through the whole creative process – like Vietnam-based Amanotes. And here are some other useful resources we’ve come across:

  • Cubase – billed as ‘one of the most powerful music creation software packages in the world’, Cubase lets you compose, record, edit and mix music.
  • FMOD – a complete solution for adding sound and music to any game. It’s been used by the makers of Bioshock and World of Warcraft so has a great pedigree.
  • Wwise – one of the most popular audio tools on the market. Wwise can be integrated into lots of different engines. There are also various plug-ins available to enhance it.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for a guide to software development kits for game development, you might want to check out our integration guides.)

Bit low on funds?

If you’re currently shouting at your screen ‘I’ve spent all my cash on amazing visuals and don’t have anything left for music’, don’t worry. There are lots of free tools out there you can use for your game.

  • Audacity – an open-source tool that lets you record and edit.
  • FMOD – yep, this one appears in both the paid for and free list. That’s because if you’re an indie developer with a development budget of less than US$500k, you can get a free licence. Wwise also offer full platform access for free, with up to 500 sounds.
  • Garageband – Apple’s music creation has a complete sound library that includes instruments, presets for guitar and voice, and a selection of session drummers and percussionists.

Don’t stop the music

Music is really important for setting the right mood. It can take players from an average gaming experience to a truly immersive, emotionally engaging one. And a great/rubbish soundtrack can have a real influence on how people feel about your product. So don’t forget to factor it in when you’re designing your masterpiece.

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