Nerdbot Interviews: Video Game Music Composer Joris Hoogsteder
Video Games: we love them. Sometimes it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the game and actual gameplay that we forget to look at those credits! But among the hard-working people who all had a hand in bringing a video game to life, few have a role that’s as important as the composer. It’s their job to suck us into the game using our sense of sound. They use music to set the mood, change ours, and take us on a subconscious adventure using music to move behind the world we see. Today on Nerdbot, we’re talking to video game music composer Joris Hoogsteder, whose music is heard in 40-60 new games per year and even had his DotA2 composition performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in front of 20,000 people!
Joris, you are originally from the Netherlands- can you tell us a little bit about your personal background and life growing up? What kind of media did you attach to as a kid?
I sure am! I grew up about 10 minutes from the German border in a small town in the east of the Netherlands! I actually grew up being a musical theatre nut and playing drums in a lot of different bands back there! It wasn’t until I was asked to write some songs for a musical that I discovered I actually wanted to make music composition my career. I always played video games, probably more than my parents wanted back then! (laughing)
What was the first instrument you picked up? How many instruments do you play today? Did you take lessons and classes, or did you just learn it like an awesome prodigy?
Som I started playing drums pretty early, taking lessons with an inspiring teacher, and it has always been a big passion of mine. Playing in bands, the communication through music was something that made me very happy. However, for composition, piano/keyboard skills are very important; I couldn’t play piano to safe my life until I was asked to play the role of Schroeder in our local performance of the off-broadway show You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I had to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in about 2 months with no training or whatsoever. There is a stigma about drummers and not being able to read sheet music, and that certainly used to be true in my case; I knew how to find the C and the G on a staff, and just kind of “calculated” the rest of the notes. However, I picked it up pretty easily, and kept playing piano for years to come. I’m still no piano-virtuoso, but I know my way around the keyboard. Nowadays I still play drums a lot, I picked up vibraphone on the way, and delved into synthesis quite a bit
Let’s talk about video games- did you grow up playing them? What were some of your favorite games and/or video game characters?
That’s funny you ask – I was just talking with a friend of mine about how for a lot of people, Mario, Link, Sonic were staple characters of their first interactions with video games, since these characters span multiple generations. I personally did not grow up having a console in the 90s and didn’t get to play Ocarina of Time until a couple years into the 00s; I was always playing games on PC, and the game made the most lasting impression on me was Rayman 2: The Great Escape. I couldn’t believe how “real” everything looked, as it was my very first game with 3D graphics. I was also very much drawn to the iconic and effective music in that game; the game had an interesting musical loop system; every piece of music was looping and you would have to cross a certain point in the game in order to trigger the next loop, that would contain a new drum groove or guitar riff etc. Instead of just playing the game, I was always trying to figure out what this trigger was, trying to understand the music engine of the game.
You’re a graduate of California State University Fullerton’s Music Composition program. What brought you out to Orange County, California specifically? Had you lived in the US prior to that?
I had not lived in the US before! I had visited California before and I loved the vibes and the great weather out here! I also made great friends out here. When I graduated from my MediaMusic undergrad in the Netherlands, I got a scholarship for academic and cultural achievement, which made it possible for me to study in the US. I chose to study at CSUF because it had a great reputation, while still being affordable for me.
After graduating, I got the opportunity to start working for Moonwalk Audio, Adam Gubman and Alex Cox’s video game audio company. Adam has been a long-time friend of mine, and it’s amazing to get to work every day with people that you love to hang with as well. Regarding the OC, I love how living here allows you to experience LA’s craziness within an hour if you want, but also allows you to calm down at one of the beautiful beaches like Seal Beach, Crystal Cove, or a little further south by San Onofre. I’m very much right in between LA and San Diego, and I love it.
Did you know that you wanted to work in video games from the start, or was it something you fell into?
I found out about that during my bachelor’s program in the Netherlands. I always loved video game music, but I didn’t think about the creation as I had no idea of how the development of a game worked. When in school, a couple friends and I set out to research how exactly music in video games worked and figure out the technical aspects as well. This made me realize I wanted to pursue this; music for video games is much more of a musical puzzle than e.g. film music; no matter how many times you watch a certain two-hour film, it will always be two hours and the credits will always roll. With video games, a gamer can be playing it for two hours, five minutes, thirty hours, and make different choices in the game every time. When composing for games, you have to take all the player’s choices in account; it’s a very non-linear approach. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing music for film as well, it’s just an entirely different beast (smiling)
What is the process of creating music for a video game? Are you shown game footage in advance? Given an outline of the game and you fill in the blanks? We’re dying to know!
In a Utopian world, we are being brought in right when development starts; as the music team, we love to grow with the project as a whole, and to be involved during the period when creative choices are being made. This way, we breathe the sound of the game. Does that sound weird? Maybe. As a composer, you want to relate to the characters, their motives, and the narratives in the game, and be able to have a consistent sound.
I think a good example of this is our involvement with GameHouse’s games; we get involved pretty early in the process, with rough sketches of cut scenes, and early builds of the game. We then figure out with the developer which “events” can happen in the game, what choices the player has, and what impact this has on the game play. Depending on the outcome of this, we decide on which approach to take; sometimes the music implementation is pretty straightforward and we write one to two minutes of looping music per level, and sometimes we get to build adaptive systems that react immediately to the player’s decision, or to a game-event.
Upon completion of writing the music, and everything is approved by the developer, we move into the next stage of the music production; recording. When we write music, we do this with “virtual” instruments; synthesizers or samplers that nowadays can sound pretty close to e.g. a real violin section, or a horn section. However, we want to record as much as we can, so we outsource and record live players on the score. When the recording is all done, we mix and master the music, and get it ready for implementation.
In order to get the music ready for implementation, we go back to our asset list that we’ve discussed with the developers and cut up the final music in ways it’s going to work in the game; some pieces can be used as a whole, and some songs can be cut up in thirty second pieces that can be looped and used individually! It’s always slightly different, but this is the general approach of how it works!
Let’s talk about DotA2 and getting to hear your music performed by a symphony. That must have been such an overwhelming experience. Would you please talk a little about that? Were you nervous or anything hearing it, or was it more of a “Wow- this is really happening” sort of moment?
First of all, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I got the call! My good friend Jason Hayes, who composed a lot of the music for not only DotA2, but also World of Warcraft, called me in the summer of 2017, and asked me if I could write a medley of DotA2 music for his video game tribute rock band “Critical Hit,” for the annual DotA 2 competition “The International” in Seattle. This is one of the biggest esports events in the world, with a Prize pool of more than 20 million dollars. I love all the music Jason Hayes and Tim Larkin wrote for DotA2, so already was this a huge honor, and was more than excited to get started.
Then, a couple days later, we got on a call again, and I got the news that the rock band was actually going to play with Seattle’s Symphony Orchestra and was asked to write the medley for Rockband AND orchestra! That blew my mind. It is pretty rare to get your projects performed by a sixty-piece orchestra, let alone the Seattle Symphony, teaming up with a rock band, in front of 20.000 people. The whole experience was pretty unreal; we worked very closely aligned and had meetings every day to make sure everything would go very smoothly.
On top of that, I flew out to Seattle in August to witness it all live! I got to sit in the arena, next to the stage, and walked out with the band to cheer for them. Of course, I was nervous; we worked on the project for about a month, and after fifteen minutes of performing on stage, it would be over. When the first note was played, I only felt adrenaline and was too excited. The fifteen minutes we got before the final round started, went by as if it were a minute or two. Loved every moment of it, though.
You mentioned the segue into Virtual Reality music composition with Oculus Rift. Would you please talk about that in more detail? What are some of the unique challenges associated with that?
Virtual Reality is a very, very interesting new medium. It’s in its early stages, but it is already so good at tricking two to three of your senses; sight, sound, and sometimes touch. Therefore, some VR experiences immerse you so well; when everything is done right, you forget that you’re sitting in a room with a headset on. This brings a lot of new challenges along in regards to music and sound. Your aim is make people feel present in the virtual world, so every sound needs to react exactly like it would in the real world, or it will break immersion.
Since our ears are so trained in picking up details sound in real life, you have to be very subtle in VR; the soundtrack should often be a little less dramatic than in a regular game, as it will easily become a caricature of itself. Right now, I’m working on an upcoming VR social game called FutureFestVR. This is an EDM festival simulator, where people online can connect, go to raves together, and create DJ and light performances in Virtual Reality. This is very much a sound-focused experience. The challenge in the development is to bring that excited stomach-feeling that one has when standing outside a tent a Coachella, about to go in and see their favorite DJ play.
To get this, we have to get everything right; how does the music sound different from different spots in the room? How far can you walk away from the stage before the volume starts dropping? Do we need more bass to simulate a real-life situation? The answer to the last question is; yes, you always need more bass in life (laughing). Jokes aside, it’s a process that comes down to the nitty gritty, requires a lot of experimenting, and has to feel natural in the end. It’s worth it though; I’m very excited for what the future brings with VR, and grateful for getting to work on the edge of innovation.
Now, on a personal level you’re in a band called EMÆL. Who are you guys, what is your role in the band, and are you guys performing live shows in the LA/OC area? How did you guys decide on your sound, which is something I can only personally describe as cool-modern-electro-funk.
That’s a cool description! We have been called many things, including folktronica, and my favorite “shapeshifters of the electric and organic” (laughing)! We’re a five-piece band, with me on the drums, a synthesizer/keyboardist, cello player/singer, guitarist and another singer. The sound is as eclectic as the instrumentation; regarding “pop” music, I come from a more funk and soul background, our front man and cello player was educated in classical cello yet loves indie music like Alt-J and Radiohead, and our keyboard player loves Hip Hop. All of these influences combined makes EMÆL sound.
We write in a very collaborative way; somebody comes up with an idea or a full song, and we all shape and sculpt it together until it works with our sound. We just released our debut album, “Glasswork,” which is available on all major platforms! Check it out if you like pop music with an experimental edge to it! If you listen to the album, you’ll hear a lot of these different influences, yet there is a certain aesthetic that glues everything together. Since I’m a huge synthesizer nut, I take care of a lot of synth sounds for the band as well and do a lot of music production. We play a lot of shows in the OC area, and try to branch out to LA as much as can! We played at “the Mint” last year, and it was so cool to perform in such a legendary and staple venue of Los Angeles! We’re also going on tour in a couple weeks, and I’m super excited where the project is going!
And last but not least, are there any misconceptions or misunderstandings with the work you do? What do you want to say to anyone out there trying to break into a similar niche? What do you hope the next few years bring for you, personally and in your career?
Hmm misconceptions and misunderstandings, not too many! I work in a very positive and inspiring industry, all with people that share a passion for video games and the art of making them. The only kind of misunderstandings I come across is among people that are not very familiar with the medium; sometimes, when I tell someone I write music for video games, I get the question “Oh, like Super Mario music?” While we still sometimes get to write this 8-bit chiptune style, this is very, very rare, and video games often require more of a cinematic approach in terms of style.
Also, lots of people might not always realize how big the industry is; at Moonwalk Audio, we sometimes get to record entire orchestras for video games, even if the end result is to be enjoyed mostly on a smartphone! Even if it’s not an orchestra, we try to incorporate live musicians on as many of our game scores as we can; as great as “virtual” instruments/orchestras sound nowadays, nothing can beat the human feel of a live recording, and we believe it adds greatly to the soul and production value of the music, and ultimately the video game. I think (studio) musicians could be more aware of this market; I have talked to my instrumentalist friends a lot about this, and many had no idea they could get hired to play on video game scores! I guess that’s a misconception! (smiling)
If I could offer any advice, I’d say the most important aspects to break into the industry is being the best version of yourself all the time, be reliable, and be passionate about the field you work in. We’re talking about the video game industry, and it’s a pretty casual field to work in; everybody wants to work with people they like, and people that inspire them, so be that person! Go out and meet people, establish relationships and become friends with the people you want to work with. And work hard, but that’s always a prerequisite, I’d say! (laughing)
Personally, I hope to continue riding this metaphorical wave of awesomeness, and keep working with people, like Adam and Alex, that inspire me on a daily basis, and keep making music for all these awesome projects, for both video games and my band!