Music can make or break a video game. Imagine Mario without his jaunty chip tune theme song. Or Halo without the ominous Gregorian chants. Without “One-Winged Angel,” Final Fantasy VII’s terrifying villain would just read as a mopey blonde dude with a leather fetish.
It’s a fact Jim Guthrie knows firsthand. As a solo artist — and a member of Toronto bands Islands, Royal City and Human Highway — Guthrie spent the 2000s swirling around in the flood of Toronto indie rock musicians who garnered major attention internationally. But after dabbling in jingle-writing for commercials (just try to get “Hands in My Pockets” out of your head) he chose to ditch the cross-country tours and camp out in his basement studio, where he’s currently crafting catchy hooks for video games.
These days, Guthrie is probably best known for his work on the smash hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, more recent games like Planet Coaster and XO, and his soundtrack for Sundance award-winning documentary Indie Game: the Movie. It was a smart switch. Canada’s video game industry boasts almost 500 companies, employs 20,400 people, and adds over $3 billion to Canada’s GDP (up 30 percent since 2013).
Interested in a career in video game composing? Here’s how Jim did it:
How’d you first discover music? Did you always know this would be the career for you?
My family isn’t musical, but my dad loved oldies and I got an earful of that in the backseat of the car as a kid. Aside from that, I think I was influenced by jingles and TV theme songs more than I’ll ever know. It was never my intention to write for anything other than my personal bubble of songs, but as I grew up, so did my intentions.
What was the hustle like to earn a living in your early days as a musician?
Being in a band and doing the indie rock thing can be very rewarding, depending on your definition of success. I’ve always felt successful because I’m good at living within my means and I love making music, even when there’s no money. Up until my early 30s I was making between $10 and $20k any given year. But I never considered it a sacrifice. It wasn’t always a party, but I was doing what I loved and I had my health and a good community of friend, and that makes a huge difference.
Do you think things are different for emerging indie musicians these days?
I think every generation has their own special bundle of ups and downs when trying to figure out their cultural and economical landscapes. You just have to be willing to improvise and work every single day at it.
How’d you ultimately make the transition to your commercial and video game work? Did you seek out these opportunities, or did they find you?
A lot of the work I’ve done has found me, but it’s not as random or lucky as it might sound. If you do the same thing everyday for 20 years, eventually someone will take notice and give you an opportunity outside of what you might be already creating for yourself. It’s how you respond to the opportunity that matters. In my experience if you’re not a total jerk, you respond quickly to emails, and your work isn’t totally horrendous, more opportunities will magically appear. I think I also just started saying ‘yes’ to more things in general. That helps.
What’s the process like when it comes to video game composing? Are you given a gameplay prototype? Just a concept?
Every project is different, but generally I’ve been brought in early on. Sometimes it’s just artwork, and other times it’s a little character walking around in circles on the screen and not much else. In any case, it always comes down to working closely with the development team to help bring their ideas to life while sneaking as many of your own ideas in there as possible. It’s a lot of back and forth and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. People who work in games are generally very passionate and knowledgeable about music. They are very aware of the potential role music can play in a game. It can make good games great and add an emotional impact it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Is there lots of competition in the field?
Not really. I mean, there are a lot of people that want to get into this field but on an indie game level I’ve never had a feeling of competitiveness. I also have a very specific thing that I do so I’m generally getting work based on “my sound” so that’s also helped keep things simple.
Do you ever check in with other videogame composers, or hear about their experiences? What is the industry like?
I find that us composers keep it pretty friendly and it’s always great to catch up with others at game conventions and award shows. My personal experience has been great so far. People know how important music and sound is in games and I definitely feel appreciated and hopeful about future gigs. There are so many games and apps being made these days that it’s easy to feel that way. It’s not a total slam-dunk but if you work hard and have a good attitude you’ll make lots of friends in this biz, I promise!
Any advice for emerging musicians and composer who want to replicate your career?
Work every day on whatever it is you do, even if there isn’t a gig in sight, and try and say yes to as many things as you can. Build up a body of work, even if you think nobody’s paying attention. That way you’ll have the chops and able to deliver when given an unexpected opportunity. And always do your best work. Whether it’s your super deep 90-minute concept album or a diaper jingle. Never phone it in because when you do you’re wasting everyone’s time and making bad art and that’s just a bummer.
The lowdown on careers in video game composing:
Types of jobs: The vast majority of video game scoring gigs are freelance, although a few of the major companies opt to hire in-house composers. Often, these full-time roles will also cover sound and dialogue production and can be found listed under titles like “Audio Producer” and “Audio Designer.”
What you’ll study: A university degree isn’t a prerequisite, but you’ll need a strong background in orchestration and composition. You’ll also need to be familiar with popular recording software like Logic and Protools, so look into community college courses or do some self-directed study.
Where to live: Unlike most of our creative industries, Canadians can actually stay in Canada to launch their careers in video games. We’ve got the third largest video game industry in the world — behind only USA and Japan — and Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are frequently tipped among the top gaming cities in the world.
What you’ll make:
This will vary wildly, but not nearly as much as a touring musician’s income would. Top composers in the business earn $1,000-$2,500 per minute of music featured in a game, while your typical salaried sound position will net you $40-$50K a year. Many freelance artists make their biggest money by selling their compositions on the side. Forget iTunes or Bandcamp, they’re using gaming marketplace Steam to tap into their existing fanbase.