Music in MMOs – Potential for More

If only Tolkien knew what comes to Amon Sul each June...

Finished Heavy Rain yesterday. While watching the bonus content on Making Of Heavy Rain: Music, something David Cage mentioned struck me. He described the important role music played in a game like Heavy Rain, then added, “Actually, we believe that music is probably 50%, if not more, of the impact of the images.”

And I got to thinking about the impact of music in MMOs, and its uses and functions.

Fair warning: I am no musician. I can’t discuss anything technical, but I wanted to think a little deeper beyond simply listing all the awesome and brilliant music in MMOs. Others have done that years ago even.

Suffice to say, the general consensus is that Jeremy Soule turns anything aural he touches to gold (Guild Wars, Elder Scrolls, etc.), Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online are often highlighted as memorable, and then the other MMOs seem to follow at random depending on preference, nostalgia or people just reminding each other that these tunes are pretty good if you paid some attention to them.

Music is a funny beast. Sure, it’s subjective, different people react differently to various pieces, but there’s also a fair amount of agreement in how humans as a whole react emotionally to music – else there wouldn’t be any purpose to making all those movie soundtracks. Movies use music to support the moving pictures, to stir emotion, to create iconic themes and aid the telling of the story.

Presumably, MMOs, given enough budget, strive to do the same thing with music.

Zones and Iconic Theme Music

One of the things I most commonly observe in MMOs is the use of iconic musical themes, tied to various zones. As the scenery and terrain features change from zone to zone, so does the music. It sets the mood of the zone, hints at the culture of any inhabitants, and creates a brand identity for the zone. Players seem to respond fairly well to this, and often can remember with nostalgia memories of specific zones upon hearing the music again.

Sometimes it’s not an entire zone, but just a small sub-area or local space with a special musical theme. Two notable spots in the MMOs I’ve played come to mind – the interior of Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest in LOTRO, and the transition to St. Martial’s main street that is dotted with casinos in City of Heroes. One of my favorite places in a singleplayer game is Erana’s Peace in Quest For Glory (piano version) – a quiet grove of peace dedicated to a dead lady whom you never actually see in the first game, but is given so much character simply by the music that haunts her haven.

I don’t think it’s used as well as it could be in MMOs, as such music could actually serve to encourage a player to remain a while in a certain locale. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in Erana’s Peace not playing the actual game. And I’ve often just stopped in Tom Bombadil’s house just to listen to the music, but I don’t have anything else to do there but stare at the small cylindrical space and watch Bombadil skip around.

Maybe good music in taverns and inns where you’d conceivably want players to congregate might actually help, as well as add to the immersion of the world. Skyrim is a decent example of what I’m thinking of, though one would have to be very careful about repetition of a single piece.

Avoiding Repetition

Repetition seems to be the mind-killer, as far as music in games go. There are games, Final Fantasy being the most notable example, who have a special tune or two for battle music. You know, it works well at first. Combat starts, the battle theme plays, your blood stirs, and the whole thing feels good… until the umpteenth time some random encounter pops up and you hastily mute the music before you’re conditioned to throw something at your speakers when these specific notes start playing.

I’m not precisely sure if there are any good solutions for avoiding repetition. Variety naturally helps. I’m not sure how many variations one can justify on an MMO budget though, which brings to mind the next idea of supplemental music through microtransactions. Cash shops are already selling vanity costumes, animations and decorations for players to customize their experience of a game. I don’t know if music would sell in general.

If you’re Jeremy Soule, it definitely can, of course. I’ll confess to buying all of his DirectSong music tracks for all of the Guild Wars chapters. Never regretted it, because it turns roaming Guild Wars into an astounding auditory experience, and reduces that horrible spectre of repetitive music. Many times I’d hear something amazing, and have to stop and check the interface to see if the DirectSong icon is on, indicating that it’s playing the extra music – it often is.

Then there’s Left 4 Dead’s music Director, that actually customizes a personal soundtrack for each player and strives to avoid repetition. The game is also notable for musical cues that indicate special Infected or a zombie horde onrush. Translating that to MMOs, musical cues for dynamic events? No doubt a music Director is a lot easier to do for 4 players as opposed to 2000+ players a server, but who knows, we can dream. Technology and progress marches on.

Emotional Arcs in Cutscenes

Music is often used in cutscenes to suggest the emotional arc the characters are (and thusly, what the viewers should be) going through. This is the 50%+ of Heavy Rain for sure, the whole cinematic experience, soundtrack and all. I believe it’s done to varying degrees of success depending on the specific MMO game. I haven’t played SWTOR, but from what I see of the cutscenes on Youtube, it does seem like they did pay attention to that for the purposes of storytelling.

It makes me wonder if more innovation is possible on this front. Do MMO developer tools allow quest/storyline writers to customize the music, as well as the animation in the cutscenes? I wouldn’t know. Then there’s user-created content and creation tools for players to tell each other stories or create adventures for each other – should options for music be included in such designs?

Music Systems

MMOs are not just movies though. Striving for the perfect big budget orchestral themes to accompany high resolution cutscenes shouldn’t be the only approach to music in MMOs.

How else could we bring the ‘game’ or ‘interactivity’ component of an MMO in conjunction with music? What other innovative features might be possible, now and in the future?

Lord of the Rings Online must be mentioned here for its Player Music System – which is far and ahead the most innovative thing to date attempted for music in MMOs, imo. Self-expression and uniqueness (which players seem to love in MMOs, given the demand for customizable looks) in the form of playing musical notes that others can hear. Give players the tools and they will surprise you with their creativity. From the pleasure of additional ambient music while casually strolling past another player, to the incredible annual event of Weatherstock, the emergent content adds to both immersion in a virtual world and a sense of community.

Granted, it has its flaws. Not a few people feel left out or unable to appreciate the system because it rather hinges on a real life skill of musicianship. It can also promptly jar you out of immersion and into real life  if someone is playing something thematically inappropriate for the setting. User-created content is like that. The potential for beautiful pearls, but also a lot of neutral sand to sift through, plus the disgusting tires and the random half-full condom, if we stretch the beach metaphor.

Another interesting music system can be found in Runescape. You get to unlock music tracks and collect them all. Sound achievement familiar? Well, why not? Isn’t that one of the core features of the MMO genre? Why not make music a minigame?

Some games, like Runescape and Eve Online, feature an in-game music player for their own soundtracks, which is probably a neat option for player customization. I’m not sure how many people make use of the feature though. How much further can we take this idea?

Jukeboxes in MMOs? In other words, player-controlled, possibly cost a fee, used in order to send music to a local area. Has been done, but mostly in more obscure Asian titles like Granado Espada, according to my Google-fu. No one seems to have much to say about the subject. The browser MMO Glitch has music boxes, which send short-lived spurts of tunes out, which are more fun-like toy objects for the individual, rather than having any kind of social use. SWTOR is the new kid on the block with them, apparently. I can’t say much more than that because I have no personal experience with those MMOs (besides Glitch.)  I wonder if they are seeing any significant use?

City of Heroes has a notable history of having out-of-game radio stations, hosted by DJs, who hang around in-game to play music for those who care to look up the radio and participate in the social events and contests they also organize. Would it help to have in-game support for such things, and foster a greater sense of community that way? Or does the radio concept only work because of the modern superhero setting?

I don’t think we’ve yet hit any kind of limit on what roles and functions music can play in MMOs. I think the potential has barely been explored.

We just need to think further and deeper on this.

Music in MMOs: What does the future have in store for us?

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2 thoughts on “Music in MMOs – Potential for More

  1. […] the costumes and the emotes and pipeweed, etc. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we do have to credit the devs for the music system in the first place which allowed such a wonderful emergent property of a Weatherstock concert to […]

  2. […] Love does not begin to describe how much I enjoy this. It’s fun. It’s low-stress and not pressurizingly important, per se. It allows individual players to jump in and out at leisure and work on improving themselves. And it addresses an often ignored part of MMOs – music systems. (I’ve written about that before.) […]

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