[Here's a fun discussion/interview with the folks who worked on the soundtrack for Twisted Pixel's excellent Splosion Man for Xbox Live Arcade -- nice to see detailed discussion of audio influences and carefully collaboration.]

One of the most important aspects of a game is its soundtrack, but working collaboratively and effectively with composers can be a challenge.

Twisted Pixel co-founder Josh Bear and freelance composer Joshua Mosley talked to Gamasutra about their collaboration, which resulted in the soundtrack for recent XBLA hit Splosion Man, from inspiration to production.

"Character design is really important for us here at Twisted Pixel," says Bear, "so when creating Splosion Man, I knew we needed the right type of soundtrack to go along with the characters, especially Splosion Man himself. I had met Joshua Mosley at a GDC party some years back and had been waiting for the right game to work with him on. Based on his demo tracks and personality, I thought he would be perfect for the game."

Mosely found the project as appealing as Bear suspected he would. "When Josh told me the concept of their new title, I knew right away that I had to do the music for it," he said. "Very early on, Josh knew the direction he wanted to go in, so based on our initial conversation I submitted a theme and he loved it."

The Creative Process

Bringing him in "very early in the development cycle", says Mosely, gave him a chance to into the process to get a sense of the character and game at the same time the developers were making those realizations allowed him the best creative latitude. "They were still in the concept art phase, and I believe they had one rough animatic to show how the gameplay would look. Our next conversation was a journey into the mind and character of Splosion Man. He has no concept of right or wrong, he is just happy to have been created and desperate to be free. The more I listened the more I began to hear the musical voice of the character emerge.

Bear says, "When I was originally figuring out what I wanted to do with the music in the game, I knew it might be difficult to describe through just email or even over the phone. Joshua didn't even have a build of the game to play, so it was very important that our collaboration together could hold together through not just phone calls, but with example pieces of music from all types of media. Instead of just coming up with very specific directions, we would both talk it out with each other and figure out what it was going to be."

Says Mosley, "Other than the few pieces of concept art and some of Josh Bear's direction, I was on my own. I began to move forward with the score. I really wanted to get the coloring and tone right for this game so I went back to all the character traits of Splosion Man; what was going through his mind, what makes him 'tick'."

Fortunately, this give-and-take process had good results, says Bear. "I learned that Joshua could take direction and do his best to create what I wanted, but also add his own touch so it would make it something personal for him. I would recommend that developers working with a composer should give specific direction and inspiration, but let that composer do what they do best and add to that direction so it becomes theirs.

"The fact that Joshua was excited and eager to create something awesome, even though Splosion Man was a small downloadable game, made it that much easier. We never once thought of it that way... the music just needed to be fun to listen to and reflect the style and humor of the characters in the game, regardless of the overall scope and length."

The Source of Inspiration

Mosley says that it comes down to character. "I decided I wanted this score to be driven by our lovable and manic main character. This is all not too common in games. There were so many possibilities and it was great because Josh gave me some excellent direction but also a lot of free reign.

Says Mosley, "Overall I wanted to take the gamer places that you wouldn't quite expect. For instance, you will have a guitar riff going, that transitions you into big choirs 'ahhs', then a jazz vocal scat to big epic horns. This score is very eclectic in that sense. And I wanted to do that on purpose as to personify Splosion Man. He is a very 'freeform' sort of character with no set rules or guidelines.

"I did have some great creative references of some old titles for instrumentation ideas. When approaching the color and orchestration for the score, I wanted to bring something of a fusion of instruments and styles to the palette. Josh and I both agreed we didn't want a Looney Tunes 'cartoony' sound. I drew inspiration from current works like Michael Giacchino's The Incredibles score, Thomas Newman's Wall-E and older pieces like Peter Gunn and the old great spy shows of the '60s.

"The music had to capture the chaotic nature of the character as well as a sense of escape and adventure. It also had to be driving. So along with utilizing the full spectrum of the orchestra I wanted to have some 'glitchy' drones and drums, some rock grooves, and some techno beats to send it in forward motion.

"If Splosion Man had an instrument of choice, it would definitely be the electric guitar. So I also wanted to make sure that was used liberally throughout the score. Splosion Man's theme became centered around a 6 note riff and an ostinato figure of a minor 2nd intervals."

Moving into Production

Bear notes that the Xbox Live Arcade size limit increase between development of The Maw and Splosion Man gave them room to work with -- but there was a bigger issue, he says. "Even though memory wasn't as big of an issue as it could have been, budget was. The budget for a downloadable title is much smaller than a retail game, and Joshua and I had to be smart in how much we could create for the game with the budget I had.

"Part of the creative process was to develop 45 second looping themes that could be repeated over and over without the player getting bored or annoyed by hearing the same thing. This in itself is a difficult thing to do and takes a lot of time and talent. Joshua was up for it though and spent a lot of time planning out tracks before fully fleshing them out, so we knew what would work before he got too far ahead."

Says Mosley, "After we got the theme and tone of the score locked, in I continued on to one cue after the next. I actually started from Level 1, writing each cue in sequence. Twisted Pixel gave me three major milestones; one for each stage. It was a three month long process. I began in February and wrapped in April. I would turn in each cue as I finished them.

"The three stages in the game have slightly different environments. Since the entire game takes place making your way out of Big Science Laboratories, I wanted to music to be reflective of the subtle changes in the environment and send you into a different feeling.

The 45 second looping cues didn't make this easy, says Mosley. "To accomplish this there definitely needed to be a lot of melodic movement and some solid riffs. Every eight bars or so in each cue, I made sure to change textures as well as introduce new riffs and state the themes in variation. Finally the end of each cue always lands on a dominant or leading tone so you don't feel its resolve until the beginning of each cue. That was really my only limitation on the score."

"Josh and I talked a lot about how real instruments could add a lot to the music, and why it was important, even for a downloadable game like Splosion Man," says Mosley. "I was excited they were on board with using live players. At the end of each stage I would send all cues to be approved by Twisted Pixel. The feedback on every cue was positive. This is a composer's dream, of course. No revisions!

"I thought 'This is going a little too well. Something is going to come up,' but it didn't. I know it had a lot to do with being in sync from the beginning by laying a good foundation. After I was given the green light to record, I would part out the charts for the flutists, send stems out to the guitarist and bassist, and conduct the vocalist at my studio. I did the same process after every stage. It went very smooth and helped streamline the process."

"The budget on downloadable games for live players is obviously smaller, but we made it work. Thankfully I was set up to track the players and vocalist so I didn't have to hire a studio and engineer. I made sure to manage session time with the live players wisely. We managed to cram each stage into two hour sessions. It was a challenge that they all definitely met. In total I was able to bring on five vocalists, two flutists, a guitarist, a bassist, a sax player and I actually covered all the trumpet work." Using friends and family -- and playing the trumpet himself -- helped, says Mosley.

The Final Result

You can listen to the entire Splosion Man soundtrack on its official YouTube channel.

Both Mosley and Bear wanted the music to be a key element in the game -- usually, they say, the music in downloadable titles isn't often or noticed by players.

Says Bear, "Something that was really important to me from the get-go was that we use real instruments. Not that going entirely synthesized is a bad thing, but I love the sound of real instruments and I thought it would go a long way to make the game sound better than most downloadable titles."

"Another great idea from Josh was to have an interactive element to the score," says Mosley. "The idea was to have a guitar layer trigger, playing the leading line whenever Splosion Man sploded. It turned out great and I believe it enhanced the gaming experience. It was not just background music.

"If I had to pick a favorite cue it would have to be 'Go to Light Speed'. It was for one of the levels where you are trying to escape the rising nitroglycerin. It has a little of everything, and great performances by the flutist, sax player and jazz vocalist," Mosley says.

You can download the whole score, including John Deborde's and Matt Chaney's contributions, at the Splosion Man website. You can also visit Mosley's official site.