Player-made music in MMOs

Music is very important to me. I love music since I was little. I became a musician myself relatively late though, I started playing the guitar when I was sixteen. A couple years later the drums became my main instrument.

Although I’m not the most creative person when it comes to composing music, expressing myself through music has been a part of my life for a very long time.

So you can imagine my excitement when Star Wars Galaxies came along in 2003 with a pretty sophisticated system for player-made music.

It didn’t actually allow players to compose music themselves though. Instead it had eight (I think) songs to choose from at launch, and five instruments to play them. Among those songs was the Mos Eisley cantina song of course, but also a couple of new compositions. Each instrument had up to eight musical variations, called Flourishes, for each song. For every bar of music one of those could be chosen while playing. Additionally some lightshow effects could be triggered every now and then.

This was already pretty nice when playing alone, but it was obvious that the system had the potential for greatness when played as a group.

Hence I didn’t hesitate for long to start looking for a band. I found two guys looking to start a new band on my server, Gorath, on one of the german SWG forums. We met ingame and talked about our ideas and visions and decided we were a good match.

We started meeting regularly to practice. We experimented with different combinations of instruments for the various songs, and which Flourishes sounded good together. We even practiced solos for single instruments, which meant all other musicians had to use one or more ‘Pause’-commands at the right time. Since this was before voice chat had become a common thing we had to coordinate our efforts via ingame-chat, which was trickier than it probably sounds.

Practicing a vocal composition in the sunshine of Corellia.

When we felt that we were good enough to play in front of an audience we started looking for opportunities. Since Gorath had a pretty large and lively roleplaying community that didn’t take long. Soon we were booked for our first gig, at a player wedding no less.

SWG Wedding 1
Playing the song ‘Ceremonial’ as a substitute for the Wedding March while Groom and guests wait for the Bride.

It was great. I have to admit that the roleplaying stuff was a bit over the top for me, I’m just not into these things. But being there and playing for an audience of real players, being cheered at and asked for encores was a gaming experience I’ll never forget.

SWG Wedding 2
Rocking the wedding party in a guild hall…
SWG Wedding 3
…and on the beach at night followed by fireworks.

We were joined by additional musicians and a couple of dancers over time, rehearsed even more sophisticated shows and wore more elaborate stage outfits. I wouldn’t say that we were the best or most famous band on Gorath, but we were definitely playing in the top league. It was a fantastic time.

SWG Enabran Tain
Entertaining the crowd at a local crimelord’s palace. We were very glad that he liked it…

After I quit SWG I had to wait for about six years until I played a game with player-made music again. This game was All Points Bulletin (the reboot, APB Reloaded, that went live some time after the original game tanked is still running and I play it from time to time). A MIDI-like editor can be used here to compose 5-second long themes or whole songs.

Recreating Marilyn Manson’s title theme from the first Resident Evil movie.

I never saw a reason to do whole songs because the game supports using one’s own music library to be played by car stereos ingame anyway. Also the available sound libraries aren’t really that great.

The themes are where it’s at though! Every character can equip such a theme, and whenever you kill someone it gets played to your victim. If the game bestows the MVP title upon you at the end of a match it’s even played once to all players on both sides.

Because people are people I don’t really have to point out that there are lots of folks who use a theme that’s basically just noise and as annoying as (in)humanly possible. Fortunately blocking a player is but a few klicks away, and then you don’t hear that player’s themes anymore.

However there are also many players who want to have a nice, high quality theme that suits their style or taste, so a talented theme-maker has not only lots of potential customers but can also earn quite a sum with his craft. I made millions of ingame Dollars selling the themes I made, I even did a couple on request.

It feels really great to receive a whisper after killing someone and not be called a cheater/dickhead/whatever for a change, instead getting: ‘WOW what an awesome theme, did you make it yourself?’.

The third and until now last game with player-made music I played was ArcheAge. Here a somewhat peculiar notation system is used to compose songs. It takes some time and effort getting used to. Apparently it’s taken from an earlier game, Mabinogi, which I never played.

Composed music is written down on special paper that has to be crafted first, and these song sheets are then used to play the song with an equipped instrument. They can also be traded or sold. The amount of notes that fit on one sheet are determined by your Artistry skill. Songs can have up to three voices, which is kinda cool because you can make even wind instruments play three notes at the same time this way.

Playing a pretty cool looking and sounding lute on my balcony.

The important thing that’s missing though, at least in the EU/NA version of the game, is band support. Playing all alone is quite nice when you have some good sheets and a couple of instruments on hand, but playing with a band would be a world of difference (see SWG above).

Lord of the Rings Online seems to have a very good system with bands and everything. There are even big festivals, like this one just a couple weeks ago. I’ve never played LotRO though, so I can’t speak from my own experience about it.

Now, I fully realize that there are without a doubt many players who couldn’t care less about player-made music in their MMOs. So every developer team has to weigh the cost-benefit ratio when deciding if their game needs something like that. There are also games where it just wouldn’t fit thematically of course.

Generally speaking though, if you want to make a game that’s more than just a treadmill of quests, gear and combat, instead offering a rich and varied virtual world to explore and experience, a good system for player-made music can be a massive enrichment and a real asset to your game.

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