For a while the whole music thing was something I was going to start dealing with in mid-2016, but last year Cogmind just kept increasing in scope as it felt like there was enough funding to justify adding more Fun Stuff while still on the route to finishing off the story. And my intent all along has been to wait until the main game is complete before tackling the issue of music, to be able to better gauge the full extent of what's needed. With the upcoming Alpha 15 being story-complete, this can wait no longer!
Most roguelikes don't even feature sound, much less music. Of course, "most roguelikes" are also non-commercial--nearly all the commercial roguelikes do have their own music. That said, these commercial roguelikes also have nowhere near the same soundscape that Cogmind already does, so there's an argument to be made for not bothering with music in this situation...
I'm a huge fan of video game music, and have been since the 80's. Yes, the 80's, back when I'd record NES tracks on cassette tapes to play back later. VGM is almost all I listen to--every. single. day. :D To me music is a big part of the gaming experience as well, and I've always thought it accounts for much more of the experience than most people gave it credit for, though that public perception has certainly changed over the past 15 years. On both the development side and among players, nowadays game music is afforded a much greater importance than it once had, and is more widely appreciated. Yay!
So naturally I'd love to have music in Cogmind. That I'd one day be all grown up with my own game that could have its own professional OST? My 7-year-old mind would be blown :P. But in the end I'll have to put aside my personal preferences and do whatever works best for Cogmind, for which there are a number of different options that don't necessarily equate to a full-on "music music" OST.
Music vs. Sound Effects
Cogmind is rather unique in that it already includes a detailed soundscape providing lots of audio feedback for everything that's going on, both interface-wise and surrounding actions. Different beeps and bloops for anything you do, material-based sounds for a variety of actions, unique sounds on talking to each major NPC, distance-based volume for explosive and other special machines, of course hundreds of weapon-related effects, and much more supported by an array of more sound samples than almost every indie game out there. If it happens, there's a sound (or three :P) for it.
Zoomed out view of all Cogmind sound data to date, 821 of them
(even more if including the additional samples layered in).
These sound effects do a pretty good job of creating the right atmosphere on their own, though there is still potential room for a separate continuous layer of music or ambient tracks to enhance that atmosphere and mesh it all together. The question is whether it's necessary or desired, and what factors play into that decision.
Music is certainly tied closely with pacing, and in roguelikes pacing can vary greatly from player to player, or even from moment to moment in the same run. You might be making rapid decisions that could involve either combat or simply inventory management, or you could be in a pitched battle during which you suddenly choose to cautiously and intentionally make every little decision only after some thought. This makes dynamic music not quite as appropriate for turn-based games. Instead, sound effects work better as a way to match the player's pacing (problems associated with animations and large battles aside, which I've tried to mostly head off with faster animations). In this way the sounds themselves are together a type of "dynamic music," with the added benefit of each component offering its own feedback to the player.
While over the past couple years Cogmind has gotten along just fine like that, let's examine some other possibilities.
There are multiple potential approaches to music here, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.
Music with strong melody (and a variety of instruments?) makes for good listening on its own, but would steal too much of the attention from the existing soundscape. This is also the kind that players (especially roguelike players) would tend to simply turn off anyway, and is the only category I believe should probably be out of the question for Cogmind.
Of course, like any of my claims in this post, an individual composer's talent could very well prove me wrong under certain circumstances. Regardless of type, the best video game music eventually doesn't even register while playing--despite being a part of the experience, as an integral part it is absorbed into the whole. Ideally players can focus on it and it sounds good, or not focus on it and it fades into the background. I'm guessing it's harder to achieve this effect with less ambient forms of game music, so again it's a question of skill.
One step away from music with a strong melody we have that which borders on ambient, but still uses a recognizable yet subtle melody. This more subdued type could be appropriate for Cogmind, having the advantage of using continuous music to "unify" everything in the existing soundscape without overtaking it, while also possessing its own identity.
For a while I've imagined that this will be Cogmind's best option, though it's also harder to find and judge who might be good at this, since it's a very game-specific, atmosphere-specific approach. For someone to do this well, they would also ideally have personal experience with each respective area in Cogmind's world, because a lot of that feeling comes from playing rather than from visuals (by contrast the latter would be the case in most other games). I guess I'd end up just trying to do my best via descriptions :P
Any music should definitely strongly reflect the area in which it's heard, in line with Cogmind's overarching design goal to maximize immersion, and pure ambient tracks would have the easiest time helping to achieve that goal.
As a test, for a while now Cogmind has already included two tracks that fall under this category, relatively monotonous looping drones used in the cave areas as well as Command. Not the best examples, but they work okay. In all these months I haven't received any feedback as to whether they actually add anything / enhance the experience.
Not the best examples, but they work okay. In all these months I haven't received any feedback as to whether they actually add anything / enhance the experience.
When I think pure ambient I also think there could be other faint/distant sound effects playing in there, so better than the samples above, although it's challenging to have a looping track in which such elements don't stand out every time they come up! That might need to be dynamic--random effects layered on top of a continuous looping background.
Very similar to the previous pure ambient option, this one may be able to achieve the same effect. It takes the "sound effects create the ambience" approach to an extreme, relying on numerous localized ambient sounds sourced from machines producing looping effects. However, in its pure form there is no unifying continuous track throughout a map.
Visualizing the sounds emitted by select machines. I've written about the system behind this before.
The advantage here is that it's something I can do myself, meaning it's both cheaper and gives me more control over the feeling I want. (I don't have the skill to do any of the other types above.) Finishing it would probably take at least a week, so technically it's something I could try before going with any of the other options. As seen in the screenshots, only a handful of machines in Cogmind currently produce sound--like the ambient samples they were just a test.
They're dynamic! Ambient sound changing as a door is opened or wall destroyed.
In the end, machine-based ambience and any kind of music are going to be mutually exclusive, unless that "music" is extremely subdued, as with the cave/Command samples.
Outside roguelikes, there are some examples of games that have taken this route, and for similar reasons, too. For example, The Witness doesn't include music. Nor does Duskers. Like Cogmind, both place a heavy emphasis on immersion, and have been praised for it (random example, one of many I've seen). Interestingly, since it came out I've heard more than one account of direct comparisons between Duskers and Cogmind.
In a general sense there are two ways to go about music style, either something bold and experimental, or "safe"/"just there in the background." Hard to choose between the two! Especially in a game like Cogmind which already has its own audio identity to an extent.
Movies and games are rather different mediums, but the same general principles apply across them--check out this video (the point is summarized from the linked 12:04). Lots of games go with safe music, which is otherwise not very interesting in itself. But more and more games have proven it doesn't have to be that way. Of course, taking a pure ambient route misses out on the value of having music which is memorable and associated with the game, as well as a draw for anyone listening to trailers or gameplay videos for the first time. (That said, I've also noticed people dropping into streams and immediately being awed by Cogmind's existing combination of animated terminal aesthetics and its accompanying sound effects, so I guess that much already comes across...)
As for specific style, I don't think there's any argument that Cogmind music (assuming there is any) should be electronic/tech-ish in nature. No pianos or acoustic guitars here. One common reaction might be "chiptune!," but to be honest as much as I like that style myself I don't think it fits the theme of immersion and realism which we already see with the mostly realistic sound effects. Chiptune has more of a gamey, less atmospheric feel to it. Cogmind probably needs something more gritty and sci-fi than that.
We can make further inferences about what Cogmind players expect and enjoy by checking out what they're already listening to (see addendum at the end of this post).
Music is expensive. Well, okay, it can be very expensive, or even not too bad, depending on the composer, style, and volume of work required. Cost is the biggest reason I'd even hesitate to at least try out a soundtrack.
Music is obviously not necessary for Cogmind, but how much would it add to the experience? And is that cost worth it? The answer will vary greatly by individual player and whatever style and format are chosen. Taking it as a trade-off, a professional composer to do a full OST for Cogmind would come at the cost of at least several months or more of time I could afford to spend adding extra content. That's because I'm willing to work very cheaply on my own game, but the pros are not :P
I'm not looking to buy the full rights to the music, meaning a composer could certainly sell a Cogmind OST, and Cogmind is not exactly an unknown game (I can see it being fairly popular once it's out there), so maybe that counts for something? A lower rate perhaps? :) For a composer that only makes sense at the more musical end of the OST spectrum, but that's also the type of music which is more expensive in the first place. (Ambient work is generally cheaper per minute.)
How much music do we really need, anyway? I can't show a full world map here because spoilers, but I can say that at an absolute minimum there would need to be 6 different tracks. But that's woefully inadequate in a world with nearly 40 maps divided into about 30 types.
The problem is that as soon as one or two of the more specific map subtypes get their own music, it would seem odd that others don't have their own as well. A more realistic minimum would be 10 tracks, which still merges a number of areas with unique meaning, gameplay, and/or atmosphere. As I've divided it up, a more ideal number hovers around 16.
The total cost will also depend on the precise length of each track, which itself could vary widely depending on style, composer, and what turns out to work the best. I'd say a minimum is probably 2-3 minutes per track, putting the minimum combined length at 12~18 min (low end, unlikely), 20~30 min (realistic middle ground), or 32~48 min (better estimate). Preferably they'd be longer, but then some of those in quicker areas would naturally also be shorter to mostly compensate.
Then of course there's the consideration that new maps added in the future will likely require their own music, and that any additional asset requirements placed on new content slow the addition of said content while also reducing the total amount which can be added further down the line. This is one of the unavoidable annoyances of taking roguelikes commercial and adding higher production values overall :P
There are countless qualified pros out there. I spent a good bit of time researching potential candidates a couple years back, and over the past two years of alpha others have contacted me directly expressing interest in doing the OST. I've never specifically contacted any of the composers I researched, but all of those on the short list below have gotten in contact with me at one point or another. I'll introduce each below, but know that I have not all that recently spoken with them about the possibility of doing an OST, so they may not even be available these days, or simply too expensive.
(Of course, as my luck would have it, all these composers live in expensive countries, which makes it harder for me to come up with the rates necessary xD. I've seen some pretty good composers in cheaper countries who work for lower rates, but no one yet that I think would be a good fit.)
Alex did Cogmind's Alpha Trailer music, which has received a lot of praise (no surprise there--it's wonderful!).
A trailer music's format is different from what one hears in a game, but Alex has done work on games before, including the well-known Crawl. His style involves some pretty interesting sounds. It'd be neat to see what he could come up with for Cogmind. You can hear more of his sci-fi-ish stuff here, here, and here.
As composer for the famous FTL, Ben probably needs little introduction. It's hard to say what he'd come up with for Cogmind since he's got a wide variety of styles, but he did mention being interested in doing the OST if given freedom to experiment.
On top of the skill factor, Ben also brings up the potential value of having a recognizable name attached to the OST, and by extension the game. That fame can be a drawing point itself, something that isn't as easy to quantify and factor into cost vs. benefit.
This particular track isn't amazing, but then it was just a quick fun thing he did one day a couple months back, not a final version. I played through a whole run with this going in the background and it did a nice job.
I have more composers on my list--these are just the first few that stood out so far. If you yourself think you've got a style that could work, or would like to recommend some other composer, I'm happy to listen to suggestions and submissions :D
Addendum: What are Cogminds listening to?
People have so much of their own music these days, or access to it via the net, that it's been easy for players to insert whatever they feel is appropriate while playing. It still seems better to provide something official if possible, which can then be muted if desired. But if we can know that a large number of players will just turn off the music, then it's kind of a waste, eh? :P (That money can be put towards feature dev!) At the moment it doesn't really feel like anything is truly missing without music, as it would with other games, though the fact that many players are usually playing to their own music implies that there's space for something there.
Looking back at what Cogmind players have reported listening to over the years...
The Deus Ex: Human Revolution OST is popular, which together with the OC Remix adaptation is what I've played to the most. The System Shock 2 OST is also popular. Other OST recommendations from players: Frozen Synapse, Hackmud, A New Dawn (MW2 covers).
What do you listen to while playing? What direction would you like to see Cogmind take in terms of music, given your experiences and the considerations I've run through in this post? Discuss here, over on the forums, or on Reddit.