Production Values: Games People Play

Game composer Tommy Tallarico tells all.

Photo: Jason Vaughn

In the world of video games, Tommy Tallarico might be the most visible of all music composers. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he started playing piano at age three but never had formal music training and does not read music. He grew up being inspired by the exploits of his cousin Steven Tallarico, better known as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. When Tommy turned 21, he moved to California with nothing to his name and, within days, landed a job as a tester at Virgin Games. This opportunity quickly led to his scoring his first game, the early monster hit Prince of Persia (see the sidebar “Tommy Tallarico: Selected Credits” for a list of his major scoring activities).

In 1994 Tallarico left Virgin to found Tommy Tallarico Studios, and today he cohosts two TV shows on games: the Telly Award-winning Electric Playground and Reviews on the Run, both currently on G4techTV Canada. He also hosts the Video Games Live concerts he initiated with fellow game composer Jack Wall (see the sidebar “VGL: Coming Soon to an Entertainment Megaplex Near You”), oversees the Game Audio Network Guild (see Web Clip 1), and, oh yes, creates music and sound design for games. Tallarico has scored music and/or sound effects for hundreds of games, including Earthworm Jim, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and Metroid Prime (on which he worked with Nintendo's iconic video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto). In 2005 Tallarico produced a critically acclaimed orchestral and choral score for Advent Rising.

Tallarico is a flamboyant figure (he drives a yellow Ferrari), and he isn't shy about promoting his work and accomplishments. This has occasionally drawn fire from detractors who find him boastful. But his track record and actions reveal someone who is devoted to advancing the technology and status of game audio and the game-audio community as a whole, as well as his own fortunes within it. In addition to overseeing G.A.N.G., Tallarico is a governor of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and has worked with NARAS (along with many others in the game industry, including this author) to establish a Grammy Award for video-game music. He is an advisory board member of the Game Developers Conference and a nominating peer leader for the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.

How does composing for interactive media differ from writing for linear media?

The thing that makes video-game composers and sound designers so different from film and television composers is that for the most part, film and TV music is called “underscore” because story and dialog is what drives film and television. Whereas with video games, action is what drives the whole experience, and it's up to the composer not to write background music for the dialog but to drive that action. We're in control more than composers in any other form of media.

Another difference from working with linear media is this: When John Williams sits down with George Lucas [to score a Star Wars movie], Lucas says, “At 45 seconds, Darth Vader is going to walk through the door, so the music has to do this when that happens. At 55 seconds, the Death Star blows up and the music has to do this.” Well, he now is confined by that linear medium. In contrast, a game designer will sit down with me and say, “Okay, here's the situation: There's a hundred guys on horseback, and they all have swords and are coming to kick your ass. Write me a 3-minute piece of music.” There are no barriers or limitations on me at that point. My mind can go crazy and think of writing an amazing piece of music for that emotion and that scenario.

Now, I'm writing that piece of music depending on how many guys are starting to come after me [in the game]. Let's say we're in a battle with 100 guys, then it's down to 50, then down to 10, then 2, then I clear them all out. As I'm writing that 3-minute, 100-guys battle music, I'm also thinking of it in terms of what it would sound like if there were only 10 guys left. So I'll take this exact same piece of music and maybe make it a lot lighter, or make the percussion less. Instead of doing 16th notes, maybe the violins are playing eighths and not playing as staccato. Maybe it's not a whole choir at that point, but one solo voice. I might come up with two or three different versions of this exact same piece of music, and we'll record each with a live orchestra and a live choir playing to a click track. I might record the same song four different ways.

Then I sit down with the programmer and say, “Look, start all of the same pieces playing at the same time. When there are only 10 guys, let's crossfade into the 10-guys version of that song.” And the game engine never misses a beat, because it's always in perfect time and knows exactly to the bit where each of those songs is playing. So when you crossfade, the music kind of comes down and the player doesn't even realize it, but it's different. And it's seamless. So that's what I've been doing a lot of lately: writing different music for different scenarios, but it's all the same piece of music written and recorded in different ways.

[In game engines, an audio file can play with zero volume, so that multiple files might be “playing” simultaneously, with the nonzero files being audible. Tallarico's scenario describes multiple files having identical structure and tempo playing simultaneously, so that all remain in sync. However, volume is under program control and can be changed dynamically by the game engine to allow different versions to be heard.]

According to Tallarico, composers have more control writing for games than for film and television.
Photo: Jason Vaughn

Let's talk a bit about interactive composition tools. When you and I started in the industry, all of the tools were homemade, built in-house by each developer. More recently, we've seen the rise of middleware tools that are credible. What's your take on the current state of the tools?

That's a great question. I think the tools really took a big turn about a year or so after the PlayStation 2 and Xbox came out. With the Scream engine for the PlayStation 2, which Buzz Burrowes designed, and the XACT engine for the Xbox, which Brian Schmidt and Scott Selfon and the boys at Microsoft designed, you're talking about real musicians and composers and sound designers creating these tools, with these big companies behind them. The reason those engines were so much better than anything before was that for the first time, you could do things [to author the sound] in real time, on the fly. So all of the power was in the hands of the composers and sound designers. At that point in video-game history, we no longer had to sit there and tell the programmer, “Oh, could you turn that sound effect down? And could you trigger this song at that point in the game?”

What these new tools did was enable us [composers and sound designers] to do everything; we put the songs in, we put the sound effects in. We were able to load up the game, have it and the sound engine running, and tweak all of that stuff as we were playing the game.

That overcame a major hurdle in game-audio production. Overcoming hurdles really is the essence of audio for video games, isn't it?

Absolutely. One of the challenges of being in the video-game industry as an audio person is — still — knowing the limitations of the machine [on which the game will run] and always working around the technology. That's kind of the fun and challenging part, really. Every six to nine months, the technology [involved in producing audio for video games] changes. A lot of times people will ask me to tell them exactly how I do music for video games. But the reality is that it's different every single time. It's always a different approach, a different engine, a different budget, a different technology.

I'll give you an example. At one point, I was working on two basketball games — one for Activision and one for Electronic Arts. You think to yourself, “Oh, two basketball games — at least they have to do something the same. They're the same genre.” But the two were being done completely differently: one was streaming in 30-second looping ambiences, and the other had to have the ambience downloaded into RAM because [the game developers] were streaming the trash-talking that was going on down on the court. One [game] had background music because it was more of a street basketball game, and the other was streaming college drum-corps riffs because it was a college basketball game. So even when the games are the same, the approach is still different.

Now we come to Jack and Tommy's Flying Circus. Tell me about Video Games Live.

Jack [Wall] and I really saw the industry change, especially after we started G.A.N.G. We saw the quality of video-game music go way up, so we wanted to create something for the masses — not just for video-game fans, but for the masses. Something that said, “Look, video games aren't a bunch of bleeps and bloops anymore; this is a legitimate art form. Not only the music, but the craft of video games in general.”

That's why we created the show the way we did. It's not just a symphony playing video-game music; Video Games Live is all completely synchronized to the video and to the special effects. The lights are automated, there's interactivity with the crowd, [and there are] preshow festivals, costume contests, and meet-and-greets with designers and composers afterward. It has the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra, combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert, mixed with the interactivity, cutting-edge visuals, and fun that video games provide. That's really the best description of Video Games Live.

We have parts of the show where I randomly pick people to come out onstage, and they actually become the video game while the orchestra plays the music and changes it on the fly in real time, depending on what the person is doing onstage and onscreen. That's the fun aspect of video games.

Tallarico notes that game composers now have the resources to compose and edit while playing the game they are scoring.
Photo: Jason Vaughn

Now we come to the obligatory question about your tips for people who want to get into the business.

If you want to get into video games, there are three or four things you can do that will get you in, if you have the talent. But the biggest advice I have to give to everyone before I get to those four things is that talent isn't everything in this industry. Talent is 50 percent of it; the other 50 percent is networking and being able to sell yourself. If all the people out there spent as much time working on the networking as they did on the talent aspect, they'd go a lot further.

People are afraid to say that sometimes. They want you to think that it's all about your chops and your composing. But I'm here to tell you it's not. I'm not the best composer in the video-game industry — I'll leave that recognition to people like Michael Giacchino. But I'm one of the best networkers. The four things I have to say all have to do with networking and not the talent side.

How do you get into the video-game industry? The first thing is to join G.A.N.G., and this isn't just a plug for my own thing. G.A.N.G. is an organization run by everyone and it's for everyone; it's a nonprofit organization.

The second thing I'd recommend is to go to the Game Developers Conference. GDC is the best place to meet producers, designers, and other audio people, of course, and to learn from the masters who are doing game audio already. It's not just technical; [it gives you] information about business and the creative aspect and marketing yourself, as well as having a huge job fair where all of the developers and publishers looking for people are sitting right there.

The third thing is to join the IGDA, the International Game Developers Association. That's also a nonprofit organization, and they have a ton of local chapters all over the world. If you're just looking to get into the industry, there are a lot of other people just like you but who are programmers, artists, or smaller developers.

The great thing about the industry right now is that you don't have to get hired to work on a big $20 million-budget project. You can get in the game industry by working on somebody's cell-phone game that has a $50,000 budget.

The fourth thing is to read. There are a couple of great books out there. There's The Complete Guide to Game Audio [Focal Press, 2001], by Aaron Marks, and the other great one is from Alexander Brandon and is called Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production [New Riders Games, a series of Peachpit Press; 2004]. These are two fantastic books that give you great insight on the “how” aspect of making games.

Larry the O met Tommy Tallarico during Larry's eight years as a video-game sound designer for LucasArts Entertainment and Electronic Arts. He attended Project BarBQ the year G.A.N.G. was formed and has performed in two Video Games Live concerts.


This list represents only a small fraction of the games Tommy Tallarico has worked on. Visit his Web site at for a complete list.

Title Release Date Publisher Platform

Advent Rising 2005 Majesco Xbox/PC Bard's Tale 2004 InXlle PS2/Xbox/PC Demolition Man 1994 Virgin 3DO Earthworm Jim 1 1994 Playmates Sega Genesis Earthworm Jim 2 1995 Playmates Sega Genesis Fight Club 2004 VU Games PS2/Xbox The Incredibles 2004 THQ PS2/Xbox/GameCube/PC The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer 2005 THQ PS2/Xbox/GameCube/PC Knockout Kings 2000 1999 EA Sports Nintendo 64 Maximo 2002 Capcom PS2 Metroid Prime 2002 Nintendo GameCube Metroid Prime 2: Echoes 2004 Nintendo GameCube Prince of Persia 1992 Virgin Game Boy Spider-Man 2000 Activision PS1 SpongeBob SquarePants The Movie 2004 THQ PS2/Xbox/GameCube Spy Hunter 2 2003 MidwayGames PS2/Xbox Street Hoops 2002 Activision PS2/Xbox/GameCube Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1999 Activision PS1 Unreal 2 2003 Atari Xbox/PC Unreal Championship 2 2005 MidwayGames Xbox


Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall's Video Games Live concert production has spent the past two years circling the globe since it premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006 to an unexpectedly large crowd of 11,000. And things seem to be just getting started. Late in the summer of 2007, I asked Tallarico what was coming up for VGL. The answer: a lot of things, topped by L.A.'s newest and most ambitious entertainment venue. Where does this guy find time to compose?

T.T.: Last summer we played two shows in Dallas, two in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra, Detroit, two nights in Houston with the Houston Symphony, and we played with the Louisville Symphony. We're playing Fort Wayne, Indiana, with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and when you start to play those smaller cities and still sell enough tickets to put on a show, that's when you know it's really starting to take off. We're doing a European tour this fall: Spain, Italy, France, England again, Sweden, Germany. We're going back to Brazil and playing more cities there.

But probably our biggest and most exciting show this year, and for our third year in Los Angeles, [is] the E4 expo, or “E for all” as it is known. It's being put on by the same people that did the E3 [Electronic Entertainment Expo] show, but now they're opening it up to the public. It's going to be held at the L.A. Convention Center — like E3. But AEG, the promoters, have built a $1.7 billion project called L.A. Live right across the street from the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, right next to the convention center. They want [it] to be the Times Square of the West Coast. They have 28 big plasma screens out there, a Grammy museum, a Ritz-Carlton hotel. They're building an ESPN studio, five-star restaurants, and part of this thing is called Nokia Theatre. That's a 7,000-seat indoor theater that boasts the biggest stage on the West Coast.

L.A. Live is opening on October 19th, and VGL will be in the Nokia Theatre as the first show ever to launch this new era in Los Angeles. And it's happening during the E4 show. We're really excited about that.

[The project, formally known as the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District, will cover six city blocks and encompass 4 million square feet. Cost estimates have run as high as $2.5 billion. In addition to Nokia Theatre, plans also call for the 2,400-seat Club Nokia. The developers anticipate that major events such as the Grammy Awards and ESPY Awards will be held there.]

[Online Links]

Focal Press (publisher of The Complete Guide to Game Audio, by Aaron Marks)

Game Audio Network Guild

Game Developers Conference

International Game Developers Association

New Riders Games (publisher of Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production, by Alexander Brandon)

Tommy Tallarico

Video Games Live