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Jukebox Heroes: TUG and crowdsourcing soundtracks


While I'm still reasonably wary of Kickstarter and the pie-in-the-sky promises that have come out of these fundraisers, I can't deny that there have been potentially exciting ideas out there, especially in the field of MMO music.

For starters, we might one day see Anthymn, a fantasy MMO completely based around music. It's a notion so breathtakingly cool that I fear it might never see the light of day while thousands of been-there-killed-that titles trudge into existence. But talking with the creators of that game really drove home the fact that music is such an integral part of our lives and can hold a similar place of honor in our virtual worlds.

And then there's TUG, another quirky Kickstarter prodigy, which demonstrated how music and sounds can be used as social glue to pull people together. It showed us this with a wordless video that got its point across perfectly. Now TUG's devs are throwing out a different idea concerning music: Why not outsource some of the game's soundtrack... to the fans themselves?

A call to horns

The agility, willingness to experiment, and fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants attitude that these smaller projects and studios have may not project long-term stability, but they do seem to ignite the imagination. So it was when TUG's audio director, will.helm, put out a call for player music submissions for the game's soundtrack. He said that the team already used a track from a fan in one of its videos, and the team thought that it might be a neat idea to invite others to do this for the game itself.

As will.helm explains, "We would really love to connect more closely with the musical members of our community. The idea would be to have a selection of tracks that cycle randomly when you load the menu, and of course we'll have some kind of notification on the main screen that lists the name of the track, its composer, and some form of link to a site where they can showcase more of their work."

Following that post, he reported that the response was "overwhelmingly positive" for including player music with some additional support from the team (for example, akin to other studios' fan site kits, Nerd Kingdom would put together a package of sounds that could be worked into the tracks as well).

"We would probably have to set a few guidelines, things like a maximum track length and whatnot, but hopefully nothing to hinder anyone creatively," will.helm wrote. "That way we don't get any two-hour TUG operas."

It's a small idea from a small game, but it really intrigued me. Could MMO studios rely on crowdsourcing for soundtracks? Should they?

Some of the music in the above video is fan-made.

Content for no money down

When you're a very small studio relying on crowdfunding instead of the deep pockets of a publisher to get your game made, being as frugal and creative as you can with decisions is an absolute necessity. I don't know what it costs these days to hire a composer or pay an in-house sound tech to create a soundtrack from scratch, but it has to be more than zero dollars. But if you can outsource that to your community and make fans feel much more involved in the game's success? That seems like a win-win for the studio. Good music and good publicity for no money down.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to pause to consider a few of the harsher facts of the matter. The team is going to have to sift through a lot -- I mean, a lot -- of cruddy submissions that cannot be used. Piecing together a soundtrack from multiple amateur composers will be extraordinarily challenging if you want to make it sound unified and not jarringly different. Asking players to make music for free (in exchange for dubious exposure) may be a raw deal for someone who puts in hours of work with little or nothing in the end to show for it. And even TUG's team isn't ready to go so far as to open the doors to the entire OST; right now it's just an idea to allow players to create menu music.

I've always thought that the greatest rewards for developers could come from harnessing player-created content in its various forms. From making houses to new armor designs and writing quests to designing dungeons, a million players banging away on a million keyboards are bound to generate some pretty awesome content. Of course, how to filter the good from the bad, how to compensate contributors, and how to make sure it all fits the world of the game are substantial obstacles to keep studios from crowdsourcing everything.

A lesson from Star Control 2

When I read the news item for this, it immediately made me think of Star Control 2. Some of you might remember this sci-fi CRPG classic from way back when. It had a very beloved soundtrack (which is still dang catchy to listen to today), which was amazing considering that composing the music was farmed out to the game's fans via a contest.

That soundtrack has stuck in my mind because of the odd nature of its origins, not to mention its overall quality. It's made me wonder a lot since then if more studios should invite talented fans to be a part of the development process. I mean, we have fans designing blogs for free, fan sites for free, podcasts for free, tribute art for free... so why not this? Any time a studio cracks a door to hold a contest for the chance to create a quest, make an NPC, or otherwise make a mark on the game, the end result is often more memorable than what the professionals churn out.

I also think of the sheer creativity that comes out of games with player music systems. Expressing yourself through music is second-nature to some folks and adds a lot of "life" to the world. It seems as if it's only a hop, skip, and a jump to make the best player music official as well.

Let's not forget that The Secret World recently included fan-submitted songs to be broadcast from in-game radios as well. Those songs we'll be visiting in a future edition of this column.

We'll see how this goes for TUG. I think the devs are wise to keep this as a small experiment for the time being. Who knows -- maybe two years from now we'll be going through a column together on the player-submitted OST for this game. For the time being, I'll be keeping my eye on this collaborative project a little more closely than I was before.

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!

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