If you look at the most iconic video games of all time, take Super Mario Bros. and Tetris for example, there are plenty of reasons why they’re considered timeless classics. Of course both are incredibly fun to play, but the games’ music is another big part of their emblematic status. Practically anyone born after the Nixon Administration could hum the theme tunes of both Mario and Tetris on the spot.
Although video games have evolved exponentially since the days of arcades and Atari, the need for memorable, recognizable music continues to be sought-after. One Atlanta-based composer, Chris Rickwood, saw an opportunity to make a name for himself in Atlanta and is now in-demand with some of the biggest names in the industry (like Madden & SMITE). We recently chatted with this video game music composer to get the scoop.
Like many talented composers, Rickwood’s love for music started at an early age. “I started playing trumpet in middle school and dabbled in composition when I was in high school. I decided then that music is what I wanted to pursue,” he recalls. However, it wasn’t just music that captured his attention. “I grew up in the 80’s and started playing Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, etc. in the arcades. When Atari 2600 came out, we got one of those immediately. Throughout the years, I’ve continued to play games. They’ve always been apart of my life.”
“When I decided to go the composition route, I wanted to be a film composer. But, I had an epiphany: ‘Hey, someone’s writing music for these video games.’ It was a new field and I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it. I decided to switch to focusing on games,” he continues. “I was reading an article in an electronic music magazine and they were looking for composers. It had the names and addresses of contacts at all the biggest game studios. I decided to take a chance and I wrote all of those people. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I could make money from it. It was a slow, steady climb to start making money.”
Video game music has come a long way since Chris got his start. “The difference between music now and 15 years ago, when I started, is that today, everything is done by computer,” he says. “I used to use two big towers to run my studio, but I just started using a Macbook Pro as my main machine. I have lots of instruments and noisemakers lying around, but my day to day work is pretty much all done on the computer. I have pretty much every audio software you could think of.”
Rickwood, Working in the Studio
It’s not just the technology behind the composition that’s changed. The popularity surrounding video game music has grown substantially. “There’s definitely a fanbase. I have people contacting me all the time and that’s why I decided to de-list my phone number,” jokes Rickwood. “For years, there was a huge audience in Japan for the Japanese video game music. In the last 5-10 years, it’s gotten over here to where people are interested in hearing/seeing music from the game. They even have orchestral concerts like Video Games Live that goes around and plays video game music with the best orchestras in the country. They came here last July to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.”
Today, Rickwood has made a name for himself in the scene. His video game credits include Age of Empires Online, Madden NFL 12, and 40+ games for Cartoon Network, just to name a few. He’s also composed music for ABC Family, Saturday Night Live, and ESPN Monday Night Football. Chris’ work for ESPN caught the attention of EA Sports, who reached out to him to work on their flagship series.
He also works with a number of Atlanta-based game developers, and being a household name in the city’s rapidly growing scene is a big reason for his decision to call Georgia’s capital home. “After grad school, I had 2 degrees in composition and no job. My wife lived and worked in Georgia, so I moved here and decided to make a go of it here,” says Rickwood. “I actually like the Atlanta scene because it’s currently early in game and film development. I saw the potential of being “the guy” for video game music in the Atlanta area. That’s what I set out to do: conquer this area. Now, 80% of my clients are in the ATL area. Currently, I’m working on Hi-Rez Studios’ SMITE, Tripwire Interactive‘s Killing Floor 2, and Blue Mammoth Games’ Brawlhalla. Doors here open a little easier for me and I get to experience things that I probably wouldn’t be able to if I were out in LA or NYC.”