Video Game History 101: Tim Wright

The start of a new series on BrutalGamer.com, so come inside and educate yourself.

Most modern games have become high budget monsters; so clinical in production and devoid of a real “soul”. Such a large amount of manpower is required to churn out these startlingly realistic 3d environments that the games industry can seem just that, a factory of entertainment.

It was not always this way. Back in the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s video gaming was under the radar of big business and a handful of stars shone through. Even in the days of no internet people knew the names of Geoff Crammond, Peter Molyneux, Julian Gollop, Andrew Braybrook, Archer MacLean, Jon Hare, David Braben, The Oliver Twins and many more. This series of articles will reach back into the mists of gaming past and bring these often overlooked icons of early gaming back to the fore and see if time has improved or diluted the game making experience.

Today we sit down with one of the legends of video game music, Tim Wright. Think you vaguely know the name? Well Tim has been responsible for some of the greatest music in video game history. Titles such as Shadow of the Beast 2, Leander, Lemmings, Powermonger, Agony, Sensible Soccer, Wipeout – The list truly goes on and on. Chances are if you played a game for the Amiga system or ever enjoyed Wipeout, then at some point you were entertained by a piece of Tim’s music.

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Please introduce yourself to our readers and let us know what you now do.

Who am I? Well I guess you are defined by your actions. So let’s see; I’m a composer. I write music for pleasure, video games and promotions & advertisements. I’m a Company Director, which might sound impressive, but anyone can start a company and for very little investment… but, with the help of my partner, we’ve made a living and kept the company going for over 6 years, so I guess that’s testament to doing something right, at least some of the time! I’m also a PhotoShop artist, editing photos and creating artwork as and when required for music projects, websites and so on. I’ve also rediscovered cycling recently, but I don’t think I’ll be taking that up professionally. ;O)

What made you interested in music and then want to apply that to Video Games?
I’ve enjoyed singing from a very early age. I always preferred to make up my own melodies rather than singing existing songs. When I discovered the piano at my Grandmother’s house I was thrilled, and I really believe that was my ‘musical awakening’.

Time went by, and my parents finally bought a piano on the understanding I would go for proper training. I took lessons through most of my teenage years, and during that time discovered other instruments. I also tried writing music as part of a band, but that didn’t really take off. During this time I’d say my main instrument was the keyboard/piano, but strangely, most of the songs I wrote in my teens were composed on a ¾ student guitar, probably because it was easy to pick up and strum.

I’ll really be giving away my age now, but the idea of using computers to write music was something I first considered when they introduced the BBC Micro Computer into my secondary (high) school. The BBC Micro used the Texas Instruments SN76489 sound chip, which had 3 melody channels and 1 noise channel. It gave me my first stab at computer based music sequencing. I later discovered that one of my musical heroes, Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode/Erasure), used the BBC Micro to sequence his analogue synths for many years.

It wasn’t until we were given a Commodore 64 for Christmas that I believed home computers could create music with character, and I dabbled with writing tracks using programs like RockMonitor. Thinking about it, I should dig out my first ever c64 tracks and pop them on my website so everyone can have a grin! Things really took off when I got an Amiga 500. I created some tunes using SoundTracker software and was lucky enough to bump into the right people at the right time to get my music heard.

What was the first commercial title you worked on? What was your role & can you tell us a little about it?
Psygnosis signed up a project I was contributing music and SFX to called “Puggs in Space”. Shortly after signing the deal, Psygnosis decided to change the design and give the project to a different developer to complete. The project was eventually released on a number of formats simply entitled “Puggsy” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puggsy). Although the original team didn’t get chance to complete the game, they took on the programmer and artist as full time employees, and told me that they’d be in touch about more music in the future.

I thought that would be the end of my dealings with Psygnosis. But one day, out of the blue I got asked to write the music for SOTB II. This was a major shock, because here I was, a total unknown being asked to pen the music for one of Psygnosis’ top brands. I’d say a good mix of elation and fear would just about cover how I was feeling right about then!

The project meant dealing with Martin Edmondson (owner of Reflections, the developer) on a regular basis. He was very keen that the music should sound a certain way. David Whittaker had created the music for the first in the series, and Martin wanted to expand upon that style. This meant sampling lots of new sounds, mainly from the Korg M1 keyboard. If you ever get your hands on one, go through the preset sounds and many will remind you of SOTB and Amiga tunes in general – it was a highly sampled synth at the time. The project was on a reasonably tight deadline… what with working full time as a programmer at Littlewoods plc. during the day, I was very busy at night writing the music and creating sound effects for SOTB II. This meant plenty of Red Star (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Star_Parcels) parcels at short notice.

Where did/do you take your influences and reference points from to inspire your output?
I was, and still am a massive fan of Vangelis, J.M. Jarre and many synth/electro-pop acts from the 80’s. Being a classically trained pianist, I was also heavily influenced by classical music. A bit of a weird mix I guess? Given I was new to sampling, and on the Amiga I’d only have 3 or 4 audio channels to play with, a lot came down to experimentation though.

What were the greatest challenges for you during the early years?
Making music fit into very little memory and still sound good! Martin Edmondson was the exception to the rule when I worked on the SOTB games. He was very audio-visual, and wanted the GFX and the music to get a good chunk of available RAM. So I was really spoiled in terms of space for the tunes in SOTB II & III. Other projects were not so generous. Lemmings had virtually no memory to work with and only 3 channels.

The limitations were frustrating, but also challenging… I had to come up with ideas on how to make best use of samples. For instance, I could use the same sample in different octaves as a kick drum, a bass line and a melody if I chose carefully. Another common trick was to forget about the kick drum altogether and trick the listener into thinking there was one by sequencing the bassline and the snare in the same channel; bass, bass, snare, bass, bass, bass, snare…

Did working with limited hardware make things harder or more simplistic from a design point of view?
Aside from the challenges I’ve mentioned previously, the limited hardware didn’t affect the way I composed from a melodic point of view. A good tune is a good tune, played on a Stylophone or using a full orchestra. That’s something that I feel gets lost in today’s game music. I’m by no means tarring everyone with the same brush… a lot of today’s in-game music is truly fantastic, but equally, there are games that use musical ‘wallpaper’. In the 8 & 16bit days you had to create a memorable melody, you couldn’t rely on the sound palette to do anything major by itself. With CD quality audio, you can have washes of synth pad over a drum loop and you have an instant musical backdrop. Ask people to “hum the theme from game xyz” and unless it’s got a great hook or melody they won’t be able to oblige.

When gaming moved to the 16-bit era, and systems like the Commodore Amiga and Sega Megadrive came to the market, a huge step forward was taken in game sound. Gone where the strained beeps and muffled voice clips of 8-bit titles like Robocop. Was it liberating to get stereo sound and all that memory for instruments and samples?
You’d think so… but moving from the BBC Micro/Commodore 64/Spectrum to the Amiga and Atari ST was seen as a massive leap by the general public. The graphics were so much better, the systems could generate 3D images in real-time and in hundreds of colours. Surely the audio would leap forward in this way too? And it would have, if it weren’t for the problem of insufficient memory, in two key areas;

Firstly, there wasn’t enough internal RAM for all the code, graphics and sound to co-exist happily, and secondly, the games were shipped on floppy discs that could only hold just over 1MByte of data. So to be honest, it was hard work making music that truly satisfied people’s expectations of these new 16bit systems.

Sadly, distribution of games on CD came way too late for the Amiga and The Atari ST, which really is a shame, because if they’d shipped with a CD drive I think these systems would have had a much longer shelf life. The public would have been wowed with stunning audio visual content in every game. Having said that, the music would probably have been predominantly CD, and the 4 channel hardware would have been used for SFX, so we’d have missed out on the magical era of ‘Tracker tunes’.

Which of your previous productions/arrangements are you most proud of? On a personal note I thought the music for Leander, Agony & Wipeout defined what could be achieved with each genres hardware.
I’ve been asked this question in a number of ways over the years, and it is like being asked which of your children do you like the most? Every piece of music I’ve written holds a memory, even if it’s not overly special, or well known. Having said this, when I listen back to my tracks from years gone by, there are some that are more melodically gratifying or well constructed. And there are tracks that have pushed barriers in different ways;

Agony was an experiment to see if I could create a piece of music that sounded like it was being played on a real piano. I couldn’t hope to achieve this 100%, but with samples for each octave, and volume hand-edited for each individual note, I got as close as I could. It was only years later that I realised the actual tune wasn’t too bad either.

You mentioned Leander. These songs were written around the time I purchased a new hardware sampler. It allowed me the freedom to experiment, rather than simply using other people’s samples. This allowed for a fair bit of diversity in the game soundtrack. I had fun sampling and incorporating acoustic guitar, bongos and lots of other sounds, a definite milestone in my Amiga history.

Wipeout always secretly amuses me, because it called the shots all the way along, rather than me deciding the why’s and wherefore’s of what I’d write. I was excited to be working on the game because it was getting a lot of attention from Sony, and there was a level of ‘cool’ surrounding Wipeout. They wanted this to encompass the soundtrack and the SFX too. I’d heard that management were trying to get licensed music on-board from well known electronic musicians, so I imagined I’d be side-lined, but thankfully I got to play a major role.

The initial test tracks I composed for Wipeout were written after completing work on a game called Krazy Ivan, which featured ambient/industrial tracks. So, these initial compositions were a bit on the slow side and had an industrial vibe to them. Nick Burcombe, the designer on Wipeout took a listen, and although he was very positive, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what he was after. He advised me that if I wanted to write music in the right vein I should experience it first hand. I wasn’t one for night clubs, and at that time really had no real interest in dance or trance music either. All that changed very quickly after a few long weekends and some free backstage passes!

It was around this time that Psygnosis moved us to new futuristic looking offices. Looking back, I think the new environment, coupled with a shiny new studio and my discovery of 4-on-the floor brought on the composing marathon that lasted night and day for around 2 weeks or so. In that time I wrote all the music for the first Wipeout game. People were pretty surprised at what I’d created, not least of all me… and aside from Lemmings, it’s the one game people know me for, so I have a lot to be thankful for.

Finally, Colony Wars deserves a mention. It was my first real foray into orchestral scoring for a computer game. I was genuinely proud of what I achieved with very little access to sample libraries or real instruments, and I still get e-mails to this day from people who love that score.

If you could go back and improve/remake a composition from any one of your games what would it be and to which title?
On the whole I’d say I’m happy with my work, but three instances do come to mind;

The piano samples in Agony. The developer changed the piano samples before the song went into the game, and they put the octaves in the wrong order, so the song in the game doesn’t sound exactly as it was written. If I could, I’d go back and put in the best possible samples, and in the right order.

The Lemmings tracks made use of provided samples, and some that I managed to sneak in at the last minute. I’d go back and improve on these.

The “Game Over” theme in Shadow of the Beast 2 was modelled on a tune I was sent by Martin Edmondson on a cassette tape. I was told to copy it note for note, so I did. If I had my time over I’d write my own version, using the same style and sounds, mainly because it turned out the music on the cassette was recorded from a short theme used part way through an episode of Miami Vice!

What are your thoughts on the videogame industry as we see it now? How has production changed? Do you think the introduction of Hollywood score writers like Harry Gregson-Williams and Danny Elfman has upped the ante some what?
As gaming moved from being a marginal hobby into the mainstream, and technology improved to allow 5.1 Dolby Sound, it was inevitable that big industry would take interest and get involved. However, top composers come with large price tags, and still have to busy themselves scoring for $million budget films, so their foray into the world of games is rather limited. Top film composers may get involved in scoring for massive budget games, but there are enough moderate and lower budget projects for ‘old skool’ and fresh talent alike.

Would you say progress has been for the best now we have teams with tens, some times hundreds of people working on a title?
It’s less about progress and more about necessity. Bigger projects need more manpower. You could say that more people means more diversity in the end product. You could also argue the opposite, that larger teams mean the goals of the project are diluted. As ever, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If a game ‘grabs you’ then it’s a good game, regardless of how many people contributed.

Large teams may be the norm, but small teams can still make great games. With Android and iPhone development we are back at square one again, where it’s possible for one person to sit in their bedroom, draw some GFX, create some music and code up a game they can take to market. How many times can this happen again in the future? Well, we’ve had the personal computer, the games console, and now the portable games/phone device, so I think this is probably the last time we’ll see back bedroom projects back in the mainstream.

The “Indie” scene is a new buzz word but is more of a resurgence than a new thing. Would you like to see an element of the “underground” nature return to gaming & music in games?
I don’t think it ever truly went away. It’s true that the demo scene used to be huge back in the late Commodore 64/early Amiga days. But it sort of fizzled out a bit when PCs with varying hardware specifications became the platform of choice. There was less challenge, and the only thing you could realistically restrict was the memory used for a demo. I’d like to see more variety in gaming, and I’m pretty sure that with better software selection tools the Android and iPhone apps. market could be a good leapfrog for underground groups.

What existing game, apart from one of your own, do you wish you had scored?
World of Warcraft. That game is epic, and I’d have loved to been a part of it. They still create expansion packs from time to time, so if anyone out there from Blizzard is reading this, don’t be shy! ;O)

The original “Doom”. I would have enjoyed scoring that game…I wasn’t keen on the music, from a theme point of view (sorry, Robert Prince) and because it used General MIDI. I have a personal disliking for Sound Card General MIDI, well apart from the dim and distant Gravis UltraSound card which had a pretty good implementation.

Who, with in the industry (music or videogame), do you respect and wish you had/hope to work with?
Choosing just a few names is tricky. There are far too many people I admire and respect in both industries. As a result of various projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been lucky enough to meet or speak to the heads of record labels, famous musicians, producers and many gaming heroes over the years… it’s been quite a journey so far.

Who would I love to work with, or at least have a few hours with? That might be an easier question. I’d love to have studio sessions with Vince Clarke, J.M. Jarre, Howard Jones, Daft Punk and John Williams.

Do you still play games now? If so what genres and what titles excite you most? What are you looking forward to in the next 3 – 6 months?
I find I’m playing games less and less. Actually, that’s not quite right… I guess I’m playing fewer games but for longer periods of time. I got totally addicted to WoW, and that took up lots of my time. World of Goo got me hooked for ages too. I’m looking forward to Uncharted 2. In terms of genre, I’m not picky… any genre can grab me. I also get to play lots of Raving Rabids and Buzz! games with my family. My son is looking forward to Rabbids Go Home, so I’m sure I’ll be playing that over Christmas!

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get in to the industry and work in your field of experience?
Getting into writing music for games is all about luck or persistence. You either happen to get a producer that likes your work and has the authority to get you onboard, or you badger, cajole and otherwise coerce people whilst battering them with demo CD after demo CD or MP3 USB stick or download link.

Do you have to be brilliant? Not really. You simply have to be flavour of the month with the designer or producer working on the game. Will qualifications on paper get you a gig? I doubt it. If people like your music, that’s usually it. Other key attributes are; flexibility, humility, confidence and reliability. Oh, and don’t give away your music for free… going from “here, have it for free – I just want to be on your game” to “OK, enough now – pay me some money” can be very tough. Hang in there, and charge a sensible fee!

What projects are you currently working on and when do you envisage we will see them come to fruition?
I’ve [composed] the music for a PS3(PSN)/PSP game called “Gravity Crash”.   There will also be an MP3 download album available soon after the game is released – keep an eye out at coldtorage.bandcamp.com for that one.

I’m part way through writing music for a children’s nursery rhyme game. I also did the voice over too, which is something I’ve never done before. The music is very much ‘kiddy-fun’ orchestral.

The latest in the Amiga Immortal series will be launching soon, and I’ve contributed another track again. I can’t tell you from which Amiga game, as I believe it may still be hush-hush! More on “Amiga Immortal 4” here – www.amiga-immortal.com.

I’m part way through creating a Wipeout compilation album. It will feature all the tracks I’ve contributed to the series, along with new remixes and possibly some guest remixes too (tbc). This is looking like being a first quarter 2010 release with any luck.

There are some other games in the planning stages that I’ve been asked to work on. So I’m very much working in the field these days after a year or two away from it all, while I was concentrating on Tantrumedia Limited and creating “eJay” products for the now sadly defunct Empire Interactive.

My parting words
Thanks to all my fans for their continuing support! Keep up with my happenings on Twitter & Facebook – just pop over to www.coldstorage.org.uk for all the links. Loved and thanks to my ever suffering wife, and to family and friends who have helped me so much along the way.

Many thanks to Tim for his time and insight.  Well folks that is all we have this week but stick around because next week, to coincide with the release of Alien Breed on XBLA, Martyn Brown of Team 17 will be our guest for VGH101.

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Zeth is our EU Senior Editor and has been writing about video games since he joined BG back in 2008. He's pretty old and has been a gamer since he played Space Invaders as a young boy in the 80's. His genre tastes lean towards platformers, point-and-click adventure, action-adventure and shooters but he'll turn his hand to anything.
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