MMO Music

Last week I wrote up a summary of places online to find the soundtracks of several of the big MMO. If you like MMO music, check it out. And if you know of additional sources, please leave a comment!

While going through the process of cataloging these sources, it occurred to me, some MMO soundtracks were personally memorable … others, not so much. Eight (8!?) years on and I remember the score to Ultima Online (and can probably name the town associated with each tune). Seven years on and I remember the soundtrack of Anarchy Online.

Then, for many years, the soundtracks of MMO failed to stick. Quite honestly, I simply don’t remember there being a soundtrack for SWG. Same for City of Heroes. If I struggle, I can vaguely remember a lot of wood whistle (or some similar instrument) in the score for Bree in LotRO. This, despite the fact that the music of LotRO is awesome.

Perhaps my interests have changed. Maybe I no longer take the time to stop and just listen. Maybe I’ve had a stroke, impacting only my ability to remember MMO soundtracks. Very real possibilities, perhaps.

But I also believe that the relationship between MMO and its music has changed over the years. Here’s why I think so …

The Voices

Beginning with City of Heroes voice became an important aspect of gaming for my group.. Typically, we’d all be on a Ventrillo server, with the music and ambient sounds turned down a bit so that we can hear each other. In my case, I ran my Vent client on a second machine and wore headphones. I simply didn’t hear the sounds of City of Heroes / Villians.

Voice support is now a standard feature, cluttering the audio of MMO.

The Mental Filter

The brain is an amazing filter. Present it with a complex signal, and over time, it will learn to exclude everything that’s not relevant. I have no empirical evidence, but I think audio cues have become a more important aspect of the user interface over time.

Review the sights and sounds of combat in the video below.

Example of combat sounds in LotRO

In LotRO you need to know exactly when to trigger your attacks to maximize DPS, given execution and cool-down timers and focus point requirements. To a certain extent, my fingers have simply memorized the correct timing (after all, I’ve been doing the EXACT SAME FRICKIN SERIES OF KEY STROKES for ages). Often, rather than staring at the visual UI elements, I’m busy scanning for the next target, or watching health bars, or surfing the web on a 2nd PC. This is made possible by the wonder of audio cues.

There are sounds for when my attack begins (the sound of the bow stretching), there is a sound for the release of the arrow, there is a sound for the impact. Using these and a memory of the appropriate timing, I can keep my attacks queued.

If you listen carefully, you can hear a little sizzle sound when the arrow impacts. When that stops, I know it’s time to re-apply my fire oil. If you listen very carefully, there’s a little ding in the middle of the fight … that means I’ve attempted to use Penetrating shot and I don’t have enough focus (warning me that my timing is a bit off).

There’s a dull thud when I’m hit. My character calls out when he’s actually damaged. The Snow Beats moans when it dies, and I know to stop firing.

The critical part here is that my brain knows that the combat music is just noise … and that the combat cues are the true signal. My brain very efficiently filters out that “worthless” music.

Loudness and Balance

Notice also the volume of the combat cues. It’s much louder and drowns out the combat music. Audio cues aren’t the only element competing with the soundtrack. I think there has also been an increase in the use of ambient sounds to help set the environment.

To illustrate, let’s take a ride up towards the Last Homely House in Rivendell and listen to the beautiful music of the Elves.

The Beautiful Music of Rivendell

It’s an extreme example, but through much of Rivendell, you can barely hear the music over the roar of the various waterfalls. I think music has gotten quieter as competition for your ear (music vs audio cue vs ambient sounds) has increased.

Music as Icon

I’m not an expert in music, but I think that game music used to be more “iconic” or memorable. It had fewer instruments or voices. It had simpler more repetitive phrasing. I think this made the music more iconic … more likely to be remembered.

As an example, listen this track, the theme from Nujelm in Ultima Online. It’s simple and beautiful. Listen to it a few times and I’ll wager you’ll hear it in your head the remainder of the day.

Some of the music in LotRO (example, the theme from the Shire) also sticks in the head quite well (although, in my opinion, not as well as the music of UO).

How about this? It’s not very iconic. Does it instantly bring to mind a game? It doesn’t for me.

It seems to me that simpler, repetitive, more “iconic” music is easier for the brain to absorb. Does anyone not immediately recognize this or this?

Has the Music Died?

Today, PC’s can produce amazing sound. MMO budgets have ballooned to the point where commissioning serious composers and even major orchestras is feasible.

And yet, given the competition for your ear between the music, audio cue, ambient sound and voice, there may be no real place for the kind of soundtrack we see in blockbuster movies.

Hopefully I’m wrong. What are your thoughts? Is the MMO soundtrack getting squeezed?

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