Making a Great Game Soundtrack on a Budget

In an ideal world, we would have a stable, reliable source of funding for our games - perhaps in the form of a publisher, venture capitalists, or a successful Kickstarter campaign. But, the truth is that most of us indie devs are self-funding our projects out of pocket, with the goal of earning back our investment (and hopefully more) through game sales. In the business world, this practice is known as "bootstrapping".


And as bootstrappers, it isn't always possible for us to commission our dream soundtracks. The good news is that there are still options for devs on a budget ! Here are a few ways to


Offer an Alternative Compensation Model

If you don't have the funds to pay for custom music upfront, consider offering an alternative form of compensation. A common way of doing this in the indie game industry is profit sharing - a contract in which the composer is entitled to a percentage of net sales. You can also barter services to provide value to one another. More on these two compensation models below:


Profit Sharing

Profit sharing deals are not for everyone - it works best if you are able to find a composer whose work style, personality, and goals resonate with what your game stands for. Working with these composers often yields extremely strong long-term collaborative relationships.


When entering into a profit sharing agreement, remember that the composer is the one taking the risk - they’re taking on unpaid work in hopes of being paid later. Their success hinges on your ability to finish your game and market it well; so, plan and manage your project well! (I’ll write another blog about this in the future.)


Bartering Your Services

Many game composers have creative projects outside of audio production - some are also solo game developers, YouTubers, streamers, and so on. Some may need artistic services for their music albums, videos, or other media projects. If you have any skills that may be relevant for the right composer, see if they would be open to trading services.

 

And just as a gentle reminder: “Exposure” alone is not a form of compensation!


Consider a Non-Exclusive License

Non-exclusivity, in a nutshell, means that the composer retains the intellectual rights over the music. Composers are often open to negotiating lower rates for their services if they are able to retain these rights. Be transparent with each other, and you may find that a non-exclusive license is just what your project needs.


Work With a Royalty Free Music Curator

The main weakness of stock / royalty-free music is not that it is low quality - it’s that you miss out on building thematic consistency and brand uniqueness. While we can’t do much about the latter, a composer with a discerning ear can definitely build thematic consistency out of royalty free tracks.

 

Some composers may be open to helping you curate royalty free music for your game, and many have impressive royalty free libraries of their own - if you intend to replace your game’s royalty free tracks with original music later, hiring a composer as a music curator is a great way to get a working relationship started! Which leads us to our next point…

 

Use Royalty Free Music Now, and Replace it Later

This strategy is well-suited for games that are in the beta or Early Access stage, but there’s certainly no shame in launching with a royalty free soundtrack. One of my most successful clients (who at the time of this writing can’t be named) launched their game series with a completely royalty-free soundtrack, and later sought my services to completely re-score the entire game after they had built a dedicated community around their product.

 

Commission Only What You Need

For many of us, it would be a dream to have a 2 hour-long original soundtrack for your epic adventure RPG. But if you’re operating under a strict budget, consider commissioning custom music for only the most important moments in your game, and use royalty free tracks for the rest. Any working composer would be more than happy to consult with you to help identify the essential points where original, thematic, and on-brand music would be most beneficial to your player’s experience. Here are a few examples:

The main theme.

The battle theme or boss battle theme.

A vocal theme song, which could be related to the main theme.

A cinematic track for marketing purposes.

 

In Closing...

The barrier to entry to becoming a composer is as low as it’s ever been, leaving game developers with a vast array of options at all budget levels. Whether you decide to work with a composer to develop a completely original soundtrack, or make use of royalty free music, it ultimately all comes down to how you plan and execute the development of your game.


Image sauce: Aqua from "Konosuba", because even goddesses go through financial struggles sometimes.


About The Author

Darrell “Dibur” Reconose is a professional composer and sound designer with a fascination for engaging storytelling. He has composed music for award-winning indie games, and is passionate about sharing his love and knowledge of both audio and storytelling with the game development community. Feel free to get in touch for work inquiries or general game audio questions!