We recently got to talk with music composers Adam Burgess and Derek Duke about the Cities & Countries album for Overwatch. The album takes the stings that play before a match starts at each map location, and extends them into full two to three minute tracks, giving a much clearer theme of the music of those locations.
Is there a difference in making music for places rooted in reality versus the fantastical locations?
Adam: There is quite a big difference. For our real world locations we tend to look a lot into the music from that region as well as traditional instruments. Everything we do we try to frame it within what we think that region would be like in the Overwatch universe, so that is also a part of it. The franchise has its sounds and we want to keep our location music rooted in that as well. So that’s the approach for the real-world locations. For our more fictional locations we often dig into the story. We’re lucky to have amazing storytellers on the Overwatch team who create lore for each map. A different background, maybe there is a character in the game that is from that region and we draw inspiration that way. Some of the fictional locations are also still in the real world, for example Junkertown is set in Australia so that was definitely an inspiration for that one. There is a bit of a difference.
How does it feel working on a new franchise and extending the songs from the level stings?
Derek: When I started on this franchise it was a chance to do something new and create music that had never been done before for Blizzard. We got to create a sound that had to be unique and different from StarCraft and Warcraft or Diablo. That was the challenge. Now that we have established a sound in those parameters, continuing to stay within those guidelines and move from that and keep bettering ourselves.
Adam: When it comes to the Cities and Countries music, all of it is taken from our map introductions and when we wrote those out for the game our intent was to make it as exciting as possible when you load into a match. So they are often very energetic, very uplifting or they provide a momentum when you load up into the game. We want people to feel excited. When it comes to the soundtrack we were able to extend all of that music. In-game it is very short, it might be between 15 and 20 seconds and we were able to extend that into two to three-minute arrangements inspired by that in-game music.
What source material or traditional music did you turn to for Numbani?
Derek: Numbani was quite an exploration and that sort of traversed through all sorts of places in ways. It stretches back through a couple of cinematics and the motion graphic story. There’s Numbani as a city and a period in several places. I have a little background in.. I studied ethnomusicology and world music and spent some time in West Africa recording music. That’s really a place that I like to dig in deep, but this of course is something different: trying to find something that is half omnic -related. Africa’s the place where the humans and the omnics were really well integrated. Trying to find a sound that merged some portion of that with African rhythms and “omnicise it” in a way that felt right and good. That’s at least what we were going for. It would take a while to go into the technical side of that, but it was a lot of exploration and we dipped into it several times cause Numbani has made its appearance throughout various cinematics.
How much freedom are you given for creating the sounds for Overwatch tracks? Are there spec documents and the like?
Adam: We work really closely with the game team. It’s a really collaborative relationship and we have a really open dialogue. We work closely with the audio director of that team as well as the creative leads of each department. There’s a lot that can go into how the music sounds. For example, when we approach something like an in-game piece of music for competitive mode there are things to consider like there are 30 seconds remaining. We have 30 seconds, what is the goal of that music? We try to think from a gameplay-related standpoint. Derek can touch on this because he was in a lot of those initial conversations but it’s definitive a collaborative relationship.
We keep open ears to everybody. Blizzard has it as a core value, which is every voice matters and we try to keep that in mind and absorb as much information as we can from different places before we write a piece of music.
What was the most difficult track to compose?
Adam: Yeah it stemmed from a cinematic, The Plan that came out around the same time. There are so many different takes on Australia you can do. I’m Australian so it was quite exciting to see an Australian map name. The music for that one was difficult because we used the cinematic as the building blocks for the cinematic. Cinematics take a lot of time to make, it take a lot of animation power We typically do a lot of revisions on the cinematics to get them as perfect as we can. There are emotional moments and jumping sounds that were fun. There was a song in the cinematic and Junkrat sings that on the Cities & Countries album. It was difficult because we had to make that moment in the cinematic read the way we wanted it to. and recreate it in the level and for the album.
What is it like composing music for a completely multiplayer game?
Adam: It makes a big difference. Competitive players can be very particular about how they want to experience the game and they want to be able to hear each game cue very clearly. We have to be observant of that with our approach to music in a game that is highly competitive. If we had put music everywhere throughout gameplay, people would automatically switch if off. because it is going to cover footsteps and the directionality of sound and it would affect their ability to play the game at a high level. It is something we keep in mind a lot. You’ll notice during gameplay that there isn’t much music and when you do hear music it is associated with something in the game and it is there to tell you a specific message. For example, when the spawn room opens there is music to alert you that the game is beginning. This is in case they miss the little VO cue or are busy shooting the basketball or whatever. There is music when you are getting close to time in case you aren’t paying attention to the timer on the screen. Composing for multiplayer is definitely different. We have to be very careful and consider those things.
Who is your favourite hero and why?
Adam: For me it has to be Junkrat. Just because I’m Australian and I just love his character so much. He’s energetic and fun. He’s also the character I play the most. There’s something about the character that makes me laugh and I think Blizzard did a great job of representing an Australian character in a fun way.
Derek: For me, it’s changed several times during the course of development. But I think its gotta be Winston. For his disposition and probably his relationship with Tracer. Tracer has been my favourite too. There is something about both of their outlooks on life. I love Winston’s ability to go through what he has been through and still overcome and his ability to bring people together. He is a great dude. Would love to meet him in person someday.
Can you talk about your instrument choices and what they bring to the music?
Adam: I think the orchestra is just a force that can harness great emotional power. You hear it through classical music, you hear it film scores and games and it is used a lot for that purpose. There are so many different colours you can explore with just the orchestra, to bring about that feeling of inspiration. I think Overwatch relies a lot on the brass section. You hear it on most tracks. This just automatically feels triumphant. Saying that though we definitely blend a lot of synthesised instruments, whether its synthesised tonal sounds or synthesised tonal sounds, that really helps sell the futuristic part of Overwatch, while also being inspirational. Synthesisers are also capable of so many different textures and sounds. Because we listened to such a wide range of music we’re inspired by so many different styles, we tried to blend things in interesting ways. I think that is part of what makes Overwatch sound like it does, we are not afraid to blend synthesisers and electronic beats with orchestra and also add traditional instruments into it. We put everything in the pot so to speak.
Derek: The orchestral element pushes the emotional buttons. It has that history. If you think back to the museum, that very first opening cinematic, we had talked about doing that moment when Tracer walked up to the boy on piano. We tried that on the synthesiser. We’re introducing this franchise it has to be modern, but there’s nothing that is going to tap into your heartstrings the same way the piano does. The piano has hundreds of years into our consciousness.