Neal Acree

1) NEAL, WORLD OF WARCRAFT IS A WILDLY POPULAR GAME TITLE. DO YOU FEEL ANY PRESSURE WHEN YOU ARE INVOLVED IN A HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE SUCH AS THAT? HOW DID THE TEAM APPROACH THE SCORE?

Blizzard’s fans are some of the most passionate and loyal fans in all of pop culture so working on a title as beloved as World of Warcraft is not only a huge honor but a huge responsibility as well. The fans have lived these stories and loved these characters for over 20 years now so getting to be a part of that legacy is truly humbling. But rather than focus on the millions of people that will hear the music, I focus on the individual experience and try to create something emotionally engaging. The only way I know how to do that is to write something that moves me emotionally. To that end, melody is king.Blizzard audio director Russell Brower is not only a brilliant composer but a masterful architect behind the team created score of World of Warcraft. He trusts his composers and gives us the freedom to find something special, something only we could write. He casts us for our strengths but allows us to tell stories through music that we’ve never been given the opportunity to tell. I’ve dealt with my fair share of temp scores and while they do have their use as a communication tool, it’s wonderful to be able to explore and create without those limitations.

2) YOU HAVE BEEN WORKING AS AN INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR WITH BLIZZARD FOR OVER A DECADE NOW. WHAT DO MAJOR GAME DEVELOPERS LOOK FOR IN A COMPOSER? ARE HIRING DECISIONS BASED PURELY ON TALENT?

Mine is not a typical story as I crossed over from the film and TV side of things directly to one of the top games in the world without any previous experience in the industry. Opportunities like this are “once in a career” at best and I’m grateful that I was prepared when this one found me. At that point (10 years ago) I had scored 20 feature films and was a co-composer on the Stargate SG-1 TV series but even at the time that wasn’t enough on it’s own. I did my research and wrote the best demo I could and I’m extremely fortunate that it resonated with them. While talent is certainly a factor, I honestly think it’s more of a prerequisite than anything. As for what major developers are looking for, it’s not unlike what film studios are looking for. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the subject but if I had to break it down, I’d say it’s often one (or a combination of) these 3 main factors:

a) Credits/Experience. Much like the film and television industries, having credits in each respective field goes a long way. And much like the film and television industries, these credits do not necessarily translate to other industries. These are built up over years of hard work and might mean starting from the bottom if you’re transitioning from another industry or just starting out.

b) A Unique Voice. Much like other industries the game industry favors a unique and fresh new musical voice. Experimentation is encouraged and the new and different are celebrated. Versatility is important as well, though. If you can adapt easily to new styles but also maintain a unique sound of your own then you are on the right track.

c) Reputation. There have been an increasing amount of top Hollywood film composers scoring games and while some might view this as “name recognition” it really comes down to composers who have proven themselves in their respective industries and whose voices are unmistakably their own. Budgets have allowed for a much wider range of choices and with the unique voices and extensive track record these composers come along with, why wouldn’t developers want to work with them? Reputation is also a factor amongst game composers. It’s not just about how many games you’ve worked on, it’s about the reputation you’ve built while doing so.

As with any other industry relationships are a factor as well but for the examples above I’m specifically talking about work gained from new clients. The question people might be asking, though is “How do I go from no credits in the game industry to having experience and a reputation in the industry? The truth is you have to be willing to start small and find projects where the developers are more concerned with having music in their game at all than who will be doing it. Or projects that friends recommend you for. Even then you might be competing with others starting out but your chances are better than trying to jump in at the top. Expanding your list of credits is the same as any other industry, do consistently good work, nurture relationships and be easy to work with.

If you have a unique voice then you have to make sure it gets heard by the right people. If you’re waiting around for the game industry to call you because you’re such a great composer than you might want to consider checking your ego at the door because starting in a new industry means building a whole new network of potential clients.
Another question people ask is, “Do I have to be a gamer to write for games?” While most of the game composers I know are gamers (myself included) I do know some that aren’t. It is important to understand the medium and industry that you work in, though. Imagine writing music for film without ever having seen a movie. While film and game music can often be interchangeable it is important to know the different ways in which they are experienced and implemented.

3) MANY OF YOUR SCORES UTILIZE TRADITIONAL ASIAN INSTRUMENTS AND EXOTIC SCALES. IS THERE A FAIR AMOUNT OF RESEARCH INVOLVED?

It’s funny that it ended up that way because I never studied Asian music. I seem to recall that when I first had the chance to write some on the World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria score the style came fairly naturally to me. I can only assume that growing up around a lot of Asian cinema through my father’s love of the culture rubbed off on me. But yes, there is a lot of research involved.The ultimate test was three years ago or so when I was hired to write a Chinese score for the Chinese market called Revelation. It was the first large scale game score I had done on my own and it was one of the first scores written by an American for a Chinese game company. A lot of research went into that one but the ultimate compliment came when Chinese gamers started saying that they were surprised that it wasn’t a Chinese composer that had written the score. I have since written a few more scores like that and each time I try to dig deeper into what gives the music it’s cultural identity.

4) BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE, WOULD YOU AGREE THAT CONCERTS OF GAMES/MEDIA MUSIC ARE BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR?

Absolutely.  Tommy Tallarico has been leading the charge of bringing game music to the stage with Video Games Live for years but it seems like live film scores and media concerts are becoming an almost weekly occurrence in some cities. I think it’s wonderful that people young and old are getting their first exposure to the symphony through live game and film music.
I think there is a tendency for some of us to underestimate the popularity of games and game music in the younger generation. Even I did at first despite growing up with games. It wasn’t until I got to guest conduct a few of the international game music concerts that I got to see how far of a reach game music had and how much people love it. Game music is the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives so it’s no surprise that there are more and more concerts. While some people are still thinking game music is a bunch of beeps and boops, it’s busy seeping into pop culture and breaking new ground in music.
From the film music side of things we are seeing game music grow in popularity and acceptance amongst film music critics but from the game music side of things it’s already deeply entrenched in pop culture. It’s easy to miss this from the “other side” but I think it’s important not to.

5) YOU COMPOSE FOR FILMS, TV, VIDEO GAMES. IS THERE A MEDIUM THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO EXPLORE IN THE FUTURE, SOMETHING THAT YOU HAVE NOT DONE YET?

When I started out almost 20 years ago I wanted to be a film composer. Everything I’ve done since then has been the result of walking through doors when opportunities presented themselves or creating my own opportunities to make music wherever I could. I never set out to be a video game composer but in retrospect the path was inevitable and I have since fallen in love with the industry and the medium. Every medium has its own charms and challenges so I’m grateful that I’ve been able to explore as many of them as I have.In recent years I have had the enviable problem of being too busy working to do much writing on my own. I do from time to time but my non-work creative outlets tend to be on the visual arts side as that was my background before music. One of these days I’ll finish the album of electronic music I started a few years ago but in the mean time, I’m doing my best to stay sane in a field that can often challenge that.
I guess that’s a long way of saying that I don’t have anything specific that I’m dreaming of doing but I’m always interested in new opportunities to create and collaborate.