AudioExclusive Interviews

Nicolas Diteriks and They Are Billions: Making Music Part of the Gameplay

April 9, 2018 — by Catherine Quinton


AudioExclusive Interviews

Nicolas Diteriks and They Are Billions: Making Music Part of the Gameplay

April 9, 2018 — by Catherine Quinton

Nicolas Diteriks is the composer who created the music for Numantian Games 2017 game, They Are Billions. Nicolas had worked earlier with Numantian Games in 2013/2014 when they were developing Lords of Xulima. At the time, Numantian Games was doing an Indiegogo campaign; Nicolas noticed the project and sent them a demo-reel, asking if they needed a composer.

When asked about the proudest moment of his career, Nicolas says landing the job of composing for The Lords of Xulima is right at the top. (And, of course, so is the first time he went to record with a live orchestra.) The Lords of Xulima project went so well that Numantian Games invited Nicolas back to work on They Are Billions.

Never Stop Learning

Nicolas’ favorite thing about his work is that you never stop learning. He says, “You are always a student and will never graduate. It’s an amazing feeling and it keeps your mind sharp and young.”

Nicolas grew up in a very musical and creative environment. His family included professional and amateur musicians, his school friends were also musicians and he was in bands. And he has always been passionate about video games. So it is not surprising to find him creating the music for games now; his career evolved naturally from the love of both games and music. As he says, “I didn’t ask myself too many questions like: What shall I do with my life? Or What’s the best career path for me? I just went with the flow and ended up being a composer.”

Music for a Different Dimension

Before working in video games, Nicolas composed music for many TV documentaries, short films, etc. and has found it quite different to compose for these linear media, with everything set in time. Games have a deeper level, almost a different dimension; instead of going simply right to left, you can also go up, down, left, right, even diagonally. He says, “That’s what I love about it.” He also is fascinated by the fact that the music in games is interactive.

The inspiration for Nicolas’ music comes from everything and everywhere. “Creative people are like sponges,” he claims. “They absorb everything they hear or see; they integrate it and make it their own.” So every experience is a springboard for inspiration.

Nicolas’ creative process for games begins with thinking about the gameplay. That must always be paramount. His first question is “How can the music be part of it?” Then it’s time to start composing. He thinks about the piece first, before using the computer. He wants a clear vision of what he is going to do and to hear it in his mind. He emphasizes, “Inner listening is an essential skill to have and to work on.” Only then does he start writing and recording.

A Gameplay Element

The most challenging aspect of composing music for games is making the music part of the gameplay as much as possible. Nicolas points out that this is always a big design and technical challenge, especially if the technology is limited. But this is only makes it more interesting. Nicolas thinks of the music as a gameplay element rather than an illustrative element. And the rewards come through playing the game when the music works as intended.

Creative blocks naturally occur during the process, but this is completely normal according to Nicolas. When it happens he takes a break to think about it and then gets back to work. In his experience, the solution rarely pops out of nowhere, but you have to clear your mind and keep working on it.

Finding the Right Tone

Creating the music for They Are Billions was a particularly challenging in finding the right tone. This is a zombie game that isn’t scary, but also isn’t cartoony. Its steampunk world isn’t stuffy, but it is dirty and noisy, so anything like chamber music would be totally out of place. At the end it is huge in scale, so Nicolas decided to use a large, bombastic orchestra that would reflect the scale and mix it with metallic sounds like anvils clunking and gears grinding to reflect the steampunk aspect of the game. The music had to be fun, epic and dark all at the same time. Quite a task!

Nicolas suggests that the music in games today could be improved with more focus on the mix. It is very difficult to mix a game. Everything is interactive, spatializing changes all the time, and there are other challenges. Most of the time the people doing it don’t have the skills or experience to do it really well. The results are not bad, but they are not as good as they could be compared to media such as movies. Usually games are mixed by in-house sound designers, but this isn’t their area of expertise. Nicolas says, “I’ve played a few games recently that were mixed by experienced mixing engineers, and it made all the difference.”

Music that Encourages Players to Play

The music and audio is critical to the success of a game. It sets the mood, underlines the story. And it gives feedback to players, providing hints on their progress, rewards when they win. Nicolas says that casino games use sound to accentuate the addiction and is a big part of keeping players coming back to play again. The same principles can be applied to regular games. These were principles he used in They Are Billions because it is a difficult game where players lose often. Nicolas wanted the music to encourage players to want to try again and again and again.

When working to make sure the music fits the game, Nicolas always thinks gameplay first. “A game score shouldn’t be defined by its style,” he insists, “but by how it works with the game, how it functions. You can totally do an electronic score for a high fantasy world. As long as the music works well with the gameplay, it’s a win.” He points out that it is important to take the setting into consideration, but to fit the score to the game as well as possible, start with the essence of what makes a video game, the game play. Then move on to the genre.

As part of the process of composing the score for a game, Nicolas spends a lot of time listening to the developers. The discussions help him think about what he should do with the score and he enjoys the collaborative nature of the project. “We’re making a product together rather than each one in its own corner.”

Developers and Composers Collaborating

However, he does emphasize that developers should not try to speak in the language of musicians. Developers should talk about the code, gameplay, engine, mood, goals, function, storytelling. But unless they are musicians, they should avoid using musical terms; otherwise there may be a lot of misunderstanding. Working together then becomes very confusing and they won’t get the result they want. Instead, Nicolas recommends trusting the composer.

Developers will be able to work more effectively with composers if they recognize that composers can be as involved in the production as a programmer, according to Nicolas, especially if the music is deeply interactive. Working with a composer can definitely go beyond providing a two minute loop for a particular level. However, he insists, “The composers have to make the effort of going out of their comfort zones and get their hands dirty!”

Something composers need to communicate to developers in order to work effectively on a project is that they must have access to interactive music tools during production; either commercial tools or those developed in-house. Nicolas believes it makes all the difference when composers can design the music system themselves. “That’s what video game music is.”


Catherine Quinton

Catherine Quinton

Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.