Music can easily convey feelings and information that graphics and text can't or shouldn't. Appropriate music and sound, employed effectively, will make your island platformer more jaunty, your subarctic wasteland more desolate and your army of forty-legged robots incomparably evil.
Imagine the scene.
Your player has just hit the spider boss between the eyes with a well-aimed rocket. It screeches and falls from the ceiling of the tunnel, crashing in front of the player. The music falls from a thumping beat to a clear silence. The enemy stops twitching and stiffens. The player leaps over it and runs towards the exit, the new upgrade clearly in sight, the final key…
BOOM! A deep bass drum resonates.
You can almost hear the gulp from here.
Music's importance in mainstream games is now widely-recognised, but in terms of indie games it still seems to be an afterthought in some cases. Here's why that should change.
Make it enjoyable
Every aspect of your game should be carefully planned to ensure the player will find it appealing and enjoyable. If your music is repetitive or unsuitable, you can be sure they'll switch it off as soon as possible.
No matter what kind of game you're developing or playing, good music is highly important. Think of any genre and there's a classic game with a great tune attached:
Puzzle - Tetris. Chances are you know it and like it.
Platform - Sonic or Mario. Green Hill Zone and the Overworld theme are two of the most famous pieces of music for any game, widely recognised and admired.
Racing - OutRun. I can say no more.
Good music will genuinely elevate the quality of your game if it's suitable, memorable and enjoyable. You work hard on making the rest of your game those things, so why not the music?
Don't waste chances
Unless you're developing for a system that includes rumble or force feedback, indie games only use two senses: sight and sound. Not maximising those senses is a waste, and severely limits the impact of your game.
Try playing your favourite game, indie or otherwise, with the music off. Does it feel different? I always feel much less interested in a game without music; there seems to be no mood, and I can hear my brain thinking "this isn't any good." It's okay, you can put the music back on now. Much better, isn't it?
"I can't do it!"
You don't have to. Hiring and collaborating with musicians over the Internet is easy; you send them artwork and they send you music. You send them money and they send you thanks. It's straightforward, the quality of music will be much higher and it leaves you with the other nine billion jobs to take care of.
The key to good music in games is…
Not to waste it. Use suitable music for the mood you want to achieve and your player will become much more involved and, as a result, enjoy themselves so much more. Seeing as that's your business, you owe it to everyone to put great music in your games.
James Newton is a writer and musician from York, England. He has written music for several independent films and documentaries, and has also created tracks for several games. You can listen to his work and read his thoughts on games and more at Prosody.co.uk.