If there's one thing that almost everyone on this planet can agree with, it's that we love music. Not the same music, mind you, but nearly everyone has a song, or a group, or a vocalist, or a musician whom they can listen to for hours and hours on end, happy as can be.
There's a reason for this. Music is the universal language.
Most of humanity is able to pull the intended emotion from a song, even if its sung in a different language, or even if the words and lyrics themselves are nonsense. Certain instruments, passages and keys convey certain feelings in nearly everyone who hears them. There have been studies done as to why this is the case and scientific links between the golden ratio (natural math, look it up, quite interesting) and music that all point to one thing - music is very closely tied to who we are as a species.
That being said, I have a question for you guys. Why are most MMO soundtracks one or more of the following: A) ignored or nonexistant, B) full of generic 15-30 second loops, C) completely devoid of even the slightest memorable piece, D) full of out of place amateur orchestra pieces or E) sound like they were composed with one or two instruments by one guy, in one day, with a gun to his/her head.
I'm really tired of booting up every new MMO, only to hear the same stock-standard music everywhere I go. With music so important to us as a culture, why don't companies put more effort into the auditory experience of their customers?
My answer? I honestly don't know. It seems to be accepted practice to include some mandatory, period-appropriate instrument in most zones of most games, even if you only hear it for a few seconds, but there is no heart, no effort put into most of it.
Fortunately though, that's not always the case. Today, I will set out my top 10 MMOs with the best music/ambience/overall audio experience, as well as a couple of my favorite tracks for the benefit of those who may not have played. Of course, your opinion may be different, but that's why this is my blog and not yours. Feel free to start your own! Community is always encouraged.
#10 - Dungeon Fighter Online
Come on now. If the music in this game doesn't get you pumped up to kick some major ass, nothing will. Perfect for a 2D beat-em-up. The only reason DFO isn't higher is because the instrument and sample quality are fairly low and the game seems to suffer slightly from "30 second loop syndrome".
#9 - Lord of the Rings Online
Turbine did a good job with LOTRO, no doubt about it. Like Dungeon Fighter Online, the game does contain a lot of "30 second loop syndrome", but the pieces are all very well done, fit their situations perfectly, and add a real sense of immersion to the game. Plus, lets not forget the ability to compose your own music using the LOTRO music system.
#8 - Fantasy Earth Zero
Sadly, the game is no more. Useless company, GamepotUSA, shut it down far too soon. An amazing game concept ruined by a terrible host and some latency problems that they absolutely refused to address or fix. I still wish a competent host would pick this one up again. The soundtrack is a large part of that too. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy Tactics/Final Fantasy XII), the music has everything you'd expect from a veteran composer of a series notorious for its incredible music.
The pieces are orchestral or piano based, depending on the circumstances and fit the game extremely well, whether it be lazily beating on monsters in a field, or in the midst of a hard-fought, contested pvp war with another nation.
#7 - World of Warcraft
WoW is really hit and miss for music. On the one hand you have some incredible orchestral pieces like the above, Lament of the Highborne, some of the trailer music and a good portion of the dungeon music. On the other hand, you have a pretty much endless supply of boring, uninspired, 20-30 second loops that rear their head once every few minutes and then fade into obscurity. The problem with Blizzard's music is that they aren't able to compose in anything but SUPER EPIC ULTRA 300 PIECE ORCHESTRA STYLE, and a lot of areas suffer for that because they just aren't suited for it.
That being said, there is still a lot to love about WoW's soundtrack, and Blizzard clearly puts more effort into it than the vast majority of other companies out there.
#6 - S4 League
To be honest, I didn't know what to do with S4 League on this list. Personally, I love the soundtrack. I think it's the best OST for an MMO shooter ever, but it's a bit on the obscure side. Many of the songs are vocal techno/trance, and there's also a song that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Power Rangers. In short, it's quirky but incredibly effective. Too quirky to put any higher than this though, and if you aren't a fan of, or at least tolerant of electronic music, you won't enjoy the game at all because the music is a large part of it.
#5 - Mabinogi
Ah, Mabinogi, I really wanted to love this game. I wish it had a bigger and more active community, because there really is a lot to love here, not the least of which is the incredibly awesome and old-school RPG sounding soundtrack. Everything from the turn-of-the-millenium synth that serves as the base for most of the tracks to the wide variety of themes compliments the cel-shaded anime graphics well, and serves to pull you into a celtic-inspired fantasy world as seen through eastern eyes.
From a purely technical standpoint, the music isn't all that complicated or grandiose, but listen to the samples and you'll find just a few of the songs in a memorable and extremely catchy soundtrack that handles the game very, very well. In addition, this is another game where you can compose your own music and, in my opinion, the system works even better than that used in Lord of the Rings.
What more can you ask for?
#4 - Eve Online
When I first started playing Eve Online, I had literally zero expectations for the music. There's no sound in space, after all, and I sort of expected that to be reflected in the game, but I was quite pleasantly surprised by Eve's music. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you do ambience properly. Strings and slow, building synths dominate the game. 90% of the time I didn't even realize that any music was playing until, all of a sudden, I would pause to do something and notice it in the background. I would immediately think to myself, hey this is awesome.
But the game doesn't stop at ambient, which also surprised me. I remember the first time the first sample above played when I entered an acceleration gate, I thought something had popped up in my browser window. When I realized it hadn't, I quickly wondered how badly I was about to be screwed. That's the kind of emotion you want music to convey, the perfect background, the "Oh shit." moment. Jon Hallur Haraldsson is to be commended for his job on a soundtrack that could easily have been nonexistant or dreadfully repetitive and annoying.
#3 - Atlantica Online
Another game that does an incredible job of mixing styles and instruments and setting the mood all through the game. Atlantica was the first free to play game I ever played, and one of the reasons I stuck around as long as I did was for the music. Being turn based, Atlantica could have suffered from repetition, but it avoided this by having a different track for every outdoor area, every dungeon, six different battle themes, and nearly a dozen different town themes.
The music does have an orchestral leaning, but the variety of instruments used, sample quality, and numerous styles (find me another MMO that has a Western-style shootout song in it used well) make it one of the most appealing soundtracks you could ever hope to find in a game. I could easily see this soundtrack being composed for a popular single player game and getting rave reviews and a cult following. Highly recommended... too bad the cash shop ruined the game.
#2 - Sword 2 (Granado Espada/Sword of the New World)
Sword of the New World, an average game with the distinction of being literally the only MMO I've ever KEPT playing simply for the music. Surprisingly, with a high quality score like this, the game is free to play. There is not a single bad track in this game and it has everything from eastern influences, metal, techno, violins, waltzes, piano pieces, and sometimes all of the above in the same song. Composed by the same team responsible for Ragnarok Online, the instruments and synths are all extremely high quality. This and the #1 might as well be 1a and 1b. Yes, that's how much trouble I had ordering them, and I never thought I'd say that when the following game is involved:
#1 - Final Fantasy XI
Samples - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p84MwUCJtNo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHGUmnrkYi8 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq87fRPXwLg and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvSoMqccyyM and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsLkGEDwLLc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6Q3GMCPJQM
This shouldn't surprise anyone. Although Squaresoft is gone and Square-Enix fades progressively more with each release, over the years they have employed countless top of the line composers (Nobuo Uematsu, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Yasunori Mitsuda and now Naoshi Mizuda) and are responsible for hours upon hours of my favorite game music ever. FFXI is no exception, and when you consider that the game itself is responsible for stealing 4 years of my life, longer than any other MMO, you can imagine the memories that go with the music in this game.
Perhaps you might say that nostalgia colors my view, but I don't think so. The game has quite possibly the most tracks of any MMO OST ever, and there's not a bad one in the bunch. From the atmospheric, to the mysterious, to the edge of your seat battles, FFXI represents the pinnacle and standard for music in an MMO. I have gone to zones and fought battles again and again simply to hear the music in that particular area, even though I've had nothing to do in it. Composed mainly by Naoshi Mizuta with Nobuo Uematsu coming out of 'retirement' to handle a few tracks, there is very little to find fault with in this soundtrack.
The only flaw would be the occasional zone without music, but SE has said that this was done intentionally in many cases to add to the mood in the game. When you go through a game listening to beautiful music, only to run into a zone that doesn't have any, you wonder why, what's special about this area that makes it silent.
And there you have it. Maybe you're a music lover and have found a new game to try, maybe you've found a new track to listen to, or maybe just a new perspective on MMOs. Whatever the case, music should be a prominent part of any triple A title released, and not an afterthought the developers feel like they can half-ass.