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MMOWTF: What's the Score? Music in MMOs

MMORPG.com's own Dan Fortier uses his weekly column to discuss the use music in MMORPGs.

What’s the Score? Music in MMOs

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

There are elements of a game that are rarely given notice in the feature list and overlooked by players engrossed in the obvious content of most MMOs. One of these unappreciated elements is the game’s musical score. It works behind the scenes to immerse or annoy us, depending on its quality. When used properly and aesthetically it can turn a well designed game into a masterpiece and can inversely mar an otherwise enjoyable product. This week I’m going to go a little soft as I explain some of the reasons why music is underrated and not given the attention it deserves especially in the MMO genre. Get a healthy supply of Compazine so we can get this little one man opera started!

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When compared to the fantastic soundtracks of single player games such as The Elder Scrolls and Homeworld, most of the music presented in the modern MMO pales in comparison. Why is quality so much lower for games that players spend more time in than any other? While that cheery symphony in Freeport might sound great the first two hundred hours you spend there, it likely to be less pleasing the next thousand times you hear it. It seems unless a game is being produced by one of the MMO dynasties, the musical score and sound effects are added almost as an afterthought, just to know when you hit a monster or zoned to a new location.

One of the main reasons that the music of MMOs is so overlooked is because the focus of the game is so visual. You can check your Health and Mana at a glance. Sounds effects usually follow an attack or spell rather than being a precursor. Any kind of background noise is seen as a distraction rather than an aid. How can you hear your Guildmates talking over Teamspeak with an annoying soundtrack playing in your ear? Why listen to some crummy score when you can rock out to your own mp3 or an internet radio station?  More than any other community we seem to view every feature in the light of pluses and minuses and if a feature doesn’t give us a tactical advantage then what good is it?

Not all MMO gamers look at things this way and I’d bet there are still a fair amount of Role Players who wholeheartedly enjoy the extra bit of immersion provided by a stirring and well composed soundtrack. While I would have to admit I’m not quite as interested in music’s ability to make a world seem more real, it can definitely serve a purpose for even the most jaded players. I have always enjoyed a soundtrack that was actually designed to use the correct song for the current situation. While a Heavy Metal or Flight of the Valkyries type crescendo would be grossly irritating while crafting, it would enhance the thrill of fighting in an epic siege battle by a large degree.

Despite the views of both of these camps, the real reason music is such a disregarded feature is more likely one of simple time management/economics. The work of creating a musical score exclusively for an MMO is prohibitive to all but the most well funded studios. Even incorporating already existing scores into a game properly is time consuming work that usually must be done by specialized developers. With the modern day focus on “Content is King” it could be that music doesn’t seem to deliver enough bang for the buck. Given that a decent portion of their players will probably mute the sound, developers are simply responding to consumer habits. Will the VOIP and custom track trends spell the end of truly original and enthralling music in future MMOs? I certainly hope not.

It was an amusing little tryst while it lasted, but now the masochist in me wants to hear your take on the subject. As usual the end is the best part of my column so bask in the sun until next week when I’ll bring another hurricane of distorted facts and opinions. Cheerio!