NACOGDOCHES, Texas – A collaborative relationship between the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Music and Southern Methodist University’s Guildhall game development program is paving the way for SFA music/composition students to be highly successful in the lucrative video game industry.
Three SFA students are teaming up with a cohort of graduate students at Guildhall to work on a project that will give them valuable real-world experience and put them in the forefront of the industry that scores music and creates sound design for video games.
The project includes students Caleb Guevara, a senior composition major from Houston; Daniel Cooper, distance graduate student majoring in theory-composition from Hilton, New York; and Travis Wattigney, recently-graduated composition major from Fort Worth who was also a College of Fine Arts Dean’s Circle award winner in music.
The collaboration came about through the efforts of Mason Lieberman, SFA music composition graduate and an adjunct music instructor for SFA, and Dr. Stephen Lias, professor of composition in the School of Music. SFA has been working to build its capacity to train composers to score video games over the past few years, and that goal is being met largely due to Lieberman, according to Lias. Lieberman developed specialized classes for SFA and teaches them remotely from California where he works as senior game audio specialist for Tencent, which is considered to be the world’s largest video game vendor.
“A year ago, Mason and I met with the folks at SMU’s Guildhall game development program about the possibility of our students teaming up with their game development teams,” Lias said. “Guildhall is a powerhouse program with deep industry partnerships and international reputation, so our goal was to create a pipeline for our students to work with theirs once Mason’s classes give them the necessary preparation.”
The Guildhall was established in 2003 as a premier graduate-level video game development education program in the United States. It was created at the request of the game development industry to train its future leaders, according to information at smu.edu/Guildhall.
As the senior game audio coordinator for Tencent in the U.S., Lieberman solves audio problems and helps manage the department in pursuit of various company goals to “make sure we’re creating the best music, sound and voice-over possible,” he said. His duties can range from hiring special guest artists for projects and managing studio sessions to designing recording studio facilities and negotiating licensing deals, among many other responsibilities.
“All of this occurs against the backdrop of the largest company in all of game development,” he added.
It was always Lieberman’s goal to work in video games. He scored his first game, a tiny mobile title called “Bounce the Block,” as a freshman at SFA. The students involved in the Guildhall project are like-minded.
“As a participant of this project, I am most looking forward to seeing the final product, and that’s a game with which I helped come to life by adding my touch through music,” Guevara said. “This type of project will more than help me stand out to companies who are looking for composers/sound designers.
“Because of my young age, having this kind of experience will beef up my arsenal of music that I can offer,” he said. “Video game scoring has always been a fascination of mine. One of my earliest memories is waking up early to plug-in my new GameCube that I had gotten for Christmas so that I could start playing. Staying up and just listening to the score of whatever game I was playing was a huge part of my childhood. This project is helping to me into a career that will certainly make me feel like a kid again.”
Cooper said he is looking forward to the “game development team environment.”
“I think having our compositions written and heard is the obvious thing composers are excited for, but outside of that, the team environment is most exciting for me,” he said. “This lets us experience the ‘real world’ of game development, and this project lines up with my career plans entirely.”
Cooper’s earliest influences with music came from playing video games and watching movies.
“As a kid, I think that I knew more themes from the games that I played than the popular songs on the radio,” he said. “Being able to create adaptive music that reacts with a player is such a cool experience. You have to think through every possibility that a player may encounter in a game and then ask yourself how you can encapsulate all the emotions of those moments. The uncertainty of when each change may occur and being able to write for that level of adaptability is a fun challenge! Soundtracks can make or break any moment of a game or film; accepting that responsibility is a true honor for me.”
According to Lieberman, the collaboration between SFA and SMU sets these and future composition students on the path for rewarding careers in game development. The video game industry currently makes about twice as much money as the film/TV/traditional global music industries combined, he said. The courses Lieberman now teaches for SFA were developed as part of his thesis upon completing his master’s degree at Berklee College of Music.
“My courses go straight to the heart of what it takes to become a working professional in this field,” he said. “I want my students to walk out with a firm understanding of what the real game industry is like, with a demo reel ready to go, and clearly-defined skills that will serve them well both in securing their first jobs and for years after as they begin to find their places professionally.”
Lieberman described the game development as “an innately-collaborative field.”
“It is very rare to find a major title produced only by one person,” he said. “In AAA development, teams can be in the hundreds or even thousands. Every opportunity for our students to collaborate with others is a chance to build the sort of fraternal bonds that can lead to professional development, that first gig, or even emotional growth. I think the ability to collaborate with others is perhaps the most important skill in professional music-making, and it can sometimes be one we don’t address very directly. My hope is that these types of partnerships can set a standard for how we at SFA look to teach students to reach their potentials.”
Lias said he is “exceptionally proud” of the SFA students involved in the Guildhall project.
“I know they’ll do an excellent job on the project, but I’m also very happy to see us establish this collaborative relationship with Guildhall and eager to see it grow in future semesters,” he said. “Deepest thanks to Mason for the exceptional investment he makes in our students and for helping make our composition program more relevant.”