Tools Envy: How music making tools balance discovery and creation
Jonathan Blow articulated in a Gamasutra article about games that designed itself. And if we simply listened to the games we create we may discover something new. However, I have to disagree with one of his final statements on the matter.
“As games designers this is a power that people working in other mediums don’t have,”
Unfortunately Mr. Blow, electronic musicians have us trumped on this one and I believe it has something to do with the way their tools are designed. Making music is not the same as making a game but if we can take some cues from the way their tools function and what the workflow is then maybe we can embark on more journeys and listen to what the game is trying to tell us.
I’d like to kick things off with a walk-through of one of my favorite music making tools: Ableton Live.
Ableton Live's session view. A non-linear way of creating and arranging music, it's meant to be played with!
Ableton Live is about making music on the fly. It allows the musician to take a short musical phrase (a loop) and layer effects on it, rearrange the note sequence, even mangle the loop altogether in realtime. Ableton comes with a variety of pre-made loops in different genres or you can create a short one yourself using the various instruments it has. Initiating the process is as simple as dragging a short loop into the song environment or recording a 4 bar sequence.
Loops can be altered by layering different effects and devices
With the loop playing in realtime the musician can begin to make adjustments, listening to how each change affects the vibe of the short phrase. In time that simple musical loop becomes something completely different. It is likely that musicians who use Ableton Live resign themselves to the fact that the song in their head may not be the song they eventually end up with. By working on a small loop and making tweaks on the fly the musician discovers new directions their initial idea can take. Ableton Live is a tool that facilitates a conversation between the musician and the music. As the user adds, subtracts, and rearranges the music talks back revealing new personalities that the musician can choose to exploit.
Liine's GRIID app for the iPad allows users to remotely control their live set. Here we can see how big Live sets can get. Each colored bar represents one loop.
Multiply this simple loop interaction in an Ableton Live scene that can contain hundreds of loops and you have all the ingredients of a song. Launching and tweaking these loops on the fly (while keeping the song quantized so all things are launched on tempo) empowers the musician to discover the song. From my own experience with the software it feels very liberating. I don’t have to compose on a timeline, I just launch or stop one or many loops at a time and listen to the composition as it evolves and react accordingly.
Madeon – Pop Culture. Composition on the fly
The makers of Ableton Live consider the program a musical instrument that is meant to be played with. Because it allows users to hear results on a small-scale (the loop) discovery and creation go hand in hand. There is enjoyment in the process of creation.
What if our tools worked more like Ableton Live?
We have gameplay genres that have a bedrock of mechanics that define it. These could be the equivalent of the loops in Ableton that we can use as a starting point for our game. Could we take them into an environment, record a short phrase using human input, press play, and watch it execute on-screen? By manipulating that short gameplay loop we can discover as we create. Like music, we would layer in dynamics, or effects, add or subtract elements in realtime and watch that simple mechanical loop evolve into something we may not have intended. Discovering the game as we create.
Take something as simple as a driving mechanic. At its core the player would have control over steering, braking, and acceleration. We have a small track where the player drives in an oval loop. What would happen if you changed the dynamics of the controls while this loop was playing? Adjust the acceleration speed, make the steering tighter, disabled the brakes, add things to avoid and things to pick up in realtime. What are the things we may infer using tools that facilitate this as opposed to a workflow that has us stopping the game, making adjustments (that could take a few minutes), and running the game to see the results? There are precious moments of discovery that are lost in between these steps.
There’s a difference between playing with tools and using them. Ableton Live turned the traditional music creation tool into a playable musical instrument. This workflow has changed the way musicians create in a very profound way. Game developers have amazingly powerful and accessible tools. I hope that they continue to evolve, become instruments of play as much as they are tools for creation.