We sat down with Hiroki Kikuta, the composer of many of our favorite game OST – including Secret of Mana, Soul Caliber V, Soukaigi, Koudelka, Shining Hearts, Shining Blade, Shining Ark, and Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky. In this interview, we chat about his work on the Calm and the Fury music, which is featured in an art contest that runs until January 23rd, 2017. In addition, Kikuta shares some advice about composing for video games and game development, as well as insight into his work ethic and his inspiration. Please note that this interview was conducted in Japanese, and translated to English as closely as possible to the original to keep the expression authentic.
Q. Can you tell us how you approached making the songs in your most recent work, the Calm and the Fury?
Kikuta – I originally made the Calm and the Fury for an online game, but the setting was sort of “anything goes.” In a traditional game, you’d have a clear theme like “middle ages,”. I always aim to express the atmosphere of such a world, but not this time. There was a setting, sure, but the theme of the game was just how freely the people who played the game could express themselves. That’s why in the music, I didn’t want it to be a narrow theme – I wanted it to cheer on the players in all sorts of ways. That’s the approach I took when composing these songs.
The game was basically like a standard MMO, but it ended up being a game where the fun was changing things around. The people who show up in the game look crazy! Really. When I saw screenshots of it, I thought to myself, “This looks insane.” Not “Hey, that’s cool.” It’s this game world where the weird tastes and personalities people have deep inside just come out – a type of game where that kind of stuff is allowed. I found that very interesting. That’s why – rather than really getting focused on the setting like the game’s world – I focused on just creativity in music because I could express myself with it.
Q. RPG Maker has a side to it that lets the makers express their ideas and themes in many different ways, too. I think The Calm and The Fury be a great match with RPG Maker fans.
Kikuta – Yes. The unique setting explains why these songs don’t have much in the way of a unified theme. They’ve got more of a free flow to them. I didn’t let myself get tied down. I just explored all sorts of possibilities as I composed.
Q. Isn’t it easier to write songs when you’ve got something keeping you grounded, though? Like a commission or a specific game project?
Kikuta – I don’t think it’s a question of easy or hard to do. It’s all about the theme. Sometimes your music needs to illustrate a world, and sometimes it’s got to have a freedom to it. We’re professional composers, so making what’s requested is the core of the job. We create what’s requested, that’s it.
Q. Tell us a bit more about how you took on the job that created the material for The Calm and The Fury.
Kikuta – So there’s this game company my friend runs, Ponsbic. These were songs for an original game of theirs called Mebius Online. We didn’t know how successful of a product we could make, but we wanted to make something interesting. I mean, isn’t that fun? Instead of having this strictly established setting and story, you go, “I don’t really know what we’re doing, but let’s make something interesting. Let’s make something we like!” you know? I like those kinds of workplaces.
Q. A lot of RPG Maker users have experienced not finishing a project. They’ve run into major issues halfway through, their teams have disbanded…things like that. Do you have any advice about how they could do better, or any tips to raise their morale?
Kikuta – This probably doesn’t just relate to games, but development is kind of like a race, isn’t it? In a race, you’ve got a starting point and a goal. Running from the start to the goal and thinking “Sweet, I made it!” – that’s what the process of development is. There’s only one possibility where the development won’t end: if there’s no clear goal. It’s always easy to start, but the biggest problem most people who can’t finish a game have is that they don’t know where their end goal is.
Q. Or a situation where team members have a bunch of different goals.
Kikuta – Yeah. If everyone runs off in different directions when the race starts, it’s not going to go well.
Q. Having the same objective and a clear goal from the start is very important advice.
Kikuta – Right. If you don’t set a goal, no one’s going to reach one – or even know when they’ve reached a major milestone. In those situations, it becomes obvious that nothing’s going to get done in the end. Someone needs to raise a flag somewhere. It’s very important to start off knowing what the end goal is like.
While you’re working, people often split up – and that’s because developing that game can mean something different for each person. Team members with different tasks are going to be heading in different directions, passing each other at a different pace. So, what you need is for everyone to get together at the start and know the pros and cons for each person that’s involved. What kind of reward are you getting from developing this game, and what kind of risk are you taking?
For example, if you stick with this project for a few months, you might get money, or fame, or a future opportunity – the pros and cons are different for everyone. If those pros and cons are too different, people may get frustrated down the line. Then people will start complaining about each other. That’s why you want to make sure everyone’s on the same page – doing what’s right for them – right from the beginning. That will allow everyone come together and work hard to get the project done.
Now, a professional is going to have money in exchange for their work, so they may have a bigger advantage. But casual or fan developers won’t always have that money and the budget, making the process a lot rougher.
Q. But when we’re talking about a long-term project, don’t developers have serious setbacks and roadblocks, too? Even if they have a clear goal, everyone’s motivation can still dwindle.
Kikuta – The most important thing is not to inflate your motivation. It’ll always fall down eventually.
Q. You mean – Keep your motivation steady?
Kikuta – Exactly. Now, that can be pretty hard for an amateur/casual – so I wouldn’t demand that of them. Think of this as an absolute necessity for a professional, though.
Q. Does that mean to not get too into the work, to take a step back and look at it as you go?
Kikuta – Let’s say that I need to compose a hundred songs. There’s no way I can do that all at once, right? I’ve got to make them one by one. Now, if I experience ups and downs in motivation when I’m making them, that’s going to reflect in the music. Like, this song will be great, but that one will be lackluster. That won’t fly if you’re a professional composer. If you don’t keep everything equal and balanced and don’t have a standard of quality across all the songs you’re making, you put your client in a place they don’t want to be. That’s why – even though it’s nice to boost your motivation and get excited – you want to keep your motivation even. A low is always going to follow a high, and when that low comes, you won’t be able to do anything.
It’s like doing your summer break homework. You’ve got to do it every day at the same pace to stay productive. Especially if the project is over half a year – you’re not going to stay excited for that long. That’s why it’s most important to go to work every day with the same amount of enthusiasm and energy.
Let’s say you’re knitting a scarf. If you’re really into it one day, then just slack off while knitting the next day, you’ll end up with a lopsided scarf. Balance is essential to what we make, so we can’t let our personal feelings or energy levels interfere with that.
Q. So that’s a big difference between those who make music professionally and those who make it as a hobby?
Kikuta – I think that’s the biggest difference. Sticking to a schedule is very important.
Q. How do you feel about the direction being taken right now by people who are making music or games as a hobby? Looking at the industry, what are your thoughts and impressions?
Kikuta – Currently, I just happen to be a professional composer, but I think when it comes down to it, if you make something, you’re a creative type. I do this professionally, but I do it independently, too.
When I’m making songs for work, I create what I’m hired to create. You’ve got to fit the budget, the schedule, and get the quality right – that’s work. When I do it independently, I’m just expressing myself. With that freedom of expression as a starting point, I explore what I can create. But you really can’t go without either one.
This goes with what I said earlier, but if you work independently with no obligations, you won’t finish most of what you set out to do. That’s because one of the benefits of doing things independently is that you don’t have to finish them – something that really won’t work in the professional environment. I think not having to finish it is part of the fun. But if you want to finish something, you need to have some of that “work” mindset. What I’m trying to say is…you want to embrace both aspects of creating.
I started out doing this independently. I feel like doing things as a hobby or creating things as a way to express yourself is very fun, and I don’t want to let that go. It’s one of my core foundations. I mean, even if I say I’m a professional, if I lose that self-expression, the songs I finish won’t have soul in them. That’s why I think you’re always going to need both sides. For example, if you’re doing this alone, then I think that self-expression will work itself in somehow, but that gets a lot harder when there are more people involved in the project.
But I think it’s a lot more possible to do that nowadays – and it’s getting better. Tools have gotten cheaper, and everyone can use the same ones as the professionals do when it comes to music, art, or programming. When it comes to equipment, there’s no longer a real difference between professional and hobbyist.
Back in 1996, computers that could actually make decent CG graphics went for insane prices. They went for 15 million yen back then. A silicon graphics UNIX machine was 15 million for one, and the software ran you 2 million yen. That’s just for one machine, and you needed dozens of them. Now we’ve got tiny machines that are much, much more powerful than those. In that respect, people now have a huge advantage over people then. That’s why we’re really in an age where people can freely make whatever they want. There’s even a place to release them, isn’t there? Which means in a way, right now is something of a golden age for expression. I think there’s no way you shouldn’t take advantage of that.
Q. True, we have tools like Vocaloids, and they get up on Nico Nico Douga right away…that does happen. With pictures/art, as well. And RPG Maker is one of the tools that makes game development a lot easier, too.
Kikuta – Back before 2000, the internet was incredibly slow. Sixteen years ago, there was pretty much nothing up there. It took ages just to load pictures on websites. There was nothing there sixteen years ago. But now, there’s everything. That’s an enormous difference! I think to start, you’ve really got to understand just how much of a content abundance there is.
Q. You’re right. We’re in the age where creative types have a lot of opportunities. On the other hand, it makes you wonder what will happen if this kind of growth continues.
Kikuta – That’s already happening. If you look at Pixiv, you’ll see how good everyone’s pictures are. There’s a ridiculous amount of incredibly good art that just came out of nowhere. That’s the horror of competition. I can’t think of any way to stand out from that crowd, and that’s terrifying.
Q. Since there are more outlets for expression and talented people can easily use all sorts of tools, competition’s gotten very fierce.
Kikuta – Incredibly fierce. The competition over there is just crazy, which is why I’m glad I’m not an artist. I mean, look at how many talented people there are out there now. The competition has this unbelievable pressure to it, and the people drawing aren’t just Japanese. There are a lot of Chinese artists showing up on Pixiv, and they’re really good.
Everything has changed overnight. If you’re going to create something, you’ve got to be unique. Everyone expects quality, that’s become standard – it becomes the norm fast. Everyone gets bored of “just pretty” things quickly. They’ll always gravitate to what’s different and unique.
Q. You’ve been working as a musician for 25 years. Have your ways of thinking and seeing the industry involved since you started out?
Kikuta – Well, when I started, there weren’t too many opportunities to make a living with music. I mean, don’t people normally just graduate college, join a company, and work there? Back then, anyone who didn’t do that was considered a failure. But failures can still do stuff that’s just as interesting, just as good.
I started out drawing pictures, but ultimately couldn’t make a living from it. I wanted to do something, so I figured I’d join a company and work there. It was at this point that I heard that you could make a living composing music…if you joined a game company. There wasn’t any information out about game development, so I had no idea what I was getting into. I saw a job posting and figured I might as well try applying. Back then I didn’t have many responsibilities, so I had some degree of freedom. In a way, I didn’t care how my life turned out – I didn’t worry about success.
The first place I applied to was Falcom, but I got turned down without even getting to the interview stage. I was disappointed, but I saw this company called Square and decided to apply there. And I got it! It was a complete surprise – I had no idea what kind of company Square was. I’d never even played any of their games.
I’d sent in my resume and some music I’d made on a cassette tape, but I later learned that about a hundred applications had come in.
Q. And you’re the only one of the hundred who was hired at that time?
Kikuta – Yeah.
Q. That really is something!
Q. As you made more and more songs, did your mindset change?
Kikuta – It wasn’t anything that fancy. I thought I was joining a regular company, but it wasn’t like that at all. I figured with a company, you’re a white-collar worker – someone who wears a suit, comes to work on time, does their best until quitting time, then goes home. This company didn’t follow any of those ideas. I was the only one wearing a suit.
Q. Everyone else was wearing t-shirts?
Kikuta – Yeah. When I showed up in my suit, I felt really out of place. It wasn’t like a formal company, no. It felt more like a college club, and it was fun. I understood it was a workplace I could have a lot of fun in.
Q. How many people were there at the time?
Kikuta – It was 1991, so about 40 people. Besides the management, we all fit on one floor. Everyone knew each other’s faces.
First job I did when I got there was sound effects for Romancing SaGa. There wasn’t any specialized equipment for composing. I mean, we had a synthesizer, but it wasn’t good for much. Ultimately – since we were working on a Super Nintendo title – we had to compress MIDI data into something like an MML, and no one would do it for me, so I had to do it all myself. I put in the commands myself and made it smaller and smaller…all on my own.
It didn’t take much time to compose songs, but it took a ridiculous amount of time to compress the data.
Q. Compared to then, we’ve got a lot more expressive ways to work nowadays.
Kikuta – There are a lot of options now, but I don’t think that has much to do with quality. Basically, it’s not like music has gotten good because the equipment is now better.
Q. You’ve been a part of the games industry for 25 years. What big differences do you see between then and now?
Kikuta – I don’t think there’s an absolute requirement to enter the industry anymore to be considered successful. I think our current age has taken away the need.
Q. You mean there are so many places to express yourself you don’t have to join the industry?
Kikuta – Yeah, there’s a lot of outlets for that. Before, you had specific hardware, you had target machines – like Nintendo or Playstation. If you didn’t get approval from the big companies, you wouldn’t be able to release your game.
Q. Nowadays, with Steam, a project can become a payer hit if it’s interesting enough. A developer doesn’t necessarily really need to depend on a company brand or a big publisher.
Kikuta – Since that was all you could do back then, the industry was the center of the game world. Today, since you can release things however you like, I think anything is possible.
If you’re going to do it yourself, you can’t play it safe or expect any guarantees. You’re not going to find those anywhere.
I think that’s the biggest change. There’s a place to express yourself, and the barriers to making things have lowered significantly. You can also set a situation where you’ll see a profit from your project by publishing it. Though I don’t think it’s all positive.
Q. That you don’t need to get into the industry anymore?
Kikuta – When you put it that way, “get into the industry,” I just don’t think that’s too fun. Because people just worry about that a lot. I mean, people who are happy just getting into the industry are fine with it, but actually working in the industry isn’t always fun. If you’re after something fun, I think it’s better to strike.
Q. But that means you also must take a risk…
Kikuta – Exactly. There’s risk, but there’s reward, too – which is why I think a life where you do things yourself is more fun. And I’m not talking about just work, here, I’m talking about life in general.
Q. Do you have any advice for composers who want to specialize in video game music?
Kikuta – You can’t just wrap up music composition as a single-scope skill. Music for anime has a way of being made – its own syntax and style. The same is true for movies and games. If you don’t understand that syntax and style, you won’t produce the right kind of work.
Q. In game making, I think there are developers who aren’t sure where to start studying such concepts.
Kikuta – That’s true, but what I said isn’t something you get taught – It’s something you figure out on your own.
Take anime music for example. I’ve composed for anime before, but the order comes in all at once. There’s no special request for each individual song. You need to make dozens and submit them all at once. I need to make about a hundred songs for a single anime, but the requests are vague: “Oh, give me something like X,” or, “Give me something with a Y feel.”
When I am writing songs, I need to think about how to make them easy to use. There’s no way I’ll know where they get used in the anime, right? But they’ll get used somewhere, and it’s probably to fit the picture on the screen. You’ve got three basic types anime song, then. One that starts off strong, one that ends strong, and one that really builds up to the middle. In other words, a song that really blows up when the scene opens, or one that matches the end of a scene well, or one that bursts out with a refrain when the scene switches to action.
You need three types of music. You need songs that have standout openings, songs that end cleanly, and songs with exciting climaxes – those three. That’s the key to making anime music. Because people will use one of those three types of anime scenes, the music must follow suit.
Q. So in game music terms, when you’re making, say, RPG battle music, since you need to keep a short loop going for a long time, you want a song that stays exciting, right?
Kikuta – Exactly. It’s all about how you use it, how the listener will think about it, and how the user will feel about it. If you don’t consider all that when you’re writing, it will end up useless. The most effective way to make that music is to make it fit the videogame medium with that knowledge in mind.
When you’ve got an RPG, you’re going to be listening to that music for fifty hours, right? You’re not necessarily going to listen to a CD on repeat for fifty hours when you buy one. You’re going to listen to it twice or three times and put it right on the shelf. But with games, we need to make music that you can listen to for 50 hours. Game music has very unique requirements in that sense.
Q. We think your game music is like a brand, Kikuta – it has got a unique sound.
Q. You mentioned that you need uniqueness to stand out, but that you also must make the music fit a video game. Do the people who can keep that balance well get ahead as game composers?
Kikuta – Yes, which is why even though being extreme stands out at first, it’s not enough by itself – especially over time. What’s essential is to keep a good balance. You need a sense of balance.
Q. Is that balance something you can analyze while playing RPGs?
Kikuta – You really need to think about it. You need to think what you’re expressing, what the game is expressing. You’ve got to use your imagination to wonder what the users are thinking, how they’re feeling.
Imagination isn’t, “Hey, let’s come up with something random.” It’s the ability to predict what players might be thinking, right that moment. Imagination is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
If you can’t imagine how players would feel hearing this music or seeing this scene, you can’t create effectively, can you? You’d just be throwing stuff at people randomly, so you’ve got to think of how your audience feels as you throw your stuff at them. That’s what we need. You’ve also got to twist that a little.
Q. You don’t want to throw it straight?
Kikuta – You want to throw curveballs here and there. When they think you’re going to throw straight down the middle, you want to slip the ball past their mitt. That’s the key.
If you throw straight all the time, that’s all your work will be – straight. But if you put in a few surprises here and there, you can guide where people’s thoughts and feelings will go.
If you don’t reach people’s hearts, no matter what music or work you’ve got, it means nothing.
Q. It’ll be forgotten.
Kikuta – Exactly. And being remembered is everything.
Q. Being memorable is important. You can hear a song you listened to ten years ago, and it invokes all kinds of thoughts and feelings.
Kikuta – Yeah, exactly. Like, take “Secret of Mana,” for instance. That came out in the summer twenty years ago, right? Memories of that game are bundled right up with kids playing it during their summer vacation, complaining about how hot it was and all that.
Q. Which means music has some serious power.
Kikuta – The right song can become a dear treasure to you. That’s what we’re making…or rather, what we need to make.
When you’re thinking about what doesn’t work in videogame music, it’s the music that gets forgotten. I think you really need to get people to remember your songs. I mean, people still remember some of my songs, twenty years later. I’m really happy about that.
Q. When it comes to beating competition, being memorable is key, right?
Kikuta – It’s really important. I think everyone should find their own way of being memorable.
Q. When developers are hiring a musician, what kind of information or elements should they share? What kind of communication makes it easier to make songs? Could you tell us about attitudes people should have?
Kikuta – The most important thing is trust. You’re not going to ask someone you don’t trust to do things for you. You’re going to ask people to do things based out of trust alone sometimes, too. Next, you’re going to need direction and guidance: to tell the composer what you want them to express or show.
For example, the director really needs to tell me what ideas they’re trying to express in the game. If you just say “make some fun music,” I won’t be able to do much with that. I want to know what impression we want to give the users, the listeners, what kind of emotions we want to work up in them, and I want to hear it in the most authentic way I can.
Q. Developers with little experience tend to make the composer play the game, then ask for them to make music that matches it. But isn’t that rather impossible? There’s no way you’d have time to fully play through every game you are hired to work on.
Kikuta – I just want some footage of the game actually moving. It’s a lot better to see the tempo of play, to see the rhythm of how the characters move – it gives me something better to match the music to.
The games you controlled back in the day had a lot of pauses, so the music had a bit of a slow tempo. Nowadays, though, social games are fast. People are playing these games in the gaps, so music with old school pace would be too slow. That’s why social game music is getting a lot faster in general. You really can’t figure out what to make without looking at a moving screen to match it with. And, strangely, you really start to feel how slow old school music would be.
The worst requests are “Do it like this song.” That, and doing it totally on your own are the worst kind of requests. If the director wanted you to make your own song, they’d just tell you to make any song and that would be that. You’ve got to understand that the director can’t create the song they’ve got playing in their head and start from there.
Q. That takes the trust you were talking about earlier.
Kikuta – A truly talented composer will make something even better than what the director envisioned. This might not be exactly what the director had in mind, but it’s even better, so the director be pleased. A composer can’t just completely make the song that’s inside the director’s head. It won’t work out because something always gives – the tempo is off, the construction is off, it’s wrong when you put together… I mean, the director is not the professional when it comes to music, you know?
Music, especially, is a delicate thing, so there’s all sorts of details you won’t realize unless you try it yourself and compose through trial and error. Which is why, unfortunately, the actual song won’t match the one inside the director’s head exactly.
Q. Could you say a few words for those who are doing creative endeavors?
Kikuta – Something like “get to it, guys!” As I said before, the entry barrier is down, there’s a market, there are opportunities, and people have time. People need to get started on their creations. To put it simply, do it with three people. They can be anything, but you just want three people when you’re making something.
Q. Is that because someone alone would overdo it?
Kikuta – If we’re talking about someone who can make something by themselves, I don’t have any advice for them. They don’t need to listen to me. That person will quietly make it all by themselves. They don’t need to look at anyone or listen to anyone else for advice – they already have the motivation they need.
Basically, the people who need to hear this advice are the people who can’t make things alone. When I think about the setbacks they’re going to fall into, the best advice I can give is for them to make it with three people.
When you’re coming up with a plan, it’s nice to have two people to brainstorm ideas with. But those two are just going to be satisfied with talking about it and it’s going to end there. The problem with having two people is that when they have the same ideas, they agree with each other and do nothing. And when they don’t agree, they just leave each other and the project ends there. Both possibilities end in failure. That’s why it’s fun to be with two people, but that’s not going to get things made.
When you’ve got three people, they’re going to have to force themselves to get on the same page or it’ll end up with two against one. If it’s two on one, then two are going to drag the one forward and that’s how they’re going to get moving. Since three people generally aren’t going to be on the same page, it’s more often than not that those two dragging the other one bring the project to completion.
Q. Very practical advice.
Kikuta – To put it another way, think about writing a story. They tell you that you’ve got to have an odd number of characters or the stories will all just be the same. If you’ve got A and B pop up and they’re not on the same page, they’ll just part ways and that’s the end, or they’ll get together and that’s the end – meaning the story doesn’t really advance at all.
To move a story, you absolutely need conflict, don’t you? When the conflict is two against one, the one is going to get dragged forward – and that’s movement. That works out because you need movement in either direction. And when things are moving, you need to break the balance in a skillful way. That’s key. If you don’t do that, you won’t have anything on your hands in the end. Two people just talking about something usually doesn’t lead to anything, so you really need another person there to say, “Hey, let’s actually make that.” That third person makes a proper balance.
Q. And they can function as a mediator, too.
Kikuta – Exactly. And things go well when you’ve got the perfect people gathered, when you’ve got someone filling each role. The smallest unit you can have a gathering like that with is three people, and that’s the easiest team size to make something with. I say this from experience.
Q. You’re planning to release the current pack in two themes: “The Calm” and “The Fury.” Overall, what kind of genre of game do you think this pack will go well with? What kind of games do you want people to use it in?
Kikuta – Well, it’s got RPG elements to start with, so I think that’d be best. But it’s most important for the creator to freely express themselves. I put a lot of independent hooks in the music, too, so I think there are all sorts of ideas you can come up with from the music.
Q. Like listening to the music and thinking it would really go well with this scene?
Kikuta – Yeah, exactly. I’ve made this music full of those sorts of hooks, so I’d be happiest if the users really enjoyed that. But, game music is usually made to express the feel of a game world, so composers don’t really make standalone “game music.” Since this music is unique in the way it illustrates a world, I think developers, or just creators in general, will enjoy it, too.
There is a wide range to it and it expresses dark feelings especially well. It’s also got bits of emotions you don’t normally feel in the music, too. I’m sure thinking of how you’re going to use those surprising elements will be fun.
Q. I really look forward to seeing the projects that come out of this.
Kikuta – That’s why I think even just drawing a picture to match the music would be interesting. I’d be very happy if it gave anyone some unique creative ideas.
We are very happy to have had the chance to interview Kikuta, and to work with him to release the Calm and the Fury. Make sure to join in on our contest, and keep an eye out for these fantastic music packs.