ACMI X resident Jake Leaney
Stories & Ideas

Tue 17 May 2022

Episode 7: Making music and games with Jacob Leaney – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview Videogames
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

The founder of pop-music video game studio Things for Humans shares his experience as a game developer, songwriter and producer.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, with our residents currently making it in Australia. Each fortnight we interview a resident at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focused coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator of this space. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne. It always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

Today I'm here with ACMI X resident, Jake Leaney, who is a game developer, songwriter and producer. So you probably would've noticed that the intro to the podcast today was a little bit different in terms of the music. We have added a sting from Jake's song, Talk, and we're going to be trickling music that he has created throughout the podcast. So I hope you enjoy it.

(Jake's song, Talk, plays)

Jake is the founder of Things For Humans, which is a pop music videogame studio. Jake is currently working on the sequel to one of his games, Video World. We're going to talk about that and about his creative process in general. Welcome, Jake.

Jake Leaney: Thanks, Amber. I'm very excited to be here and talk about all the fun things.

AG: So Jake, you've created a pop music videogame studio. Can you describe your work as a synth-pop artist and also an Indeed game dev?

JL: Sure. Well, my background is really in music and that was kind of the biggest passion in my life, but then I kind of stumbled across game development, hoping to write music for games and then I just found that I really loved making video games. So I now have these two different creative things that I'm so passionate about. I kind of hit a point a few years ago where I thought; "I can't have two separate careers and passions going full blast at once. How can I make this one thing?" So incorporating pop music into videogames and making the games that I make really about music felt like just the natural way to bring both of those two separate things together so I could just kind of have one thing that I love to focus on.

AG: And you made a game called Video World and now you're working on the sequel, A Halloween Valentine. Can you tell us about Video World and A Halloween Valentine?

JL: So Video World is also Halloween kind of focused. It's a synth-pop musical video game set in a '90s video store. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in video stores and there's a really strong nostalgia to that. Because there are not many or really any left, I think, I wanted to make a videogame set in a video store for a long time. The Halloween theme came about because when I kind of had the budget and everything for the game, I didn't have enough money to make more than two animated characters, so I had to come up with then kind of an antagonist, the villain that wasn't human and I thought; "what kind of object or thing can I make into a character?" And so kind of a Jack-o'-lantern came to mind and then the whole Halloween theme escalated, which is very much me. And I got to write a couple of songs, which was the first time I'd done big collaborations, before that I'd written a lot of music by myself.

So Video World was really a bit of an exploratory game for me to figure out what I'm doing in this space and so it turned into a Halloween synth-pop musical basically. The response to it was really, really positive when I put it out last year and making it was so fun. Before that, I had some more serious projects with serious content in them and they were nice, but it was quite draining and to do something that was very silly was very refreshing. So doing a sequel to that, A Halloween Valentine, I think was a very natural progression from that to capitalise on what I'd already done, what I'd already explored and just make it better. So A Halloween Valentine is going to be a lot longer, it's going to have more intricate puzzles, and it's going to be a full album of music with about 10 songs in it.

AG: Wow. To give people an idea of what you mean when you say it's a pop-inspired videogame, can you describe the challenge in terms of how you have to understand beat and doing those challenges in Video World?

JL: Sure. Well, the way that the music is incorporated into these games is that there are sections of the game where a song plays and it's implied, or I kind of tell the player that the character is essentially singing the song. The lyrics are played as well. The player can see the lyrics. And with this particular kind of music and what I'm really trying to do in the music space is have a lot of freedom when the player interacts with the music. So if you look at games like Guitar Hero or Sayonara Wild Hearts or Dance Dance Revolution: it's all about challenge and hitting things on the beats and this kind of arcade-style, where as you go further through the game, the challenge just increases and increases in terms of your musical dexterity, I guess.

But with Video World and A Halloween Valentine: it's not so much about the musical challenge. You do have to keep in time to a degree, but that's more a way to just get you engaged with the song while you do other activities. So for example in Video World, you light a bunch of candles and you blow up a lot of balloons as the result of doing the musical challenge.

AG: I thought it was really interesting how you created that game. What is your process for making a game?

JL: I think just like with music, it can come from a lot of different places, but at least for the game A Halloween Valentine that I've started recently, I really just sat down with two other designers in a room with a whiteboard and we didn't leave until we'd come up with a bunch of game mechanics and overarching narrative ideas that we really, really liked. So I kind of pushed them and myself to really think about different kinds of game mechanics and interactions where music could be involved, but in a different way to traditional rhythm games and even quite a different way to Video World. I wanted more freedom. I wanted less challenge in terms of the music. I just wanted the players to really get into a flow state. So that was kind of the angle that we came at when we started thinking about the actual interactions in the game.

And then when we were brainstorming different themes and ideas about where the game was set, Halloween and Valentine's day, combining those together just really excited to us. So I guess the general process is just brainstorming and every idea is a valid idea and worth exploring. It's kind of that beautiful time in the creative process where nothing is bad and you just get to say things and be excited, even if it's the worst idea ever, it's still kind of celebrated. And then there's the process of going; "okay, what actually is going to work? What is doable?" And so following on from that original brainstorming session, I had a few other more focused sessions, really trying to nut out the nuts and bolts of the ideas that we came up with until we kind of settled on a very focused one or two mechanics that we really wanted to explore and then what the overarching narrative was.Y

AG: You have two creative disciplines (and) you're combining them, which is amazing. How do you sustain your creative practices over time?

JL: That's been quite a challenge actually and I'm still figuring it out a little bit. Previously I'd separated the music from the game. For example, last year I spent a couple of months, pretty much just songwriting and then I moved into the game development phase with those songs. That worked really, really well, but having such a large gap between my next set of songwriting sessions was really difficult as someone who wants to constantly be making new music as well as making a video game.

What I'm hoping to do this year, is have more consistent blocks of songwriting in between the game development and really incorporating that as part of the game development process - so trying to make them one thing again. I am a person that has a short attention span so being able to jump between game development and coding and that part of my brain to something much freer as music, I think is healthy and satisfying for me. But the challenge is finding how to schedule all of that in terms of a timeline for making a game.

AG: Yeah. It's interesting how you want it to be more fluid, but then it's nice to have the different opposing creative passions.

JL: Yeah. I think the key is scheduling and prioritising and going; "no, I actually do need some time just to be creative in music, whether or not these songs that I write are usable for videogame or anything commercial, that's important and I need to keep doing that." And just remembering that free creative thing is just as important as the really dedicated production of a videogame.

AG: Yeah. Awesome. So now we're going to do something a little different. We're going to play a snippet from Jake's song, Blood Like Wine, that he composed for Video World, and he's going to share how he made it and what inspired him.

(Blood Like Wine plays)

JL: Blood Like Wine started actually as a collaboration during lockdown in 2020. APRA, which is the Australian Performing Rights Association, created a program called '321 at home', where they just matched up a bunch of songwriters together to collaborate remotely. It was the first time that I'd done anything like that and I was matched up with a really wonderful songwriter.

Basically, we just sat down on Zoom, we'd never met before and we just talked about our lives. We knew the song was going to be for my project so I talked about the personal things I was going through. And then I went away and kind of wrote some of them down to send to her. And then she basically did a little recording on her piano with some lyrics she'd made up based on what I'd told her about my life and what I was going through and I really, really liked it.

I took that little iPhone recording, I kind of put it into the computer and then started putting production behind it. So that means I started putting drums and synthesizers and just getting a feel for what the instrumentation and the vibe of the song would be from that production perspective. And through that, I also came up with a chorus, so (at that stage) it didn't have any lyrics - it was just the instrumental. That was quite a different process for me because usually when I song write, the lyrics and the music kind of all come at the same time. But it was quite exciting to just be able to go ham with the production and put guitars in and synths and all this crazy stuff without any lyrics.

So then we went back and forth a little bit - me and the other songwriter. I got feedback from her about how I was singing it and different aspects of the music. When it came to the chorus, I probably spent a full day just trying different melodies and different lyrics until the main melody line just came through and it felt so nice with my voice. And when that happens, I feel like that's when I really know that it's a good melody or something that's going to translate well because I felt like I could sing it so passionately. It's really rare that that happens in songs as well. You work really hard and then you get the take and you're like; "cool. Yes, that sounds awesome." But this song when the melody came and the lyrics were there, it felt so right. So then when the production was finished and it was released, it was the song that people resonated with the most. It was the most liked one and is probably my favourite song that I've written as well.

A big part of the production of it that really brought it to life sonically, was a drummer from the states that, basically I sent the song to him and he just kind of put his percussion on it, he put his real drums on it, and he really just added to the organicness of the song. What I really love about it is how it has all of these kinds of electronics and synthesizers in it, but it still has a real organicness to it. And I think that's really nice because the song is called Blood Like Wine. Blood and wine are both very kind of organic, tangible things and that's kind of where it all came from.

AG: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. You mentioned a few of the collaborations. You must have had some interesting insights into how music and games are produced. What are some of the collaborative processes unique to each industry?

JL: Sure. Well, with videogame development and videogame composing, collaboration isn't really that common. It is much more of a solo practice. It might be collaborators in terms of the production and recording and mixing but generally, composers will kind of just go into their dark composition hole of their studio or their office or wherever and it's very, very solo. A lot of the reason that I didn't really pursue writing music for other videogames was because of that solitude. It's very, very lonely to be honest and I'm a huge extrovert. I love people.

So jumping over to pop music; songwriting there is encouraged to be very collaborative. And so the way that works; sometimes you'll literally be in a room with a couple of people, just coming up with ideas. You might just have a loop of some drums on, I might sit at the keyboard and just play things. There'll be a guitarist kind of noodling along with me until we find something we like, then we'll track that. They might have an idea and bring it or it'll start with a song that I've already started and then I'll just get kind of people's ideas on it.

Often when you have the musicians come in if there's a session guitarist or session drummer, they will also bring some of their own unique ideas to it. I think that's probably where similarities from both industries would be that the session musicians, whether it's guitarists, drummers, or in videogame composition; maybe it's more likely to be orchestral players or horn players, they're always going to bring their own flavour and kind of characteristics. So I think that's nice that there is still that kind of collaboration in both of them. But I think the real difference to me is that game composition is often very, very solo and there's not that much collaboration.

AG: Do you have any advice for musicians who are playing gigs at the moment, but may be looking to explore whether they can compose for videogames?

JL: Sure. I guess the first thing I'll say: you have to be pretty dedicated to it. Just (within) the contemporary music industry, you have to push really hard and just really be the best. I guess my advice would be to find what your unique thing is. If you're playing grunge-inspired, jazz funk music in the contemporary kind of music world, if you can take whatever the special thing is from that into videogame composition, then I would do that rather than trying to completely pivot to what you think videogame composition should be. So then you can stand out.

The way to start getting into it is really just building up a network. You can do that by going to game jams, there are some videogame development groups on Facebook that are local and international as well, and you really just have to start talking to people and getting those little gigs. It probably will feel like you're starting again to some degree in your career. Also, finding game developers on Twitter and reaching out to them personally there or via their emails is a good place to start.

Especially if you have a really solid and unique style, if you can find a game that's in development that would really benefit from that, then that's a really great way to sell yourself to just finding that thing that, that's unique about you and really capitalising on that to be different from other videogame composers because a lot of people come into it with a very clear mindset of being orchestral composers or they want to be exactly the same as whoever composed the music for Final Fantasy. So just be different, I think is the key.

AG: Now I want to switch over to the business side of making games. How do you fund the development of your work?

JL: Most of the funding that I've gotten for my games has been through government grants in Victoria. So that's VicScreen or previously Film Victoria as well as Creative Victoria. So those grants have gone a really, really long way into helping me be able to put these games together. Video World also was a lot of me, my own money, my own time and that's pretty common in arts until you kind of get past a certain threshold I suppose, but looking forward, it seems like there's interest from publishers and kind of other funding bodies. Screen Australia has just started funding videogames. So that's a really, really big win for game developers in all of Australia and we're really lucky here that we have that support for videogame development.

AG: And you spoke a little bit about publishing. Can you talk about publishing your own work?

JL: It's a lot of work. The biggest and most challenging part of it, I think is probably the marketing. So if you have a publisher they'll often take on that marketing to be able to get your game to the audience that you want to get it to. They'll also ensure that it's on all of the platforms and kind of handle all of that admin. So as a self-publishing studio, that's a lot of extra work on top of the game development to really come up with a marketing strategy and execute that and figure out who to hire for PR and a community manager and all of those additional aspects on top of the game development that aren't creative, that kind of come at the back end after or towards the end of the game being done.

So it's quite challenging, but also very rewarding because you get a bit more, I think direct connection to your audience and you have more control over what you're putting out and where you're putting it and how it's marketed, which is, I think particularly for what I'm doing the market is really queer audiences and people that love pop music. And I don't think that's really a world that videogame publishers know that well. So me being able to explore that and figure it out in my own way, I think is important.

AG: Yeah. Awesome. What's one of the biggest challenges you've had to overcome when producing work?

JL: I think all creatives would probably say this, but it's kind of that two-thirds hump that you get to when you're making anything creative and you think; "this is terrible. How am I going to finish this? This isn't what I thought it would be. It's so much work." And just being able to find that motivation to really push through that and just get something finished it's... Videogame development in particular is such a long process, especially compared to music.

For example; writing and producing a song, theoretically, I could do it in a weekend if you just work hard all weekend. But (with) a videogame you think; "oh, I'll make a videogame that's going to take a year." And then it will take twice as long. There are just so many unknowns and so many different aspects. So I think with Video World, that was probably the biggest challenge that I had was getting it from kind of almost done to; "yes, this is done. It's polished and I've really pushed through and accepted that it takes time and that it needs the time to be what I want it to be."

AG: What games or media have inspired you to make Video World or A Halloween Valentine?

JL: I would say the particular inspiration behind those would be Banjo-Kazooie from the Nintendo 64. What I really loved about that game as a kid was how it kind of had this strange, creepy element to it, but it was so comical and funny. And I really haven't found that many games that are really, really amusing and really, really silly, but still have a really dark edge to them. So Video World and A Halloween Valentine really, really play on that, just bringing in humour. So it's fun, hopefully as a player to just have a lot of jokes and have a silly game to play, but also as a developer, I think that games that kind of do that are inspiring.

You can see the joy that the creators had in Banjo-Kazooie because it's just so fun. You can tell that they had such a great time creating it and that it was very creative. So that's a huge inspiration and that's how I want to make games and music - is just by having fun while being creative. It's almost as if, at least kind of now I've figured this out, that the real way to be creative and create things that are special is to just enjoy that creative process. It's so much less about the goal. It's less about going; "oh, this is the game I'm going to make and this is what it's going to achieve and this is what it's going to do." Creatively, it's about going; "what's the most exciting creative process that I can go through?" and just trusting that that will give you the results.

Another big inspiration is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and also Majora's Mask, which has a lot of dark themes, but is also comical in a lot of ways as well. So those early Nintendo days are really where my heart lies.

AG: Awesome. Thank you so much, Jake, for joining us on the podcast.

JL: You're welcome.

(Song plays)

AG: Thanks for joining us on ACMI X. If you would like to connect with Jake, I've put all of his details in the show notes. That song that you just heard in the outro was created by Jake and is called Galaxies for Justice Sucks Recharged. I've also put names of the songs that you listened to in this episode in the show notes and there is information about ACMI X, if you're based in Melbourne and interested in finding an office to work at.

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