On December 3, 2007 I had the chance to sit down and chat with video game composer extraordinaire Tommy Tallarico over Skype. Mr. Tallarico is perhaps one of the most prolific men in the video game industry, most recently creating and hosting Video Games Live with partner Jack Wall. The show is becoming immensely successful with each passing year, and I decided it was a good time to talk to the man himself.
How did you get into the video game business and what is it about the gaming industry that still makes you tick?
My whole life my two biggest loves were always video games and music. But I never thought to ever put the two together. In 1990 I got in my car and drove out to California because that’s what you do when you want to be in the music industry. I was 21 years old at the time, and I grew up on the east coast in Massachusetts, east coast of U.S. And I just drove out there with no money, no job, no friends, no place to stay, nothing. Literally left my mom and my dad crying on the doorstep.
The first place I went was Hollywood, California, because again, that’s kind of really the only place I knew in the L.A. area. And I took a look around, and for anyone who’s been to Hollywood you’re going to look around and go, “Oh, really? This is it?” It doesn’t look like the way it looks on television, it’s a little run down.
So the only other thing I knew was Disney Land so I stopped a bum on the street, I asked him where Mickey Mouse lived, figured that must be a pretty cool place to hang out. And he pointed me down to Orange County and so I drove into Orange County and I see the palm trees, and the fancy cars, and the beaches, and the pretty girls, and I’m like “Oh, okay, this is what I envisioned California to be like and I’m close enough to L.A. and Hollywood to still make my mark.”
So I picked up a newspaper and I saw a job for selling keyboards at Guitar Center. I was literally homeless. I was sleeping under the pier at Huntington beach the first couple of weeks I was out in California. But first day there I picked up a paper, saw the job, I went down there the next day, and they said “You know, okay, cool, you got the job, you start tomorrow.”
So the first day of work at the guitar place I was wearing a video game t-shirt, it was actually a TurboGrafx-16 and it had like just come out. And the first person who walked in, the first customer I waited on happened to be a producer at Virgin and they were starting a new video game company right down the street. He saw my shirt, struck up a conversation, and he hired me; “Hey, you want a job? Come by tomorrow.” So I was in California 3 days. They hired me as a games tester first because they didn’t even need a music person at the time but within 3 days of being in California I was in the video game industry and that was over 18 years ago.
How did you go about getting yourself out there in the early days? Did you have to hustle for your work?
Oh, absolutely. The thing I remember about being in the industry in the late 80s early 90s is that there wasn’t a lot of emphasis put on actual people who made the games. There wasn’t a lot of emphasis put on designers or artists or game composers or any of that stuff. So it was a struggle just to get the publishers interested.
Because back then a lot of the attitude was like, “We’ll get anyone to do the music. We’ll get anyone to do the art.” There wasn’t a lot of emphasis put on the actual talent back then. So first we had to convince the publishers that we were actually worth something and it was a lot by trial and error.
But one of the funny things I did, and it was just as a joke, but to kind of make a statement… Because the other thing is in the early 90s we didn’t have E3 back then we were part of CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Back then it was all basically a bunch of suits and the game developers stayed at home. So I would actually go to these things, just to mess with people, I’d wear like an Elvis jacket, I had like a 17 person entourage with like bodyguards, and strippers, and midgets, and literally like a whole big circus. And we’d roam around CES or E3 and everything, and a lot of the people in the industry still talk about it 17 years later. And it was like “What the hell is that? Who’s that? It’s some music guy. What?” So it was kind of a funny marketing ploy to get myself noticed or to get other game composers out there, like even on the radar because again back then there wasn’t anything.
So I’ve been called a self-promoter by a lot of people in the industry. And that’s fine, I’m completely okay with that label, you know? You go back in time, a guy like Harry Houdini for example wouldn’t have had a career in magic and wouldn’t be into that whole thing if it wasn’t for him marketing himself and promoting himself during that time, because no one was doing it and no one cared as much.
So it is something that we’ve had to do, we’ve been forced to do, throughout the last 10 to 15 years. And now you’re starting to see the turn. Gamers now know who their favorite designers are. They associate Mario with Miyamoto, or Zelda with Miyamoto. They associate Final Fantasy music with Nobuo Uematsu. Although not household names, and that’ll change, I’m sure, over the next 10 years, but now people are recognizing and appreciating that. “Oh man, what’s Will Wright’s next game going to be? I want to play that!” or “When’s Bungie coming out with the next title?” It’s not necessarily Microsoft’s Halo 3. People know that Bungie’s the developer of Halo, Halo 3, and I think that’s all a good thing.
What is your primary musical instrument, and how many instruments do you play?
My main instrument is actually piano and that’s where I write most of music, no matter what the style, unless it’s Rock and Roll, but normally I write on the piano, synthesizer, when I write for orchestra or anything else. And I’ve been playing piano since I was 3 years old, and my second instrument’s guitar which I’ve probably been playing almost as long.
Probably I picked that up when I was like 7 or 8. In the show, Video Games Live, I don’t play the piano even though I’m a better piano player than I am guitar player, but I don’t actually play piano in the show, because we have Martin Leung in the show. I don’t want to get anywhere near the piano after or before that guy’s sat down and touched it because he’s just the most amazing thing in the planet. Anyway, we have fun.
What are some of your musical influences?
That’s a great question because it’s really all over the map. In terms of orchestral and symphony stuff, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, but my biggest influence for that is Beethoven. And to me he is the greatest composer, in my opinion, that ever existed across any genre of music. So Beethoven was probably my biggest influence.
But getting into the rock stuff, Van Halen was always one of my favorites, Aerosmith, of course, being kind of tied in with Steven Tyler a little bit there, and I like the songwriting and stuff of Sting, The Police, The Eagles was another one.
In terms of Electronica music BT, a very good friend of mine, kind of the guy who invented that whole Trance style of music in the late 80s, BT, Delirium, Enigma, and I also love that style of stuff as well. So it really depends on the style of music I’m writing, but I would say that Beethoven’s the biggest influence of all.
Is there a particular style of music that you enjoy more than others?
It all depends on my mood, you know? It really does. When I’m driving around, for example, sometimes I’m listening to Beethoven, and other times I’m listening to Van Halen, and other times I’m listening to Delirium. That’s the great thing about music, it’s all about the mood and this and that. But I don’t think that I necessarily listen to one style of music more than another but I would say that those are probably my 3 favorite styles of music would be Classic Rock, Rock & Roll, Classical or Film Score, Symphonic, and then Electronica, Trance or whatever you want to call it.
How has your musical style evolved and changed over the years?
Another couple of influences that I didn’t mention were Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Because my parents were product of the 50s so that’s actually how I learned to play piano. I would listen to my mom and dad’s records and by the time I was like 4 or 5 years old I was banging out “Jailhouse Rock” and “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano and a big Blues fan as well, and Honky Tonk style. I would say that back then it was all about flash and speed and when I get into Van Halen and stuff like that it’s all about how fast can you play, and Jerry Lee Lewis and ripping those chords, and some of the old great Blues time, Pinetop Perkins and all those great Blues guys from the south and stuff I really got into, Robert Johnson.
But then when I heard Star Wars in 1977, and then Rocky in 1976, and then later on things like Tron in ‘82 and Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980 that’s when I really opened my eyes to “Wow! What the heck’s making all this noise? This is great. That’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of music I want to write.” So because of John Williams and because of film scores and things like that, that then got me interested in symphonies and orchestras and as soon as I got interested in that, that’s when I discovered Beethoven. I mean the works, I mean really get into it.
That’s how I learned how to write. I’ve never taken a music lesson, or gone to Music College, I don’t have a music degree or anything like that. I’ve strictly just have always learned and played by ear. So when people say “Well, how do you write for a symphony?” I would listen to Beethoven. I’d listen to John Williams. When the woodwinds are doing this, the cellos are countering it by doing that. Look at how that harp played along this way but then the other time it did this. That’s how I would learn, by just imitating on the keyboard I would figure out what they were doing and how they were doing that and say that’s interesting how he went from that key to this key or this time signature to that time signature and I would incorporate those same things or that same knowledge in creating my own work. So I would say that’s the answer there, for that.
It seems like you’re an all-around very prolific guy. How do you do it?
You’re going to laugh but this is an honest answer, I don’t really sleep that much. It’s an honest answer. And I’m passionate, I love what I do. I mean, “You call this a job?”, you know? When I’m not writing music for video games, I’m performing them on tour, or I’m doing TV shows about them, or helping new kids to get in the industry through a non-profit organization I started, the Game Audio Network Guild.
So it’s passion, and because of that strong passion, I really don’t sleep a lot, because I’m so excited every single day of the week, 7 days a week. I usually sleep about 4 hours a day, that’s about the max. Literally, and I can’t bring myself to. People think “Oh my god, you’re going to get sick” but I’ve been doing this for like 15, 16 years where I don’t sleep so I get so much more accomplished because of those 4 hours a day.
If you think about it the average person sleeps 8 hours a day, right? So by the time they’re 30 years old they would have slept 10 years of their life from the time they came into this world. They would have slept 10 years, right? But if you cut your sleep down to 4 hours a day instead of 8 you would get back 5 of those 10 years, right? So just think of all of the things you could accomplish in your life starting now, if you had an extra 5 years of no sleep. It’s simple math, but when you think about it it’s like “Damn, that makes sense.” So no sleep, and a lot of passion.
Is there something you do regularly to recharge your creative energies?
You know, I’m always going somewhere exotic or crazy or seeing the world, whether it’s with Video Games Live or filming a TV show or just because I feel like it. I mean just this year alone the countries we’ve traveled to with Video Games Live were New Zealand, and Korea and Spain and three weeks in Brazil, and England and then when I went on those journeys like when we did our England tour we had like 4 days off so I swung over to Italy for 4 days, and then when we were in New Zealand I swung over to Australia for 3 or 4 days.
So for me I love traveling, I love seeing the world, I love meeting new cultures and studying new cultures and everything so I would say that I’ve never felt like “Oh my god, this is so tiring, I can’t handle it anymore.” It’s always been like, “Cool! Where we going next? What are we doing next? How can I work to get to some place that I want to go?”
It’s always about setting goals for myself and having enough confidence to know that whatever I set goals for I know I’m going to be able to hit them because I’ve always done it in the past and that helps drive me, and again because of the passion, but because of the knowledge of knowing I can do something it always fires me up.
Where do you see the video game industry going, and where would you like to see it go?
Hell in a hand basket [Laughs]. No, no. I mean the great thing about the video game industry and this is what gets me really excited about doing all the stuff I’m doing with Video Games Live and everything is that the industry is only going to get bigger. It’s only going to get more mainstream, and this is a fantastic thing.
When you think about it I’m in my late 30s, and I was the first generation of people to grow up on video games. I was weaned on Pong, and Space Invaders, and Pac-Man and the whole thing, Atari, and Intellivision, had them all. Now that my generation has grown up and we’re starting to now have children, video games are really evolving into our culture. I think it’s safe to say – and this isn’t a generalization for everybody – but I think it would be a safe comment to say that people under 40 get it. You know, because they grew up on video games, they’ve always been around, they’ve always been in their lives. They understand it.
People maybe 45 and over kind of missed out on that whole era. Again, this is a general statement, I know there’s tons of gamers over 45, but kind of as an average, generalized statement, that maybe 45 and over kind of missed out on it. Your average 50 year old, or your average 60 year old, probably doesn’t play a lot of video games on a daily basis, right? But that’s all going to change.
Again, we’re almost 40 now. We never stopped playing games. Now our generation is going to turn 50, and then we’re going to turn 60, and then we’re going to turn 70, and now all of a sudden the entire world has grown up on video games. Right now, 40 and under, that’s about half the world. So half the world grew up on video games right now. Within the next 10 or 15 years there’s going to be a President of the United States or Prime Minister of Canada who grew up playing video games.
And so people are then going to get it. And if you look back in the history of entertainment, the same thing happened back in the old days with film. It wasn’t like the film industry came along in the 1920s and everybody was into it and it swept the nation. Heck no! People were really pissed because “Vaudeville is the way to go”, and “What’s this new fangled movie thing?”, and “That’s not for me these crazy kids” and blah, blah, blah. You know the same thing with Rock & Roll.
When Elvis and guys like Jerry Lee Lewis when they created Rock & Roll in the 50s, it didn’t just sweep the whole thing. It took 20, 30, 40 years for all the people who grew up in the 50s are now older. Now they’re in their 60s and 70s and Rock & Roll is commonplace. Back then it wasn’t. That’s kind of where we are with the video game industry right now is that we’re still like Rock & Roll was in about the 70s, you know? Like the early 70s, or late 60s. We still have a long way to go, and that’s what’s really exciting because it’s already so damn big, just imagine where it’s going to be in 15, 20 years from now.
Do you still have time to play video games nowadays?
Every freaking day. Absolutely.
What is your current favorite?
I’ve been playing Super Mario Galaxy… I’ll give you like maybe my top 7 or 8 and then I’ll tell you what my favorite one was. Some of my favorites on the 360 are Halo 3 and BioShock, I think were my 2 favorites. I’m on Xbox Live a lot, I love Xbox Live, I think it’s the best online community out of all the systems. For the Wii, Mario Galaxy I’ve been playing that heavily the last couple weeks, Metroid Prime 3. For the Playstation 3, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and I also loved – I know it got panned because people said it was too short – but I also loved Heavenly Sword as well.
I would say out of all of those, though, my favorite game of the whole year was Uncharted for the Playstation 3 because it was so beautiful, and the storyline was so rich, and I got so into it, to me that was my favorite game if I had to pick just one game to say that one’s my favorite. But all those games. And of course, Guitar Hero III, and Rock Band we play a lot of those as well maybe in the top 10 also but.
Does the business side of things discourage you sometimes? Does it affect your creativity?
It doesn’t affect my creativity but a lot of the business stuff, again, kind of saying what I was saying before about the industry. We’re still somewhat of a young industry. As big as we like to say we are and all the 20 billion dollar a year industry. And again, it is financially a big industry, but it still has a lot of growing up to do. It’s not as established as the film industry is, you know?
In terms of some of the contracts and the way some employees are thought of and the way music rights are established and things like that. So there’s still a long way for the industry to go, and I understand that. Because like I said, the film industry didn’t just lock in exactly the way they were going to do things right when they came out. The first couple years, when it was in the 20s and 30s, heck no! Even going into like the 50s and 60s actors were part of the studio. They were like employees of the studio. You never really heard too much about film composers until like the late 60s and early 70s because they were all working in-house.
So it took the film industry 60, 70 years to get to where it is today. And I think the video game industry is much more further along than that but there’s definitely a lot more that I think the PR and marketing of video games can learn a lot from the film industry. I think the way that certain ownership and things like music rights and intellectual property ownership and things like that. I think that’s another big thing, where maybe looking at the film industry model of how it’s been very successful there.
I’ll give you an example. For example, every time a movie is rented or bought on a DVD, movies have second lives, really. They come out in the theatre, big release. Now the second a movie comes out in the theatre, you can’t buy it on a DVD and you can’t rent that movie, right? But in the video game industry it’s very different and it hurts the business of our industry. Which is, the day the game is released, you can rent it, and you can buy it, oh and by the way, when a game gets rented, none of the people who make the game get any kind of percentage of that whatsoever. Not a single one.
Whereas in the film industry, it’s much different. The film is released theatrically, people get cuts of the box office, and then when it gets released on DVD, they get another cut of that depending on who they are and what they did on the film and this and that. So again, it’s one of those things where, if you’re talking about business in the video game industry I still think we have a ways to go here, but it gets better each and every year.
Do you usually have to abide by a strict set of rules when you’re composing for video games, or do you have a lot of freedom?
It’s a great question, because my whole thing from the beginning when composing for video games, and this goes back to the very first video game I ever composed and worked on, which was Prince of Persia, the original one, and it follows me all the way up to today as well, which is I say there’s no freaking rule book. I don’t care what anyone wants to say in terms of “It’s video game music, it has to be like this.” It’s one of the things that I’ve always kind of thrown out the window.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. Even when I was doing Prince of Persia, it’s like “You have to have 50 seconds of looping level music because that’s the way video games are done.” And I’m like “Well no, let’s make it more cinematic. Let’s have no music but then only trigger music when a door opens or when you draw your sword or when somebody dies or when you die” or something like that. It makes it more dramatic. And why does it have to be this kiddy-like marry-go-round. You know, a bunch of bleeps and bloops for the music? Why can’t it be Middle Eastern sounding because it’s Prince of Persia. Hey guys, get it?
So that was like a big shocking thing. And I remember another instance when the CD-ROMs first hit the market and the first game to ever use a live guitar in a video game, I used it on the Terminator for the Sega CD. It was 1993. And when I first was writing all this crazy Van Halen-ish rock style guitar and putting it in the game, and putting it on CD for the first time and people were listening to it. I remember having an argument with some of the producers going, “Well this doesn’t sound like a video game.” And I’m like “Uh yeah, exactly. That’s my point.” Forget what you’ve heard of in the past.
The same thing with like Earth Worm Jim. There was like 8 or 10 of us who worked on the Earth Worm Jim game. And I remember sitting down, we were starting to talk about music and things like that. And one person was like “Well you know we should do just all Techno/Electronica style stuff, video game level music.” And one of the guys was like “Well no, let’s be like totally whacky because Jim’s this whacky character.” And there was a lot of discussions going on. And I’m like “Hey guys, wait, hold on, stop a second. I agree with both of you. Why can’t we just have both? Why can’t one level be Techno, and the next level be a freaking Banjo music?” Who cares? Where does it say that you can’t do that? Show me where that book is so I can freaking burn it. And that’s what we did and it was great and people loved it and everything.
I’ll give you a final example here, Advent Rising, one of my last big orchestral scores that I worked on a couple of years ago. When we originally sat down you know people were like, “Okay, well it’s a space epic. And we want it to be John Williams.” Everyone wants to be like, “Oh, it’s got to sound like Star Wars because it’s in space”, right? And I’m like, how about forget Star Wars for a second? Because I’m reading the story, and I’m talking to the designers, and it’s a story about loss and love and tragedy and this and that. I’m like “Guys, this is an Opera. Why don’t we use Opera? Italian Opera? Let me write this like an Italian Opera.” So you’re like in space, even the opening scene of Advent Rising when you’re kind of in space, and you’re docking your ship, and there’s like this Italian Opera playing out and people were like, “Wow, that’s so cool, we would have never thought of that kind of stuff.”
So again, my thing always from the beginning has been never let anyone tell you that what you should do or what it should sound like because I know that I’ve really built my career and stood out from the rest whenever I’ve kind of done something that wasn’t what people were expecting.
What advice do you have for people that are interested in getting into video game composition?
There’s a couple of different things. The first thing is to go to the website, www.audiogang.org. It’s a non-profit organization that I founded about 6 years ago. We currently have over 1200 members representing 30 countries around the world. It’s basically all of the professional video game audio people, composers, sound designers, everything. So it’s an organization, non-profit, that we help to educate each other about the industry and things like that. But we also have tons of programs, internships, how to learn how to get in the game industry, how to create your own demo… We have scholarship funds to send people to school to learn game audio in college. There’s actually college courses that the organization has actually helped to create the curriculum for. So that would be the first thing, audiogang.org. And G.A.N.G. stands for the Game Audio Network Guild. That’s the first thing.
The second thing to get is there’s a couple of great books out there, called The Complete Guide to Game Audio by Aaron Marks, you can find that on Amazon. And then there’s another one by Alexander Brandon who’s the guy who did the original Unreal music. Great guy, and that’s a great book. I forget the name of it, exactly, but if you just look Alexander Brandon, if you look that up on Amazon it’ll come up as well [The book that Tommy’s talking about here is Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production].
But then the big thing, the other two things are, if you’re local and you have a local chapter of the IGDA, that’s the International Game Developers Association, and that website is igda.org, definitely join up there and they have like monthly get-togethers and monthly meetings and you can meet all the developers around you and things like that. So always good to meet people who are also trying to get in the industry as well.
Because getting in the industry, the biggest piece of advice I’d give somebody is it’s all about networking. The person with the most talent doesn’t necessarily get the job every time. Networking is just as important as talent. And I think that goes for any entertainment industry that you’re looking to get into. That’s a really important thing to know.
And that’s why the final piece of advice is going to the Game Developers Conference. It’s held each year in San Francisco, in February and March area, in that time frame, the website for that gdconf.com. And gdconf.com will show you all about, and it’s basically a weeklong journey where you’ll meet, you know there’s 13, 14,000 game developers from all over the world that you can go and learn from and meet… Let’s put it this way. Last year Miyamoto gave the Keynote address at GDC, Okay? So they have serious people from all over the world. And you can learn so much and we have a whole audio track. I’ve been on the advisory board for the Game Developers Conference for nearly 10 years now and we have tons and tons of audio speeches and get-togethers and we hold our big G.A.N.G. awards there every year and GDC is also put on by the people who also run the gamasutra.com website and that is another amazing resource. You can see all the game listings, the jobs that are available, tons of interviews with audio artists and producers and designers and programmers you can learn so much right there for free on gamasutra.com.
There’s another great website called gamejobs.com which is a good way to get your foot in the door. Like my story, I started out as a games tester so feel free to start out on the bottom and then you work your way in. It’s definitely a way.
I know a lot of my friends who are presidents of companies now, and running big development firms, started out in testing. So don’t be afraid to start on the bottom and work your way up. That’s the great thing about this industry, it’s growing each and every year, it’s getting bigger and bigger, and we’re always looking for talented people. Throw your hat in the ring, and if you have enough passion and ability to network, you should be good to go.
What musical skills do you need for video game composition?
Just know how to write music. Like I said, I’ve never had any kind of formal training whatsoever. I never went to school for it, I just learned it all on my own. Really, just the ability to do music. Or like I said, in the video game audio industry there’s not just composers but there’s sound designers as well. There’s people who just take audio and implement it into video games. There’s music supervisors, who their job is to just find music to put in a game. So you don’t even have to necessarily even have a musical talent in order to be in the game audio part of gaming.
What other skills are good to have for video game composition?
Songwriting’s the number one thing, you know? If you can write awesome music then that’s the number one thing. Everything else can be learned after that.
You talked a little bit about this already, but what counts for more? Musical talent, networking skills, or a balance of both?
It’s absolutely a balance of both. 50/50. No doubt in my mind.
Do you have any tips for people that are trying to get established in the music industry at large?
If you’re looking to go to get in the music industry there’s a lot of great books out there. Donald Passman’s book, the Business of Music or Music Industry Business or I forget what the hell it’s exactly called but again the author is Donald Passman [The book Tommy’s talking about here is All You Need To Know About The Music Business]. And that’s probably the definitive book on knowing about the music industry because I mean, if you’re looking to get a record deal, or… And the whole music industry is changing, it’s kind of a loaded question only because what say I now will probably be completely different six months from now.
But a smart way to go is to get representation, whether it’s an agent or an agency or the way it’s done in the music industry or was for many years and is changing now, is that people got music attorneys. They met up with music attorneys and they are the ones who are shopping around a lot of the artists, but again the music industry is in such a crazy flux right now, that it’s difficult. No one knows what’s going to happen over the next couple of years, but there’s definitely going to be a shakeout.
Bands are finding that breaking in by doing video games, you know a band like Good Charlotte got broke in a video game. I mean when I say got broke I don’t mean lose all their money, I mean made it big, they broke into the music industry because of video games. The song “American Idiot”, which was a Grammy award winning song by Green Day was not first heard on MTV or first heard on the radio, it was heard in an EA Sports game. There’s lots of different ways to brake into the music industry these days, but always having somebody representing you in the music industry is always a good thing.
Tell me a little bit about Video Games Live, for all the readers out there that may not be familiar with it.
Video Games Live is all the greatest video game music of all time played by a big symphony orchestra and choir and what really makes it unique is that everything is completely synchronized to video and Rock & Roll lighting, and we have interactive elements where we bring people up on stage and they play a video game while the orchestra changes the music in real time on the fly, depending on what the person does. We have pre-show festivals where people can play games and play demos and we have game competitions and costume contests beforehand so it’s a complete celebration of the video game industry.
But I like to describe Video Games Live as having the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra and combining it with the energy and excitement of a Rock concert and mixing that together with the interactivity, cutting-edge visuals, technology, and fun that video games provide. So you put all that stuff together and that’s kind of what Video Games Live is. It’s interesting because until you see it for yourself it’s probably kind of difficult to fathom, “Okay it’s video game music and we kind of get that” and “it’s played by a symphony, okay whatever.” There’s a couple of symphonies out there or touring concerts that just play symphony music with video games, there’s some in Japan and some in Europe, but none of them really go to the level of detail and the level of really put it over the top.
Because our goal from the beginning as video game composers, myself and my partner Jack Wall who’s the conductor and another great video game composer who just did Mass Effect, that just came out, he did Myst series games, he did Jade Empire with BioWare, and a bunch of stuff. Splinter Cell stuff he worked on. But our goal from the beginning was to really show the world. We didn’t want to create a concert just for hardcore gamers. Put a symphony on a stage and say they’re playing video game music, and it’s like, okay, you’re going to attract hardcore gamers, right?
But we wanted the entire world to know how significant video games and their music have become. And that’s why we created this visual spectacular kind of the way we did. Our whole thing is you don’t have to know a darn thing about video games, at all, to come to the show and really be blown away and be able to follow along with the visuals. Okay, maybe you don’t get all the inside jokes. Don’t get me wrong, hardcore gamers absolutely love it at the show but they can take their moms, and they can drag their girlfriends there, or they can take whatever, their non-gaming friends there and those are the people who are most blown away.
All of the best letters, emails, that we get after we do a performance – and Calgary was no exception – all of the best emails were from the non-gamers. The day after the show, the weeks following the show, saying “you know, I went to this thing, I wanted to bring my grandson for the first time”, or “I bought tickets for my boyfriend”, or their moms saying “I brought the neighborhood kids and I didn’t know what to expect, but boy. Wow. I had no idea. I never knew that game music was so emotional and so impactful. I never understood the stories and the characters and the storylines were so cool and the graphics were so amazing. I get it now. Now I understand why my kids are so much into video games. Thank you, and I’ve told all my friends so when you guys come back next year, I’m bringing 5 other moms with me.”
That was always our goal from the very beginning is to create something so spectacular and unique that no one else has ever done before in the history of live entertainment. Bringing all these elements together to provide entertainment, but to really as game composers, show all of the non-gamers out there, and show all the other mainstream audience how significant video games and the culture surrounding it have become.
What is it like to be on tour, going from town to town?
I love it. Like I said earlier I love travel, I love meeting new people. I don’t know if I’d ever gone to places like Louisville, Kentucky and Fort Wayne, Indiana if it wasn’t for Video Games Live. They’re all great places for different reasons. Going to Spain for example, or Brazil. I would have never gone to Spain or Brazil. Thank gosh, I have because they’re such amazing people and amazing places and the food and the people you meet and the culture and the music and… Wow, how exciting is that? I love it.
We went to Korea this year for example. I would have never have booked a trip to go to Korea but I’m so glad I did. And some of the places coming up next year I’m looking really forward to, for example Taiwan. We’re going to go play in places like Taiwan next year, and countries like Sweden and Germany which I’ve never been to. So it’s really, really exciting to meet the people.
And it’s also really strange to play down in a place like Brazil. We did three weeks of sold out shows down in Brazil this year. It’s crazy to go to a place like Rio de Janeiro and have people there who know your name and know all the music in your career and want to meet you and this and that. It’s so weird because it’s half way around the world and in a place like Brazil it doesn’t really pop into your mind as the top gaming places in the world. But the reality is that there are just as many gamers down there as anywhere else in the world and it’s just that they never kind of get reported on the charts because it’s all black market down there. You always talk about North America, Japan, U.K., Germany, Australia, those are the top big video game markets. But there’s more gamers in freaking Brazil than any of those places I can guarantee you. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it firsthand. Because all the stuff is so easily accessible they get the stuff for free, basically. Pretty much, because it’s all stolen. So there’s a lot of passion down there. A lot of passion for gaming down there, but you never hear about it.
What can we expect from Video Games Live and Tommy Tallarico in the future?
When we first started this thing we got together in 2002 is when we created Video Games Live and it took us 3 years to get it up and going because we wanted to do it right. And the very first show we did was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 in front of 11,000 people with the L.A. Philharmonic. It was the biggest video game concert in the world. We wanted to come out of the gate huge and strong. So it took us 3 years to put on that show and to get all the licenses from the companies. Because no one had ever really done anything like this, not outside of Japan anyway. And that concert that we did it was the very first time where games like Metal Gear Solid and Kingdom Hearts and Myst. It was the first time those games had ever been performed period. Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog. From there we really kind of opened up the market to others to start doing stuff like this as well, which again we think is great and is great for the industry.
But in the first year we did 3 shows. The second year we did 11 shows. And this year, in 2007, we did 29 shows. And for 2008 we have about 50 shows scheduled, possibly getting close to 60. And so you can see each and every year, 3, 11, 29, 60… Our goal is to do 100 shows a year by 2009. And we’ve just had so many exciting things that are starting to happen.
For example, this Friday we’re taping, we’ve been asked to be the lead performance on the Spike TV Awards, which is going out to 6 million people. So we’re opening the show, we’re closing the show, we’re taking the show to commercial 8 times throughout the evening. We’ve been asked now to perform on cruise ships. They’re having a video game cruise, and they want us to be the big kick-off of the event. We’ve teamed up with every major video game and comic book and Anime and table gaming conference in the world from the Game Developers Conference, to all the Wizard World stuff, and Gen Con, and things in Canada like Fan Expo in Toronto, Lodon Games Festival, we’ve partnered with them. We’ve got BlizzCon, all the Blizzard stuff we always play, the big E For All Expo that just happened that kind of replaced E3.
And already in 2008 we’re playing in places like for the first time, video game concerts have never been performed in these states or cities: Orlando, Florida, St. Louis, Missouri, Montreal, Quebec, Fort Wayne, Indiana, places like Milwaukee and Phoenix, Arizona and Salt Lake City, Utah, Austin, Texas, Vancouver we’re coming back to. I mean we absolutely love playing in Canada because one of our big partners is Future Shop and they really understand and help support us and help to get the word out because that’s our biggest challenge all the time is getting the word out. Explaining to people what Video Games Live is if you’ve never seen it before.
I like to compare it a lot to Cirque du Soleil. The first time you ever heard of Cirque du Soleil you were probably like, “What? What the hell is it? Circus clowns and animals jumping around? I don’t understand.” It was only until you saw it, or somebody close to you saw it and explained it to you that you really started to understand it. A thing like Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group is another one. Where it’s like, those are things that you have to see for yourself or hear. Now it took Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil things like that, it took 7 years for them to get to where they are today. To get that big area.
Well, we’ve only been touring for not even 3 years yet, so we still have a long way to go and we’re going to grind it out. And hopefully, again, our goals is to be on that same level as a Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group where it becomes kind of almost a household name. Everybody knows about it, has heard about it, and knows what it is. And I think that’s only great for the whole video game industry.
Thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule, Tommy.
Author: David Andrew Wiebe
David Andrew Wiebe has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing, and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential, he also continues to maintain a touring schedule with multiple bands.