Pathfinding: Designing music narratives at Xbox Game Studios
Hear from Sr Music Supervisor Maya Halfon Cordova about how she contributes to storytelling in games through music.
Music helps set the tone of a game, enhances game play, creates a sense of time and place, and forges an emotional connection with the player. Finding the right collection of music—and securing all the rights to use that music in-game—is a challenging and important part of the design process. Today we hear from Maya Halfon Cordova, a Senior Music Supervisor at Xbox Game Studios about how her passion for music and soundtracks led her to the games industry.
Maya went to UCLA in the 00s for English Literature and worked as an usher at their concert hall where she remembers seeing many great shows. While in college she DJed at UCLA Radio, and while studying abroad she interned at a record label in the UK. She also had a radio show there and took West African drumming classes. Maya shares "I've always been really interested in music and music discovery because I think context is so important. To me, one of the best places to discover music was in soundtracks."
She started her career in marketing, working for Quango Music Group, a small record label run by her godfather. Since Maya was more familiar with the music catalog, she started helping their seller with briefs and pitches to get music into movies and TV. When the seller left the company, Maya's experience assisting and her love for soundtracks made her the perfect replacement and she transitioned from Director of Marketing to Director of Licensing.
She worked first as a music supervisor in advertising, and then for Domino Records & Publishing, eventually narrowing her focus to selling music to game creators. Maya enjoyed pitching music for games because the structure of the deals was interesting and more flexible than film and TV. A friend encouraged Maya to apply for a job at Microsoft on the opposite side of the relationship – buying music for the game teams. As the Music Supervisor, Maya works with music sellers at labels and publishers to curate licensed songs for Xbox Game Studios games and game trailers. While she has been in the gaming industry 10 years, she still thinks of herself as coming from the music business.
What a Music Supervisor does
Maya works on a small team with the same co-worker who originally hired her 10 years ago and two licensing colleagues that handle the paperwork. Music rights are complex, so licensing specialists are crucial to the process. In fact, for those new to making games, Maya suggests finding a lawyer who is familiar with music rights IP to help ensure you are allowed to use the music in all the ways you want to use it. And to think outside the box – she loves seeing a wider range of music in games.
Maya works closely with audio leads, creative directors, and producers to understand what the game needs. Many game soundtracks are originally commissioned scores where the producer and audio lead work with a composer, so Maya sometimes facilitates those connections, and other times she focuses on filling out the soundtrack and helping the team make the most out of their budget. "Ultimately," Maya says, "the role of any music supervisor is to make the dreams of the product team come true."
As the Music Supervisor, Maya also has opportunities to try new ideas and innovate the way music appears in a game. Maya and her co-worker Kyle Hopkins developed the concept of record label branded radio stations for Forza Horizon 2, which she felt was a cool way to leverage the relationship with their music partners and bring the labels they love into the game. They learned a lot and were able to expand the concept for subsequent releases.
Every game brings its own unique challenges, and each day Maya is excited to work on finding the best solution for her partners. Sometimes the game teams approach her with specific requests, such as music that convey a sense of power, evokes a certain mood, or contain male vocals. Other times, for a game like Forza Horizon, she'll be given a genre for an in-game radio station that she needs to fill. At the same time, Maya is always getting new music from rights holders, labels, and publishers and it's her job to review those and keep them in mind for future projects. Music rights licensing is one of the major ways an artist can make money, so there is no shortage of potential candidates. She also partners with the sellers in her previous role at record labels and publishers who assist in finding the kind of music she needs.
Music as a Vector for Diversity
"Diversity has always been really important to me on a personal level," says Maya. "I'm a white female and a lot of the times I am the diversity in the room. That experience is very real. It's a privilege to have this job and it's our responsibility to represent all of our players in our games."
A particular point of pride for Maya is what she and her team have accomplished. "If you look at the Horizon series, we've done a lot of work to try and make each soundtrack as diverse as possible by including songs from people of color, people from all over the world, people from the LGBTQIA community. That diversity is something that I keep pushing forward. You never just check that box, you have to keep trying, and while I'm proud of what I've done, I think I can always do so much better. I don't have a perfect solution, but I think we need to keep talking about it and being ok with being awkward in order to make progress."
While Maya does play games, it is still the music that draws her to the medium. She says franchises such as Fallout, GTA, and FIFA do an incredible job with music discovery and striking the right balance between giving players what they want while also introducing them to something new. She loves how integrating the right music into the design can enhance the storytelling and overall player experience. Maya reflects, "From a music discovery standpoint, when you engage with music in a game, it is so interactive. When I'm finding music to license, I'm helping create a nonlinear soundtrack that players interact with dynamically during gameplay. That has huge appeal to me as a music lover." Some of Maya's favorite game soundtracks (that she hasn't worked on!) include Red Dead Redemption, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, to name a few.