Q&A with Marty O’Donnell
Techno-maestro behind the music for popular video games like HALO and DESTINY
When Marty O’Donnell AttENDED Community High School in West Chicago, the video game industry was barely out of its infancy. Not that it mattered to O’Donnell, who had learned piano as a kid and played keyboard in a friend’s band. Following his passion, O’Donnell attended Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music, then headed out to southern California, where he earned a Masters of Music degree. After a career as a composer and as a film and audio producer in Chicago, a chance meeting led O’Donnell into the then emerging world of high-fidelity video games. Soon, he was on the creative team behind HALO, a game that elevated the player experience, smashed sales records and won multiple awards. After the equally successful sequel, DESTINY, O’Donnell parted ways with developer Bungie Studios, by then owned by Microsoft. His exit resulted in a lawsuit related to creative control of intellectual property. O’Donnell prevailed, and moved on to found Highwire Games. The start-up is on the cusp of releasing its debut game, the virtual reality-driven GOLEM, created for PlayStation.
Let’s begin with how you got interested in music.
I started piano when I was as young as I can remember. My mother was a piano teacher and my father was an actor and director. We had a very creative family. I learned classical piano, but when I got into junior high and high school, I played in pop bands, took up flute and joined choir, all that stuff. I was pretty musical, so I took some workshops at the Conservatory in Wheaton, and then decided I wanted to go there for college. I started out as a piano major, but I was 19 and in a band. The drummer we had at the time noticed that I was the one who was always figuring out the different parts and teaching the others, so he said, Why don’t you try writing?
After Wheaton, you picked up and moved across the country?
Yes, I went to University of Southern California, and I got my Masters of Music — in composition. My wife was also a musician, a piano major. We lived in California for four years. Then we had a baby in late 1981, which was amazing (whistles). Basically, we looked around . . . we didn’t have family there. We had a lot of friends but, looking forward we didn’t think we wanted to raise a family in Southern California. I had what I thought was an opportunity to work back in Chicago at the American Conservatory of Music, as it was then. So we moved back.
What happened next?
That job fell through. I ended up as a “grip” on a film set — someone who runs lights and cables. We’re the worker bees of film production. Then a producer I was working with who knew I had a music degree asked me, ‘Marty, why don’t you write music for films or TV?’ I actually said that I didn’t want to prostitute my art! That was pretty much the lesson I’d learned from all those years of education. But the next day the director offered me $500 to score the movie we were working on. And I said, Absolutely! [laughs]. I changed my mind on a dime, a literal dime. No one had actually offered me money before — as soon as I had it, I thought, well gosh, this is better than gripping.
And where did that lead?
I jumped into it. I went to my friend Mike Salvatori who had a studio in his home out in Wheaton. I said, ‘Hey Mike, I’ll split this money with you if you help me record some stuff. So then we got together and the rest is history. We did a little music for a Sears point-of-purchase film. While we were working on that, another client — from Marshall Field’s — overheard some of the tunes I was playing. He immediately said, ‘We want to use that!’ He picked it up and put it in a TV ad that was shown during a Chicago Bears’ game that very Sunday. That was 1982 — way, way back there. Then Marshall Field’s decided to use the same music for a whole campaign. We lucked into it — our first real break. It wasn’t as easy as that, we got the taste for it and we decided, let’s keep going.
Didn’t you write jingles at that time?
The Flintstones ad! It came up two years later, around 1985. We started getting our name around town, doing music scores and producing industrial films for some of the big companies around Chicago. Then we pitched an idea for a jingle for Flintstones Vitamins. We did a free demo, but it was so successful that some version of that jingle has been on the air ever since — We are Flintstones kids, 10 million strong . . . and growing (sings). My daughter was five and she sang the “and growing” line. The other big jingle we did was an update for Mr. Clean — and that one’s still going, too.
What made you transition into video games?
I was a player, I liked computers. We had always had a computer in the office and when the Nintendo system came out, I got one for the home — quote, unquote, for the kids. But of course I ended playing more than them. Then, in 1993, the son of a radio friend of mine in Chicago, a guy named Rick Staub, came out to visit my studio. He was 18 and really interested in music. He saw that I had games on my shelf and told me he and some friends were working on a game out in Spokane, Washington. Well, that kid was Josh Staub, who is now an Academy Award-winning animator for Disney, which is really cool. He showed me a version of a game he was working on — MYST. I started playing and said, ‘I need to meet your friends and work with them.’ In 1993, we started working on RIVEN, a sequel to MYST with Josh’s company, Cyan.
What was so different about Cyan?
Well, up until then, I wasn’t all that interested in the music in video games. It was kind of low fidelity. The sound effects were what we called 8-bit manufactured sounds. The games might have been fun, but the music wasn’t anything I thought was compelling, at least not for me. But by ‘93 we started to hear real music, real actors in the games. So instead of, chintzy sounding music, we could actually record real singing, real voice acting. Everything that Mike and I were already doing as directors and producers, we were able to do for games. The technology was more sophisticated, too. Think about how much storage space there was on computers in the mid ‘90s compared to what we have today. I still remember the first little videos that were playable on computers — scratchy little postage-stamp size videos — and that was cool. That was as much as you could do. Now, we have beautiful 4K, high-def, full screen resolution. And since the technology has advanced we have full-fidelity music and sound effects.
Was there anyone doing the same type of work in Chicago?
Yes. Bungie Studios was making a game named MYTH. That was the first game Mike and I worked on for Bungie. We did music and voices — as freelance suppliers. By 2000, Bungie was getting bigger and bigger and sort of started taking over our company. So Mike took over commercial production while I worked on the game-audio side only. One of the projects was HALO, which really took off. At a trade show in 2013 Microsoft, which was in the middle of developing the Xbox, needed a big game. so they bought Bungie lock, stock and barrel — and moved us all out to Seattle. I said goodbye to Mike, I’ll be back in a year [laughs]. I really thought I’d just finish HALO and come home. But the game became the flagship title for the entire industry — a huge hit. I decided to stay, and I worked on HALO games for the next 10 years.
What is so different about composing music for video games?
With games, the player, who is our audience, is interacting with everything on the screen. The player has choices — what to do, where to wander and what to look at. The music has to score the player’s experience, but it also has to be able to adapt to whatever the player chooses to do. That’s different from writing linear music — music for a movie, for instance, where you know exactly what the piece is going to be from beginning to middle to end. For a game, we have to write music that can expand, contract or adapt in some way to the choices that the player makes. I’m always interested to see if I can figure out a way I can emotionally guide the players, without manipulating them. The player is not really aware that they are making choices in what they’re hearing. I want players to feel as though they’re the star of the movie, and that everything about the music helped score their emotional journey. That’s my goal.
Tell us about your time working with Paul McCartney
That was just one of those amazing things. We had finished HALO and started a new project, DESTINY. I had worked with some amazing musicians like John Mayer, Incubus and Steve Vai — probably one of the best guitarists in the history of man. But HALO had been so successful, someone suggested I work with Paul McCartney. I thought, that’s just crazy. It’ll never happen. Why would Paul be interested in working with me? But we set up a meeting in Los Angeles. It was supposed to be short, about 20 minutes, but he was interested. We talked about composing and about kids and bands and music. Two hours later, he was absolutely on board. We worked together for over two years in Los Angeles and Chicago and at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Who contributes what to the music?
I had already started a soundtrack for DESTINY called Music of the Spheres. I had shown it to Paul and he started sending me stuff — ideas and musical themes. I wasn’t sure how he wanted to work with me. We were sitting in the studio at Capital Records, just the two of us. He asked about Music of the Spheres so I started playing some of it. He noticed that I hesitated, so he put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Hey Marty, there’s just the two of us here, no cameras, there’s nobody listening. What’s the hang-up?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re one of the greatest collaborators in the history of music and an incredible solo artist and I guess I’m not sure how you want to work with me.’ He said, ‘I want to collaborate. I love that I give you my melody and you put it with your music and it becomes our music.’ As soon as he said that, I knew he wasn’t going to be precious about things and I could take his stuff and incorporate it into our work to come up with something new. He was happy with that. Music of the Spheres is an amalgam from me, Mike and Paul.
Any advice for musicians interested in video game development?
Learn as much as you can. Formal training helps, but there are a lot of people who write music from the gut, from instinct (laughs). Get together with friends, and work on it together. You need someone who knows computers, because there’s a whole lot of new technology you’re going to need to understand in order to work.
Talk about your new project, GOLEM.
It’s with Highwire Games, designed by Jaime Griesemer. It has a magical, mystical quality, but the player still gets to create and control some incredible huge stone creatures. There’s a prequel album coming out on vinyl as well as on CD and digital. I’m excited for it to happen.
Favorite music to listen to?
Oh,too many. The Beatles, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, to name a few.
Composer you admire most?
It’s got to be Leonard Bernstein.
Traditional piano or electric keyboard?
Both. I have a Steinway at home but I use a keyboard for a lot of my studio work.
Do you compose using a pencil and staff paper or at a computer?
Again, both. I always have pencil and paper nearby, but for video game music especially, I find it easier to work on the computer.
What is your personal favorite video game?
The Legend of Zelda series, from Nintendo.
Best book you’ve read lately?
I’ve been reading a biography of Paul McCartney by Phillip Norman. He wrote one on Lennon, too.
Best places to go when you’re back in the west suburbs?
Portillos! Especially the original one in Villla Park. There’s nothing like it.