From a musician in Newcastle to composing soundtracks for video games in LA — you’d be excused for thinking that Adam Burgess is well and truly ‘living the dream.’ And when take a look at his extensive CV, including his work for Blizzard Entertainment on the Overwatch series, it’s hard to argue with the assertion.
The world of video game music presents a huge amount of challenges, however, as Burgess is only too aware. Meeting deadlines, needing to be flexible and constantly creative are just a few of the demands. We took five with Burgess as he talked us through his workflow, how he got into games, his work on the Overwatch series and the freshly released Overwatch: Cities & Countries album.
Adam Burgess is one of the most in-demand video game soundtrack composers in the business. We chat with him about his process, plus his work on Overwatch.
ENMORE AUDIO: How did your relationship begin with video games?
ADAM: Gaming was a very social activity growing up. I mostly played video games on the weekends with my friends, enjoying everything from PC real-time strategy games, to console platformers and first-person shooters. The social aspect is still the thing that I love the most about games, a franchise like Overwatch, and the titles that Blizzard create.
As a kid, I never thought I would have the opportunity to compose for video games. To be honest, I didn’t even know that being a video game composer was a job people could have. That said, I’m very happy that my path led here.
ENMORE AUDIO: Do you think it is important to be a gaming fan in order to be a video game composer?
ADAM: I think being a gaming fan definitely helps you to be a video game composer. Games are immersive, intricate experiences, and they can present unique challenges, particularly when it comes to the technology surrounding them.
Being a fan helps you to understand the world, how games function from a design standpoint and the possibilities for what types of music might illustrate those worlds. I often joke that I am researching while playing video games at home, in addition to having fun. There’s definitely truth to that.
ENMORE AUDIO: You spent many of your formative years playing guitar. Is the guitar still central to your work as a composer?
ADAM: It is definitely important to an extent. The first instrument I began to learn was the piano, and 99% of the work I do today is written there. For me, it is much easier to visualize music at the piano because everything is linear. The low notes are on the left, the high are on the right, and there’s only one place to play each of them.
I have played guitar for 18 years now, and I can still get lost on it. I love the guitar, but these days, I mostly use it as a tool to supplement my compositions. I played the guitar on the Cities & Countries tracks Junkertown, Ilios and Paris. I also recorded a lot of western-style guitar for the Overwatch cinematic, Reunion.
ENMORE AUDIO: What gear is essential for your day-to-day work in the studio?
ADAM: A computer and MIDI keyboard are the fundamental pieces of gear that any modern composer needs. Computer power has unlocked the ability to create music in a way that wasn’t imaginable when I was a kid. If you plug a piano keyboard into it, you can have an orchestra, percussion, traditional instruments and synthesizers all at your fingertips.
It’s incredible what you can do with it. When you are working on a project like Overwatch, where you are asked to compose many different styles of music, a computer and good quality sounds to work with are the most valuable assets you could ever have.
ENMORE AUDIO: You’ve also worked in film. How does the process differ from composing for a game?
ADAM: With film, everything is set in stone. Once the picture is locked (meaning there will be no more picture edits made), the dialogue plays the exact way every single time, the camera cuts are always in the same place, and everything is completely linear. In film music, you can tailor every single nuance to the exact moment you wish.
Video games do not work like that. The player is very much in control, and with every piece of music, you have to take into account how player choices may affect what happens next. If you’re a video games composer, you’re often very hands-on with that work. It can become very technical, and you often have to leverage the help of game designers to get things functioning exactly how you want it to. That also makes it a much more collaborative process.
In addition to great games, Blizzard creates really outstanding cinematic material, so I am lucky to be able to keep my feet in both worlds.
ENMORE AUDIO: Alongside the epic and inspiring fanfares, some of your work touches on EDM and many other cultural inspirations. What’s the catalyst for choosing a stylistic direction?
ADAM: For the location music found on Overwatch: Cities & Countries, the primary influence is always the real-world location and the musical culture that exists there. Having said that, we always want to present it through the lens of the Overwatch universe. We pay close attention to visual aesthetic, lore, story, colour palette, weather, which characters are from the location, what the loading screen looks like.
The list goes on and on. These inspirations are ultimately mixed with the franchise sound, which we like to refer to as ‘uplifting and future-possible’. The style of music is always the result of those inspirations, and we try to make it as multi-dimensional as possible.
ENMORE AUDIO: How does teamwork factor into your work on game music?
ADAM: Teamwork is a huge factor in my job. One of the core values at Blizzard is ‘Every Voice Matters’, and that counts for the music too. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by amazing co-workers who bring their ideas and perspectives to the table.
The Overwatch team has created an incredibly inspiring universe, and as a music team, we really view our role as a facilitator in bringing that world to life. We can’t do that without there being a highly collaborative relationship and open dialogue between the music department and the game team.
ENMORE AUDIO: How does the production process in the creation of the Overwatch: Cities & Countries album compare with the process of composing music for the game itself?
ADAM: One big difference is that in-game, we only have 20 seconds to make our musical statement as you load into each of these locations. On the Cities & Countries album, we had as much time as we wanted, and we were able to expand the music in ways we never could inside the game.
This is a really exciting aspect of this album for us, and there is a lot of new music to experience as an Overwatch fan when you listen to it. The process is similar in that these extensions share the same exact goals when it comes to the sound and tone of the composition. We aim to capture the essence of the location in the Overwatch universe.
ENMORE AUDIO: What are your goals for the future?
ADAM: Music is a lifelong pursuit, and right now I am working hard to refine my craft as much as I can. Other than that, the big exciting thing on the horizon is Overwatch 2. We are currently hard at work creating music for that.