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Texas Maestro Scores Big by Composing Video Game Melodies : Music: George Sanger has written background tunes for blockbusters such as Loom and Wing Commander.


AUSTIN, Texas — He doesn't gyrate like Elvis or croon like Sinatra. But to computer-game aficionados, George Sanger is a musical superstar.

Twanging out ditties from a rack full of guitars in his home-built studio, Sanger, 35, has become a leading independent writer and producer of the melody backgrounds in popular computer games, the recreation of the multimedia generation.

"If you find a niche, scratch it," said Sanger, who likes to be called by his trade name, the Fat Man. It's not a reference to his physique but symbolizes what he calls his ambition of Orson Wellsian success.

With help from a few collaborators who call themselves Team Fat, Sanger has produced musical scores for more than 80 computer games, including blockbusters such as Loom, Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander.

"We're in a position where it's actually perceived that our music adds value to the game. I'm like the pretty girl at the prom," Sanger said.

Surrounded by computers and sound equipment, Sanger looks like a studio technician at a record factory. His wife, Linda Law, is his "mission control," assembling contracts in a back room of their modest Austin home.

To some extent, writing the score for a computer video game is like writing the score for a movie, Sanger said. The software program writer will present Sanger with material that ranges from a vague idea to a script that let him envision what type of tunes would be appropriate.

The scores are composed with any instrument, recorded and transmitted over a phone line. Sometimes, the music is already lurking in Team Fat's collective head.

Wing Commander, for example, is an embellished melody that group member David Govett had been humming for years. It offers a bluesy-jazz background music as the player enters the officer's club of a spaceship fighter and receives tips from veteran pilots.

Sanger's latest work, The 7th Guest, has been praised in industry trade publications as a breakthrough in computer-game music.

Team Fat member Joe McDermott, who specializes in children's music, said Sanger isn't widely known in Austin, where the group has been concocting computer music for four years. But at computer-game conventions, McDermott said, the Team Fat leader is a celebrity.

Sanger's story is much like the tales of other popular musicians. Success didn't come easy, happenstance intervened and fate could have easily left him doing something else.

In his pre-computer-game days, Sanger searched for stardom in California, playing guitar, leading rock bands, studying television and film and scrounging around at odd jobs.

He briefly toyed with computer games--writing a 10-second tune for skating penguins that netted him $1,000. Meanwhile his brother David was collecting Grammy awards as the drummer for Asleep at the Wheel.

Visiting David in Austin once, Sanger decided it was far friendlier than the atmosphere in Los Angeles, where hustling for an angle to break into the entertainment business is a way of life.

"In Los Angeles, you go into a bar and people will ask you 'What do you do?' In Austin, you're asked, 'What are you having?' " he said.

Sanger moved to Austin and dabbled: writing a book of cartoons, looking for bands to produce, engineering records, selling T-shirts.

Soon he had the reputation as "The Earl Scheib of Music," writing songs for any occasion for $49.95 and later $79.95.

Then in 1989, a friend connected him with computer game software makers who were looking for musical background. His tunes were such hits that word of mouth spread his name around.

Sanger now is riding a wave of rave reviews in magazines like Computer Gaming World, PC World and Multimedia World.

"He's pretty much considered the king of music for computer games," said Warren Sirota, a columnist for Multimedia World. "He's done more than anyone else. He's been associated with really successful games."

Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office, a government-run promoter of music in the state, said, "George has worked hard to establish the Fat Man as a dominant music house for this market segment."

Monahan said Sanger is part of an obscure group of musicians who make money without stepping on stage. "They make their money through advertising jingles, scores for films, television shows, corporate videos and video games," he said.

Sanger says his company receives about $12,000 for 30 to 45 minutes of music. The contracts include a clause that pays Team Fat 1% of the wholesale revenue from each program, he said.

Sanger said the field is competitive, but that Team Fat has no trouble getting jobs. When a producer asks for a bid, he said, "That's a yellow light. They may not be working on the kind of game that demands our level of work. We have bid from time to time, but that's not the practice right now. Generally, now, people know our work."

He declined to specify his income but said it would be premature to lump into the category of the rich and famous.

"Success takes a lot of forms. What I've got right now is a lot of satisfaction providing five people with a living in the arts," he said.

"An independent career like this is a real bucking bronco. I haven't bought an observatory yet, but I expect we'll be able to get some luxuries shortly."

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