Catching Up with Video Games

The emergence of new types of entertainment has always been associated with rapid developments in technology. Popularization of the Internet eventually led to the birth of social networking platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. Smartphone technology has lead venture capitalists to heavily invest in mobile application developments. Now, the video game industry is beginning to take hold as a premier leader in the progression of new entertainment– opening many doors for other industries to walk through, including the music trade.

It’s been 25 years since Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers was first released. Back then, aspects such as gameplay, graphics, music, and sound design were limited by memory capacity. Today we can easily find realistic graphics in games going hand-in-hand with top musical releases.  Currently, people appear to be spending more money on games than any other form of entertainment[1]. Moreover, according to market research group NPD, U.S. retail sales of video games, including all platforms and accessories, generated $20 billion in 2009[2]. There is much opportunity to license music.

The gaming industry is known for its high level of brand royalty, where 30,000 to 40,000 units of video game soundtracks are easily sold to fans that want to hear the music featured in the game[3]. As the gaming business has become increasingly globalized, and the music industry struggles to find new sources of revenue to compensate for the decline in physical sales, gaming affords economic solace through the exploitation of intellectual property rights –an ever more important consideration for musicians.

Scoring for Film and Video Games—Not the Same

Due to the increasing crossover with Hollywood, video game productions are often compared to film productions. Since films have a longer history of getting audiences emotionally involved with the drama of a story, video games have borrowed techniques like musical motifs and themes identifying characters or settings. This adds to the emotional dimensions of the storyline, thus enhancing gamers’ experiences. However, the main difference between films and video games lies in linearity vs. interactivity. In music production for films, the picture dictates how the score is built because the music must follow the dramatic structure of the linear storytelling. In video games, players consciously decide how they interact with the gaming environment. This represents an artistic challenge to video game composers because they have to score “in stems”- creating certain segments of music “which will never be played the same way twice[4].” Plus, while films always have the same runtime, the length of game play can vary by hours, depending on player. As a result, the process of writing original music for a game requires thoughtful consideration and must imply different techniques for musical interactivity.

New Opportunities for Licensing Music and Artist Branding

To produce a spontaneous and nonrepetitive gaming experience, developers are incorporating a massive number of licensed music into their productions. For example, in Grand Theft Auto (1997~2009), an action game series developed and published by Rockstar Games, over 200 pre-existing songs were licensed for the “radio stations [of almost] every genre”[5]; these were available to the gamer in cars during game play. In Sims 2 (2004), a life simulation game developed by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts, pre-existing songs were licensed and re-recorded in fictional language (called “Simlish”) to represent the music appropriate for the gaming environment[6]. Consequently, approximately 128 songs were specifically composed and re-recorded for Sims 2.

Creative ways of pairing video games with music have been in evidence, and brought new forms of publicity to artists. Bands like Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy, and Selasse enjoyed a massive amount of exposure after their songs were introduced in Madden NFL 2003 (2002), Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (2005), and FIFA 2006 (2005). The combination of various genres of music with the right types of video games produce a synergy that amplifies both the artists’ career and the games’ success. It serves as an advertising and promotional tool for game developers and helps to increase soundtrack sales. Statistics show that “40% of [hard-core gamers] said that a game introduced them to a new band or song, then 27% of them went out and bought what they heard.” Artists now have video games as a valid medium for breaking into the market[7]. In other cases, games that have primarily musically driven premises -such as Guitar Hero or Rock Band- have obvious reasons for licensed music. In these creative music games, players are actively involved in remixing, producing and composing music. Spin-off titles such as Rock Band the Beatles actually represent artists as protagonists of the game, which allows for another source of branding.

Moreover, increasing sales of soundtrack in iTunes and other online music stores also bring attention to emerging composers and musicians. As technologies develop, audio design is progressing from PSG’s (Programmable Sound Generator: sound chips included in consoles for audio production) reading written codes, to synthesized waveforms, which produce sounds for today’s Hollywood-size symphonic orchestras. For example, in Afrika (2009), a safari simulation game developed by Rhino Studios and published by Sony, a 104-piece ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony was used to record the soundtrack. These facts indicate that the music industry is witnessing a revival of symphonic performances and recordings. Diminishing attendance for symphony halls and waning financial support for orchestras have been a serious, ongoing issue. However, symphonic music has seen new forms of success in concert tours like Video Games Live, which perform popular video game soundtracks in full orchestral arrangements. Plus, numerous game developers invest their budget in hiring professional composers from film, TV and other entertainment industries to score their developing games. Recently, film scorers like, John Debney (Liar), Harry Gregson-Williams (Metal Gear Solid) and Michael Giacchino[8] (Medal of Honor) have all contributed to new video game soundtracks. Overall, these trends feed the hopes of aspiring composers, as well as those of union classical players who are struggling to sustain their careers.

Licensing & Intellectual Property Considerations

The growing symbiotic relationship[9] between the music and gaming industries have resulted in new developments in licensing agreements. As the video game industry emerges as the entertainment trend of the decade, lack of intellectual property protection in many areas of the industry will cause serious legal issues. The music industry already witnessed the current copyright legislation’s incapability of protecting rights and adapting to the changes brought on by the digital revolution. Similarly, the video game industry is the newest area of entertainment where these rights have to be redefined and reapplied[10]. On the other hand, Matthew Burr, a patent attorney at Monster & Wynne PC, insists that people “who use computers for creative work have a philosophical, almost political, inclination to resist some forms of IP protection[11].” In other words, some game developers still feel that copyright and patent protection is unnecessary. Even if they understand the necessity, the extensive process involved in obtaining proper copyrights and patents are arduous enough that most creators simply decide not to go through the hassle. This calls into question the relevance of current legal standards for intellectual property. If the process of obtaining appropriate IP protections is too complicated, the progress of entrepreneurship in the United States will be greatly hindered relative to that of international markets. Therefore, legislators should consider ways of amending current legislation to guarantee developers and publishers the proper rights and protection over their products.

On the other hand, fierce enforcements of protection for the creative side will face resistance by users of intellectual properties– as we witnessed in the public’s reaction to the RIAAs’ legal action against individual copyright infringers. In the eyes of copyright law, uploading someone’s gameplay video onto YouTube, or creating user-created games using programming codes and sources from a copyrighted product are technically copyright infringements. For example, Super Mario Bros. Crossover was “a fan-made game” based on “the entire original Super Mario Bros.” from Nintendo, in which players can choose to play “as Mario, or as five characters from other video game franchises[12].” The original game and all of the characters used are protected under copyright law. Possible defenses, like claiming the fan-made game as a derivative work or fair use of copyright law in light as if it were a parody would require complicated legal settlements that would hurt both the fan-creator and video game industry’s public image. Instead, the gaming industry should “recognize the fan-made labor of love” from these products, thus “[instilling] good-will amongst [the gaming communities and the video game industry]”. Likewise, for the industry to sustain its reputation for high brand loyalty from fans, publishers and developers must not restrict themselves to legal boundaries to solve these issues.

Legal and intellectual property protection considerations also apply from the musicians’ point of view in licensing their music to game developers and publishers. First, bands must recognize that the video game industry is not a royalty-producing arena. As a regular practice, large game publishers prefer buyouts with flat fees instead of royalty-per-unit sales.

The choice of the latter does not make sense for two reasons. First, in a case like Grand Theft Auto, publishers cannot possibly include a royalty scheme in licensing contracts for all 200+ songs. Second, unlike licensing for television where dedicated performing rights organizations collect royalties, video games do not yet have a dedicated collection agency. Licensing costs range from zero to $30,000, and usually last for 7 to 10 years. Publishers consider the length of term sufficient since the progress of gaming technology usually guarantees a timely replacement of most products. However, there are dedicated fans that do play classic games even after they have become outdated, leaving the possibility for sales to occur even after licenses have expired[13]. In addition, artists must understand that negotiation involves creativity. As long as both sides agree, creative ways to get the best deals possible do exist. Artists could ask for sales-based bonuses; 1-5% of net sales in dealing with smaller companies, box credits, screen credits, front credits, etc[14]. Bands must also understand that their songs will not “[likely be] heard in the ways in which the artist had originally intended.” As previously mentioned, unlike films with their linear storylines, video game music depends on players deciding how they interact with the gaming environment. From a composition point of view, this indicates that songs can be “altered” to fit the “nonlinear aspects of gaming,” and artists must be aware of this when granting licenses to game developers.

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Technology is rapidly changing the way that we discover and listen to music. New business models are constantly emerging and the industry must be aware of those changes and adapt them as fast as possible. The video game industry is definitely a newborn business and “new to academic study” which means that “useful theories” do not yet exist. Nevertheless, golden opportunities exist where there are rules and regulations have yet to be defined. Licensing could be great source of exposure for many different kinds of musicians. The current music industry requires artists to be able to market themselves, and branding is becoming the new way to connect with fans. Deciding what songs to license to combine with the right video game titles will create an authentic buzz amongst. In fact, the video games industry will continually revolutionize itself, so the music industry must evolve according to those changes. Ultimately, the video gaming industry holds great potential to be a major source of music revenue.

By Ben Hong
[1] Ventresca, N. Dan Carlin, “The New Business of Film Scoring”, The MBJ, November 19th, 2009.
[2] The NDP Group, “2009 U.S. Video Game Industry and PC Game Software Retail Sales”,
[3] “Greg Curtis on Music For Video Games”;
[4] “Steve Schnur on Composing Scores For Video Games”
[5] “Jeffrey Brabek on Video Game Licensing”
[6] Collins, K. Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2008. Pg. 68.
[7] Collins, K. Pg. 116.
[8] Michael Giacchino actually began to excel his career in video games industry first, then moved into film industry.
[9] Collins, K. Pg. 111.
[10] Gosdin, G. Video Game Industry Lags in Intellectual Property Protection.
[11] Gosdin, G.
[12] Athans & Hogan, LLC. “The Intellectual Property Implications of Super Mario Bros. Crossover”.
[13] “Jeffrey Brabek on Video Game Licensing”
[14] Class notes from FS-271: Introduction to Video Game / Interactive Music. October 14, 2010.
[15] Collins, K. Pg. 119.
[16] Collins, K. Pg. 2.



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