Cinematic Games and Music Licensing

Thought-through, grand, dramatic, and extensive compositions created from scratch to accompany the action of a video game seem to be the norm. Many of the most successful games, including Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, and Silent Hill, have launched iconic soundtracks in their own right.1 Two examples make the point. Full orchestras are currently touring and playing music worldwide from the fifteen game series of Final Fantasy,2 while the main theme of The Elder Scrolls, ‘Dragonborn’, composed by Jeremy Soule, sold over 50,000 soundtracks since its release in 2012.3 As many millions more buy the games, the music gets a lot of additional attention: Skyrim, the fifth iteration of Elder Scrolls, sold 30 million games worldwide since its release late in 2011.4

Now, more cinematic video games may be changing the dynamics of the industry. These games emphasize character development, storytelling, and extensive cut scenes rather than a typical ‘point-and-shoot’ mechanic. So, more and more, video game players are called to make decisions when the action stalls or loops, which demands more programmable outcomes from game developers.5 The latter, naturally, are beginning to reconsider how sound will best work with their creations, and are nudging the video game market towards a more proactive purchase of existing music. This is good news for record companies and music publishers.

Cinematic Games

A good example is Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.  Life is Strange is a “five part episodic game that sets out to revolutionize story-based choice and consequence games by allowing the player to rewind time and affect the past, present and future”.6  Indie artists like Amanda Palmer, Mogwai, and Bright Eyes punctuate the action with their songs, and generate much licensing revenue of their own. Ultimately, of course, this is because the game creators considered soundtracks from these artists as pivotal to the narrative. The game has its own official Spotify Playlist, containing all of the music, with over 126,000 followers and the soundtrack itself accompanied all physical purchases of the limited edition version of the game.7 It is estimated that the fan base of Life is Strange reached a million players before its final episode.8

An example of a cinematic video game from a larger franchise is Tales from the Borderlands. Created by Telltale Games, the game was licensed for use by the developers of the original Borderlands series.9 Tales from the Borderlands was far more user interactive, and also licensed more songs than its parent predecessors, which mostly used original music. In addition to winning the Video Game Award for Best Game of 2015, Tales from the Borderlands won the award for Best Licensed Soundtracks that year. Yet there was no official Spotify playlist. Fans, numbered in millions, made their own. Neither was a soundtrack released for sale. This suggests that taking advantage of music marketing opportunities in video games is not always clear-cut, especially where the music is licensed and not contracted on a work for hire basis. The costs and permissions needed to play existing music was perhaps high, and if not the makers of Tales from the Borderlands still had to contend with the originators of the Borderland series. Either way, the music was not monetized independently.

Both Life is Strange and Tales from the Borderlands had strong character portraits and the choice was made to license music that engaged the character with the audience. But planning to break a video game soundtrack may not be easy at all. First, the game has to do well, and second, there can be no anchor like an A actor in a Hollywood movie, minimizing the risk of the investment (even then, there are no guarantees the movie will do well). Procuring top music talent is expensive, and needs the permission and comfort of the artist. Short of that, when the plots of video games become more cinematic, licensing indie music is much cheaper and can add variety to the user experience over a hired all-in-one composer.

Targeting Audiences

Video game audiences, moreover, are not easy targets. They may be harder to determine than a music audience, so planning for success and taking on higher upfront music costs is foolhardy.   BuzzAngle, a new standard in the US for the daily tracking of all form of recorded music — from single song sales, to album sales, and streams – cannot not do as well in the video game space because there are multiple platforms. Steam, a PC digital downloader, uses SteamSpy to record sales, user numbers, and play hours, but gaming giants like Microsoft (Xbox) and Sony (Playstation) are less transparent with their data. Because of this, it is difficult to get reliable quants, especially if the game happens to exist on all three platforms. And this, naturally, is historical information: useful but not dependable.

Another problem is the tendency for gamers to acquire games secondhand. This is because a new game can cost anywhere from $25 for smaller games to $60 for RPGs (role playing games) or MMOs (massively multiplayer online games). Some secondhand options include (i) borrowing or purchasing a game from someone who already purchased it, typically a sibling or friend; (ii) buying the game used from resellers such as GameStop; or (iii) renting the game from RedBox or GameFly. Finally, video games can be pirated too, although, unlike music, technology and the sheer size of the files involved act as a natural barrier.10


All of the above suggests that the growth in music licensing for video games is bounded by the risk inherent in the medium, its unpredictable and untrustworthy analytics, and the costs of buying the music, including the transactions necessary to clear it and monetize it beyond the video impression when the game is successful. On the face of it, this argues for a continued work for hire approach to acquiring music. Entertainment businesses, including video game creators, wish to minimize their overheads before release. Moreover, for video game makers, licensing top rate music is not a sufficient guarantee; the game must work for the player well and music is but a part.

Yet there are two forces working in the opposite direction. The first is the sophistication of story lines, and a more cinematic approach to action that is the necessary corollary of the early video games. This seems to demand more licensed music, and popular mid level artists may engage video audiences well enough and better than thought-through music by hired composers.

The second factor is that we may be living in the golden age of TV, and competition for the emotional strings of audiences is rife in series and mini-series. For video games to pull their weight, they might have to become more realistic and less puerile. If this were the way forward, there would be a bigger role for licensed music in video games than there currently is.


By Gabriela Barnes



1. Whalen, Zach. “Case Study: Film Music vs. Video-Game Music: The Case of Silent Hill.” Chapter 4. In Music, Sound and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual, edited by Jamie Sexton, 68–82. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

2. Final Symphony Official Website. Accessed March 31, 2017.

3. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: The Original Game Soundtrack”. Buzzangle. Accessed March 30, 2017.

4. Suellentrop, Chris. “Q&A: ‘Skyrim’ Creator Todd Howard Talks Switch, VR and Why We’ll Have to Wait for Another ‘Elder Scrolls’” Glixel. November 21, 2016. Accessed March 31, 2017.

5. Wolf, Mark J.P. “Genre and the Video Game.” In The Medium of the Video Game, 113-36. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2001.

6. Life is Strange Official Website. Accessed March 30, 2017.

7. “Life is Strange Soundtrack”. Spotify. January 29, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2017.

8. Karmali, Luke. “Life is Strange Hits One Million Sales, Episode 4 Release Date Announced.” IGN. July 23, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2017.

9. Telltale Games Official Website. Accessed April 1, 2017.

10.  Plunkett, Luke. “Why People Pirate Video Games.” Kotaku. July 9, 2015. Accessed March 31, 2017.



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