The importance of audio in video games is changing the music industry's relationship with games. This was the message at this year's BIME conference in Bilbao, which aims to bring together industry professionals from Europe and Latin America in areas spanning music, video games, and new technologies.
The music and video game industries have been working together for over 25 years. One of the earliest collaborations, between Bomb the Bass and The Bitmap Brothers, resulted, Xenon II Megablast, which was one of the first games to use sampled sound, a technique which was just emerging as a possibility given the limited memory and processing power of home computers of the late eighties. Since then, the video game industry has continued to grow, not only in revenue, but just as importantly, in audience size.
It's this access to millions of new potential fans that encourages some musicians to partner with video games studios. Paul McCartney's recent collaboration with Bungie on the Destiny soundtrack did not involve any form of payment, he did it just so that his music could be heard by a new audience. Marty O'Donnell, the former Bungie audio director says when he first approached McCartney, he got him excited about writing for games due to the challenge of composing interactive music. Although not self-described as a video game fan, McCartney did say that he had played Halo with his grandkids.
Others like to be at the forefront of advances in technology. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails wrote the music for Id Software's Quake in 1996, and has been involved in several games throughout his career, the last involving him composing the main theme music for Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
"The games industry allows the developer to keep typically 70 per cent of the revenue, whereas the revenues that artists receive from free music streaming services such as Spotify has been notoriously low"
However, other musicians have a more prolific relationship with video games. DJ and electronic dance music producer Skrillex, has a history of writing for video games, having worked on Syndicate, Uncharted, Far Cry 3, and even writing for Disney's movie about video games Wreck-It Ralph. This year he went one step further, releasing a preview of his latest album via a smartphone app called Alien Ride. It's a relatively simple shoot 'em up which opens up access to some tracks from the new album as the player progresses.
At another BIME panel, the question posed was "What can the music industry learn from games?" The speed at embracing new business models was seen as a positive, with some panelists even stating that F2P arguably started off in the music industry - as exemplified by singles being played on radio, but that it was games which really embraced the model.
Differences were drawn between the F2P approaches in both industries. The games industry allows the developer to keep typically 70 per cent of the revenue, whereas the revenues that artists receive from free music streaming services such as Spotify has been notoriously low. Ed Sheeran, for example, stated that he once received a royalty cheque from Spotify for £4, although this was probably early on in his career. This doesn't mean that free streaming isn't of value however, even Sheeran sees streaming as a way to reach a large audience, not to generate income.
"The speed at embracing new business models was seen as a positive, with some panelists even stating that F2P arguably started off in the music industry - as exemplified by singles being played on radio"
The panel also raised the point that the games industry is good at creating engaging experiences, in particular designing experiences which create long-term play. Musicians see this as ideal, allowing time for the player to become familiar with the soundtrack, often playing long enough to listen to a complete album. In music streaming, however, the user may select only one or two tracks.
Despite the obvious advantages of the music and games industry working together, the difficulties in doing so were also discussed. Although some musicians will revel in the challenge of creating interactive audio which changes depending on how the game is played, it may also require them to become more involved during the game's development and require new approaches of thinking about composition.
For video games studios the legal side of the music industry can be daunting. In particular, negotiating royalty agreements across various countries which will most likely involve specialists can be incredibly time consuming. The general advice seemed to be that, unless your game really needs an already established band as part of the soundtrack, (such as games like Guitar Hero, Dance Central, Rock Band etc), then you should really be looking to sign up lesser known indie bands which will save you both time and money. This should be of mutual benefit to both musicians and game developers. The game will benefit from a soundtrack that's better than it otherwise might have been and the band gets to reach a new audience.
There was a clear message from the panelists that music in video games is becoming more important than ever, with a greater number of established musicians getting involved in composing soundtracks and budgets allocated to music also on the increase, and for good reason. Music has the power to create, change, or elevate, the emotional impact of the player experience, helping to form powerful gaming memories that stay with us forever.