With each passing year, it becomes more acceptable to enjoy playing video games, no matter how old you are. This isn’t surprising: video gaming has merely stuck by the side of the generation that came out of the womb with a controller in hand. I’m a member of this generation; along with Michael Jordan and MTV, Nintendo was a part of my early vocabulary. And as the mainstream has grown increasingly to love the gaming culture, the influence of video games has begun to diffuse into other parts of our culture. One such area is music.
When video games hit the U.S. in the ’80s, few imagined the massive marketing potential that a game soundtrack held. In addition to the obvious technical limitations — namely, the lack of storage and sound-processing ability — that prevented this in gaming’s infancy, many dismissed video gaming as a fad. So the industry was left to do its own thing, and it grew. And grew. And grew.
Even after consoles gained the audio technology to play back un-synthesized audio, game developers and record labels were slow to work together. What corporate America didn’t know was that despite serving as background music, these insignificant little jingles from the 8- and 16-bit era stuck in the minds of gamers. I can still remember songs not only from all the big games — Mario Bros., Sonic, Zelda — but also from less popular games such as Spy Hunter and Adventure Island.
Sony was the first company to jump all over this product-placement movement. It published the 1999 release Wipeout XL, teaming up with Astralwerks Records to offer a fully licensed in-game soundtrack. Featuring artists such as Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers, and the Prodigy, the soundtrack was not only in the game, but also in stores on CD as well. Now the products were cross-marketing themselves. Not only were fans of the music drawn to the game, but gamers previously unaware of these artists were now exposed to something new.
After the success of Wipeout XL, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater debuted in 1999 with not only excellent game play, but also a fully licensed soundtrack. Activision catered specifically to the extreme-sports demographic by featuring a variety of punk, ska and hard rock from well-known artists such as the Dead Kennedys and lesser-known entities such as Evenrude. Two years later, the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was released, creating a new trend in video-game and music marketing.
With the introduction of the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation, game companies went all out in pushing this form of product placement. No longer are video games the outcasts of the entertainment industry. Every game in the EA Sports roster features licensed music, and different games target different music markets. For example, NBA Live offers more hip-hop than FIFA Soccer, which has more of an electronic-based soundtrack, reflecting the different user bases for each game. Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series is just as famous for its boxed-set soundtracks as its ultra-violent game play. The soundtracks to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas feature a variety of music from the ’80s and ’90s, respectively. In addition, these boxed sets were made available in stores, becoming popular among fans of the game for their nostalgic feel and comprehensive understanding of the music from those eras.
The latest trends in video-game soundtracks have been to use well-known artists to create music that is either exclusive or specifically catered to the game. 2k Sports had artists such as Little Brother, RJD2, and the Roots record original tracks for the soundtrack to NBA 2k6. Those exclusive tracks were used to market the soundtrack, which in turn marketed the game. The effectiveness of this cannot be questioned; music fans are always looking to hear new songs from their favorite artists. The soundtrack to Marc Ecko’s Getting Up, which focuses on the art of graffiti, includes songs by artists such as Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and Pack FM. Talib Kweli voiced a character in the game, adding further marketability.
The popularity of video games has given music execs a new avenue for exposing artists. As advertisers work closer with game developers to find more creative ways to work licensed music into games, the game-playing experience itself seems to be steadily improving. With every other game beginning to follow this trend and licensing companies opening their doors to game publishers, it’s clear that video games are more than just a cultural fad.