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Watch out Spotify, video games have levelled up

Sep 20, 2019
By 2025, the gaming market is set to become a $300-billion industry – worth more than video and music combined. One of the key aspects of video games that has helped captivate generations of fans is their iconic sound – which has continued to evolve from low-fi beginnings of beeps and boops into landmark soundtracks that’ve earned critical and widespread acclaim. Now, rumours are circulating of the latest X-Box release, dubbed ‘Project Scarlett’, due in 2020 – which promises to be music to the ears of bands, musicians, record labels and composers alike.

Gaming became a real phenomenon in the early 1980s, and along with the sharp improvement in graphics came a rapid development in video game music. The simple synthesizer chips of early consoles offered very limited possibilities for composers, yet this sound aesthetic earned a real cult status, becoming affectionately known as ‘Chiptune’. What renowned names like Yoko Shinomura, Manami Matsumahe and Koji Kondo went on to achieve with the limited outlet available was truly unbelievable – having an immense, lasting impact. Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Dizzee Rascal and Thundercat have all spoken about the influence video game music has had on their own careers.

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Combining bold cartoon imagery with the console’s distinct sound and personality worked especially well for Nintendo and the Super Mario series. The off-the-wall sound effects for jumps, hits and throws became part of the distinctive music, and encouraged people to become completely immersed and ultimately, keep playing. The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy series set standards with soundtracks that gave each level an atmosphere to rival the hyper-realistic game worlds of today – with orchestral concerts featuring music from both regularly taking place across the world. Not to mention Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima – two composers for the music in the Streets of Rage games, first released in 1991. They went on to perform it live at the 2018 Sonar festival – exactly as it sounded on the Sega Mega Drive, to audiences of over 5,000 people.
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Today, with the abundance of storage and memory of today’s machines, there’s no real need for synthesised sounds – any musical accompaniment that can be used in films, can be used in games too. Instruments such as strings and horns create powerful emotional moments, recurring themes can be linked to certain characters or actions – or even silence can create often the most powerful emotional effects of all. Heart of Darkness, released in 1998, marked another change in game music history, being the first game ever to contain music scored by an actual orchestra.

The 90s also provided a huge turning point in how the music industry regarded video games as a way of reaching new audiences. When licenced music because prevalent in releases such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which was renowned just as much for its soundtrack as the actual gameplay itself – video games became an essential part of marketing plans for musicians and managers. For millions of players, they’ve become a way to discover new bands and genres – and the Fifa soundtrack is viewed as one of the foremost annual showcases for international artists today.

Increasingly, it’s no longer rare to see some of the world’s biggest musicians composing music for video games either. Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, Amon Tobin, Hans Zimmer, Health, Skrillex, and many more have all done so – with Marshmello having recently gone one step further. Earlier this year, the EDM artist played a live set in the free-to-play video game Fortnite that was viewed by over 10 million people worldwide. A feat made even more impressive by the fact the game now has enough monthly active users to equal that of streaming behemoth Spotify.

Today, the heavy hitters of the music world are looking towards the gaming industry for inspiration, as they continue to take a pioneering approach with new technology to achieve continued success. It’s also helped in part by shifting behaviours among Gen-Z consumers, with 71% readily identifying themselves as ‘gamers’. So as the latest incarnation of our most beloved consoles sits on the horizon, it’s worth considering how we can learn to embrace new technologies to make your message, or your music, heard by the widest possible audience.