In the spring, music executives at the E3 videogame convention predicted music would take on a greater future role as the game market grows more sophisticated. This fall, that prediction seems poised to become reality.
As the pre-holiday game-release schedule swings into high gear, titles expected to hit retail shelves in coming months will feature more songs - and more user control over them - than ever before.
For example, Electronic Arts' Madden NFL 07 football game this year features an all-time high of 35 songs, up from 21 in recent years. And that's just one of the smaller soundtracks. Large, open game-play videogames like the Grand Theft Auto series took the soundtrack concept to new heights with GTA: San Andreas featuring a whopping 80 tracks that were later released on an eight-CD boxed set. This fall, two new games matching the GTA game-play style will be released with soundtracks that dwarf that title in size and interactivity, heralding what many expect to be a standard feature of tomorrow's games.
Vivendi Universal Games' Scarface: The World Is Yours - based on the 1983 Brian De Palma film - is taking a particularly strong music focus, featuring more than 120 licensed tracks. Another high-profile game, Saints Row from THQ, will launch with 130 songs on its soundtrack.
Going further, both games allow players to interact with the soundtrack and customize it to their whims. Vivendi has added a Mix Tape feature that enables users to replace the default soundtrack with a personalized one using whatever combination of tracks they choose from premade mixes. The soundtrack to Saints Row will change based on what type of car the player/character drives.
The game itself is interactive, the story line is interactive, so to the extent that you can make it work, and it doesn't mess up the experience, the music should be interactive as well, Vivendi senior brand manager David Kim says.
Music also has an important role in a game's replay value. At $60 a pop, games today must have some degree of longevity to warrant a purchase by a community that's fickle with its entertainment dollar. Refreshing the soundtrack with new music is a key part of this goal.
Yet there is growing concern over the expense.
A soundtrack these days is expected, THQ vice president of licensing Germaine Gioia said during a panel session at the E3 conference. But it's all coming out of one pot. At the end of the day, it's still got to be a $60 game.
Game soundtrack songs must be licensed, and the more songs included, the greater the music budget. Add that to expanding budgets for voice acting, basic development costs and movie and sport licenses, and developers are under incredible pressure to keep the sale price below the $60 limit.
As such, the game industry is searching for new ways to populate a soundtrack at a lower cost while giving gamers more choice.
Microsoft's new Xbox 360 console offers some relief, providing technology that allows developers to update games after they've been sold. Many already offer new soundtracks that can be bought and downloaded via the Xbox Live Marketplace, then added to the game. Examples include Dance Dance Revolution, Lumines Live and Ridge Racer.
While the songs in these soundtrack upgrades still carry licensing fees, the new soundtracks also carry a separate fee that helps offset the cost. It's also a great opportunity for record labels to showcase new music.
Looking ahead, game publishers may soon let players update certain soundtracks with music from their own collections.
The capability is definitely there, says Aaron Greenberg, group marketing manager for Xbox Live. We're just waiting for developers to take it to the next level and integrate it into the game experience.
Doing so will allow gamers to keep soundtracks fresh and won't cost developers a dime in licensing fees. At the same time, it adds even more user interaction to a format that by its nature stresses interactivity.
We're very open to consumer involvement and player choice, an EA spokeswoman says.