1UP or KO’d: A Music Agency’s Review of Music in Today’s Video Games 2230 words · 11 minute read

“Games are better understood as platforms for experiences than as products,” wrote Dr. Hanna Wirman in the article, “Fan Productivity and Fandom.” If that is true, then what is the role of music in those platforms for experiences?

As is the case for many mediums, the role of music is multi-faceted. Music can lure consumers to video games through advertisements and promotions. Music can further immerse gamers into that platform and enhance their experience. Music can even maintain the players’ experience beyond the gameplay, extending the relationship between the game and the consumer into other mediums like live concerts and soundtracks.

Music is one of the key components that can elevate a video game from simply a product to truly a platform for experience. Theoretically, music is also one of the easiest components of a video game to leverage. Advanced sound design in games allows for creative ways to use music, such as adaptive music and layered stems. Additionally, the music industry is virtually flooded with artists willing and eager to collaborate with video game developers, studios, and publishers on marketing campaigns and in-game syncs.

Theory, however, is seldom universally applied in reality. For that reason, we wanted to take a look at the gaming industry and analyze how far developers, studios, and publishers are pushing the use of music in and around their video game titles.

Is music really helping transform video games from simple products into platforms for experiences?


It’s easy to play a game through once and say, “Yes, I love the music!” or “What the hell was the composer thinking?” Just check the message boards: these conversations happen all the time.

We wanted to create a system that could objectively measure how music functions in today’s video games. It’s more of a questionnaire, really: nine “yes or no (or maybe)” questions about how music is applied to a video game, including before its launch, in the gameplay, and after its release. We decided that a “yes” would earn one point for the game, a “maybe” would earn a half-point for the game, and a “no” would just not count at all.

We split the overall score of a game into three categories: “1Up” if the game earned six points or higher, “AFK (Away From Keyboard)” if it earned between three and six points; and “KO’d” if it earned less than three points.

After playing through the games, researching their development, and answering the questionnaire, we found the average score for the games. We figured that by studying the ten top-selling games of the past three years – two from 2013, five from 2014, and three from 2015 – we would be able to complete a fair analysis of the state of the industry of music in video games.

Here are the nine questions we asked ourselves after playing through and researching the development of each game:

1) Does the game have a clear and consistent “sound” (i.e., “sonic identity”)?

2) Does the game use music creatively to promote its release?

3) Does the music in the game’s promotion align with its overall “sound” or “sonic identity”?

4) Does the in-game music immerse players into the gameplay?

5) Does the in-game music integrate with the story of the game?

6) Do the licensed music and the score blend to immerse players into the gamespace?

7) Did the developers, studio, or publisher use music after the game’s release to continue engagement with gamers?

8) If so, do these new touchpoints align with the game’s overall “sound” or “sonic identity”?

9) Did the developers, studio, or publisher partner with artists to cross-promote the game and music?

The Game Study:

Grand Theft Auto V (2013): 8.5 out of 9 … 1Up!

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has always been noted for its use of licensed music in its gameplay, and the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto V pushed that trend even further than previous titles. Ivan Pavlovich, Music Supervisor at Rockstar Games, created a West Coast soundscape that appropriately fit the Los Angeles-inspired setting of the game’s Los Santos gamespace. The game also features tons of licensed tracks for the franchise’s acclaimed radio stations, many of which were original songs, such as Tyler the Creator’s track, “Garbage.” Additionally, the stations were DJ’d by real-life artists of note, like the West Coast Classics station hosted by DJ Pooh. Furthermore, GTA V was the first of the series to include an original score, which Pavlovich was careful to use to support – not replace – the licensed music that has become a staple of the franchise. While Spotify playlists, downloadable music, and purchasable soundtracks were released, there was still room for more integration of music in the game’s marketing strategy.

Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013): 6.5 out of 9 … 1Up!

In an interview with Billboard, Acitivion’s CMO Tim Ellis stated that the publisher’s research has indicated that fans of Call of Duty are also big fans of Eminem, which led to a comprehensive partnership between the rapper and Call of Duty: Ghosts. Eminem released his song “Survival” in the game’s official trailer and created his own music video for the song with content inspired by the game. “Survival” was also featured in the game itself and in its end credits. GameStop, Activision, and Eminem released copies of Call of Duty: Ghosts with a download code for Eminem’s album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, and an exclusive song. Both the game and the album debuted on the same day to increase cross-promotional impact. While David Buckley’s original soundtrack for the game supports the story of Ghosts, we think the franchise will entail even more immersive music in its future titles.

Destiny (2014): 5.5 out of 9 … AFK!

Maintaining the esteemed lineage of the Halo series, Bungie launched its newest franchise Destiny in 2014 with celebrated composer Martin O’Donnell at the helm of its music strategy, along with his professional partner, Michael Salvatori. O’Donnell, renowned for his work throughout the Halo series, collaborated with Paul McCartney to create the sound of Destiny. O’Donnell and his team crafted a strong sonic identity for the game through its orchestral score; however, the music of the game’s marketing strategy could be seen as inconsistent. Additionally, Destiny didn’t seem to use music beyond releasing the soundtrack for purchase and working with Paul McCartney on an arguably awkward music video.

Madden NFL 15 (2014): 2.5 out of 9 … KO’d!

EA Sports is a titan of licensed music, having worked with numerous artists over the past decade to debut singles and feature original music. However, Madden NFL 15 did not seem to live up to the standards of its predecessors. Since 2013, the Madden games have employed an orchestral soundtrack to score the game, simulating the sounds of the NFL when it airs on television networks like CBS. While the game’s score, written by composer Mark Petrie, accurately fit the sonic identity of the NFL, fans of the franchise have expressed a hope for more licensed music, as featured in previous titles. Thankfully, EA Trax, a platform that has been recognized as the industry’s foremost showcase for introducing new music, is returning to the series in Madden NFL 16. we expect this next installment of the series to earn plenty of 1Ups for its creative use of music.

Watch Dogs (2014): 6 out of 9 … 1Up!

After receiving over 80 awards and nominations for its display at E3 2012, Watch Dogs was one of the hottest games of 2014 and employed music in a variety of ways. Composer Brian Reitzell carefully shaped the soundtrack by blending sounds of Chicago, the setting of the game, with synthesized layers of organic instruments in order to fit the futuristic plot of the game. Additionally, Watch Dogs features tons of licensed music, as well as an in-game app called Song Sneak that operates like Shazam, in which the player can identify songs playing in stores or vehicles, download them onto the character’s phone, and afterwards stream them during gameplay. The in-game use of music in Watch Dogs was very comprehensive, though its use outside of the game – in its promotions, trailers, and marketing campaigns – was sometimes inconsistent and didn’t seem to fully capture the power of music as a means of engagement.

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U (2014): 7.5 out of 9 … 1Up!

Nintendo has always used music uniquely, and the original music by composer Koji Kondo has developed a devoted following ever since the original Super Mario Bros. The cultural reverence of his music continued with the release of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, which included groundbreaking features like allowing players to customize in-game playlists and listen to the soundtrack while the 3DS is in “sleep mode.” The official soundtrack, “A Smashing Soundtrack,” is a two-disc product of 72 music tracks total and was shipped to eligible Club Nintendo members after the game’s release. Also, Nintendo created a music page on the game’s official website that lists some of the original tracks.

Titanfall (2014) 6 out of 9 … 1Up!

Created by some of the key developers behind the Call of Duty franchise, Titanfall earned over 60 awards at its E3 2013 reveal. Composer Stephen Barton created the original soundtrack to the game and crafted separate sonic identities for the two opposing Titanfall teams to further immerse players into the war-torn colonies of the game’s setting. The score successfully blends into the gameplay; however, few touchpoints were leveraged beyond releasing the soundtrack on Spotify, iTunes, and other sites. Run DMT’s remix of “Revolution” by Diplo was synced in one commercial, which accurately fit the theme of the game. The artist promoted the placement on his SoundCloud account; otherwise, music didn’t seem to be a key component in the marketing strategy of the game.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (2015): 6 out of 9 … 1Up!

Nintendo recently recreated its iconic title, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for its 3DS platform. The game itself incorporates music immensely into the plot and gameplay, as players learn and perform songs on various instruments in order to navigate the story. Additionally, the live orchestra The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses features music from the game in its new “Master Quest” tour. The Nintendo 3DS eShop also synced a song from the game, “Song of Storms,” to play for a limited time to promote Majora’s release. Consistent with most Nintendo titles, however, the publisher didn’t collaborate with artists on cross-promotional opportunities.

Bloodborne (2015): 4.5 out of 9 … AFK!

Critically acclaimed following its March 2015 release, Bloodborne features a powerful soundtrack composed by Yuka Kitamura, Tsukasa Saitoh, Nobuyoshi Suzuki, Ryan Amon, and Michael Wandmacher. The score captures the dark atmosphere of the game’s Dracula-inspired setting and was recently released for purchase. Beyond the score, the game did not seem to fully leverage music in its promotion, development, or marketing. For example, “Hunt You Down” by music production company The Hit House was synced to the game’s official trailer and received significant consumer interest. The Hit House released a full version of the song on its SoundCloud page, but the publisher has yet to maximize the marketing power of the song.

Mortal Kombat X (2015): 3.5 out of 9 … KO’d!

Released in April 2015 as the tenth main installment of the Mortal Kombat series, Mortal Kombat X continues the franchise with composer Dan Forden as its audio director. To promote the release of the game, the marketing team behind Mortal Kombat X teamed up with a couple different artists in very impressive ways. For example, rapper Wiz Khalifa created an original song for the game, “Can’t Be Stopped,” which was featured in the debut trailer and opening cinematic of Mortal Kombat X. Additionally, the team collaborated with the bassist of the rock band System of a Down to direct the official television commercial and launch trailer for the game, which also featured the band’s 2001 hit song, “Chop Suey!.” Beyond those key uses, music doesn’t seem to be a highlight in the marketing campaign of the game; however, because the game’s release is still fairly recent, the publisher may still incorporate music to greater effect.


All in all, the state of the industry of music in video games seems to be growing. The average score of these ten games is 5.65, teetering between AFK and 1Up status.

While reviewing these games, we realized how creatively music supervisors, audio directors, composers, and publishers are applying music strategy to their work. Never before has music been considered with such care in the promotion, development, and marketing of a video game, as is evident in the innovations of these ten titles.

The game music of today’s industry is leaps and bounds ahead of the music strategy of earlier gaming generations. Music supervision and sound design have become venerated components of the video game industry; therefore, we expect studios, developers, and publishers to look to music as a tool of engagement even more in 2016.

In order for video games to truly become platforms for experiences rather than simply products, music must become an integral component of each phase in a video game’s lifespan. Isn’t that the case in life, the original platform of experiences?

By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers