There's surely little debating that music is absolutely integral to a video game experience. Nintendo has successfully riffed on iconic themes for decades, while still producing terrific new soundtracks in its current-day efforts that can only add to the excitement of the gameplay. This is applicable across any genre, arguably, and right across the spectrum from retail triple-A games to download titles. In fact, such is the advancement in technology and the number of talented musicians / composers moving into the games industry, that the lines in soundtrack quality between high and low-budget games are blurring.
One of the most influential of this band of composers working in games is Ari Pulkkinen, CEO of AriTunes and a familiar name to those following the game music scene. Wii U eShop fans may have enjoyed his work in Trine 2: Director's Cut — Pulkkinen also produced the music in the original Trine — while his projects on other systems include Outland, Dead Nation and, in a brilliant recent example, PS4 launch title Resogun. His biggest success to date is in one of gaming's most powerful brands; his music has been engrained in the minds of over a billion players that have a copy of Angry Birds.
Chatting to us at September's Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Pulkinnen also explained that he did voice work on Rovio's blockbuster, doing around half the sound effects for the Angry Birds pigs and birds — "I did the voice-over directly with the Rovio team; in that way I've been laughing at over 2 billion people when they fail in Angry Birds".
That aside, Pulkkinen's presence at the festival wasn't to talk about Angry Birds, but about the challenges facing musicians and composers in the game industry; his focus is to help publishers, developers and creatives make the most out of a game's soundtrack.
To begin with, Pulkkinen makes clear that his philosophy in producing a soundtrack is that it must match the artistic vision of the game and, above all, be unique. Though offers to produce a number of soundtracks like others he's produced often come through — we imagine Angry Bird-clone developers make regular enquiries — his focus is on creativity and delivering a unique experience for gamers. He described this to us as audio branding, emphasizing that music in a game needs to resonate with the gamer.
I get a lot of offers, but I look for innovative and unique projects. With audio branding you need to be unique; with that I mean the music and sounds are custom made to fit the game. When you play the game you feel the soul and emotions that it's sending out — music is one of the best ways to create emotions in games. We don't have professional actors, even though we have great actors in games like The Walking Dead; that was an example with voice-over that was really good — they can be immersive. Yet still, music is still and will always be the biggest emotional aspect in any game.
These are sentiments that will find a lot of agreement, though a large part of Pulkkinen's lecture at the festival was addressing the ongoing disconnect between music, its popularity with gamers, and its availability. Pulkkinen, through his official website and AriTunes business, does sell some soundtracks (he has plans to launch AriTunes Records as a brand, too) — the issue is that these are an exception to the rule. While the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze showed how licensed music could drive sales, and a spot in the latest FIFA can be a major breakthrough for music acts, the market for game soundtracks is severely underdeveloped. Pulkkinen's belief is that publishers, licencing agencies — an issue in Germany, particularly — and creatives need a structure to easily and fairly sell game music to the consumers that he believes will drive demand. As he sees it there's mutual benefit: games can promote music sales, and likewise music can boost games.
As he explained to me, he doesn't feel the problem lies with developers, and some are even pushing models to easily sell music to gamers.
All game developers I've met are really interested in the idea of insta-buying music directly from the game. People really like that option, it's not only good for the game company but also for the composer and fans. The first games with this kind of system are already out, like BeatBuddy. It's coming fast, in two years it might be the default setting with every game; it just needs to happen, and it will happen.
BeatBuddy: Tale of the Guardians is on the way to Wii U, of course, though it's in the relatively free, open environs of PC gaming that it's pushing music sales directly in the game. It was clear, as Pulkkinen was speaking alongside Wolf Lang — CEO of BeatBuddy developer Threaks — at another talk, that this is the kind of model he wants to see introduced as standard. In his native Finland Pulkkinnen is even driving forward a co-op organisation to introduce support and standard terms for the games industry to allow composers, publisher and developers to agree on a fair deal on royalties. Part of the — rather noble — goal is to cut through the confusion and bureaucracy currently in place, though as we learnt at another round table event there are a number of hurdles to cover. The act of licensing, selling and then sharing royalties on music is a complex, messy procedure.
Pulkkinen, however, wants to ensure that, in future, game soundtracks will be readily available for gamer to buy. He acknowledges that there are boundaries to cross on his side, too, explaining that game composers — in partnership with developers — need to find a way to produce a 'hit' track for each project. If a game track crosses over into the mainstream music scene, it could be hugely beneficial for the soundtrack and the game; it could happen soon, as Pulkkinen explained:
There will be hits through games, even though most of the music in games is background stuff. There'll still be games that really need mainstream music behind the game, whether it's licensed music or original music composed in a way that it can be sold separately outside the game. It's all about the concept, but I still think that every game should have a bonus track, or something, after the game has released for the fans to have. If you think of Titanic, do you remember the music? Well, you can remember My Heart Will Go On, that was the only hit they needed as a super hit for the movie. They still had the background music but they had this one wonder hit that became popular because of the movie.
This concept will come to games, also. When people realise game music isn't random noises from a chiptune card, and we're already starting to get superstars starting to do game samples, and Hollywood composers doing game music, and everything's going in the direction that we'll have original super-hits through games. It will happen, maybe in a year, maybe two or five. But it will happen soon.
For some Nintendo fans, this may be music to their ears. Throughout the big N's history it's produced an extraordinary range of memorable music, yet in most cases game soundtracks are rare, limited to specific regions or restricted to serving time as Club Nintendo rewards. Pulkkinen often talks of the "emotional connection" in game music, and this most certainly applies to Nintendo, with concerts such as those dedicated to The Legend of Zelda being an example. Game music matters.
As a prominent figure in his field, Pulkkinen is embodied by a mix of fierce drive and optimism in his hopes to see game music gain a more prominent role, yet also frustration. When you consider how hard — or impossible — it is to buy and support the music from your favourite games, it becomes obvious why that agitation for change exists.
Music rights, licensing and royalties are all legal minefields, but perhaps some day we'll be able to buy game music as easily as we buy the games themselves. When that day comes, we can bet that Ari Pulkkinen will have played a role.
We'd like to thank Ari Pulkkinen for his time.
Disclaimer: Travel and accommodation costs for the Reeperbahn Festival were courtesy of Hamburg Marketing GmbH.