Remember the sound of the yellow Pac-Man, chomping power pellets, avoiding "ghosts" and leading video games into our national consciousness? In 1982, the Atlanta duo Buckner & Garcia even had a national hit song with "Pac-Man Fever."
Perhaps this was just a premonition. Today the video game industry is valued at more than $7 billion, putting it on par with Hollywood. Video games have become a mainstream entertainment option, along with movies, books and television. And musicians are no longer singing about video games. They are singing in them.
The video game industry has simply become too large, and too much a part of popular youth culture, for record companies to ignore. The top video games sell millions of copies and provide a platform--much like movie soundtracks--to introduce a musician to a broader audience. From the perspective of the gaming companies, adding the star-power of cutting-edge electronic or rock musicians can be a great way to draw die-hard music fans to a particular game. The music can also be a key element in defining a target audience.
"Wipeout," a high-speed racing game that spawned the sequels "Wipeout XL" and, released recently, "Wipeout 3," merges state-of-the-art graphics with dance-floor electronic music from groups including Chemical Brothers, Prodigy and Underworld. The driving beat of the music makes a lively and appropriate accompaniment as players race through futuristic courses. The soundtrack to "Wipeout XL" was actually released as an album by the top techno label, Astralwerks.
For this latest version of "Wipeout," Psygnosis--the company that produces and markets the game--secured the services of Sasha, a world-renowned British deejay, as music director. Sasha--along with partner John Digweed--draws several thousand patrons to the Manhattan club Twilo on the last Friday of each month, when the two spin well into Saturday morning. For "Wipeout 3," Sasha, whose dance-floor music is known for its heavy baselines and pretty melodies, contributed five previously unreleased tracks and recommended music from other top deejays and electronic groups.
"People who are into going clubbing and dance music are into new technology. They're gadget fiends," says Enda Carey, product manager for "Wipeout 3." "They're the people who bought into [the Sony video game console] Playstation in the first place." Psygnosis sponsored club nights around the globe, where Sasha would spin, and booths featuring "Wipeout 3" were available for clubbers to play.
Jeff Flashner, 21, and his friend Claudette Esposito, 22, were at a "Wipeout" party at Twilo in September. Flashner, who had just played the game for a few minutes, said that rather than listen to conventional game soundtracks, he usually puts on his own Sasha CDs anyway. "I think it's really phat," he said. "You can play it and get really into it." Esposito agreed: "None of that stupid Mario music in the background," she said, referring to a popular Nintendo game.
Sasha says he's happy to be involved with the project. "If I put out a record in England, it might sell [20,000] to 30,000 copies. So the chance to get my music onto a format that will be heard by millions of people is fantastic. These are younger people who might be into my music."
And Sasha explains that, on a personal note, the video game has been a bigger deal to some of his friends and family than his many worldwide record releases or international deejay appearances. "My cousin Garrett, who's 12, is absolutely over the moon. I send him my compilations, and he's sort of into the music. But he's absolutely blown away by the fact that I'm on a game."
Gerard Talbot, director of special projects at Astralwerks, is not as gung-ho about this mixed-media marriage. "A lot of the money that's offered [to license a song] is negligible compared to the amount of units the game will sell. You have to weigh it out. Are you going to see a huge leap in sales after that game has been sold?"
Yet gaming and music companies of all sorts are seizing the cross-marketing opportunity. Recently, interactive entertainment company Activision released "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" for the Playstation console. The game combines the names and likenesses of pro skateboarders with a soundtrack featuring punk rockers such as Goldfinger, Dead Kennedys, Primus, Unsane, the Vandals and others that Activision marketing director Will Kassoy calls "authentic to skateboarding culture."
"Each of the bands on the game has its own grass-roots following, and a lot of time they might not be gamers," explains Kassoy. "This expands our reach into music enthusiasts."
Activision has also broached the world of hip-hop in a similar fashion, with one of the season's most hotly anticipated games, at least among hip-hop fans. "Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style" is expected to be released at the beginning of next month. The game lets players adopt the persona of any of the nine members of the popular hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan as they wind their way through a maze of 36 chambers. As the initiated all know, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" was the name of the group's breakthrough album in 1993.
Kassoy says the decision to feature Wu-Tang Clan in a game was a "no-brainer" once demographics are considered. There are 13 million fans of the band and at least 5 million who own at least two albums, Kassoy says. "That's a huge population of people." Kassoy also notes that it is simply the nature of the world of teens and young adults that 50 percent of Wu-Tang fans also own gaming consoles. "These aren't die-hard gamers," he explains. "They play games for fun, and buy a few titles a year."
The extensive marketing campaign for the Wu-Tang game will include radio spots featuring Wu-Tang member RZA in the top 10 hip-hop markets, as well as street vans at hip-hop concerts and print advertising in hip-hop magazines such as the Source, Rap Pages and XXL. "It's going to be a Wu-Tang Christmas," says Kassoy.
Others in the music industry are taking notice. Yaz Noya works for Sony Japan as an international coordinator trying to get Sony Japan's music and bands some attention in America. Noya attended CMJ '99, a music industry convention in New York City in September, armed with "Japan Not for Sale," a compilation of her label's artists. In particular, she attended a panel discussion that dissected the convergence of the gaming and music industries.
"Movies are a goal," says Noya of her marketing focus. "And also college radio, because they accept new things, and college kids buy CDs. Video games are one of the new things. It's huge and getting bigger. Video games target the 18-to-25-year-olds."
The union of gaming and music culture can also be found on the Web. Sites such as www.yalplay.com or www.ugo.com feature regularly updated news and features on video games, along with music (and film and television).
Jim Drewry is in charge of production for UGO.com, and says his network of sites receives hits from more than 3.5 million independent users a month, a figure he says is growing at a rate of about 25 percent each month. "We started as a group of people who were really into gaming," says Drewry. "Then we realized that there were other groups like that that weren't being served through traditional media. Gaming is a huge business, but it has been typically frowned upon. It still doesn't get a lot of mainstream coverage."
Drewry says the boom in gaming has led to various sorts of cross-marketing opportunities, including movies such as "Street Fighter," a popular game that was made into an action adventure movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"There was a period of time," says Drewry, "where console gaming wasn't all that impressive. Now you've got a generation of kids where the most limited thing they've seen is either Sega Genesis or the first Playstation," he says, referring to consoles that deliver CD-quality music. "They view this as a real alternative to movies or television."