Think of your fondest gaming memory, and it’s likely music also comes to mind. Whether that memory has to do with the most epic of battles or the most emotional of cutscenes doesn’t matter: it comes with a soundtrack attached.

After all, music has accompanied gaming since the birth of the medium. From the early days of chiptune to the full-fledged orchestral soundtracks of today’s AAA games, video game music has evolved alongside gaming itself. And like filmmakers before them, game developers have long mastered the art of using musical cues to evoke and imprint emotions.

Now, as games continue to offer new ways to play, create, and socialize, we believe the synergies between the two media have never been stronger, or the market opportunity larger.

Let’s explore why.

How music and gaming converged

The convergence of gaming and music has only accelerated in recent years.

It’s manifest in today’s consumption habits. Since music can be experienced passively, it can sit on top of other activities like driving, fitness, and, yes, gaming. And as consumers continue to spend more time playing their favorite games, music seems poised to benefit as companion content: 52% of Spotify gamers say music is a large part of their gaming experience. Accordingly, the platform’s gaming-themed playlists, including Top Gaming Tracks and Power Gaming, have raked in millions of fans. This success allowed Spotify to become the first non-gaming app on the Epic Games Store last year.

Legacy players have taken interest. Back in 2019, Universal Music Group and ESL (Electronic Sports League) jointly launched Enter Records to “connect Esports fans around the globe.” That same year saw Sony Music launch Lost Rings, a label “about gaming culture, for gaming culture, created by gamers.” Meanwhile, Warner Music Group has been investing in an ever-growing list of interactive media companies that include Anything World, Roblox, Overwolf, Supersocial, Forte, and others.

And just as music has been leaning on gaming, so too gaming companies have been looking to music. Riot Games, for example, has been publishing works under multiple fictional pop and rock groups and recently went as far as to launch its own music label. For game publishers, music brings opportunities to extend their IP and to engage and monetize their fans in new ways, and more places, during their day. We expect to see many more of them start to experiment in a similar fashion.

Virtual concert frenzy

Today, there is perhaps no clearest sign of this convergence than the rise of immersive concerts. A quick glance at the industry’s top players is proof enough of the format’s astonishing pace of innovation.

Wave (formerly TheWaveVR) pioneered the space as early as 2016, offering virtual venues for immersive music performances. With a small but engaged community of VR enthusiasts, the startup worked with both DJs and artists like The Weeknd before sunsetting its VR app in March this year to focus on headset-free, livestream-powered interactive shows.

Source: Galantis on YouTube

More mainstream attention came with Epic Games’s involvement: Marshmello’s February 2020 show in Fortnite drew in over 10.7M viewers. That record was broken shortly after in April 2020, with Travis Scott’s Astronomical garnering over 27.7M viewers across five performances and reaching over 12.3M concurrent viewers at its peak. Having validated the format twice over, Epic has continued to bring more artists to Fortnite. The company recently announced Soundwaves, a new series of immersive music experiences. And in a telling move, it just acquired Harmonix, the developer of Rock Band and Dance Central, with plans to bring new musical journeys and gameplay to Fortnite.

Competitors haven’t been sitting idle, either. Lil Nas X’s November 2020 performance, Roblox’s first-ever, generated over 33M views across four airings. The company has continued to roll up its music ambitions ever since, partnering with majors like Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music to develop virtual concerts, release parties, and in-game artists worlds. Not to be outdone, Manticore worked with electronic music artist Deadmau5 to crowdsource virtual worlds from the platform’s community.

Music-making in the Metaverse

While these moments have brought new depth to the games we know and love, they leave something to be desired. Though they let you jump around, cheer, and chat with others, the experience remains a passive one when it comes to the music itself: unless you’re the star of the show, you’re still only experiencing someone else’s music, not making it yourself.

We believe there is an opportunity to bring to virtual worlds not just music, but music-making, too.

One company showing promise in that respect is Splash (formerly known as Popgun), the developer of an AI-powered music-making game on Roblox. In November, we at BITKRAFT co-led Splash’s Series A round alongside Amazon’s Alexa Fund, with participation from Khosla Ventures and King River Capital.

Splash today has three areas of focus: Splash Games, Splash Tools, and Splash Stars.

  • Splash Games are Roblox Games that let players interact with music in different ways, from performing live to playing music-related mini-games;
  • Splash Tools is a suite of AI-powered virtual composition and production tools;
  • Splash Stars is a roster of digital-native superstars — the first of which is Kai.

Combined, these components make Splash a one-of-a-kind platform for a new genre of music creators. By blending together play and creativity, gaming and music, the company is enabling players to experiment, grow their skills, and be rewarded — both socially and financially — for entertaining others. It’s a perfect example of the sort of Creator-Focused platforms we at BITKRAFT will continue to support.

Source: shinara on YouTube

Looking forward, Splash’s offering hints at three areas at the junction of music and gaming that we think have a lot of room to grow:

  • music video games
  • gaming-focused music tools
  • digital-native artists and bands

Music video games

In a previous piece, we discussed how Applied Game Mechanics (AGM) can encourage and reward particular user behaviors. While the gamification of old turned existing products into games for engagement, retention, and monetization, Applied Game Mechanics can be applied to promote learning and personal growth. Data-driven apps like Duolingo and products like Peloton or Oura, for example, all leverage such mechanics to foster streaks of a desired behavior that benefits the user over the long run.

We believe those same principles can be used to great success to encourage music learning and making. Indeed, many of the traits that can make learning music tedious would find value in concepts and features that have long been central to gaming, including tight feedback loops and reward mechanics.

Of course, music video games are nothing new. The popular Guitar Hero series debuted in 2005, while Just Dance, launched in 2009, is still going strong. Together, these properties have playfully initiated millions around the world to the joys of music. But with a now vastly larger user base, more devices and platforms to play from, and the mainstream appeal of virtual concerts, there has never been a better time for music video games to thrive. A new generation of music games could also integrate social features like upvotes and leaderboards to foster a healthy dose of emulation among aspiring artists — Splash’s Fame Points are a case in point.It’s important to point out that not every music game needs to be immersive — we at BITKRAFT have been supporters of mobile gaming for years, and will continue to be. Music video games, like all games, can and will live across a spectrum that leaves room for both low-fidelity mobile titles and AAA-worthy PC and console games. For example, Ubisoft’s Rocksmith+, an upcoming game that will let users learn the guitar through play-along sessions and real-time feedback, is expected to launch as a mobile app first.

Source: Ubisoft

What matters here is not which device is used for learning, but how efficiently developers use it to drive the process. In that respect, mobile music games could leverage a smartphone’s built-in camera and microphone, whereas a console-based game could find value in ad-hoc controllers and haptic feedback. With cross-platform play more and more common, game developers could even organize live, global music competitions to put the spotlight on their most skilled players.

Gaming-focused music tools

The history of recorded music has always been one of change. From the 78 in the 1850s to the unbundling of the album on iTunes, to today’s meme-driven TikTok hits, every new technological shift impacts not just how we consume music, but also the content itself. It follows that gaming, as a medium, is likely to spark new forms of music, too.

Source: Matthew Ball

To date, music in games has been mostly linear and event-based — that is, scripted to follow a character’s wanderings and actions. Themes typically kick off in a preordained fashion as you progress through a particular level, take on a quest, or encounter an enemy. Meanwhile, aspects like tone, volume, and tempo programmatically provide context as to the significance of a particular event. Older games like Super Mario Bros. and Tetris, in which music speeds up as the player is running low on time or leveling up, are well-known examples.

This approach is reaching its limits. In recent years, the rise of open-world games, rapid adoption of a Games-as-a-Service (GaaS) model across the industry, and the success of games as virtual third places have all driven the time we spend in games up. The longer that play time, the more frequently we are exposed to the same worlds, the more accustomed we become to their respective soundtracks. And with sometimes only a handful of tracks available to back these sessions, familiarity can quickly lead to boredom: 53% of Spotify gamers say they like to play their own music in place of the game’s soundtrack, a sign that the current offering of video game music may lack variety.

Adaptive music computer-generated music that adapts dynamically to in-game content and actions could help.

As opposed to linear music, adaptive music can respond to random actions that hadn’t initially been considered relevant musical triggers by a developer. This allows it to map the variable gameplay tension with musical tension, helping sustain immersion. Empirical studies have shown the technology’s potential in creating “more impactful and better games” and argued for “the need of a fully integrated, end-to-end approach to adaptive game music that sees the music engine integrated at an early stage of development.”

To enrich tomorrow’s open worlds and endless playtime with interactive sound landscapes, developers will need dedicated tools. Elias Studio, for example, provides game developers with an adaptive music system to build real-time rule-based soundtracks for their games. In the future, technologies like computer vision and sensors (included in headphones or a headset) will enable adaptive music to not only echo game content, but also react to and enhance the player’s performance. A whole ecosystem of tools could emerge around the play experience.

Digital-native artists and bands

To date, even the most ambitious virtual concerts have consisted in “real-world” artists going virtual: Travis Scott, The Weeknd, and Ariana Grande each entered their respective virtual venues as 3D avatars carefully developed in their likeness. Despite their game-induced superpowers, their appearance and behavior were meant to evoke familiar models and came with obvious limitations due to brand safety concerns.

We think there’s an opportunity to create digital-native artists and bands from the ground up.

The model has obvious benefits: virtual artists don’t get tired, sick, or old. Not only can they “travel” at will, they can perform repeatedly to accommodate global audiences across multiple time zones, or even in several venues at once. Like any piece of scripted IP, their career can be rolled out in phases, with narrative arcs developed by multi-talented teams. More importantly, they can stay active forever, reinventing themselves to follow the cultural zeitgeist and continue to engage new audiences. Monetization could also get a boost as virtual merch becomes the new standard.

While this may all seem futuristic, a number of signs are pointing in that direction.

  • At the cultural level, consumers are showing increasing comfort with, and appetite for, digital identity. On the lower-fidelity side of the spectrum, social platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and Discord have long normalized pseudonymity. Meanwhile, the success of platforms like Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite has pushed 3D avatars into the mainstream. Combine the two, and what you get is a cultural environment that’s ready to welcome virtual entertainers with open arms.
  • At the technological level, we’re seeing previous barriers to creation get lifted. Motion capture, for example, used to require costly set-ups that put the technology out of reach for independent artists. But the decreasing cost of hardware equipment, rapid progress in computer vision, and greater accessibility of software tools through game engines like Unity and Unreal have made it available to a much broader base of creators. Startups like Kinetix and Radical today are enabling real-time, full-body tracking, while major players like Epic Games and Roblox continue to ramp up their face-tracking capabilities. This, along with advancements in voice synthesis, could foster the emergence of fully synthetic entertainers. Berlin-based Yabal is building on that thesis.

Source: Epic Games

This shift is already playing out, with Splash’s superstar Kai now just one example of many. Last month, Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Timbaland unveiled Ape-In Productions (AIP), a new entertainment platform that will launch and promote music from select members of the cult NFT project Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). A few days later, Universal Music announced it’s teaming up with BAYC to create new music under the group name Kingship — a band composed of four BAYC characters. Kingship is set to perform across video games, VR experiences, and other Metaverse-related venues. We expect many more such initiatives to pop up in the coming months and years.

Our take

The convergence of gaming and music has been a long time coming — yet it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. On the one hand, music can affect and enhance the gaming experience in ways that are only now being unlocked with virtual concerts and adaptive music. On the other hand, Applied Game Principles have the potential to remove the friction to creation and to turn millions of music lovers into artists in their own right.

Looking forward, we at BITKRAFT are excited to support the companies working on the future of music video games, gaming-focused music tools, and digital-native artistry. If you’re building in this space, make sure to reach out to our team!

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