Feature

Licensing music for your iPhone games

Licensing music for your iPhone games
It’s not so long since music was an afterthought for most mobile games - sensibly, given that many people played them with the sound turned off.

That’s changed with the new breed of mobile handsets and game platforms, including iPhone and Nokia’s N-Gage in particular. Users are more likely to carry earphones with them, and the platforms are capable of significantly better sound and music.

This brings its own challenges, though, in terms of expectations. Suddenly, mobile developers are looking at creating MP3-quality music for their games or licensing in existing tracks.

Two good examples of the latter are Real Racing and Car Jack Streets, developed by Firemint and TAG Games respectively. Both feature excellent soundtracks populated by emerging artists, so we asked both developers how they approached it.

“Our approach to music licensing for Car Jack Streets was driven by two major factors,” says TAG MD Paul Farley. “First of all the royalty free music we had sourced to that point simply wasn’t up to the standards required and secondly we didn’t have the budget or time to engage with major labels.”

That led the company to look for unsigned bands, and Farley says TAG was quickly surprised by the quality of artists it found. Firemint took a different approach, licensing tunes for Real Racing from two separate sources.

"We were put in touch with Mushroom Music Publishing by a friend, and we showed them our game and told them what we wanted to achieve,” says Firemint boss Rob Murray.

“They were great, and they picked out a mix of songs that they thought might be most appropriate for us to select from. We also used Rumblefish, which is a way that you can get licensed music immediately. Since we were looking at licensing a fair bit of music they also helped us out with some assistance in searching for appropriate songs.”

Major minuses

Both developers say they decided early on that they wouldn’t try to license songs from established artists on major labels. Murray thinks emerging and independent acts are “more in the spirit of iPhone gaming”, while Farley was no stranger to the licensing process.

“Having had previous experience of music licensing for games from major record labels we quickly decided the cost, time and legal efforts required simply didn’t add up for us,” he says. Both say that players appreciated the focus on new music, though.

“Having had time to digest the feedback from our players it is absolutely clear that the unsigned music met their quality expectations and in many cases we were told that the inclusion of fresh, new music actually added to the appeal of the title,” says Farley of Car Jack Streets.

So how much does it cost to put these kinds of artists in your game? Murray politely declines to give figures, but says the rates were “quite reasonable”, and recommends Rumblefish to any indie iPhone developer on a budget.

Meanwhile, TAG struck what Farley describes as a “win-win” deal with the unsigned artists it worked with on the CJS soundtrack: “We got a free non-exclusive right to feature their music in game and in promotional activities and in return they got a chance for tens or hundreds of thousands of new listeners to be exposed to their music!” he says.

Finding out more

Both companies were keen to provide more information to players about the game soundtracks, so they could find out more about the bands and even buy the music.

TAG actually put a playlist in Car Jack Streets that players could tap through to the iTunes Store on the device itself, when their music was available on Apple’s store. “Already we have lots of evidence from the artists that their sales have increased dramatically as a result,” says Farley.

Firemint decided against this approach, and has instead provided details and links on the Real Racing website for all its featured songs.

“Embedding links through to iTunes store from our game was something that we really wanted to do, but in implementing it we would really complicate the user interface for something that was not really game focused,” says Murray. “It is something more easily presented on the game's website.”

iPhone 3.0 potential

With positive feedback from artists and players alike, it seems TAG and Firemint’s strategies have paid off for these particular games.

However, iPhone game soundtracks is an interesting area given the feature in the iPhone 3.0 software giving developers access to the handset’s iPod library. Won’t people just want to have their own songs playing from now on, rather than have a pre-selected soundtrack?

Farley says it depends on the game. “In a casual puzzle game I’d expect the game could be enhanced on an individual level by being able to listen to your own track listing,” he says, and suggests Car Jack Streets will also benefit.

“We certainly plan an update for 3.0 that includes player access to their music from within the game, but this approach will be reviewed on a game-by-game basis.”

However, Farley points out that for some genres - especially adventure games - developers spend a lot of time choosing exactly the right music to evoke certain reactions or emotions from players at specific points in the game. “In that type of context allowing players to play random music is potentially problematic,” he says.

Murray backs him up on this point. “I think that the player expects you to present a whole experience to them, and that includes music,” he says.

“They may choose to override your music, but that should remain a choice. Not everybody wants to DJ while they are playing your game.”

He also says the curation aspect of a developer choosing new and emerging artists for a game’s soundtrack will remain a selling point for many games. “I love the idea that we may potentially expose them to an artist that they love that they might otherwise never have encountered.”

Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)

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