Can Your Soundtrack Help Sell a Game?
Wouldn’t it be great if the answer to this was a resounding “Yes!” and everyone understood this fact intuitively?
In a way, the question is a bit odd. You never hear anyone asking, “Can a mesh help sell a game?” or, “Can AI pathfinding help sell a game?”.
Nonetheless, we’re going to tackle this question head-on and discuss not only why soundtracks CAN help sell games...
But also what composers and developers need to understand to create music that supports not only the gameplay but also their bottom line.
We are artists but we also need to make a living!
Can Music Influence Customer Behavior?
The first question we need to ask before evaluating whether a soundtrack can help sell a game is this:
Can music actually influence customer behavior?
As someone interested enough in the topic to read this article, you likely already have an instinctive sense that this is indeed the case.
But where can we look to find hard data to justify this opinion?
Actual footage of music researchers hard at work on this topic
Luckily for us, we aren’t the first to consider the influence of music on people’s buying decisions.
The retail industry at large has already spent many millions of research dollars to discover how and why people spend money and what effect music can have on them while they do so.
Here are some interesting findings that, while discovered under different circumstances than someone buying a video game, are nonetheless fascinating to consider:
1 | Tempo
For example, faster music tends to lead supermarket shoppers to gather what they came for more quickly while slower music leads to more browsing and more spending.
Similar effects were noted in restaurants, where customers were observed to spend longer eating but also pay more for their food and drinks with slow background music.
2 | Genre & Familiarity
It should come as no surprise that music needs to fit the product/brand experience.
When music fits the product experience, everyone benefits!
Research done in 2016 supports this idea:
In one study, students viewed slides of “utilitarian” and “social identity” products while listening either to classical music, country music, or no music. Afterward, they were then asked how much they’d be willing to pay for each product.
Students who listened to country music were willing to spend more on social identity products while those who heard classical favored utilitarian products.
Another similar study done in 1993 found retail sales in a wine store were higher when classical music played and lower when top 40 hits played.
These findings tend to support the idea that a musical mismatch, either in tempo, genre, or a number of other factors, can lead to unwanted consumer behavior such as spending less, valuing a product less, or simply not buying it at all.
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Now that we know for sure that music influences customer behavior, what are we to do with this information?
The first thing we need to do is understand the values and expectations of our game’s audience.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither do gamers.
Don't stifle your customers by ignoring their needs
Players who are considering purchasing a new game (hopefully yours!) come preloaded with all kinds of opinions and assumptions from their experience with other games as well as culture, art, and society at large.
To ignore the personalities and identities of the audience most likely to buy your game is to ignore one of the most important factors for your game’s success.
A straightforward example of this would be a new Star Wars film or series without the music from George Lucas.
The expectation is simply too great and the fans’ love of that soundtrack too strong to make the choice of leaving out the original Star Wars theme anything but ridiculous!
Balance, There Must Be
Am I saying to write and create purely with the concept of maximizing commercial success in mind?
No, of course not.
Games are still art and artists have a duty to push boundaries and express themselves through their work.
Being vanilla won't make you rich unless you are, perhaps, a dessert.
However, (you saw that however coming, right?) creating games is still a commercial enterprise and a product that completely ignores its audience is doomed to fail.
What’s the solution?
Let the expectations and values of the players guide your hand in the creation of a game’s soundtrack but don’t let it restrict you entirely.
“Engaging people is about meeting their needs – not yours.”
Think of it as an exercise in teamwork.
When two parties in a team can’t agree, a compromise must be found and one party forcing their ideas onto the rest of the group is not a recipe for success.
Similarly, an artist who forces their ideas on an unwilling audience may have satisfied their own needs for self-expression, but the audience may be left with a product they aren’t interested in and, to the detriment of all parties involved, won’t buy.
Where Music Matters Most
While a game’s soundtrack should obviously support the entire game, its narrative, and the various aspects of the gameplay, there is one place where the choice of music no doubt has a particularly strong effect on sales:
Not this trailer... you know what I mean!
A player’s decision to buy a new game is dependent on many factors such as price, genre, reviews, and more.
However, most of them will likely have watched a game’s trailer at least once before making a purchase decision.
In a way, a trailer is like a video game’s elevator pitch.
It’s a great chance for the power of music to shine and a well-chosen track can augment the effect of the trailer drastically.
My recommendation for trailer music is to consider something called the “old-comfortable-shoe phenomenon”.
The Old-Comfortable-Shoe Phenomenon
This idea depends on the age-old concept of introducing people to something new by relating it to something familiar.
In music, this phenomenon is most obvious when sequels to already successful movies or games are released.
Consider, for example, how the trailers for The Avengers and Star Wars movies always quote the main musical themes.
Why do they do that?
It certainly isn’t to save money on composing new material.
Yea... these franchises have enough money.
This choice is made specifically to help remind the audience of the emotional connection they’ve had to previous films.
By eliciting this reaction, the trailer creates a direct connection between the positive experiences viewers had with previous movies and the positive experiences they are likely to have in the coming movie.
You can use this powerful effect for your game, even if it is a new game, by trying to capture the essence of something your target audience already knows and loves in your game’s musical experience and highlighting that in the trailer.
That might simply be a specific feeling that you underscore with the music or you may indeed quote or pay homage to other games you respect and with which you'd like your customers to associate your game.
Often the words “artist” and “sales” don’t go very well together and cynics will say that acting on some of the information mentioned in this article is akin to tricking people.
I don’t agree and here’s why:
Using these types of techniques or making decisions based on increasing sales is only wrong if you don’t believe in what you are selling.
On the other hand, if you have created something wonderful that will delight and entertain your audience, it’s your job to promote your creation in a responsible but nevertheless effective way.
Because the real truth is this:
The world needs quality art and entertainment.
Great games have so much to offer such as a way to unwind and reduce stress, an opportunity for healthy social interaction, and even an artistic outlet to consider the human condition in all its wonder and woe.
If you’ve worked on a game that can offer something positive to the world, people need to know about it!
I hope this article has inspired you to consider the myriad ways that a well-crafted soundtrack can help show players the value your game can offer their lives and thereby, help you and your team sell it.
I created The Game Audio Pro with the goal of helping others understand the fundamental business skills that are often the difference between success and failure for freelancers.
If you're ready to take your game audio career to the next level, download my guide to The Most Important Mindset for Game Audio Success.