Banging Tunes and Gaming Blues: How Licensed Music Slowly Kills Games
By the time you read this, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD will be dead. It’s not a very loved game; in fact, this remaster of the original Pro Skater was once a game that was detested by the hardcore fans of the classic series. Nevertheless, Pro Skater HD is now gone and the reason behind its decease is most probably that of many other game deaths: licensed music.
You see, while no official reason has been stated behind Pro Skater HD being removed from Steam, Xbox Live and PSN the main point of accusation has been targeted towards the game’s soundtrack. Consisting of tracks from Bad Religion, Anthrax, and Pigeon John, Pro Skater HD is a game that relies heavily on its “banging tunes” to convey its themes of free spirit and rebellion. Ironically, the game that relies so much on delivering a solid musical essence is killed (supposedly) by said soundtrack; for some double irony, it’s a soundtrack that fans didn’t even like all that much to begin with.
When a developer chooses to use licensed music in their games they have to negotiate a deal with the owner of the song(s). These agreements more often than not are only available to use and profit from for a set term, the term of which is agreed on between the developer and the license holder. When that time is out, the developer either has the choice to renew the license (if the license holder agrees) or halt sales of their game. Exclusivity deals can be arranged as well as a permanent license, but that’s not very common in the world of video games.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD wasn’t exactly the most profitable title in the Tony Hawk series due to the game’s backlash from the series’ community upon launch. It sold well, but it’s not a game that gamers are clamouring to buy anymore, especially when the brand-new Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 is battling for your hard-earned cash (haha, good joke.) In reality, even if the license holders of the expired tracks were willing to negotiate a deal to keep the game alive it might not be profitable enough for the publishers to agree.
While Pro Skater’s developers discounted their game for a week, allowing gamers to purchase the game before its removal (and claiming all the last-minute profit they could), some games are not that lucky. When Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas was remastered all the way back in 2014 for its tenth anniversary, Rockstar either couldn’t regain or couldn’t be bothered to regain the rights to seventeen songs from the game’s original track list. As a result, Rockstar pushed an update to the existing Steam version of the game, removed the original Xbox version from XBL replacing it with the HD remaster, and called it a day.
Licensed music can be a royal pain in the ass for developers to keep a track of, but licensed music can be the heart of what some games are. Imagine Metal Gear Solid V without the ability to play Kids in America as you gun down Soviets with a minigun. Think about Saints Row 3 without Power by Kanye West blasting on your radio, or that moment in Gears of War 3 without the beauty of Gary Jules’ Mad World. When Far Cry 3’s music license runs out, would it even be fun anymore to burn down weed fields without Skrillex’s Bun Dem playing?
Removing licensed music can kill some of the best moments in your favourite games, but it may be inevitable in a lot of cases. A moment in a game that comes to mind when thinking of this is the first time you walk down the school hallway in Life is Strange. As the protagonist Maxine puts in her earphones, To All Of You by Syd Matters plays. It’s a soft, acoustic and melancholic piece that does well to paint Maxine as a social outcast. It’s a song about dreaming of something bigger, seeing the world but not necessarily being a part of the “American Girl” group. In such a small moment of a girl just walking down a hallway, you understand the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist that will guide her throughout the game’s entire narrative. So, when/if this song gets removed it’ll be like legally firing a bullet into the heart of Life is Strange’s first chapter.
It goes without saying that these legal issues are a problem for the preservation of video games. Why would I want to play Tony Hawk without its original track list? Why would I want to play Life is Strange without that song in the hallway? I can’t even imagine THAT moment in Gears of War 3 without Mad World, because Mad World is what made that moment.
So, should game developers choose to remove their titles and reinstate them with altered soundtracks, or should they remove them all together? Attempt to preserve what’s left or destroy what they’ve created? In the case of the former, they’re forced to alter the digital copies that gamers already have—unless players can continually stop Steam, Xbox Live, PSN et cetera from updating their games. But when it comes to the latter, the developers are forced to relinquish all future profits from their years of hard work.
Think about Saints Row 3 without Power by Kanye West blasting on your radio, or that moment in Gears of War 3 without the beauty of Gary Jules’ Mad World.
It’s a hard choice, but it’s one that’s ultimately up to the creators. I personally respect the latter as it doesn’t bastardize the original version that players will love, but sometimes that’s not good enough. Game studios aren’t bottomless pockets of cash; developing games is expensive and if removing seventeen songs from an open-world game that’s still chock-full of great songs for you to enjoy is a worthy sacrifice for devs to continue making money (even if forcefully updating your version of the game is a bit on the dickish side.)
Thankfully, no matter how much modern games get shafted in the long run, there’s always someone with backups of old versions to keep games preserved in their original state. GTA San Andreas may be a vastly different game on Steam right now (it runs much worse for one thing), but modders have already released tools designed to revert San Andreas back to its pre-update state. It may not be completely legal in the long run since the music you’re injecting back into the game is protected under copyright, but the option is always there. Even if developers don’t preserve their games, you can be damn sure that someone on the internet will. That’s a promise.