LOS ANGELES – Misunderstood in the mainstream, scorned by parents and politicians and embraced by youth, video games are the rock 'n' roll of this generation and in an increasingly tight embrace with U.S. musicians.
From music-focused games like "Dance Dance Revolution" and "Guitar Hero" to sports titles with star-packed soundtracks such as "NBA 2K7," music is playing an increasingly bigger role in U.S. video games and, artists agree, offering an important new way to connect with fans.
"To be featured in a video game is probably the greatest way to reach a large audience right now," said Panic Channel guitarist Dave Navarro, formerly of alternative rock bands Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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"They get to discover the music through the game, whereas you have corporate radio, MTV and VH1 shoving what they think is valuable down everybody's throat, and nobody else really gets a shot," Navarro told Reuters at the Los Angeles launch of "Guitar Hero II" in November.
That game comes with a down-sized guitar controller and a playlist that includes "Stop" from Jane's Addiction and Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic "Free Bird." When players hit the right notes, they rack up points and progress from a garage to the ultimate giant stadium venue.
"Guitar Hero" was a surprise holiday hit in 2005 and last month "Guitar Hero II" sold more than 800,000 copies in the United States, landing behind No. 1 title "Gears of War."
Music and dance games, in the 11 months ended November rang up U.S. sales of $153 million — only a fraction of the $4.7 billion total sales for hand-helds and consoles, according to research firm NPD.
The genre, however, is growing rapidly, with sales up 80 percent from a year earlier, NPD said.
"Dance Dance Revolution" debuted in Japanese arcades in 1998 and on video game consoles in 1999. It has since become a cult favorite at home and abroad.
In the early days, said Jason Enos, senior product manager for Konami Corp.'s "Dance Dance Revolution" (DDR) and "Karaoke Revolution" series, labels and musicians weren't chomping at the bit to get in the game.
That has since changed, as DDR's global unit sales hover around 10 million — not including arcade games.
"People get it now," Enos said. "Compared with other games, DDR and music games offer the label and the artist a much stronger chance at influencing the gamer to buy that music," Enos said.
U.S. hip hop artists have long understood the promotional value of video games.
Chris "Ludacris" Bridges was the first rapper to have his music featured on a game soundtrack when he introduced his song "Get Off Me" in Electronic Arts Inc.'s (ERTS) popular football game "Madden NFL 2000."
He has since appeared in other games, including EA's 2003 title, "Def Jam Vendetta" and Midway Games Inc.'s (MWY) "NBA Ballers: Phenom" from last year.
San Francisco hip-hop producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura scored the soundtrack for Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.'s (TTWO) 2006 basketball title, "NBA 2K7," which featured Mos Def, E-40, A Tribe Called Quest, and others.
Nakamura said the project gave him the opportunity "to not work with the regular music label system, which is so screwed up right now. You can do the kind of record you want to get done and know it will reach a different audience."
While most video game music deals in the United States involve licensing, game publishers working with Hollywood-size budgets are also hiring well-known composers, said James Mielke, executive editor of Ziff Davis Media gaming site 1UP.com.
Tommy Tallarico, whose video game credits include "Spy Hunter 2" and "Wild 9," is one of the most successful North American video game composers.
Still, his celebrity pales compared to Japan's Nobuo Uematsu, known as the video game industry's John Williams — the Academy Award-winning U.S. composer whose work included soundtracks for the "Star Wars" and " Harry Potter" blockbuster movies.
Uematsu composed all the music scores in versions one through nine of the famed "Final Fantasy" series and was listed as a co-composer for the first time in "Final Fantasy X," according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
The ties between game makers and musicians are much deeper in Japan, where video games have a significant cultural impact.
"There's a lot more collaboration in Japan," said Mielke, who said that such work has not gone without notice in the United States, where music-steeped Japanese games like "Lumines II" and "Every Extend Extra" have gained a following.
"Final Fantasy" music concerts are popular in Japan and Uematsu scored the first U.S. "Final Fantasy" symphony concert in 2004 in Los Angeles. He brought the house down.
"You would have thought that the Beatles had shown up," Mielke said.