The King is Dead; Long Live the King

For some time now, we have been living with the indisputable “truth” that the music game genre is dead.  A lot of the ill will started last year, as people began to notice that the current crop of music games (i.e. Guitar Hero & Rock Band) were taking in substantially less revenue than they had been in previous years.  Fast forward a bit, and Activision’s recent decision to abandon the genre completely was seen by many as the final nail in the coffin.  Now, there are a number of ways to explain this decline: oversaturation of titles, unsustainable revenue from high-margin plastic instruments, the general public moving on to “the next big thing”, etc…. but that’s not what this post is about.  And yes, the more recent success of games like Just Dance and Dance Central is encouraging on a certain level, but I’m not so concerned with that either.  Rather, I’d like to question the notion that Guitar Hero  & Rock Band embody the end-all-be-all of music gaming, and therefore that their decline indicates the certain death of the genre outright.

Don’t get me wrong; GH and RB are “music games”.  But to say that they are an all-encompassing representation of what the genre can be is absurd.  It’s more accurate to say that they are “band games”, a sub-genre of a “music game”.  A “band game” is one where the gameplay is the specific, prescribed performance of an instrumental or vocal part within a song.  You are the guitar player; play the guitar part the way it’s supposed to be, and don’t mess up.  And yes, the performance of a well-rehearsed song is a component of “music”, and therefore that is clearly a music game.  But how about improvisation, composition, arrangement, mixing, listening, remixing, discovering, sharing, etc, etc?  All of these are aspects of music that are not represented in a band game.  I came up against this all the time when I was at Activision – a complete unwillingness (or inability?) to picture a music game as anything other than playing “Simon Says” with a plastic instrument in your hands.  It was frustrating, to say the least…

Music is fundamental to our lives.  Everyone listens to it, and everyone loves it.  Gaming – whether we’d like to admit it or not – is also fundamental to our lives.  So it’s not much of a stretch to say that music gaming is not dead… can’t die… will always be around.  The challenge we face is to re-imagine music gaming as something other than what we currently know it to be.  It doesn’t seem that hard; there are examples all around us.  Turntable.fm is almost a social music game already, with only the thinnest layer of gamey elements – avatars, and a “score” that means nothing.  (Incidentally, my first 2 experiences with turntable.fm were being kicked out of a room for “not being in advertising” and then having the first song I put on voted off by the crowd.  I definitely “lose” at that game.)  Spotify is launching in the US today, with a huge emphasis on sharing our tastes and playlists with our friends.  The next generation of music gaming is already emerging, and I think the strong emphasis on social elements and “gaming” our musical tastes will come to define it.  And there are tons of mechanics in the moment-to-moment processes of creating and performing music that have yet to be explored.  From where I sit, the future of music gaming is as bright as ever.  Long live the king!

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    • Dan Gross
    • July 14th, 2011

    turntable.fm is amazing, I’m a fan, but really only when it’s in a private room and I know and like my fellow DJs.

    Also, did you see EMI is running point with Tubby Games on a Now! music game? ( http://www.emimusic.com/blog/2011/now-wii-game-set-for-november/ ) As long as the majors/Tubby can churn out one every 6-9 months, this has a potential to be an ever perpetuating DLC that will eventually mirror or merge with karaoke. And to add some lift to the music / band game category, whatever you prefer to call it. And of course it would be part of one of a strong brand in pop music (the Now! series, that is)

    • Yeah, I learned my lesson quick with Turntable.fm. People are dicks when they are anonymously on the internet, and people are dicks/snobs about music in general. Put them together and you have a lethal combination. I’ll stick to small rooms with friend from now on…

      And yes, I did see the announcement about the Now music game. On one hand, it’s great to see new titles coming out, and new people showing confidence in the space. On the other hand, how many more singing & dancing games for the Wii do we really need? It devolves into a cold war around who can get what content, and that’s not exactly the expansion and growth in the category that I’m really calling for. I believe there is room for true innovation; don’t just tout your catalog, do something new and different with your catalog. *That* will get me truly excited.

    • ben.blohowiak@gmail.com
    • July 14th, 2011

    It’s tough to please faceless critics, whether they have human brains or silicon ones. From your post, it seems that a recurring theme is the relatively narrow margin of error a potential player faces when attempting to create and/or execute music in a way that elicits positive contingent feedback. I think that part of the challenge is allowing players to “make moves” that are something more than predetermined, yet something less than free-for-all. If the MIDI signal I send is being evaluated and I’m awarded points based on how it’s been analyzed, that could be cool…though in theory I could just create a program that would optimize outputs for the point-winning algorythm (which could also be cool but isn’t a game). Ultimately, it would seem that a big piece of this problem is developing the criteria and techniques/technology for evaluating player behavior, as well as developing mechanisms for contingent response that may yield greater qualitative suggestiveness than simple yes/no close/far feedback. Perhaps fighting games could prove a useful analog…a simulated jam partner? Dueling bajos? We’ll see, I guess.

    • simulated jam partners aren’t just hypothetical – check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy02lwvGv3U
      there’s actually a ton of research in this area

        • ben.blohowiak@gmail.com
        • July 14th, 2011

        Impressive. To make it a game, there needs to be a goal. It seems that the improvisors are collaborating rather than competing. I suppose that collaboration could be a goal–put the onus on the human to be good at improvising with the machine…but in a way that is fun. Maybe you could have a robot generating beats with human MCs freestlying over them. Rap battle+generative music=$

      • yeah, i wasn’t necessarily linking that directly to a game… but to your point, the existence of technology like this does raise the possibility of applying it in a gaming context. I’m not sure that Rap battling is the key to unlocking that potential, but who knows… it could be.

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