Frag Reel Friday: Music games (part two)

Last week, we finished off the first part of our look back at the history of rhythm games with the unusual Vib-Ribbon, a pioneer for synchronising the gaming experience with the player’s choice of music.

Unfortunately, Vib-Ribbon’s vector graphics failed to strike a chord with the public, but the attempt left a seed among the industry which would later spark ideas about music in video games.

Rez, created by Japanese designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, was released for the SEGA Dreamcast in 2001, with a Western release hitting shelves a year after. The game was unusual for its combination of music with traditional rail-shooter mechanics. Instead of having the game matched to a soundtrack, the designers removed all sound effects from the game, with melodies and sounds only triggering after the player successfully destroys the in-game targets and enemies.

Rez gained a cult following and was later released on the Xbox Live Arcade in HD, while the original was considered worthy of a place in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Games exhibit.

The evolution of Rez didn’t stop as a downloadable title. Mizuguchi and his team utilised the power of the Kinect motion controller to create a prequel called Child of Eden, which headlined the pre-E3 press conference for French developer Ubisoft.

After the turn of the millennium, rhythm games continued to broaden their footprint to include newer consoles. The release of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, later released in Europe and the United States as the iconic Elite Beat Agents, featured a male cheer squad that would resolve or rescue people from their various issues through the use of music.

Interestingly, Elite Beat Agents was never meant to exist, with the developers focusing on the Japanese market alone. However, the game’s high import rate convinced the company to produce a Western port where the original cheer squad was replaced by a group of government agents, a motif inspired by movies like Men In Black, Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters.

It was the popularity of Elite Beat Agents that went on to inspire Osu!. Using the same gameplay mechanics as Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents (hit markers, sliders and spinners), the competitive indie title lured more than 1.3 million people to create an account, with more than 796 million songs being played to date.

Being largely a community-driven project, the last five years has seen a swath of features patched into the game, including online play, leader boards, multiplayer lobbies, in-game IRC chat, different game modes, replays, support for tablet devices and even Android and iPhone versions.

But it’s the leaderboards and extensive multiplayer functionality that has made Osu! such a popular game, particularly coupled with the extraordinary difficulty of the “beatmaps”.

The indie scene didn’t stop at replicating cult classics though, with intelligent developers creating and reworking algorithms to provide a variety of different music-based experiences.

One of the most popular over the last few years has been the downloadable title Audiosurf, which sells for less than US$10 over the Steam online distribution service. Unlike other titles you’ll find on the retail shelves, Audiosurf works with any song on your computer’s hard drive and automatically generates a track based on the various components of the song, in a similar fashion to Amplitude all those years ago.

Another downloadable game that found new ways of utilising music was the action-based shooter Beat Hazard, where the player is forced to keep a space ship alive while enemies and other obstacles are generated according to the tempo of the music. As the beat starts to pick up, your ship becomes eminently more powerful – but so do the enemies. WARNING: if you have a history of epilepsy or vulnerable in any other way to photosensitive seizures, do not watch this video. (It’s not the particular song either – it’s an inherent hazard with the game.)

In the arcades and the home consoles, there was always going to be one obvious evolution. Dance Dance Revolution showed there was a market for players to physically interact with the game, and Beatmania and Guitarfreaks highlighted the appetite for music-like controllers. also

It wasn’t until Harmonix, the Western developer responsible for Frequency and Amplitude, created Guitar Hero that the genre began to rocket into the stratosphere. Unlike other attempts by Japanese developers, Guitar Hero eschewed the electronic and Japanese pop music for classic rock songs that would be more popular in the West.

With a soundtrack featuring hits from Motorhead, Ozzy Osbourne, Audioslave, Sum 41, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, ZZ Top, Incubus, Black Sabbath, Queen and Deep Purple, the response was palpable among critics and gamers alike. The game spawned a billion-dollar franchise of its own and became one of those titles that leaves its mark on the rest of society

The game has been a positive force for the music industry and the instrument itself: the game has led to many players taking guitar lessons, while the increased recognition from having your music appear in the game has been a financial windfall for many indie bands.

Guitar Hero and the remainder of the franchise, as well as the rival offering Rock Band (developed by Harmonix after MTV acquired the studio) have also opened the door to gaming for many who would have traditionally ignored it as entertainment for geeks.

Very few games that can claim to have changed the entire industry; even fewer are associated with the hallmark of having changed the world. But there is no doubt that Guitar Hero has made rhythm games, and social gaming in general, more prominent over the years, although a flooding of the market has led to a recession in the genre.

Ignoring the social aspect, Guitar Hero and its counterparts proved a boon for competitive gaming, with its addition to the World Cyber Games proving popular among players and spectators alike – especially given the lightning-quick fingers of some of the competitors.

But just as the evolution of Guitar Hero to include the full band was inevitable, so was the implementation of alternative devices. Inspired by the Beatmania that helped kick off the arcade craze in the 1990s, DJ Hero was met in 2009 with positive reviews although sales fell far below analysts’ expectations. Nevertheless, the original managed to rack up over 1.2 million sales in North America towards the end of 2010, although the game’s initial sales led some to consider it a commercial failure.

Unfortunately, despite DJ Hero 2 being released to wide critical success the game’s poor sales – only 59,000 copies were sold in its first month in North America – resulted in Activision shutting down further development of any DJ Hero titles as part of wider cuts that affected the Guitar Hero line.

But while the sector suffered a downturn over the last few years, the release of Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect and Sony’s equivalent, the PlayStation Move as well as the stalwart Nintendo Wii console, have opened up even new ways for players to interact.

The Dance Central franchise in particular has proved a massive hit, despite being largely panned by critics. Sales of Dance Central and its related downloadable content were expected to help Harmonix post over $100 million in revenue for 2011, with the American developer selling more than 2.5 million units of the original Dance Central by November last year.

Equally popular has been Ubisoft’s Just Dance series for the Nintendo Wii, based largely on the same principles that made the game the company’s largest selling title on the Wii despite its poor reception among the gaming media. Later releases also took advantage of the Kinect sensor, helping broaden the franchise’s popularity.

While many game critics rail against the simplicity and lack of depth in many motion-controller games, it’s this kind of freedom that has made games like Dance Central and the Nintendo Wii so popular – particularly in Australia, with Wii Fit being the best selling game for 2008 and 2009.

So where do rhythm games go from here? Motion controllers are clearly a route yet to be completely tapped by developers, but companies will be more wary about saturating the market a second time.

One route could be smartphones, with their cheaper development cost and widespread penetration across multiple demographics an attractive target for companies.

The Tap Tap Revenge series has already started to plug into the market; the Guinness World Book of Records has already declared the franchise the most popular iPhone game series of all time with a combined 15 million downloads and counting.

The cheap cost of mobile games compared to triple-AAA titles on the major consoles will probably be a large factor – but it’s difficult to imagine people being prepared to pay hundreds of dollars all over again for a variety of props that will inevitably end up gathering dust in the cupboard. There’s also latent frustration with the inability to use one’s existing song list with the major releases, although the appetite for downloadable content has yet to wane.

The last few years have seen gaming enter a brand new world – and rhythm games are a large reason why it’s there. I’ve no doubt that they’ll continue to be a major focus for developers, but we’ll have to wait before we can see the next phase of the genre’s evolution.

Alex Walker is the regular gaming columnist for ABC Tech + Games. You can follow him on Twitter at @thedippaeffect.






































    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: