The Future of Music Games

The Future of Music Games

Despite the unquestionable importance of music as an artistic medium and/or source of mindless enjoyment in so many millions’ lives, somehow we industry insiders keep find ourselves being locked into an ongoing debate about sonically-inspired games’ relevance. The big question: Whether or not they’ve jumped the shark following a year that brought a 46% decline in sales simultaneously along with a flood of pricey new releases such as SingStar: Queen, The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero: Van Halen, many of which required the use of prohibitively expensive plastic instrument controllers and played to increasingly smaller subsets of the overall listening audience. Ergo, according to many pundits, the category is effectively “dead,” or somehow plummeting into a downward spiral.

Never mind the fact that we’re seeing games that generate more spins for songs than heavy radio rotation, bands whose careers are being launched by featured placement in top titles such as Madden NFL and record labels who are increasingly terrified of the power game publishers are beginning to command over digital tunes. Or, for that matter, platforms such as the Rock Band Network which are helping bring indie artists another desperately-needed channel to reach shoppers, and apps such as the iPhone/iPad’s Tap Tap Revenge that are starting to serve as major drivers of music discovery and sales by adding a layer of interactivity to the aural experience. Like rock musicians in the early days, somehow, music game creators are constantly (and rather insultingly, we might add) finding themselves called upon to justify their craft, and its place in the overall cultural canon.

Dance Central employs Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing interface to let you shake your monkeymaker naturally.

Happily for fans who appreciate the singular pleasures of a high-tech guitar solo, today’s top designers aren’t taking such slights to heart – many, in fact, are actually whistling a happy tune as they work harder than ever to put more musically-inclined efforts into heavy rotation. Credit pioneering motion-sensing control systems such as Microsoft’s Kinect, which turns your very own body into the controller, or Sony’s wand-based PlayStation Move – each seemingly a natural fit for games featuring dancing or karaoke. As a result, new offerings designed to capitalize on these technical advancements, i.e. MTV’s gesture-tracking, Kinect-compatible dance trainer Dance Central will increasingly be in the offing going forward.

Not that game creators are shy about playing the same old tune in terms of traditional sing-a-long and Stratocaster-waving hits either, assuming that there’s money to be made in adding them to the proverbial jukebox. Witness unlikely tie-ins like 505’s Grease party game, based on the popular ‘50s musical. Fresh installments in popular series like Guitar Hero (see: fantasy-themed outing Warriors of Rock) and DJ Hero (including portable rendition DJ Hero 3D for the Nintendo 3DS, featuring three-dimensional stereoscopic special effects) will also soon tour the globe. But look beyond simple hardware showpieces and branded merchandise tie-ins and you also see several promising conceptual chord progressions forming which may have soon have fans happily singing along in time.

Rock Band 3’s 25-key MIDI keyboard and Pro mode hope to teach real-world musical skills.

Among them: Games such as PowerGig and Rock Band 3, which attempt to address critics’ allegations that playing music games robs enthusiasts of real-world skills by introducing compatibility with actual instruments and play modes that serve as real-life tutorials. We’re also seeing the advent of games like karaoke and freestyle rap battle simulation Def Jam: Rapstar (powered by a wireless mic), which takes a more forward-minded approach to MCing with its ability to let you record music videos of performances and freestyle battles to share against friends. Notable for its move away from the senseless brawling featured in Def Jam: Fight for N.Y., the game speaks to software makers’ increasing desire to produce games which better encapsulate varied musical genres’ sensibilities and cultures, less their outsize personalities. Then, of course, you have experimental outings like Child of Eden from Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, which show how sound and motion can combine to turn even the most seemingly incongruous experience (e.g. an arcade shooter) into a symphony of psychedelia that’s music to everyone’s ears.

But we digress. For a deeper look at where music games are headed as a category, and why they may prove the killer app that helps sell motion controls into millions of homes worldwide, we invite you to have a look at a recent feature we penned for Rolling Stone. Titled Next Gen Rock Games: Real Instruments, Motion-Sensing, it provides a deeper look at several of the hottest upcoming music games, and how they promise to raise the roof from both a sociological and technical standpoint. All of which just goes to show. Rather than bow out and vacate the spotlight permanently, we’re confident that there’s still time for virtual rock’s hottest acts to stage a brilliant encore yet.

About Scott Steinberg
Scott Steinberg is CEO of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, and a noted keynote speaker and business expert. Hailed as a top tech expert and parenting guru by critics from USA Today to NPR, he’s also an on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.

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