The 'Rocksmith' Fallout: What Is Real Innovation in Music Games?

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Courtesy of UbiSoft
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UbiSoft's new video game Rocksmith, which aims to innovate and reinvigorate music game sales by teaching players real-world guitar skills, has received a mixed reception from critics, with review scores all over the board. In a recent interview with gaming site Gamasutra, UbiSoft North America boss Laurent Detoc recently expressed his frustrations, claiming that "as much as [reviewers] claim they want innovation, they don't." Whether it's truly fair to lay blame at the feet of players and press alike remains uncertain, given the many and unexpected ways in which music games, including the company's own titles, are rapidly evolving.

Hailed by some reviewers as "the real deal," while savaged by others for lacking a human touch, such split opinions reflect the growing schism between supporters and detractors of music gaming's newer, more authentic bent. A topic first explored in 2010 through titles like Rock Band 3, which added pro tutorials, and the ill-conceived PowerGig, a disappointing guitar trainer which introduced the concept of real-world instruments, it may be a race to nowhere, however. 

Granted, the pressing need for innovation amongst music games is clear, as evidenced by their freefalling sales in 2010, which declined in just twelve months to nearly half those earned in the year before. Much as such progress can and should come in the form of real-world musical education though, now may not be the best time for expensive retail-specific offerings to experiment with transforming you into the next Eric Clapton. Games like Rocksmith, priced at $79.99 ($199 with an Epiphone Les Paul Jr. guitar bundled in), which sell for more than the average console, but champion authenticity over wish-fulfillment, occupy a tenuous niche. While Detoc says he's pleased with sales of the title, which doesn't require multiplatinum performance to achieve success, the game still remains an unlikely choice for aspiring rock stars. Commanding a higher cost than average outings, shipping amidst a tough economic environment and demanding a serious time commitment on players' part, the package isn't just likely to be viewed with skepticism by jaded audiences. Its ingrained push towards realism also clearly comes at instant gratification's expense.

Commendable as such efforts may be, by providing a constructive outlet for players' button-mashing impulses, they arguably ignore the bigger picture. Succeed or fail, the most exciting action in music games appears to be happening in other spaces, including the worlds of mobile, social or online games, especially the realm of motion controls. Even as Rocksmith occupies itself by stirring up a media ruckus, more approachable, less detail-oriented games like Dance Central 2 are helping push developer Harmonix to record profits. Similarly, mainstream smashes such as UbiSoft's own Just Dance 3, latest in a 15 million-selling series, continue to command a growing share of the top-40 radio audience's attention. With most of the year's hottest products revolving around rump-shaking routines or downloadable surprises for iPhone and iPad, it's clear that innovation is indeed happening in the music and rhythm gaming world. It's just occurring in smaller, more incremental chunks, and via outings that substitute 3D cameras, touchscreens and connected multiplayer or online video sharing in place of authentic instruments.

Undeniably inventive, Rocksmith introduces several new gameplay wrinkles and picks up a worthy cause to champion. But Detoc's assessment that "what I see when I read the reviews is a lack of enthusiasm for something that is new" may not be entirely accurate. Opinions surrounding any new product can be wildly subjective and are prone by nature to being torn. But as the growing success of software in alternate categories (including those UbiSoft itself will explore with titles like ABBA: You Can Dance) illustrates, everyone's definition of "innovative" isn't just different. As seconded by unflattering reviews which claim the game "oozes boredom," it's also worth noting that today, as ever, even the most forward-thinking developments can't simply get by on groundbreaking features alone.

Related
• 'Rocksmith': Inside the Do-Or-Die Development of the First Real-Guitar Video Game 

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