Holiday Music Games Aim to Reverse Sales Slump

More than a dozen new titles are out this season, but experts question how much longer the genre will thrive

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From finger-tapping iPhone outings (Linkin Park Revenge) to club-floor simulations (Just Dance 2) and sonic-powered shooters (Rock of the Dead), over a dozen new music games hope to have heads bopping this holiday season. But with category sales down a whopping 49% in 2009 and still expected to be a full two-thirds lower than 2008's $1.7 billion tally by year-end, insiders are questioning just how long the glory days will last.

"Music gaming has hit a glass ceiling of sorts," says Brian Crecente, editor of gaming news site Kotaku.com. "Gamers were originally wowed by the notion of feeling like they were in control of the songs they loved. But as the sense of wonder has worn off, [games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band] have started to feel more like karaoke 2.0 than something new and different. They're still fun, just not innovative."

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"We've hit a point where only really serious fans are interested in upgrading their hardware," agrees Joe Rybicki, founder of music-game blog PlasticAxe.com. "Because of last year's performance, even large retailers aren't willing to sacrifice much shelf space to big music game bundles."

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Reasons for the genre's sudden and precipitous decline are numerous. Theories range from excessive prices ($90-plus for software with plastic instruments) to an overabundance of new releases, including numerous clones and easily-dismissed revamps of popular series.

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Critics also point to band-specific tributes that played to limited audiences (e.g. Guitar Hero: Van Halen), and value-priced song downloads recharging existing games, leaving little reason for expensive upgrades. But with even The Beatles: Rock Band unable to move crowds en masse, game makers are quickly being forced to go back to the drawing board in 2010.

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Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock expanded the billion-dollar franchise by adding fantasy elements and quests inspired by classic heavy metal and hard rock album covers, but sold below estimates. Rock Band 3, just out, tacks on support for a 25-key MIDI keyboard, three-part vocal harmonies and a Pro Mode that reputedly teaches real-world musical technique. Hip-hop karaoke outing Def Jam Rapstar introduced social networking elements, letting you record and edit video performances and freestyle raps, then share them over the Internet. (A recent video of Hulk Hogan flashing the camera while playing the game was itself widely shared online.) Power Gig: Rise of the SixString claims it offers more lifelike play, and comes with a controller that can double as a real guitar.

Other rhythm games are instead putting technological innovations first. Michael Jackson: The Experience employs gesture-tracking hardware such as Nintendo's Wii remote and Sony's PlayStation Move so fans can mimic the Jackson's moves. Likewise, Dance Central and DanceMasters, powered by Microsoft's hands-free Kinect motion control system (which makes your body the controller), let players shake and shimmy as they would naturally. Facebook and Twitter integration is also present in titles such as Rock Band 3, which lets you share achievements, activity and playlists from within the game itself.

"Everyone is doing something different [this year] in terms of creative, social, realistic or motion control elements," says Jamie Jackson, creative director for DJ Hero 2, which adds support for two plastic turntables and a microphone. "Gamers are going to have a chance to play how they want and with a wide range of music."

But some analysts dispute whether motion-powered games (which require players to own pricey hardware accessories) and lifelike interfaces can save music gaming. "The more realism," Jesse Divnich of the consulting company EEDAR says, "the more niche your products become." Michael Pachter of the research firm Wedbush Morgan says that "music games have peaked ... someone looking to buy could satisfy their desires with an older game like Guitar Hero: World Tour, currently available for under $100." Others wonder if current advancements are too little, too late, and if there's really space in enthusiasts' playrooms, let alone budgets, for additional plastic instruments. However you slice it, with year-to-date music game sales tracking at just $158 million, as opposed to $506 million for the first nine months of 2009, it promises to be an uphill battle for the genre.

But execs such as Paul DeGooyer, Senior Vice President of Electronic Games, Music and Programming for MTV Networks, dismiss these claims, saying new offerings will have both casual fans and diehard enthusiasts whistling a happy tune. "Overall music game revenue declined last year, but software sales were actually higher; the majority of the revenue drop came from hardware saturation," he says. "People still appear enthused about buying software, and weekly sales of song downloads remain strong, indicating a real, continuing appetite for interactive music. As the economy continues to struggle, consumers are being very selective with their entertainment choices, but music games remain a great way to bring family and friends together."

"Games are still an amazing avenue for fans to interact with music and for artists to either reach lifelong fans or gain new ones," agrees Nick Perrett, CEO of 4mm Games, which created Def Jam Rapstar. "The relationship between record companies and music games will only get deeper."

Whether or not that relationship will still be dominated by blockbuster retail releases for set-top gaming systems like the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 remains unclear, however.

New devices (think of the the iPhone, with apps like Riddim Ribbon), platforms (like Facebook's Recordshop Tycoon) and play methods (like web-based rhythm game Instant Jam) present growing competition. Available free or at cut-rate prices on a variety of gadgets, playable in short spurts and accessible on-demand, these novel gaming methods may provide music fans a cheaper, more convenient alternative to $60 shrink-wrapped discs. And Independent releases such as popular PC outing Audiosurf can afford to experiment and take risks where larger games can't.

"The fact that basic music game mechanisms have hardly evolved for some 15 years is telling," says NanaOn-Sha founder Masaya Matsuura, whose early PlayStation smash PaRappa the Rapper helped popularize the rhythm game genre. "Using hit songs that have been piling up for the past 50 years is not the way to [make great games]." Matsuura's new iPhone and iPod touch title WINtA (short for "War is Not the Answer"), being developed for non-profit publisher OneBigGame, also aims to be a platform for music creators. Citing games with greater emotional ties with players, not more technical wizardry, as the genre's next logical evolutionary step, he further hopes to make a game that involves "dealing with an orchestra." How much music game sales rise or fall in 2010 may be irrelevant, though, he chuckles, explaining that the race between gaming companies and peripheral manufacturers to add new features is ultimately self-defeating. "Even if closets in the States are way bigger than those found in Japan," Matsuura says, "this cycle of mass production and mass consumption cannot last forever."

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