Friday, December 4, 2009

The Rise and (Eventual) Fall of the Plastic Music Peripheral

Too many guitars In 2005, the music game genre changed forever.  Prior to the groundbreaking release of Guitar Hero, games like Amplitude, Gitaroo Man, and Vib Ribbon were the closest gamers could get to making music on their consoles.  Of course, Japanese gamers had access to Konami’s GuitarFreaks and DrumMania, but only because Japan still believes in arcades.  The only Bemani title to see widespread success in America was Dance Dance Revolution (which I assume is still being played in a few bowling alleys and middle-school gym classes).  Most of these games came with J-pop soundtracks instead of Western pop/rock collections and thus became popular among insular demographics of avid gamers and Japanophiles. 

Guitar Hero changed all that.  Publisher RedOctane was inspired by its hardware work for GuitarFreaks, and they brought on music-game specialists Harmonix to develop the software.  They struck oil.  The setlist, forty-some guitar-centric rock songs, reached out to music fans who might not have otherwise picked up a controller.  The guitar peripheral freed gamers shackled to their DualShocks.  And surprisingly, everyone was willing to pay the extra money for a game that came with a plastic guitar.

Flash forward to present day, when any gamer remotely interested in Guitar Hero or its Probably-The-Better-Series-Now sister franchise Rock Band now has a closet (or living room) overflowing with plastic instruments.  After four years of unbridled expansion, the plastic instrument genre’s gray hairs are starting to show.

Part of the problem may be the flagging economy.  In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a recession on.  People are out of work so they don’t have money, or they’re saving up money in case they end up out of work.  It’s bad enough that the industry is currently married to a $60 price point for big releases (Activision’s Bobby Kotick would, of course, charge more if he could), but the $100 barrier to entry for music games just seems obscene in this financial climate.  For $100 you can buy an actual guitar and learn to play actual songs

Cultural interest also seems to be peaking.  The first Guitar Hero game featured covers of well-known songs.  The sequel had a few master recordings, which titillated players who could now hear Ozzy actually sing Sabbath songs.  Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a music game without fully-licensed music.  With this wide acceptance has also come a battle for the biggest “gets.”  The Rock Band boys seem to have won the war by securing the rights to The Beatles (after their initial shrug-inducing AC/DC effort).  Activision has pumped out one Guitar Hero band title after another (Aerosmith, Metallica, Van Halen) with little lasting success.  Perhaps the only band left that could rival Beatlemania is Led Zeppelin, but I think that Zep might lack the universal appeal of the Fab Four.  Guitar Hero has been featured on South Park.  The New York Times loved The Beatles: Rock Band.  It can’t get any bigger than this.

Plus, the near-perfection of the Hero/Rock Band formula means that each new iteration feels exponentially less new.  The rules of play have become so standardized; playable music has become codified into a five-button system complete with Perfects, Goods, and Star Powers.  Any kid who believes the hype about the next Rock Band actually teaching them music will be surprised to discover that Mozart did not, in fact, compose on a five-note rainbow scale.  The only reason to look forward to each new version is the track listing, which is stupid considering the proliferation of downloadable track packs.  I don’t need to pay $60 for a new disc.  I will browse your store and choose for myself.  The series of good ideas that led to the genre’s success are now stifling its creative growth.

As I said, we’re reaching the instrument peripheral saturation point.  The backwards compatibility of each new release demonstrates an acknowledgement on the side of the developer that we’ve got all the guitars we can handle.  And if they released some crazy new way to play plastic instruments, they’d split the user base.  You’d have some people excited by the challenge, but people who’d just gotten comfortable with the Orange guitar button would feel betrayed and taken advantage of.  Not a good way to treat your constituents.

And then there’s DJ Hero.  By all accounts, Activision’s foray into plastic turntabling is a good game.  It’s just not a game people seem to want.  It’s $120 –  nobody wants to pay that.  It’s primarily a single-player experience – the market’s shown these games do better as party titles.  It puts players in the role of DJ – who wants to be a DJ?  Guitar Hero works because it plays on air guitar fantasies: thousands of screaming fans watching you rock out onstage.  The best DJs are behind-the-scenes magicians, deftly matching beats and providing a good flow to the evening.  I don’t see a good DJ at a party and go, “Man, I wish I could do that.”  I maybe sidle up next him, drink in hand, and ask where he got that sweet mash-up he just played.  Or perhaps ask where he found that awesome equalizer t-shirt he’s wearing (true story). 

This peripheral stagnation isn’t just confined to music games.  Take a look at Tony Hawk: RideNobody wants that.  Anyone who wants skateboarding to be more than button combinations on a controller is probably already outside on a real board, convinced it’s 1999.  And Nintendo’s done a decent job so far jamming Wii peripherals down the throats of newly-converted baby boomers, but they’re still putting out the Wii Vitality Sensor.  People who buy that shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t work for them – they’re already dead inside.

It’s hard enough to keep up with the onslaught of new releases, much less make sense out of all the hoopla surrounding them (I’m looking at you Call of Duty), that sustaining all of this plastic is just impossible.  I’m not talking video game landfills or anything, but there just isn’t room in our collective closets anymore.  Maybe Natal will arrive and relieve us of the need for controllers at all.  In the meantime, I’ve still got to my money’s worth out of my Interactor.