Hang the DJ Hero – The death of music games

Adam El Araby

With the recent news that Viacom are looking to sell Harmonix, the originators of the Guitar Hero series and current developers of Rock Band, it seems that the end may be coming for the Playing-Along-To-Music-With-Plastic-Instruments genre of games. For years it has filled out hears and our storage space with unwieldy boxes and allowed us to live out our most garish rockstar dreams in safety of our own homes. They liberated the art of being a legend of rock from time consuming things like actually learning to play an instrument or figure out all those strange squiggly things musicians write. But the dream couldn’t last forever and lately we’ve started to see signs that the cracks were forming.

The decline really began when Red Octane, who had made the peripherals for the original Guitar Hero, were bought by Activision and subsequently parted ways with Harmonix, presumably citing musical differences. Activision, in their unmistakable style, set about battery farming the Hero titles, pumping out several each year. They made so many that even they realised that no one wanted them and eventually wound up giving hundreds of thousands of copies of Guitar Hero: Van Halen away for free with Guitar Hero 4. Van Halen, seriously.

Aerosmith and Metallica were also treated to their own Guitar Hero titles while Green Day, AC/DC and most deservingly of all, The Beatles, were given a similar honour by Rock Band. This oversaturation rapidly began to fatigue gamers who quickly became desensitised to the constant stream of new games. Rock Band attempted to mitigate this by treating the game as a platform in and of itself and shifting the focus to regularly delivering new tracks via their online store. But Rock Band, despite its noble goals, never managed to make a profit or catch up to the monstrously popular Guitar Hero. Activision has expanded laterally by creating the surprisingly entertaining DJ Hero, which has sold quite well on the back of a new turntable peripheral.

While Guitar Hero rested on its laurels and made only incremental improvements to its formula, Harmonix regularly tried to make substantial changes to its gameplay by adding big new features. The original Rock Band was the first to introduce vocals and drums to the equation. Later instalments added the Rock Band Network, which allowed anyone to release their own music to play in the game. The recently released Rock Band 3 took things to the next level with the introduction of Keyboards and the Pro mode, which introduces new instruments that are exact recreations of real guitars and could serve as an excellent way to learn to play a real instrument. Sadly, with the sale of Harmonix, the fate of these new toys, due for release next year, is now in some doubt.

The final blow came in September when Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock launched with a mere 86,000 copies sold, compared to 1.4million sold by Guitar Hero 3 in its first week. Rock band 3 didn’t fare any better, failing to crack the charts in its first month in the US and selling less than 8,000 in its first week in the UK.

Is there any hope for this once-booming genre? DLC seems like a promising option. It offers a regular, reliable stream of revenue without the major expense of developing a new disc release. But Harmonix have seen that between the cost of preparing these new tracks and licensing fees there isn’t much left over. Perhaps the future lies in games that allow gamers to interact with music in ways other than simply playing along. Games like Vib Ribbon, Rez, Lumines and Electroplankton all use music in different ways and hopefully we’ll continue to see music play a key part in gaming in the future.

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