Crispy Gamer

The Music Game Genre is NOT Dying


With the sellout new Green Day: Rock Band coming out in May, many people on the internet have revived the "the music game genre is DYING!!!" sentiment going around. It started thanks to the over-saturation of the genre from Activision, releasing no more than five Guitar Hero games in the past year (Guitar Hero 5Band HeroGuitar Hero: Van HalenGuitar Hero: Metallica, and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits for those of you keeping score). Combine that with other developers' franchise updates (Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern HitsThe Beatles: Rock Band) and some new ventures (DJ HeroRock Band Unplugged) and, well, over-saturated begins to seem like an understatement.

However ridiculous the franchise milking may be, this over-saturation has nothing to do with the vitality of the genre. The original Guitar Hero originally skyrocketed the genre into popularity; it succeeded for both good mechanics and style. But the real reason it gained such popularity was from the excellent licensed soundtrack; few can disagree that combining the likes of Ozzy Osborne, Sum 41, Queen, and Judas Priest has broad, mainstream appeal.

A lot of people seem to forget that music games were around and popular way before Guitar Hero hit. The difference in the 90's was that the popularity centered around Japanese culture and, consequently, Japanese music. Franchises like Dance Dance Revolution, Drummania and Beatmania dominated Japanese arcades. They even had Guitar Freaks, which has the same mechanics of Guitar Hero (though its guitars had only 3 frets) yet came out 3 years earlier. The only franchise that made a (financially) successful transition to America was DDR, which still only filled a nerdy niche at best. 

A big reason that the Japanese rhythm games failed to garner mainstream appeal here in the states was the soundtracks - Americans just weren't into the sugar-happy JPop littered in DDR. My point? Music games have been around for over a decade, and even if the mega-franchises of Rock Band and Guitar Hero lost appeal, they would still be there. There are tons of non-guitar-peripheral rhythm games on plenty of platforms: Elite Beat Agents and Rhythm Heaven on the DS, Patapon on the PSP, a plethora of flash music games on the PC, Tap Tap Revenge on the iPhone. The latter of these has been listed on the list of the 100 top grossing iPhone games for twelve weeks now, and any iPhone developer can tell you that being in the top 100 is a difficult feat with massive financial reward. Clearly, music games are doomed.

"But Kevin, won't the franchise milking cause the genre to become burned out?" No, not at all. Any genre that exhibits a period of popularity experiences milking at some level. During the SNES / Genesis days it has been estimated that one third of games released were platformers, and innovation in the genre reached a saturation point. Once you strip out the theme I couldn't tell you the difference between Donkey Kong CountrySonic the Hedgehog and Aladin besides some minor gameplay mechanics. Did platformers die out after that? They certainly arn't the main focus anymore, but games like LittleBigPlanetSuper Mario Galaxy and Megaman 9 show that the platformer is still a viable genre.

It just so happens that iterating a music game is much easier than a game with higher production costs. When they built Guitar Hero Aerosmith I'm fairly certain the process was simply acquiring the licenses, charting the songs, doing some aesthetic tweaks to the UI and avatars, and testing. The game engine needs no modification, and charting 30 songs is a lot easier than, for example, designing new single player maps that require art assets, storyboarding, voice acting, and enemy types in a first person shooter. Minimizing development costs while maximizing profit is pretty standard business's not like Guitar Hero is the only culprit either. Charging for costumes in LittleBigPlanet, experience points in Tales of Vesperia, and the newest offender, fifteen dollars for five maps in Modern Warfare 2, two of which arn't even new to the series.

The music game genre is simply in a period of popularity, one which Harmonix and Activision are taking good advantage of. If you don't like the milking, don't buy the games. Activision has even stated that they only plan on releasing one Guitar Hero game this year. I'm sure music games, like platformers in the 90s, will eventually sink back into obscurity; I like that better anyway, less game clones, more innovation. But as long as humans like music, the genre will live.