News broke today that Harmonix — the creator of Rock Band — is being sold by its owner, Viacom. No buyer yet is lined up, but the bottom line is that Viacom wants to offload the company because it’s losing money.
For years now, the music game subgenre has been in decline, with sales numbers receding faster than Donald Trump’s hairline. Enthusiasts still adore the games and eagerly await new releases, but music games seem to have over-saturated store shelves to the point that casual gamers no longer see the value in buying new games and controllers, when they’re usually little more than variants on the same old theme. Industry analysts have been suggesting that the days of music games are numbered.
For what it’s worth, Harmonix absolutely remains at the forefront of the genre. Activision keeps creating competition with the Guitar Hero franchise, and Power Gig recently tried to gain some footing with the use of a real-life guitar. But Rock Band remains king of the hill, largely because Harmonix has been so committed to constantly adding new media for gamers to play and enjoy. Rock Band 3 has only been out a few weeks, and critics and players both have praised the game’s novelties, including the first-ever keyboard in a music game and a guitar controller that has actual strings. Plus, Harmonix’ latest title, Dance Central, which works exclusively with Kinect, is the closest thing Kinect has to a killer app.
But as cool as Dance Central is, it’s not like dancing games haven’t been around for a while now. It’s one of only a handful of music-related game types. Where shooters and adventure games and platformers and racing titles are always finding new and exciting angles, with wild new ideas, music games are still following the same old blueprint: gamer simulates music-playing.
Where are the wild new ideas? Enough with the baby steps — where are the giant leaps? Why haven’t music games made any real advancements since they began?
I don’t think Harmonix is going anywhere — the have far too smart a business model for that — but casual players are never going to be excited by music games again until somebody hatches an idea big and revolutionary enough to match that first innovation that created the genre in the first place.
The original Guitar Hero introduced us to a game that let players simulate guitar playing by using software and a specialized, guitar-shaped controller that worked together seamlessly to create the illusion of actual musicianship. Music games need another enormous, cognitive leap that matches or exceeds the effect that Guitar Hero first had on players, or quite simply, the genre will die.