What’s Wrong With Rhythm Games?


I’ll never forget the fervor I encountered at a major game convention when Guitar Hero was first shown. The software developer, Harmonix, was known for a few mildly successful products and had coupled with RedOctane, a peripherals company, to produce the title. The booth I first encountered was RedOctane’s so it was, of course loaded to the gills with small plastic guitars.

The amazing part about it was that with a hall full of top-flight, highly-anticipated games, RedOctane’s booth was the one drawing all the attention and when I say all the attention it was standing room only. I looked over at the people playing the game and, in that setting, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. You couldn’t hear the music (players, if memory serves, were wearing headphones) so it looked like a bunch of geeks hitting toy-like brightly colored buttons in sync with buttons on screen. Was this a game?

Rock Band Silouette

Then when it came out my son asked for it so we got it for him and I tried it. I was hooked immediately. It literally allowed you to experience a physical connection to the day-dream of being a rock star. Air guitar would never be the same. Immediately it was obvious that the culmination of that title would take us to a full band and it did with the release of Rock Band.

The problem is that soon thereafter the market was essentially flooded with various versions of rhythm games and the fad appeared to wane and pull back taking profits with it. Today we have a reality where the venerable Guitar Hero franchise is now cancelled (though there’s talk of some future life yet) and Rock Band struggling heavily. Even the mighty Beatles, with a tremendously well-designed product, couldn’t turn the decline around.

The general consensus today is that the market simply played-out the genre and it’s now no longer of interest to the masses. I disagree entirely. I firmly believe that the main problem with the concept is its extremely limited platform dependence.

The genre demands an ever-increasing library of songs. Those take time to develop and requires a fan to keep deepening their investment in order to keep the fun going. The problem there is that the investment continues to decline in dividends with every passing month. The design of the model is flawed from the start. Gamers and non-gamers (as many fans have never played any other game) must invest in a game system (often at a not-so-small price) and then the title which includes—at least at the beginning—an investment in peripherals. Then comes buying the songs. As we’ve already seen from subsequent releases in the series the investment in those songs is extremely fluid. Songs you had in an earlier release are in no way guaranteed to be in a later version of the game. Too bad.

What’s more is that if you decided to change game platforms you’ve got to start entirely from scratch. There’s also no simple way to play songs you have at a friends house unless you drag your entire game system with you. Yes there are ways to do it but it’s convoluted and annoying. In my own case we have an Xbox 360 and it has a family-based “gamer tag” so all the songs essentially belong to it. Now that my son is getting close to college age he wants the tag while I want the songs and there’s just no way to separate the two. Add to this a complete uncertainty as to what happens when the next generation of game consoles comes out. Will a hypothetical Xbox 720 allow me access to my song library? The current evidence doesn’t give you a good feeling as to the potential for that. Plus, even if it is possible, now a game is forcing me to choose a potentially inferior successor or risk abandoning an not-so-small investment.

Then there’s the simple case of the hardware limiting the potential evolution of the genre. On the Xbox 360 you now have Rock Band 3 supporting 2 guitars, a set of drums, a keyboard and 3 singers. The problem is the system has a limitation on how much bandwidth it can offer up so playing with seven participants requires a special mode that negates other normal game features.

Where all of this went wrong was in this closed platform design. Rhythm games missed the big pool. They should have designed a much more open system. Let Harmonix own the accounts and let those accounts work on any system where any licensed software developer provides a compatible product. It shouldn’t matter what system I have. If there’s a Rock Band variant on it I should be able to play my songs on it. That could be a PC, an Xbox, a Wii, an Android tablet or even my GPS if they can figure that out.

Plus the songs should be opened up to anyone. Let a band out there find a reliable development house or expert to provide compatible scores for their backlog of songs and Harmonix can still insist that they all first go through their QA process before being made available to assure they all meet an acceptable level of quality. You’ll have bands all over creation feeling the pinch to provide for this. Imagine buying a CD from your favorite band or downloading tracks and having them come with the appropriate rhythm game tracks as well. It would help drive much-desired revenue into the music industry and Harmonix would be right there to make their money on every single track as well.

You’d also see more peripherals from all over and not just from extremely limited suppliers having to work around the constraints of a single console. Instead they could design whatever they can think of to be used on any such system and then simply provide a hub for each system to do the translations from instrument to device. The 360 might have a seven instrument trade-off and limit but one of several competing PC versions might have no such limit.

I don’t know about others but this would hearten my interests in continuing to invest in the genre and my library of songs. Without this I don’t see why I should bother any longer when, in a comparatively short period, there will be an entirely new system out there possibly forcing me to start over again. And how long will each older device be supported? I have major doubts. With the design I’ve laid out the support could be there indefinitely as the data would basically be device agnostic.

Yes there would be some danger of piracy and some danger of third-party interloping but with respect to music that ship has already sailed. The question is, do those behind rhythm games want to be known as having been involved in an on-going endeavor or just as those guys that gave us that cool game some of us remember from a generation ago?

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