New Book Chronicles History of Music Games

Michael Brown

Author, analyst, and gaming expert Scott Steinberg has penned a new book chronicling the explosive growth and rapid decline of the music game genre.

Music Games Rock: Rhythm Gaming's Greatest Hits of All Time is an  encylopedic tome covering every music game ranging from Dance Dance Revolution to Rock Band. The book is available free as a digital download (PDF) or you can buy the Kindle or iBook versions for $2.99.

Here's an excerpt:


1999 – Dance Dance Revolution

Behind The Music: The arcade game that inspired a cultural revolution and pioneered active gaming over a decade before motion controls made Dance Central or Just Dance household names. Standing on a virtual dance stage, the player works up a rhythm and then steps, jumps and twists in time to floating arrow icons and J-Pop hits, hopefully performing something resembling an actual rump-shaking routine. Still a hot property even after more than a decade, new versions are hitting consoles and arcades regularly to keep the time-honored tradition of couch potato choreography going strong.

Why It Rocks: DDR has touched our society in so many ways, it’s amazing. It inspired local and national dance competitions; muscled its way into gyms nationwide; spawned a generation of footloose tweens who could contort like pretzels at the local Dave & Buster’s but barely shoulder lean otherwise; spawned over 100 hernia-inducing sequels/spin-offs; inspired numerous rivals like Pump It Up and In the Groove ; and gave us all something to gawk at. Plus, it was actually adopted by states like West Virginia as part of state PE programs to combat childhood obesity, a marked step up from ego-crushing kickball competitions and those damn thigh-chafing ropes.

Did You Know… Playing DDR while holding the rear guard bar (which is there to prevent you from falling of the back of the machine) to improve balance and increase foot speed is known as “bar raping.” It’s also massively looked down on by experienced players and makes you look like a bit of an idiot.

2005 – Guitar Hero

Behind The Music: Not heard of Guitar Hero ? What planet have you been living on? It’s a $2 billion franchise that’s sold over 25 million units worldwide and spawned piles of spin-offs including dedicated tributes to bands like Aerosmith and Metallica, not to mention the likes of Band Hero and DJ Hero . The series also scored chart-topping adaptations for nearly every platform from Nintendo DS to mobile phones, once enjoyed a cult-like following amongst teens and twenty-somethings and even boasts entire South Park episodes devoted to its charms. That said then, you could be forgiven for forgetting that prior to launch, the dynamo which sparked an entire industry was once just a risky, unproven gamble from RedOctane, a little-known manufacturer of dance pad peripherals and dabbler in online video game rentals.

Why It Rocks: Guitar Hero turned the nation’s youth into drooling vidiots, single-handedly built today’s fastest-growing game category and potentially helped save rock through the sale of online music. But despite being directly responsible for the last decade’s fastest-growing (and collapsing) gaming genre, the title once-hailed as the music industry’s possible savior has sadly been placed on temporary hiatus by now-owner Activision. While the publisher insists that reports of the franchise’s death have been greatly exaggerated though, it’s still sad to see the former king of the castle being left to rot in the dungeon. Thankfully, there’s still hope for a rebirth via online, social and downloadable platforms.

Did You Know… In a list of top grossing games published since 1995 released by NPD in March 2011, Guitar Hero 3: Legends Of Rock came out on top with life-to-date sales of $830.9 million—more than the Call of Duty games—and that’s not including revenues earned from additional downloadable content.

2007 – Rock Band

Behind The Music: The first game to combine all aspects of the virtual music-making experience (singing, pounding drums, playing guitar or plucking bass) was also the initial offering to deliver peripherals for all (including microphone, plastic drum set and faux axe) in one kit. In total, over 100 million digital songs have been downloaded for the Rock Band family of games, with more than 2700 tracks from 900 artists including Metallica, The Ramones and Fleetwood Mac available across all retail and downloadable installments, including digital distribution platform the Rock Band Network. Thousands of masters, re-recordings or alternate tracks (all playable) by artists like Rush and Weezer, not to mention countless fans — who can perform as cohesive four-man bands online — should ensure that it remains the default house party icebreaker of choice for years to come.

Why It Rocks: Providing the now-defunct MTV Games a then-marquee entrée into the gaming universe, it also laid the foundations for groundbreaking tributes ( The Beatles: Rock Band ), cutting-edge online innovations (Rock Band Network) and future motion-controlled games ( Dance Central ) to come.

Did You Know… The runaway success of Rock Band is obviously the downloadable content store, which, at its peak, was estimated to generate one million song downloads every nine days. An example of how popular it is can be seen in Motley Crüe’s Saints of Los Angeles—released as a single simultaneously on both the Rock Band Store and iTunes, first week sales were 34,000 higher in Rock Band’s favor. According to Harmonix, nearly 5 million people have downloaded songs from the Rock Band catalogue, and more than a million players still sign in each month to play the game and purchase new music.

2009 – DJ Hero

Behind The Music: Never has the phrase ‘spin-off’ been more apt— DJ Hero took the foundations laid by Guitar Hero and applied them to the art of the disc jockey. Nearly 100 remixes, mash-ups and other tracks brought multiple tunes together, with players having to push buttons, move a cross-fader and scratch the custom-made plastic turntable controller in order to score points. True, it didn’t look as complex as the guitar game (it only had three colored streams instead of five), but then appearances were more than a little deceptive…

Why It Rocks: Besides taking a successful formula and doing something interesting with it, you can now pick up a full controller with the original game (or even the sequel) for less than a third of what it originally retailed for. Thanks to the franchise failing to do anywhere near as well as Activision hoped—a problem it blamed on the fagging music game market, not on the fact that it had managed to create yet another $100+ product for people to buy—anyone with a bit of shop savvy can find the entire package for hardly any money these days. Shame, really, but then we’re not complaining.

Did You Know… Despite sales falling well short of what Activision expected, the publisher still claimed that DJ Hero was the highest grossing new intellectual property (IP) of 2009. Of course, when your game’s selling for $120 a pop, that’s not surprising; even low sales would have meant it made a ton of cash…

2010 – Dance Central

Behind The Music: Does for dancing games what Rock Band did for music games (which is to say, it totally redefined how we saw them). Of course, much of that’s down to Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, for which Dance Central was a leading launch title—the motion-tracking camera meant players could do away with dance mats, waggle controllers and other things that were previously required for dancing games, leaving them with just their bodies to do the poppin’ with. As the on-screen character performs moves, you simply replicate the move in time with the music… although as you might suspect, that makes the process sound far easier than it actually is.

Why It Rocks: Previously, dancing games didn’t actually require much dancing—the likes of Dance Dance Revolution hinged on hitting oversized buttons with your feet, while Just Dance could be played from any sofa simply by waving one arm around. Dance Central , however, doesn’t work unless you actually dance. Granted, that makes the level of challenge slightly higher, although there’s a fair amount of leeway allowed on the lower difficulties. That said though, even a few songs played back-to-back leave the average player sweating buckets—who said playing games wasn’t good for you?

Did You Know… Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s president, appears to be a fan of Dance Central , having cited it as ‘the best Kinect game’ in his opinion. We suspect he plays it in between kicking ass and taking names.

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