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Friday, November 27, 2009

The Gaming Landscape 2000 to 2009 Part 6: The Decade of the Music Game

We've already talked about the importance of Guitar Hero.  It sold tons of copies and created a large pile of spinoffs, copiers, and detractors.  However, in talking about Guitar Hero, we're touching on something very interesting about this decade: In the zeroes, music games really went supernova.  Dance Dance Revolution launched in 1998, but didn't really make it into homes until this decade, where it sold in huge numbers.  DDR became part of the cultural lexicon so much that even people who hadn't played it knew what it was.  So what caused music games to become so popular so quickly when they hadn't been a big deal before?

The answer comes down to the music in games.  Video game music was very similar for a long time.  Even the best music still sounded a little chippy:


Granted, a lot of these songs were great, and there's no denying that they did wonders with what they had, but chiptunes don't hold a lot of significance for people other than gamers.  It's really hard to show someone who's not familiar with gaming how great a chiptune is because they don't understand how difficult it is to make them sound good.  Most systems had ho-hum sound chips that could do a little bit of digitized audio, but the sound was still garbled and not-quite-right.

It wasn't until the PS1 that we finally had CD-quality audio available for the first time.  However, most of the tracks were still chiptunes, albeit excellent ones.  Even some of the best soundtracks on the PS1 were still MIDI tracks with a lot more flexibility.  Sure, they could put in realistic-sounding instruments and more layers, but it was still MIDI with all the limitations inherent in MIDI.

What changed in the zeroes?  One, compression technology improved, meaning that a song could be compressed and still sound good.  Two, disc capacity took a huge leap from 800 MB on a standard CD to 4.7 GB on a DVD.  Space was no longer at a premium on a disc, so you could actually fit real, actual tracks on a disc.  With those technological improvements, we started seeing a genre that heretofore was impossible to achieve with any success become very, very possible as well as very, very profitable.

Of course, this opened the door for Guitar Hero and its imitators, but what can't be understated is the effect that Guitar Hero had on the industry as a whole.  It's hard to remember now, but at the dawn of the decade Activision was a failed brand that floundered a bit.  Before Guitar Hero, Activision's acquisitions were mostly mid-major studios like Neversoft, Infinity Ward, and Vicarious Visions.  They were positioning themselves to become a player, but hadn't taken the next leap.  After 2005 (when Guitar Hero launched) they started merging and changing, eventually becoming the behemoth we know and tolerate now.

Now, correlation doesn't always equal causality, and Infinity Ward certainly had a lot to do with Activision's rise to prominence.  Still, instead of having one major tentpole franchise (Call of Duty), Activision had TWO that could be exploited which allowed them to play with the likes of Vivendi, acquire Blizzard, and become a money-printing, price-hiking machine.  In other words, Activision is where it is because of music gaming.

So what do the next 10 years hold?  What will change?  What shiny new technology is going to change things forever?  There's no way to be certain, but we'll make some educated guesses in the next article in this series.