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Opinion: Why  DJ Hero  Can't Save Music Games

Opinion: Why DJ Hero Can't Save Music Games Exclusive

November 4, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

[Industry watchers say DJ Hero should give the declining music genre, dominated by band game sequels, a much-needed refresh -- but Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander suggests it can't possibly have the same appeal.]

Fatigued of the music genre yet? Some people must be -- sales of The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 didn't measure up to predictions, and some analysts think consumers are getting tired of plastic instruments. Industry-watchers have suggested that what the genre needs is a refresh -- something other than rock music.

Activision and FreeStyle Games' DJ Hero promises that refreshment, taking the peripheral-equipped music game out of the bandland and onto the turntable. The game's been well-received critically, although it's too soon to tell whether that high praise will translate to sales -- another issue hampering the genre right now is its high cost relative to other software titles.

But assuming consumers are willing to spend more than $100 on a single video game, could DJ Hero revolutionize rhythm games?

Obvious Appeal

On the surface it offers an intriguing proposition. The art of sampling and mixing is far more specific than the broad genre of "rock music;" its associated culture is narrower and therefore easier to draw strongly, and its current incarnation owes credit to a smaller pool of individual scions, many of whom make notable appearances in DJ Hero.

As some game critics have pointed out, that nearly all the playable avatars in the game are living, currently active artists adds tangibility. It may feel much more relevant to DJ culture fans of all levels to play as DJ Shadow or Daft Punk than to resurrect the grim spectre of grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain for corporate rock; the work of contemporary artists is immediately more relatable than, say, the nostalgia value of Van Halen.

And yet, there's a reason rock is broader and more storied than mixing culture. In fact, there are several reasons, but rather than launch into a history of rock and roll's relationship to the humanities, let's look instead at what it is about rock that helped Guitar Hero and Rock Band launch the music game boom -- and, arguably, reshape the face of video games for a new audience.

Aspirational Fantasy

Certainly rhythm games existed prior to plastic guitars, most notably with the work of Parappa progenitor Masaya Matsuura. But the peripheral craze hit at just the right time -- game design had learned that those intimidated by traditional button-mashing could have an entirely new experience with gesture simulation on the Wii, paving the way for the explosion of approximated instrument-playing with controllers that resembled real-life objects.

The advent of Guitar Hero let entirely new audiences tap into a near-universal fantasy. Whether video game fan or not, how many people have never once rocked out on air guitar, fingers twiddling in time to a fierce electric solo?

It's that fantasy of rock stardom, of guitar-god status, that charmed audiences and popularized music games. Rock Band expanded it further, adding the social element of group play and addressing another near-universal fantasy: Who hasn't thought fleetingly of starting a band with friends, wished for instrumental skill with which to own the stage?

That both games incorporated a progression from backwater to stadium also played a role in imbuing audiences with a sense of power -- one could even argue that it's the peripheral effects, like radiant star power and fans that scream just as the playing gets good, that truly make the experience.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero took a culturally universal experience -- seeing live music -- and let players try on transcending the audience role to take the stage, an empowerment that played a greater role in the games' success than song lists and celeb rockers.

Alone In The Booth

By contrast, being a DJ is something of a lonely art. At a DJ show, the mix master is quite often sequestered mostly out-of-sight in a booth, or elevated above the crowd, concealed behind the high walls that house his equipment. Crucially, nobody goes to a DJ show primarily to see the artist. They go to dance to his music. The spectacle is often laser lights or synchronized visual algorithms, not people. And if the DJ is doing his job and spinning a great party, his audiences are likely to forget he's even there.

Even hugely popular rock and indie bands that rely primarily on equipment effects rather than instruments -- take Animal Collective, for example -- have more subdued concerts than traditional bands. Who wants to spend a lot of money on a show ticket to watch guys stand still, bent over knobs and dials, heads down and twiddling away?

Mixing music is an art of technical craft and intellect, not of performance -- yet it's the desire to perform and the energy associated with it that's driven the success of music games in the past. In the case of DJ Hero, "empowering the audience" means taking them out of the high-octane party space of the dance floor and putting them into an environment of quiet concentration, alone with the beats.

That's not necessarily unappealing, but it's certainly going to be relevant to far fewer people than band games are. Think about how many people have wished they were career rock stars, and contrast that with how many people have wished they were up close and personal with a turntable -- not just for a few minutes of experimental wicka-wicka-wicka, but as a lifestyle.

Beat Generation

Of course, it's somewhat narrow-minded to say "everyone wants to be a rock star." The words we're overlooking here -- "urban youth" -- are a little bit tacky, and companies don't generally like to admit it as a target market, nor risk looking un-PC by generalizing about that segment's tastes.

But in general, for young ethnic males living in cities, the aspirational culture revolves around rap and hip-hop, not wailing guitars. The music of their cultural history owes far more of its roots to funk and house, less to big hair and flannel.

For this market -- who also tend to be big consumers of video games -- it's hard to argue that DJ Hero isn't more relatable than Guitar Hero, or at the very least, that a soundtrack featuring 50 Cent and Rihanna is preferable to Sonic Youth and Muse.

But even then -- even if that market would much rather be Grandmaster Flash than Tom Morello, and would rather hear 50 Cent samples than Aerosmith tunes -- the appeal of playing a music game, again, owes more to the fantasy experience of performing than it does to its music and its artists.

Players who'd like to be closer to 50 Cent want to live out Fitty's rise from the tough streets to champagne fame, beefing with haters and impressing impresarios along the way. They want to start off freestyling in an underground club full of close-knit admirers and end up blowing up the charts, dominating a stadium where all hands are in the air.

They probably don't want to end up head-down in the DJ booth when all the partying's going on outside it. Who would?

DJ Hero may offer rhythm games to an entirely new swath of music fans, including historically underserved markets. And it may broaden the genre with an entirely new kind of offering, refreshing after years packed with Guitar Hero sequels and spinoffs.

But it can't match the success of past band games -- and if it's true the music genre is declining, it definitely can't save it.

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