[With Def Jam Rapstar, Konami and Autumn Games are trying to break into a genre whose peak may have already come and gone -- Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris looks at the risks.]
Launching a new IP is always risky. Launching it in the fourth quarter is doubly so. But launching it in the fourth quarter in a genre that peaked two years ago? That, some might argue, borders on madness.
4mm Games and Terminal Reality are giving it a whirl, though, with Def Jam Rapstar set to hit shelves on October 5.
Jointly published by Konami and newcomer Autumn Games, the title hopes to revive the music segment - which was briefly seen as the next big category of the industry, before an avalanche of Guitar Hero releases (and smaller titles) hit the market. That overwhelmed customers - and killed the golden goose.
As of September 10, 2010's music genre sales stood at $142 million - versus $391 million for the same period in 2009. The category's decline has accounted for two-thirds of the total industry decline so far this year, according to analysts.
That's not stopping Harmonix or Activision from putting out new music games. Of course, they've got an existing fan base for their franchises.
For 4mm, Terminal Reality and Autumn Games, it's a lot different - but the companies are betting on the hip-hop community to back them - and help them defy industry trends.
"When people say the music genre, they really mean Rock Band and Guitar Hero," says Alex Collmer, co-founder and CEO of Autumn Games.
"It's not what it once was because they already sold it to everyone. ... If you look within the gaming community, hip-hop is more popular than classic rock. From our point of view, there's an enormous base of gamers that have never been delivered a music title that's based on a genre they're interested in."
Of course the test balloon for music games for the hip-hop world didn't exactly soar. Activision's DJ Hero last year was loaded with tracks from Jay-Z, Rihanna and Cypress Hill, but failed to immediately find an audience.
It wasn't a flop - sales as of June 2010 hit 1.2 million units - but when compared to the numbers of other music games, it was hardly a rousing success.
Activision, of course, is moving forward with a sequel to the game (due out in October), hoping to build on those numbers. The game will feature 2Pac, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West among others. That (along with Activision's marketing machine) could prove to be strong competition for 4mm and co.
Def Jam Rapstar is hoping some of its gameplay mechanics make it stand out from the pack. Beyond the usual music game chestnuts, it also features a strong social component, allowing people to upload videos of themselves rapping and challenge other players.
"This is Guitar Hero crossed with American Idol," says Collmer. "We don't think that's been done before."
In music, no - but it's a gamble that's very similar to the one YooStar 2, a movie karaoke title that lets you insert yourself in key film scenes, is making. YooStar 2, though, will integrate with Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network - and won't require players to head over to their PC to see video uploads. Things aren't that convenient in Def Jam Rapstar - which could make it harder for the game to truly take off.
In its defense, Def Jam Rapstar does have a few things working in its favor. The game doesn't require players to further litter their homes with peripherals other than a microphone, which is included in the retail cost. And since the game undoubtedly cost significantly less to create than a Guitar Hero or Rock Band, it can make a profit much more easily.
Neither the developer nor publisher is likely to be happy with a modest profit, though. They're counting on hip-hop fans to flock to the game. The problem is they could be misjudging the demographic. If the hip-hop audience and the core gamer are truly one and the same, it's not other music games they have to worry about; it's the big guns like Call of Duty and Halo.
The Beatles couldn't save music games in 2009. Will 2Pac, 50 Cent and Dr Dre be able to turn things around this year? It's going to be an uphill fight.