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Analysis: Is the Dance Genre Set For A Fall?

Analysis: Is the Dance Genre Set For A Fall?

April 25, 2011 | By Colin Campbell

The dance genre is wildly popular. Ubisoft says it's sold 12 million Just Dance games, as well as three million Michael Jackson games on Wii. Harmonix's Dance Central was the top-selling Kinect game in November 2010. Majesco's Zumba Fitness has shifted more than a million units.

These games have cultural impact way beyond the game industry's borders. Michael Jackson: The Experience has almost half a million Facebook fans, while Just Dance's various Facebook pages boast over a million fans.

As Matt Matthews pointed out recently, approximately one in every 11 units of software sold on the Wii since the end of September 2010 has been a copy of Just Dance 2.

But is this sustainable? Haven't we seen before how the music sector can promise unending revenues, but deliver disappointment and even disaster? It seems highly likely that we will see a large number of dance games entering the market in the next 12 months and the inevitable results of saturation.

Ubisoft's Tony Key believes the market's got legs. "The market is really unsaturated. It's big, and people want to do this. Before Just Dance came along you had no good excuse to actually be dancing in your living room with a group of people. We've created a reason for a home dance experience."

Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Secruties isn't so sure. "I think dance is even more of a bubble than music. There is simply too much content out there and barriers to entry are way too low. When Majesco can have a modest hit with Zumba Fitness - average Metacritic 43 on Xbox 360 - it shows that anyone can succeed if the underlying music or IP is sufficiently compelling. I think that Ubisoft's success with Just Dance will attract even more competitors, and think that the genre will fast become saturated."

Jesse Divnich, analyst at EEDAR adds, "The rise and eventual fall of the dance category will be no different than what occurred in music games. What is great about interactive entertainment is the constant evolution and experimentation with technology that allows consumers to experience video games in a manner not possible in the past. This is why we've seen dance, music and fitness grow into respectable categories; however, those that consume it rarely show long-term frequency consumption. In the simplest terms, they are fads. People like to dance, but not every day. They want to be fit, but quickly stop any diet regimen when a target goal has been met."

"In short, yes, the dance category is a bubble, much like most things in entertainment."

Quality in this genre has been variable. Just Dance was a mega-hit, but it failed to impress the critics - Eurogamer called it "a stupid, shallow, garish thing." Reviewers gave a good deal more respect to the spruced up sequel, especially in the light of the franchise's success, and it has gone on to sell 4.4 million units in the U.S. alone (source: NPD)

In turn, the Michael Jackson game has reviewed so-so on both Wii (56 percent) and Kinect (65 percent) according to Metacritic. Zumba Fitness didn't attract many reviewers, but among those that bothered, none gave it a positive review. Harmonix' Dance Central has been both a critical and a commercial success with sales of 1.5 million and a Metacritic rating of 82 percent.

This is a sector apparently impervious to the views of professional game critics, but the market rarely forgives a lack of excellence for too long. Not only that, but we have clear precedents in the music sector, where over-saturation, samey experiences and over-reliance on the novelty of the music artists themselves have taken their toll.

Tony Key believes comparisons with the guitar-and-drum sector are off the mark. "We're not the first dance game but what we did was make it cool and fun for the whole family to enjoy together. When was the last time you went to a party where when people started dancing it didn't get better?"

He has a point. The genius of Guitar Hero and Rock Band is in how the designers created new experiences around mastering control and timing. But it ceased to be fun because, ultimately, the games were all about pressing buttons and did not deliver sufficient variety or novelty. The dance games are purely about dancing, a pastime that we've been enjoying since time immemorial, and which offers unending variety.

Obviously, dancing can be an awkward social convention. These games enable stuffy old farts to trip the light fantastic. I know because I'm one of them. Only Dance Central, or possibly a bottle of Don Eduardo, is ever going to get me on my feet for a Lady Gaga number. These games also give those wonderful people with the natural exuberance to dance a unique take on a beloved pastime.

But we are talking here about people who don't spend much of their time playing console video games and take little interest in games that don't cater for their individual cultural leanings.

So, it feels like a genre that will be unforgiving to endless retail iterations. Ubisoft waited less than a year to get its Just Dance sequel to market and now Michael Jackson appears just a few months later. This rush to market acknowledges that the songs people dance to change rapidly, but I find it difficult to believe that the novelty of Just Dance is sustainable through a never-ending parade of new dance hits.

If and when a cornerstone game arrives that is absolutely without technical flaws, it's difficult to see why anyone would keep coming back for more.

Key adds that "Michael Jackson is just the first 'The Experience' brand" and there's no reason why "another artist can't make a great dance game under the Experience brand". He says there's nothing on the books right now, presumably because whatever Jackson sells will be a high ceiling for other dance related brands that follow. (Fred and Ginger, anyone?)

Maybe we're still on the upward curve with dancing games, and the numbers being posted by the likes of Ubisoft are certain to attract interest from competitors. E3 will see new dance brands emerging from the shadows, followed, inevitably, by deflation in the sector.

[As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandnarrative.]

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