June 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Guest Opinion: The State of Music Games


the state of music games

This is a guest opinion from Adil Sherwani, a former Microsoft program manager whose new company, Rhism, makes the Guitarism app, billed as “the first touch guitar app built for live performance,” and one of the most popular guitar emulators around. It’s not a music game — and those are the main focus of Sherwani’s piece, which originally appeared on the gaming blog MediumDifficulty and traces the evolution of music games from Harmonix to Smule. We have edited it slightly according to the Evolver.fm style guide and the whims of our editor.

Red-Red-Red-Red-Yellow-Yellow-Green-Green. This is the button sequence for the opening riff to “I Love Rock N Roll,” the first song in the original Guitar Hero. In 2005, this sequence (and the game) ushered in both a new way to experience music and a new way to play games. Created by a relatively unknown game studio called Harmonix Music Systems (which eventually created Rock Band, and, more recently, Dance Central), the Guitar Hero franchise earned over $1 billion in revenue at its peak in 2007, making music one of the most popular genres in video games.

However, decline soon set in. A mere four years later, Activision disbanded its Guitar Hero business unit, and Viacom sold Harmonix for a rumored $50. Yes, you or I could have possibly purchased the company behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band for less than the price of a new game — along with a mountain of liabilities, of course. A billion-dollar fad had had its day in the sun; music games were dead. Or so it seemed.

In the meantime, on Nov 6 2008, another relatively unknown company called Smule released a quirky little iPhone app called Ocarina. Its premise was simple: blow into the phone’s microphone to make music, listen to Ocarina melodies from other people around the world and share your melodies with them. The app quickly became a hit with downloads in the millions, the first of Smule’s string of “interactive social music game experience” successes. Smule followed up Ocarina with hit music apps / games based on the trombonepianofiddlevocalskaraoke, and sampling. One of its latest music games, Magic Guitar, shot to the top of the charts at launch in December 2011. This is not the dead genre Activision and Viacom walked away from.

So, what happened? Was Harmonix’ success with Guitar Hero and Rock Band just a fluke, and Smule’s success just a temporary extension of a fad — a fad encore, so to speak, that will soon fade away? As someone who left a cushy corporate job [at Microsoft] to form his own development studio building music apps and games, my completely biased opinion is “no.” Music games are not a fad because music is not a fad, and wanting to be a rock star is not a fad. Harmonix stumbled, and was unable to innovate effectively beyond a certain point. Smule’s apps have taken over from Harmonix in moving the genre forward, and there is still plenty of room for expanding the genre and moving it forward. To explore this, let’s look at what music games do, and how they have evolved.

Not a Fad

By and large, video games serve as fantasy fulfillment engines: Become a hero by defeating the enemy and saving the princess, country, or galaxy. Feel great about yourself, rinse, repeat. The fantasies that they tap into are timeless — much older than the gaming industry. The best-selling video game franchises of any generation, from Mario to Madden to Call of Duty, have always targeted these classic fantasies. This is no coincidence. Play-acting in backyards has become play-acting in virtual worlds with online communities.

Being a rock star is another classic fantasy, and more relatable than being a wizard. Legions of air guitarists and shower singers across the generations can attest to the allure of pretending to play at arenas around the globe for millions of adoring fans. This fantasy is timeless, and so the gaming genre that taps into it cannot be a fad. Harmonix knew this, and crafted every aspect of the Guitar Hero (and later Rock Band) experience around this fantasy. Where they failed is where Smule is succeeding: in evolving the genre towards its natural destiny.

Evolution and Destiny

Modern video games, such as Halo and Burnout, are significantly evolved from their spiritual ancestors, Space Invaders and Outrun. Beyond the obvious improvements in audiovisual presentation, modern games offer players more control and freedom in the game world (plus more guidance). Where Space Invaders let you shoot in one direction and move left and right to hide behind shields, Halo allows you to run, jump, and now jetpack around a fully-realized 3D space wherever they want, shooting a variety of weapons in any direction. Where the driving game Outrun only let you control gas, brake, and strafe, Burnout lets you navigate the city in any way you want, as a deep physics engine simulates handling and damage. The same can be said for other gaming genres. The bottom line is that this new freedom immerses players more deeply. Each triumph or setback feels more personal and visceral, because the moment-to-moment choices made by the player directly impact how things play out.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band may sport modern graphics and sound, but their controls are as primitive as those of Space Invaders. The music is pre-authored. As a player, I can’t control the note sequences, their timing, or even their volume. Minor exceptions exist (like the whammy bar controlling pitch), but these games are mostly the musical equivalent of Dragon’s Lair , which consisted of cartoon set-pieces (and had a similar boom-and-bust cycle). The user basically just presses buttons at certain times, the same way each time, to get through the game. How immersive can a music game be if the player never plays any actual music?

It can work well, for a while. These games became a phenomenon primarily because Harmonix did nail the rockstar fantasy with great presentation, narration and game design. Guitar Hero boasted an engaging, rags-to-riches storyline; superbly-curated and sequenced song lists; a pitch-perfect tone in presenting our virtual rocker’s rise to fame; and finely-crafted note charts for each song. This combination made you feel like you were playing that song, and playing it well. With Rock Band, Harmonix enabled multiple people to play  on different instruments together, exponentially increasing the fun factor and making it a must-have party game.

In both cases, Harmonix allowed indie musicians to submit their own songs to the game through Rock Band Network, and make them available to Rock Band players around the world, significantly increasing the number of songs available to players. And with Rock Band 3‘s Pro Mode, Harmonix boldly expanding the game into music instruction, teaching advanced players how to play Rock Band songs on a real guitar, drum kit or keyboard.

For me, the novelty wore off. I realized that the game was playing me, micro-managing me, telling me every single button to press and exactly when to press it. Even in Pro Mode with a real guitar or keyboard, I had no way to influence the sounds coming out of the speakers. I wanted something more evolved, with more free-form control in a larger possibility space — the way other videogames were becoming. Millions felt the same way, I imagine, which is why they eventually stopped playing.

The New Hotness

Perhaps those are the same millions who downloaded Ocarina and loved it, like I did. Its design is spartan: four blue circles on a black background. The audio sounds nice (a sweet, flute-like sound coming out of your tiny phone speaker), but not Guitar Hero-level awesome (a full rock band track with drums, bass, guitars and vocals blasting out of your home theater system). Luckily for Smule, it emerged on a platform at a time when the design bar was fairly low. The only thing that mattered was that it felt magical to play.

The controls are simple: Blow into the the phone to play, blow harder or softer to control volume, change the notes with your fingers, and tilt to add vibrato. What you hear is what you play, not what someone else pre-recorded for you. It might not always sound like a chart-topper — it might sound like a hot mess — but it’s your hot mess. Most importantly, you can play it with your eyes closed and imagine yourself performing in a stadium for thousands of imaginary fans. The illusion is complete, the fantasy sold, no fancy 3D graphics needed.

As it turns out, you really are playing to an audience of thousands, and each of them is playing to you. The “world” screen depicts the earth as a globe with thousands of tiny shimmering lights on the surface representing other Ocarina players just like you, doodling away on their new instruments. One at a time, the app tunes in to  these players and lets you hear their performance. “Heart” it if you like it or tap “next” to listen to something else. All of your performances, too, are automatically and anonymously shared with this community (you can opt out, but why would you?). So within the app are millions of people playing for, entertaining, and inspiring each other — real people, playing real music, on a “real” instrument, and giving each other real feedback.

This stands in stark contrast to the fake NPCs and fake applause of the console games. Artificial intelligence is not sophisticated enough to provide meaningful feedback on a freestyle performance. Ocarina represents the dawning of an evolved way to fulfill the rock star fantasy, and the direction these games need: becoming a massively-multiplayer online game around music.

Smule pushed the envelope with subsequent apps. A user-friendly “Play a Song” mode typically instructs you in real time on how to play a full song, surreptitiously teaching you how to play that virtual instrument (the exception: a virtual Ocarina player knows how to play the real Ocarina, even if they don’t know it). They also typically allow advanced users to create and submit their own songs to the system for other users to play (in this regard, borrowing from Rock Band Network). And on the “World Stage,” you can perform for real judges who provide real time feedback, American Idol-style. The “Join a Song” mode enables multiple users to contribute performances to the same track (the 3500-person Glee app rendition of “Lean On Me” is a must-hear).

The Future?

Smule has assembled a fantastic mix of innovative features that enable non-musicians to easily learn to play a range of real (electronic, iOS-based) instruments and go as deep as they want into the rock star fantasy. However, the ocarina, trombone and fiddle have limited mainstream appeal, and don’t tap into the rock star fantasy, and the guitar and piano apps cannot easily be played as virtual instruments.

Harmonix, created easy-to-play controllers inspired by guitars, drums and keyboards — the instruments most people care most about — and has nailed the narrative and presentation for selling the rock star fantasy.

What I think we need now is a convergence of these two seemingly-opposed but complementary schools of thought. How awesome would it be if a visually and narratively-immersive game like Rock Band had the simple and intuitive way controls of a Smule apps? A game like that could teach me how to play songs, introduce advanced techniques over time, and let me inject my own style into the sound. At some point, I could just plug my controller into an amp or speaker and play that instrument for real.

[ed. note: see gTar]

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Image courtesy of MediumDifficulty