Friday, September 13, 2013

Why Innovataion is Important: Lessons from the rhythm genre

Until a few years ago, the rhythm game genre, exemplified by the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, was one of the hottest selling genres around. Personally, I remember driving in the rain to pick up my full boxed set of Rock Band on launch day giddy with excitement. Then, almost with the abruptness that propelled the genre into the mainstream, the games disappeared. Earlier this year, Rock Band officially stopped releasing new weekly tracks and the genre appears all but dead with no new titles on the horizon. In today's post I examine why most of us have retired our plastic instruments and postulate the lesson other genres should learn from it.

The initial popularity of the music genre is fairly easy to pinpoint. Anyone who has belted out a tune in the shower understands the fantasy of playing to a stadium full of adoring fans. The rhythm genre expertly captures this through gameplay which resembles playing real instruments without actually requiring the lifetime of dedication it takes to master one. Acing a blistering guitar solo on a plastic guitar instantly makes you feel like a real rock god in a way that no other game has even come close to achieving. Add in the fact that the game is a party favourite and suddenly every college dorm in the world has a setup. Given this magic formula, it is hard to understand why the genre hasn't endured.

The meteoric rise in sales for rhythm genre took flight with the first Guitar Hero. Word of this great new game spread through the untapped market and soon enough demand built sufficiently to warrant a sequel. Guitar Hero 2 tightened the mechanics and offered a set list that spanned 40 years of contemporary music and thus appealed to fans of all ages. Naturally, as more and more people became aware of the title, sales continued to rise and demand continued to grow. Around this time, some legal shenanigans caused the next iteration of the rhythm genre to feature two mainstream developers working on two separate games. While Guitar Hero 3 primarily offered more of what the fans were used to, Rock Band blasted the doors open on the genre by adding in a drum set and microphone. Virtually overnight, garage band gamers were rocking out to their favourite song on their favourite instrument and demand for the music genre hit an all time high.

With the release of Rock Band, other developers began to take notice of the, now massive, rhythm genre market and started to toss their hat in the ring. Over the next few years a slew of titles were released that all played on the winning Rock Band formula; some of the world biggest bands (including some dudes called The Beatles) had exclusive titles that covered their music in depth. Indeed, nothing seemed poised to stop the explosive growth of the genre... except a lack of innovation coupled with market saturation.

Rock Band represented the last major leap forward in terms of innovation for the genre. Subsequent additions of a keyboard and a few gimmicks to the existing peripherals (ie. the guitar slide bar) were the only genuine evolutions. For the better part of a decade, the formula of a stream of notes descending the screen to a sweet spot indicating timing for player inputs remained unchanged. Beyond this, the modus operandi of new titles in the series was to allow players to port forward the songs they had already acquired and new downloadable titles were mostly available for play across multiple title iterations. As such, when new releases failed to offer compelling innovation, a handful of players opted to not upgrade which immediately curbed demand. It didn't take too long before the market saturated and what seemed like unlimited potential was choked. 

While the demand for all new titles dropped, the demand for new songs more or less stayed the same. This was able to help sustain the genre for a time. However, increasingly the weekly releases of songs featured less popular bands and more B-side tracks. Also, many of the popular tracks that were released were mechanically simple which did not lend itself well to the rhythm formula. The task thus became more difficult each week to find a song that was both popular and fun to play. Exasperating this was the staunch refusal of some bands (ie. Led Zeppelin) to allow their music to be featured. The result of all of this was stale mechanics with stale songs and, unsurprisingly, gamers opted to retire their alter egos as music superstars. Ultimately, the once massively genre faded with a whimper.

I think the key point in the story of the rhythm genre is the lack of innovation. By failing to provide a compelling reason to purchase new titles the genre effectively sealed its own fate. Gamers can only play the same thing for so long until they will hunger for something new. I honestly don't know what else could have been added to reinvigorate the formula but something dramatic needed to be changed beyond adding a few new instruments or tracks. I thought the idea of actually featuring real instruments and using the game as a teaching tool was along the right lines but every instance I saw of it was mediocre in implementation. Perhaps we will see the resurrection of the rhythm genre in a few years but for now it seems to be peacefully resting.

I think that the stagnation along the lines of that experienced by the rhythm genre is starting to seep into some other popular genres today. My recent review of the new Final Fantasy MMO (A New Grind) was quite critical of the games' reliance on all too familiar mechanics. I feel that very little innovation has been brought to the genre in several years and that gamers are starting to drop their subscriptions (World of Warcraft seems to be hemorrhaging players and I doubt many people will stick with A Realm Reborn beyond the first few months). The FPS is also starting to fall into a rut. The perennial Call of Duty release seems to offer less quality new features every year (this year a selling point is fish with AI... seriously). While sales haven't yet started to dip they also haven't grown by nearly as much of a margin as they were in previous years. As such, barring any obviously brilliant ideas, now might be the time to start experimenting a bit and see if any ideas get traction. Unfortunately, shaking up a proven formula could potentially lead to disaster and few developers are willing to take the risk. Perhaps a bit callous on my part, but I feel that developers are perfectly content on cashing in on a formula without investing in innovation even if they know that they will not be able to sustain long terms sales.

To play devil's advocate, a counter argument could be made that some genres never grow stale. Thus, the rhythm genre simply ran its course and just didn't have the staying power of other games. Perhaps the multiplayer aspects of the FPS will forever be popular. While I do believe that some genres have a better intrinsic staying power I suggest that it would be foolhardy to assume this is infinite. Nothing lasts forever and innovation is crucial to maintaining relevance.

The rhythm genre was relatively short lived. While I am sure some players continue to clack away on their peripherals each week, the reality is that the peak of the genre seems long passed. I feel the chief reasons for the short life of the genre were a lack of innovation and market saturation. Perhaps other genres are immune to these factors but I feel the MMO and FPS are following the same pattern as the rhythm genre and should be desperately trying to innovate lest they fall into obscurity.