Rhythm Games and the Death of Level Design

Rock Band 3 goes State-side on October 26th. It could blanket the review racket with perfect scores.* It could spawn a generation of musicians with its new peripherals.* And it would still be a losing battle for publisher Electronic Arts and developer Harmonix. Rock Band is “consumer excess” defined. The rhythm game market is “consumer fatigue” defined. And 2010 is “crappy economy” defined. It’s a tough road.

Incredible that it’s come to this. Don’t you remember? The September 2007 release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was the biggest video game event of that year. Yes, really. It outsold Call of Duty 4. The game made Dragonforce relevant for six weeks. Think about that, and think about how it’s gone down since. Have a gander at the rest of the Activision-Blizzard game library. Call of Duty has traveled from “smash hit” to “gaming event of the century, one year a time”. World of Warcraft just courted its twelve-millionth Chinese gold farmer.* And Guitar Hero? A video gaming cultural icon? Warriors of Rock got a hero’s welcome from the Activision advertising department. Industry analyst Michael Pachter estimated the game’s release month sales tally would crack 100,000 copies. Warriors of Rock failed to do that.*

Yup. The rhythm game genre is dead. How did they travel from “niche genre” to “hottest ticket” to “irrelevant”? Popular wisdom indicates The Kotick saturated the rhythm game market by using 2009 to peddle eight different Guitar Hero titles across consoles, portable devices, and the arcade format. Oh, that shredded the short-term. But shoving the blame on Activision is a cop-out. Shoving the blame on the economy. They’re only two parts of the diagnosis.

It’s all about level design. Wait, rhythm games have that? Oh, they do! The rhythm game genre set the tone for a boom period by paying attention to level design. Then the video game industry handed level design to record labels and it was all over. No, I’m not selling “rhythm games went mainstream so they suck now”. These are the ills of the decision to chain music games to music taste.

Think about it: Great video game music becomes great because it’s a reflection of “the moment”. Take Super Mario Brothers. The famous music of World 1-1* is everything you expect from the introduction to a colorful universe and your quest to save a princess: Upbeat, cheerful, festive, friendly. Just the kind of music to welcome younger audiences to the Mushroom Kingdom. What about Chrono Trigger’s “Yearnings of Wind”*? As the player, you’ve just experienced your first bout with time travel. You have absolutely no idea where you are. How about a musical score to reflect that mystery and the antiquity around you?

That is the conundrum for rhythm games. In every other genre, the music is designed to be a reflection of the universe. In rhythm games, the music is the universe. The tempo, the pace, the structure become the level. Thus, that really awesome song on the radio isn’t guaranteed to be much fun. Not unless you have safeguards for editing and manipulating that “level”. And in the birth of the rhythm game genre, with developers trodding new territory, those safeguards existed.

(To make a quick note, 1995′s Quest For Fame was the first true rhythm game, but it was too far ahead of its time. Consumers had it right. Who would pay 150 dollars for a music video game and a “Virtual Guitar”? Video game peripherals and the 20th century were an electronic horror franchise. People bought the plastic robot. The infrared controller. The exercise bike. And they all sucked. So Quest For Fame didn’t achieve much at retail and it left the door wide open. The Japanese would strike first.)

Released in 1996 and hitting the States in 1997, PaRappa the Rapper marked the beginning of both the modern rhythm game and the Japanese video game acid trip. Without precedent to draw from, the results proved fascinating. In contrast to the future of the genre, PaRappa was story-driven. Confronted with a genre where music is level design, developer NanaOn-Sha created the music. And then they went a step further and made that music the storyline.

See, the eponymous dog PaRappa wants to impress one of his lady friends. First shot? He takes up karate. After all, tough guys get chicks. His training is your training level. Next up? PaRappa goes to get his driver’s license. That is, the game wants you to prove that you no longer need training wheels. The next two levels? PaRappa wrecks the family car and you have to pay for the damage. Then you have to bake a cake. And you’re doing it all on your own. And right before you’re about to get it down with Sunny Funny, nature calls. How you gonna deal with it? By out-rapping your previous mentors and working your way to the bathroom. You know, in a manner similar to Mega Man end-levels that revisited every boss one after the other. And your climax? You invite Sunny Funny to the club and win her over by rapping on-stage. In front of everyone. That is, you’re proving you’ve mastered the game mechanics and deserve the accomplishment of “beating the game”.

But that wasn’t the only selling point. The developers created their levels, sure. But as long as the player remained in rhythm, they could “freestyle” PaRappa’s lyrics and play the game as they saw fit. This nearly ten years before Rock Band showcased freestyle sections as a supplement to that game’s Overdrive ability. So instead of becoming a pathetically easy prelude to the Konami and Harmonix rhythm games, PaRappa never played the same on each playthrough.

In doing so, they forged a sense of progression akin to the platformers that dominated the late eighties and early nineties. And then the player could become skilled enough to manipulate the level itself. That’s a whole lot of freedom in a genre where gamers are now closer to a player piano than a real musician. And that’s how a rhythm game with approximately fifteen minutes of playable music become one of the most memorable games of the fifth generation. Surprisingly, it didn’t have much bearing on the future of the genre. Konami was preparing to inflict arcade culture on the game model.

Though it would be disingenuous to pretend that Dance Dance Revolution was the only Konami rhythm game of the late 1990s (Beatmania, DrumMania, GuitarFreaks, and Pop’n Music), it was easily the most successful. From a creative standpoint, Dance Dance Revolution was bunk. It pioneered the lack of innovation that would become synonymous with the genre. If the game was played with a Playstation controller, it would have been several steps behind PaRappa the Rapper. Dance Dance Revolution’s contribution was taking the very best of arcade culture and running with it.

If you didn’t step into an arcade during their heyday, the marketing was simple: A game had to win your admiration a couple quarters at a time. And if you didn’t bring the bacon, you weren’t taking up an arcade owner’s valuable square footage for long. Some arcade games won fans by being intensely entertaining for every second of a short playthrough. Others won their audience by becoming larger-than-life amusement rides. Dance Dance Revolution did both. And both successes can be contributed to proper level design.

There’s quite a bit at work here. Songs couldn’t be too long, lest the players in line grow bored and walk away. Gotta keep money moving into the machine. Like PaRappa the Rapper, Konami wasn’t bound to the beat of licensed music. Sure, the games had some. But most of the heavy lifting came from Konami themselves. The average songlength clocked in at approximately ninety seconds. In editing that music to the magic number, they could eliminate the “boring parts of the level”, building songs that grew progressively more intense and creative as they marched on.

In addition, developers could create note charts that matched the tempo and structure of the music without confining themselves to the beat and rhythm of a single instrument. A note chart in Song X could match a simple synth beat and work its way towards mirroring the complicated drum line. Thus, Konami used their creative license to play the Tetris model: The longer it goes, the harder it gets. Dance Dance Revolution gradually upped the ante to entertain players and the viewer. So people came for the spectacle of a hulking arcade cabinet (plus the adjoining man-sized controllers) and stayed for a two-minute-long edition of “Man Versus Machine: Can You Top This?” And then that audience may be compelled to try the game out for themself.

Fortunately for any and all competition, Konami became complicit about their rhythm game monopoly. It certainly didn’t help that their dominance established expensive peripherals as the norm. Nobody is buying in to a new gameplay system when it doesn’t work with their old guitar controller or arcade cabinet. Thus, the most compelling innovation in Dance Dance Revolution’s history was that of a “freeze arrow”, i.e. “hold the button instead of tapping it”.

A development studio by the name of Harmonix had a small hand in Konami’s dominance of the rhythm game market, developing four of the Karaoke Revolution games published by the giant. Harmonix’s previous works entailed Frequency and the well-received Amplitude. But you haven’t heard of them. And unless you played a portable version of Rock Band, the gameplay in those two products never mean anything to you. Why? Harmonix was about to rock the world.

Yeah, Guitar Freaks came out back in 1999. But that’s how bad Konami bungled their market share. “The Guitar Game Rocks the Universe” began with 2005′s Guitar Hero.

Great gameplay systems are fun. They’re even better when the production values let players lose themselves in the moment. Guitar Hero did that better than any previous rhythm game. It looked good, sounded good, played good. But Guitar Hero had an important wild card: It used the same soundtrack splitting featured in Amplitude and Frequency. So if you missed a note, the guitar would stop playing. But the drums? The vocals? They kept on moving. Guitar Freaks played a variant (missing a note would play the wrong note), but no prior rhythm game let you feel like you were creating the music. Pair that illusion aside your favorite songs on the radio, you’d better believe it has an audience.

The problem? The fatal flaw of the Guitar Hero model is that it is built for accuracy. And if the song commands no more intensity than its two-chord chorus, too bad. The fix? Level design was fulfilled through an off-hand approach.

Whether Harmonix was “priced out” or record labels were still cautious about “rhythm games as a marketing tool”, the company had incredible difficulty securing music for both Guitar Hero and its 2006 sequel. From a level design standpoint, it was a boon. A development studio filled to the brim with talented musicians created the cover music. They could be faithful to Iron Man while omitting the drum solo that had no place in a guitar game. They could add guitar solos to spike the difficulty of a song. In charting songs for accuracy, creative license persisted. Music selection and its manipulation was still a game design decision. And without access to the top of the rock and roll food chain, Harmonix was “resigned” to select music that played well. Developers were still a filter. So even if you weren’t familiar with Institutionalized, Misirlou, or Hangar 18, they tested the entire range of Guitar Hero II game mechanics and made a sensational lead-in to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird.

It’s little surprise the first two Guitar Hero games turned out to be the best in the franchise, that those two games wrote the eulogy for Konami’s dominance of the rhythm game. When Konami released Rock Revolution, a product that would have been well-received in 2003 became one of the worst video games of 2008,* a derivative work that highlighted the complacency of Konami rhythm game design.

Despite the success of Guitar Hero, a pretty serious issue was looming. For consumers new to rhythm games, the question wasn’t about what Guitar Hero could do to continue being fun. It was: “When will I get to play music from my favorite band?” The wild success of Guitar Hero II (seven million units moved at retail) changed the outlook for record labels. It was no longer a question of whether music video games could become advertising outlets for the songs on the radio. The 2007 release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is where day became night for the development process.

Most rhythm game fans know the story by now. Harmonix was satisfied with their work on the Guitar Hero franchise. They wanted to move on to a band-based rhythm game. Publisher Activision (who acquired original publisher RedOctane after the success of the first Guitar Hero) told Harmonix to piss off. After half-assing their contractual obligations with the immediately-forgettable Guitar Hero Rocks the 80′s, Harmonix agreed to a 175-million-dollar buyout and granted Activision the rights to the Guitar Hero name and franchise. Harmonix would secure Electronic Arts as the publisher of Rock Band. Activision would grant future Guitar Hero development to Neversoft. Financially, it was a win for everybody involved. But it would eventually prove to have damaging consequences.

If you still take rhythm game level design for granted, then you didn’t play Guitar Hero III. The best term to describe it? Overcharted. Songs with overdoses of hammer-ons and pull-offs became the norm. Power chords (three-button notes used springly when they were introduced in Guitar Hero II) became the new two-button chord, artificially inflating the difficulty of Guitar Hero III and inflating the number of gamers who would be in the hospital for carpal tunnel.

But from a musical standpoint, Guitar Hero III featured the most impressive music lineup of any game to ever hit the West. Nearly every one of the seventy-three songs was a master recording. After years of tolerating cover music, players were now getting the real thing and there was nothing to hold it back.

The emphasis on master tracks and A-list music brought the genre to a crossroads. Guitar Hero’s mainstream appeal was the ability to become your favorite rock star. So the question was: Are companies going to make song selections on the basis of “what people like”? Or what songs play well? They chose the former. They outsourced their level design to businessmen whose sole function is to hide the gaping mediocrity of Taylor Swift.

You can’t fault them. Capitalism, “Activision exists to please shareholders”, blah, blah. Unless you’re convinced that sacrificing long-term profits at the expense of the short term is a proper business model, then employees at both Electronic Arts and Activision failed to balance supply and demand. Just not the kind of supply and demand you’re thinking of.

After Guitar Hero III sold fifteen million copies, “rhythm games as a music advertising platform” became the reality. Early on, it worked okay. When the greatest bands in Western rock got into a high-profile rhythm game, they were doing it in small pieces. And from a marketing standpoint, that’s exactly how you do it. Know how diamond owners artificially limit the supply of diamonds to keep prices high? Same deal. Control the flow. High demand? Doesn’t matter. Keep supply low. Your audience only has so many “favorite songs”. Keeping that supply low kept fans guessing and hoping. It built excitement. When would Led Zeppelin finally get their due? When would Apple open up The Beatles’ music library? When Metallica featured their opus One in Guitar Hero III, it was a pretty big deal. The first Metallica foray into guitar games. And in what should be little surprise to fans of the band’s mid-to-late-eighties rock operas, it played very, very well. Mission accomplished.

And then something funny happened.

Released two months after Guitar Hero III, Harmonix’s band-based dream child Rock Band became a massive success. Its lasting legacy went beyond a continued emphasis on good music selection, where songs now had to be entertaining across guitar, drums, bass, and vocals (which incidentally rendered most Rock Band music selection a jack of all trades and a master of none). Rock Band legitimized the bits-and-pieces downloadable content model. Rock Band is the reason companies can sell you virtual clothes for your virtual avatar and charge you real money.

The idea was simple: Create a library of music so vast that any player could find any song they were interested in. And in the infancy of downloadable content, it sounded crazy. But consider the value: The awesome song you want to play…for two dollars. For a four-in-one video game? Not bad.

On the eve of the release of 2008′s Rock Band 2, Harmonix “promised” that they would have five-hundred songs in their online marketplace by the beginning of 2009.* In a world dominated by by seventy-song music, that was quite impressive. To-date, the Rock Band downloadable library stands at over 1,000 different songs.

Harmonix succeeded in opening the floodgates. To put it nicely, Activision got clowned. Their downloadable content racket sucked. “Two dollars a song” could succeed with a music game where you could play four different instruments. Guitar Hero only offered access to bass and guitar. And it only became worse when Activision refused to license their content for backwards compatability. (Forcing your customers to get off the couch and change the disc. That’s bad.)

How was Activision going to keep up? By continuing to dominate the outlets they already owned. Harmonix conquered downloadable content. To that point, Activision had conquered retail. Even Harmonix’s finest Rock Band outings were being outsold two-to-one by the franchise they created. So Activision would continue to conquer retail. It proved quite damaging.

The first salvo? Aerosmith was finally getting a music game. Yup. It’s true. This is the first one. I read it on the internet. And they had everything going for them: It would be the first Guitar Hero game since Guitar Hero III. Activision could have shit in a bunch of boxes, called it Guitar Hero 4, and it still would have moved millions, with reviewers claiming the game smells like a winner.

Eventually released in June of 2008, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith was absolutely forgettable. It felt more like “a Guitar Hero game with a lot of Aerosmith songs” than “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith”. And in contrast to the manic difficulty of its predecessor, guitar game score database ScoreHero received full-combo (100% notes hit) score submissions for all of the game’s 41 songs on the very first day. For comparison, it took nine months for any players to conquer Guitar Hero III boss song Through the Fire and Flames. Aerosmith proved the kind of game you would play for nine hours straight on launch day and then never again. But Activision cornered the market on Aerosmith. The game sold approximately four million units at retail. And then nobody would ever want to play another Aerosmith song again.

Four months later, Activision released Guitar Hero: World Tour, an all-band rhythm game doubling as a tacit admission that the publisher got it wrong when it came to Harmonix’s requests. Another eighty-six master recordings for the brick-and-mortar retail market. Six months after World Tour, Metallica got its own Guitar Hero game. Its role as “surprisingly playable” would only sneak up on the consumer if they didn’t care for Metallica’s music. Favorably reviewed, it would sell approximately half the copies of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. And then nobody would want to play another song from Metallica ever again.

Needless to say, this was a tad concerning for Electronic Arts. Despite critical praise and a massive, backwards-compatible library of music, September of 2008′s Rock Band 2 proved underwhelming at retail*. (Though it’s hard to imagine why a sixty-dollar video game and its 180-dollar big-box package would sell short in late 2008. Someone bail me out here.) Regardless of the reason, Electronic Arts and Harmonix were losing. It’s one thing to become the face of downloadable content. At retail? Guitar Hero was winning big. The irony in all of this is that Electronic Arts used Rock Band as one way to convince consumers that their company was moving away from a mid-decade culture of play-it-safe sequels and moving towards original, high-quality products. And they were now losing to Activision’s culture of play-it-safe sequels.

Somebody in Electronic Arts made the decision that they had to start going punch-for-punch with Guitar Hero‘s sequelitis. And in October of 2009, the company announced their left hook: Developer Harmonix was working on a game that would honor the legacy and music of The Beatles.

Yes, those Beatles. Funny how that works. In 2007, a downloadable content store spawns. Record labels love it. And all of a sudden, the genre becomes an arms race. Merely four years after the release of Guitar Hero, the top of the food chain was reached. Though nobody bothered to question whether The Beatles’ library of music would be any fun to play.

Months after the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, MTV Games’ general manager Scott Guthrie conceded that they “underestimated the competition” when this game also clocked in below expectations.* And then nobody would ever want to play a guitar game featuring The Beatles ever again. So think about the band-based music games that followed. Nothing could top “We are taking The Beatles’ music and turning it into a music video game.” Once you’re done failing to sell the mainstream on arguably the most famous musical act of the last century, what chances does a game featuring Van Halen have? A game featuring Green Day?

Congratulations. You have not only conditioned your market to believe “music that plays well” does not have any place in the rhythm game genre, but your audience now believes a great rhythm video game requires their favorite music to be successful. You have taken the novelty out of a great songlist. It’s no longer about “Wow! This is a great music! I absolutely must buy this game!” It’s now about “This songlist sucks. I’m avoiding it like the plague.”

Your only chance to bring back audiences is to innovate. In a genre where the “incredible innovation” of Dance Dance Revolution on face value appears to be “I play this game with my feet instead of my hands!”, that’s a bit of an issue. So an intriguing franchise like Bit.Trip?* Didn’t have a chance at fame the moment it left the development studio. When it comes to market conditions, innovation is going to continue getting its ass kicked.

Case in point? Guess I have to be the one to defend an Activision product.

I’ll be forward in stating I have little experience with the DJ Hero franchise. But hey, the sequel has currently carved an 88 on Metacritic.* Say what you want about review mills, the game is probably worth a try on principle. And if the sequel adheres to its predecessor, then it does a lot of good things. From a design point, it takes separate music tracks and splices them together. There’s your level design. It grants players the freedom to manipulate that music. You could not pay people to give a fuck about this game. And why is that? Sure, dance music doesn’t build the same commercial appeal as a rhythm game built around rock and roll. Sure, DJ Hero probably doesn’t have the same kind of appeal for parties. But your audience wants their favorite tracks uncut. They don’t want Lady Gaga’s manhood in their band’s favorite music, even if it turns out to be a really fun product.

Which takes us to the Rock Band 3 approach. We must ask: The ticket to winning back mainstream audiences that want to live our their rock dreams without the difficult task of learning a musical instrument?

Add so many buttons that players can learn a musical instrument and live out their rock dreams. And charge the hell out of them to do it.

De-emphasizing level design and spending additional resources in the “production values” department? Clearly, that’s not an issue exclusively endemic to the rhythm game genre. Compare the abstract art of Doom level design to the setpieces in Gears of Halo: Warehouse Evolved. The difference is that the first-person shooter is thriving. And there’s no cultural or market forces that indicate it’s letting up.

Market saturation is temporary. It’s how Electronic Arts can reboot the eleven-year-old Medal of Honor franchise and sell a million-and-a-half copies in five days.* Releasing seven for-console and for-portable Guitar Hero games in the span of twelve months is a temporary market issue. Conditioning your audience to accept no music substitutes is a long-term issue. When Sony used their Playstation to convince those who grew up on a Nintendo that Mario was for pussies, they didn’t wreck the market for Mario. Guitar Hero has made it nearly impossible for games like Amplitude, Dance Dance Revolution, and PaRappa the Rapper to take a foothold with mainstream audiences.

But hey, maybe rhythm gamers will get lucky. The rise and fall of Guitar Hero showed a lot of crazy shit can happen in a few short years. But if the rhythm game gets its respect back, you’d best hope we don’t get fooled again. Or through the fire and flames, we’ll carry on. Or this bird, you’ll never change.

If the rhythm game genre continues to be as stale as my punchlines, you’re all fucked.

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