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Music Games Rock: Scott Steinberg On His New Book, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, And The State of Music Games

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Posted September 30, 2011 - By Stephen Johnson










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Music Game Post

The conventional gaming wisdom about the music game genre is that it's dead genre. With the big players in the field, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, either dead or on life support, it's easy to see where this notion came from, but author Scott Steinberg has a different view, and he should know. Steinberg has written and published Music Games Rock, a full length book covering the music game industry, from its inception in pre video game days to the present. According to Steinberg, the music game is as least as old as video games themselves and will always be with us in one form or another.

First off can you give me an overview of your book? Tell me what it's about and what it covers.

Scott Steinberg: Sure. Music Games Rock is a comprehensive history to the music video game genre and rhythm gaming genre. It covers everything from its history, or pre-history and the primeval era prior to even the Atari 2600, back when video games were powered by hamsters on wheels. So it charts the genre's early beginnings, up through its cresting, or I should say its second coming in the mid-ought’s or 2000s with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Examines the rise and fall of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and explores some of the cultural influences that music video games have had along the way, as well as takes a closer look at the fields biggest hits, misses, oddest one hit wonders, strangest collaborations, biggest cultural touch points, and posits a few ideas as to where the genre may be going forward. So ultimately it's an encyclopedia to the music and rhythm gaming genre, with some fun facts, did you know, insider trivia and thoughts given along the way as to the titles' significance, and how their lasting influence is being felt today.

Wow that was a concise and awesome summing up of your book. So, a lot of people regard the music game genre as basically dead, is that a fair assessment of it right now?

No, no, no, Music games are not dead, they're not dormant, they aren't comatose, they're just evolving. I think as Alex Rigopulis (Co-founder of Harmonix, co-creator of Guitar Hero and Rock Band) succinctly puts it; he refers to it as what most people think as dead, the Rock Music Performance Simulation Genre, which I realize is rather mellifluent, doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but what he means by that is that games tied to the sale and operation of huge honking 100 dollar plus plastic instruments are temporarily on the decline. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that so many of them, were released in such a short period of time, many of which would play to a smaller audience, so when you release a game called Guitar Hero: Metallica, or Green Day: Rock Band, hey guess what, if I'm not a fan of those two genres, obviously people aren't going to buy in.

Music Game Post

More to the point, what you have to keep in mind is, many of those games are still going strong. Rock Band - a million people still log in each month to download new music. They've shifted over a 100 million digital singles, from over 900 artists on it, so people still have interest in these games, they still remain a karaoke, or I guess they've supplanted karaoke in many cities, as the happy hour activity of choice. They're natural fits for parties, house parties and social gatherings, but people are still eking tremendous value from them by downloading new music and songs which keeps them feeling fresh and new. A large part of the problem was that in the middle of an economic recession, asking people for $120 plus for a bunch of titles that really added only a few new tracks and some ancillary features that, at the end of the day, I don't think most mainstream households in America give a rat's patoot about three part vocal harmonies. Even older games, like Guitar Hero: World Tour people are able to download new music for that kept them feeling fresh and new.

Now, effectively, music games are fractured across a spectrum of devices, platforms, and play styles just as video games have. So you can find them now on the web, you can find them on Facebook, you can find them on the iPhone and iPad; for example there was a game recently released - Skillz: The DJ Game, and it does, roughly, everything that DJ Hero purported to do, only it does it for $5.99 on a touch screen without offering you the giant plastic DJ turntable controller that you then have to go cram in your closet. Or Tap Tap Revenge - 75 million plus downloads. I'm thinking that's probably a good indication that there's life still left in the genre. Just Dance, the two previous titles, I think it's upwards of 8 million copies sold, there's a third installment coming, Michael Jackson: The Experience did 3 million copies unto itself, roughly. So dancing games continue to take off, especially those like Dance Central that are tied to new motion control peripherals like the Kinect and the PlayStation Move.

And so effectively, what's happening is the party is just getting started. When games that were tied to the plastic music game peripherals started to decline, because you had too many in too short a period that played to too small an audience and offered not enough compelling features to justify an upgrade in the middle of a time when people were pinching pennies more than ever, effectively what happened was you had a contraction of the marketplace. Obviously it looked like it imploded because what happened was you had titles that were selling for twice as much as the average video game offering, very quickly in that very short span of time - people decided they didn't need plastic Stratocasters cluttering up the closet, let alone for $120 a shot when I could just spend $5 and just download new songs.

You're speaking to someone who has a Power Gig controller in his house, and God knows how many Guitar Hero and Rock Band things in my house.

*Laughs* I'm glad you're a fan.

I totally am.

It's one of those things that from a practical standpoint though, if you're not in the business, and you just think about it from the average mom with a couple kids, and you get them Guitar Hero, it's like 'Hey Mom, we'd like the new version' 'Okay, well couldn't you just download new tracks?' 'Well...Yeah.' 'What do you get in the new version?' 'Umm, More realistic play and a music composition suite.' You know - it's like, think about that sales pitch to Grandma, let alone at the register. And I think it just didn't connect. And so, music game companies are going strong, you see apps, or on Facebook - group listening experiences like Turntable.fm. That's a video game. They call it a group listening experience, but you're in a virtual chat room, with avatars that you can deck out, playing tracks for your friends that they can vote up and down on the ranking, and it's the gameification of it that makes it so enjoyable.

Music Game Post

It's not fun to sit there and do it by yourself, you need to play for an audience and hopefully play tracks that connect. And so, at the end of the day, what's happening is Music Games are simply evolving. They've been around for 35+ years, you know; scroll back the dial to Simon. We had them on the Commodore 64. We had them on the early British home computers, we had them on the Atari 2600, we had them in the arcade, we've had them on virtually every platform in existence. Even had some really crappy Beatles text adventures.

That was one of the cool little gems in your book, which I hadn't heard of, that there was a Beatles text adventure. I had no idea.

Oh yeah. Well, I don't think The Beatles know either. Music is a common unifier. It transcends age, gender, religion, background, and ethnicity. Everybody connects with music. If you've ever gone and watched a Day-Care, and look at toddlers when you turn on a dance track, it's primal. It connects. And it really helps bring people together, and there's no reason music games can't do the same as well, it's just what's happened is a specific type of music game, with specific types of equipment tied to it at a very high price point has not been connecting as well as it should for the reasons we talked about. Also, I don't think the market was growing the way publishers hoped it would and so they very quickly saturated it.

What do you think about the games like Rocksmith that are essentially not games? It seems more like a teaching tool than anything else.

Yeah, and I think a lot of these have been done as concessions to the small, but largely vocal minority that decries the fact that people play music games at the expense of learning real instruments. And while I applaud efforts to make the process more realistic, and get more enthusiasts and fans of the genre interested in real world music playing because Heaven knows how many Joe Satrianis we've deprived ourselves of, relegating them to Rock Band or Guitar Hero. But at the end of the day, I think the problem is it's a small market, because it takes a particular level of interest and skill, to really be good at the game and make the most of it. And so to your average man on the street, you still have a title that's selling for more than the average game, and that requires actual real world talent to learn, so what's happening is they're playing to a niche market out of the gate. And I'd be very surprised, if it were to scale the lofty heights of prior genre releases.

Your history of the genre is exhaustive, like you said, it starts with Simon; which I had never thought of as a music game, but it obviously is. But in that entire history, what is the strangest music game in the history of the genre?

*Laughs* Probably Devo's Adventures of the Smart Patrol. Any game that can make your protagonist a Turkey Monkey and involves guys with flower pots on their heads, good bet it takes the cake. Although with other titles from Prince and Peter Gabriel, it's pick your poison. Surrealism is in no short supply. I guess you could look at the Frankie Goes to Hollywood game as slightly bizarre based on the symbolism, I think they did a lot of drugs in the 80s, that's the rumor. But in terms of bizarre, I really do think that Adventures of the Smart Patrol takes the cake. There's been some strange adaptations over the years, like EA did Queen: The eYe and then was probably just as happy that people forget it. But ultimately, anything that involves artists prone to flights of hubris is usually reflected in the titles as well.

Music Game Post

Sort of the opposite question, what's the best game in the history of the genre, if you had to pick one?

Oh, putting me on the spot huh? The single best game? Well, you know it's kind of a toss up - you could either argue it was Guitar Hero, simply by virtue of the fact of its cultural impact, and what it did for throwing open the floodgates to make music gaming mainstream. But by the same token, you could just as easily argue that a title like The Beatles: Rock Band was a pitch perfect tribute, that offered such a brilliant array of features, a high point for music nerds, had great timeless, classic music, all wrapped in this beautifully executed and loving package that enjoyed the blessing of the surviving members of The Beatles camp itself, and not only that, but was built in such a way that was meant to transcend the gaming market alone, and expand the reach of the genre, to grown adults who wouldn't consider themselves 'gamers' per se, and bridge the gap between ages and generations and just so happened to feature the music and likenesses and images surrounding one of the Worlds' most beloved bands. It's a shame it didn't perform better.

At the time, it was surprising. In hindsight, it kind of makes sense to me, but at the time I was like 'I can't believe people aren't buying this game.'

I think it was just bad timing. Or part bad timing, and they hoped for greater interest from the average man on the street. Trying to get mom and dad to hoist a Rock Band controller, or a plastic guitar - still a bit of a challenge there. It takes a certain level of willingness to dive in and it's best when you've lubricated the wheels a little bit.

And also, kids that are gamers, maybe - as much as I don't like it - maybe don't like The Beatles so much.

Yeah, and there's that. I hesitate to say it, as much as I adore music, as much as I grew up on music, and I define my life by it - even I don't listen to that much of The Beatles. I listened to it with my parents, when I was very young, but it's not like through teen years it's the most contemporary choice.

Okay, how about the worst game in the history of the genre?

SS: Wow, worst game in the history of the genre...that's a tricky one. I'm trying to think what was genuinely crappy. You know I think Power Gig is up there, just by virtue of the fact that it wasn't a particularly enjoyable game coupled with the fact that you had this unwieldy guitar that wasn't a particularly good real instrument nor was it a particularly stand-out controller, was packaged at a ridiculously high price and shipped at the worst possible time when it was competing against the titans of the genre, and it was ultimately doomed out of the gate. Just how good it was, I think like most people I gave it a passing glance, so it could be the best game in the world, but in terms of...

No, No I reviewed it. It's not.

I just think it was one of those ideas that should have been stillborn out of the gate, and just shipped at the worst possible time - all the stars were aligned against it.

Music Game Post

I was really fascinated by the story of the game Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, the game that never came out. Are there any other hidden games in the history of music games that people would be interested in knowing about or playing if it was possible?

Well, I think the Frankie Goes to Hollywood One is actually an excellent title. That's worth checking out. If only to see what you could do with the mythos surrounding a band whose main cultural contribution to the U.S. Canon was the hit single "Relax." Fascinating to see that you can build an entire game around them. More contemporary times - I think maybe of Rhythm Heaven is worth having a look at, simply because they're so bizarre and so enjoyable. Mario Paint - the ability to compose there or Sim Tunes.

Actually, you know what, I'll recant all that. You know what game you need to play that most people have never played, that's absolutely brilliant and utterly haunting is Loom. I don't know if you've tried it. I'm a PC Gamer, that's how I got started and this was a title that came out in the early 90s from LucasArts, you know, meanwhile they're doing Serial Adventures and Maniac Mansion, and Indiana Jones and I think it slipped beneath most players’ radars. I'm sorry - the reason I didn't bring it up is because, to me it's one of my favorites - I was all into PC games at the time. It's a very short, very approachable and relatively simple point-and-click graphic adventure and it absolutely has one of the best, most original stories that I have ever heard. And it's all based on using music to solve puzzles and a staff that creates notes and casts spells. From the atmosphere to the plotline to the characters, to the sheer uniqueness of the tale to the approach that was taken - I don't think I've ever seen another music game that really comes close.

I'll have to check that out - is there someplace that someone could play that game now?

You'll have to check Steam to see if it's legit, otherwise just check abandonia.

Do you have any alternative uses for plastic guitars that are sitting around?

*Laughs* You can use them to defend yourself when you have to try to justify the purchase of another to your spouse. I find they make great weapons of war. And of course if you should happen to fly into a rage - bad day at work, child just won't listen to you or you just have some good old fashioned teenage angst - take one of those bad boys out, take it out to the street and start bashing it around, I guarantee you once you wipe off the drool and sweat and comb your hair back so you don't look like Cousin It, people will look at you with a new-found respect. It'll be born of fear...

How do you see the influence of Music Games on the Music Industry at large?

I think what you saw originally...how can I put this? If you look at Motley Crue with Saints of Los Angeles and how they actually did more singles via the video game then they did retail, obviously that's an older example. Or you look at how Madden NFL contributed to the success of Good Charlotte with the sheer number of spins you could get from the game. I remember speaking with EA, that the number of spins you could get on a radio station in a week, they had basically delivered roughly four to five times as many if you actually sat in front of Madden and played it. I think what you're seeing in terms of the influences, at first record labels were quick to embrace the format, they were desperate to get any more mileage out of their games that they could.

Music Game Post

Then I think what happened was they became a little bit savvier when it came to business, or more demanding is a better word. And so the started to withhold licensing rights, and make it a little more difficult. And now I think where you see the most influence felt is the fact that across the board, both independent musicians and major record labels are beginning to open up their minds and see that gaming can be a tremendous platform for reaching out and connecting with a new audience. Back in the day when you had Rock n' Roll Racing for the Super Nintendo - trying to get a licensed track, you might as well be pulling teeth. And now, essentially, every single up and coming act is just as keen on getting their songs in a video game as they would be in a hit TV show or movie. To them, it's a status symbol, it provides cultural cache. And I think the fact that being able to say 'Hey I was featured in Rock Band or Guitar Hero' versus being in the Twilight movie or the new season of Bones - that's a pretty massive accomplishment if you think about how far we've come in how little a time. Because we're literally talking just over 20 years.

Finally, what have I not covered that you'd like to tell me about your book?

I think just that if people have a read, and come into it with an open mind, we're not trying to sway opinion one way or another; we're just trying to provide a comprehensive look at the genre. There are other titles in there too; it's just a touch point. If you dig deeper, there are all sorts of other esoteric gems out there like Rock of the Dead. And I think really, what we're just trying to reinforce is that, like any other genre, music games are not dead. Because nothing ever dies if a publisher can re-boot it, even easier these days with services like Steam, Xbox Live, WiiWare or PlayStation Network.

Music Game Post

And ultimately to give people a perspective of just how rich a history this genre has, that it neither begins nor ends with Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero or Rock Band. And just provide a sense as to the ultimate contributions that music games have had to pop culture as a whole, as well as the influence pop culture has had on gaming and how they're intrinsically linked since day one.

Okay. And where can people read your book, how can they get it?

100% free to download at www.musicgamesrock.com. It's also available for iBooks and the Kindle - that's $2.99. You can order a paperback version for $24.95, and that's available for online order from lulu.com or amazon.com. Ultimately I hope people enjoy it, and they take away from it a few factoids.

Thank you so much.

No problem, thanks Steve.

Music Games Rock: Scott Steinberg On His New Book, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, And The State of Music Games

Music Games Rock: Scott Steinberg On His New Book, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, And The State of Music Games
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