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Rhythm game, or rhythm action, is a type of music-themed action video game. These games mostly focus either on dancing or simulating the playing of musical instruments. Players must press buttons in time with commands from the game, which are in time with the rhythm of a song. Doing so will cause the game's protagonist or avatar to dance or play their instrument correctly, thus achieving a greater score. The game can be played with a hand-held controller, though different control devices have been made to play rhythm games, such as guitar- and drum-shaped controllers for musical instrument games, and pressure-sensitive pads (called dance mats) that the player must step on for dancing games. The Kinect for the Xbox 360 allows the player to use their whole body to control the game by tracking their movements. Some games have a multi-player mode, where players can play as members of a band or dance crew, or compete against each other.
The 1996 title PaRappa the Rapper was the first influential rhythm game. The basic design of the game became a pattern that later rhythm games followed. In 1997, Konami's Beatmania started popularity for rhythm games in Japan. The company's music division, Bemani, released many music games over the next several years. The most successful of these was dance mat game Dance Dance Revolution, which was also the only one to achieve large-scale success outside of Japan. The game's style was imitated by many other games, until the release of Harmonix's Guitar Hero. The game was inspired by similar, earlier Japanese games, but Harmonix added rock music aimed at a Western audience. The success of the game revived the genre and two hugely successful franchises were born in Guitar Hero and the later Rock Band. The success of both expanded the console video game market and its demographics. By 2008, rhythm games were considered to be one of the most popular video game genres, behind other action games. However, because there were so many spin-offs from the core titles in 2009, there was a nearly 50% drop in sales for music games, causing them to scale-back plans for further expansion in 2010.
Definition and game design
Rhythm game, or rhythm action, is a subgenre of action game that challenges a player's sense of rhythm, and includes dance games such as Dance Dance Revolution and other music-based games such as Donkey Konga and Guitar Hero. These games challenge the player to press the right button at the right time: the screen shows which button the player should press next, and the game awards points for being on the beat. The genre also includes games that measure both rhythm and pitch, in order to test a player's singing ability. In addition to rhythm, some games may challenge the player to control their volume by measuring how hard they press each button. While songs can be sight read without having performed them before, players usually practice to master more difficult songs and settings. Other rhythm games offer a challenge similar to that of Simon says, where the player must watch, remember, and repeat complex sequences of button-presses.
In some rhythm games, the screen will display an avatar who performs in response to the player's button-presses. However, they are usually in the background, and the avatar is less important to the player than it is to spectators. In single-player mode, the player's avatar will compete against a computer-controlled opponent, while multiplayer mode will allow two player-controlled avatars to compete head-to-head. The popularity of rhythm games has created a market for different controllers. These include a variety of controllers which look like musical instruments, such as guitars, drums, or maracas. A dance mat, for use in dancing games, requires the player to step on pressure-sensitive pads. Traditional control pads may also be used.
Origins and popularity in Japan (1970's - 2000)
The genre has been traced back to the electronic game Simon, invented by Howard Morrison and Ralph Baer (the latter also invented the Magnavox Odyssey) in 1978. Players take turns repeating increasingly complicated sequences of button presses and the game implemented the "call and response" mechanic used by later music video games. Dance Aerobics was released in 1987, and allowed players to create music by stepping on Nintendo's Power Pad peripheral. It has been called the first rhythm-action game in retrospect. The later PaRappa the Rapper has also been credited as the first rhythm game, as well as one of the first music games in general. The game required players to press buttons corresponding to the order they appeared on-screen; this basic mechanic would form the core of future rhythm games. The success of PaRappa the Rapper sparked popularity of the music game genre. Unlike most other games in the genre, the game also featured a completely original soundtrack and a good plot. Konami's Beatmania, released in Japanese arcades in 1997, was a dj-themed rhythm game which featured buttons laid out like a keyboard along with a rubber pad that looked like a record. The game was a surprise hit, inspiring Konami's Games and Music Division to change its name to Bemani in honor of the game, and to then begin experimenting with other rhythm games over the next few years. One of those successes, GuitarFreaks, featured a guitar-shaped controller. While the franchise continues to receive new arcade versions in Japan, it was never strongly marketed outside of the country, allowing Harmonix to capitalize on the formula several years later with the Western-targeted Guitar Hero. Similarly, DrumMania from 1999 used a drum kit controller and could be linked with GuitarFreaks for simulated jam sessions, several years before the concept appeared in Rock Band. 1998's Pop'n Music, a game similar to Beatmania, featuring multiple colorful buttons was also successful.
Dance Dance Revolution, released in 1998, was a rhythm game in which players danced on pressure sensitive pads in time with on-screen commands. The game was highly successful not only in Japan but globally, unlike games such as GuitarFreaks, DrumMania and Beatmania (though Beatmania had some success in Europe). Released the same year, Enix's Bust a Groove revolved around similar dancing themes to Dance Dance Revolution but employed a more conventional input method. The game featured competitive one-on-one "battles" and also allowed the player more freedom than normally found in rhythm games.
Vib-Ribbon was released by NanaOn-Sha (the creator of PaRappa the Rapper) in 1999, and also did not use instrument-shaped controllers. In this game, players had to maneuver the protagonist through an obstacle course by pressing buttons at the correct time. These courses were generated in a way that depended on the background music and players could load their own music to play along. While it was praised for its unique style and timeless artistry, its simple vector graphics proved difficult to market and the game was never released in North America. Bemani's Samba de Amigo, released in 1999 and on Dreamcast in 2000, featured maraca-shaped, motion sensor controllers. The game made use of "social gaming", allowing two player gameplay and providing a spectacle for onlookers. In 2001, Taiko no Tatsujin combined traditional Japanese drums with contemporary pop music, and became highly successful in Japanese arcades. The game was later released on consoles in the West (as Taiko Drum Master) and the franchise continues to receive new installments in Japan. Gitaroo Man featured a guitar-playing protagonist, 4 years before the release of Guitar Hero, though the game employed a conventional rather than guitar-shaped controller. Gitaroo Man's creator, Keiichi Yano, further created Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS using its touchscreen features, which was a highly demanded import title and led to a sequel in Japan and a Western variation of the game in Elite Beat Agents.
Popularity in the West (2001–2008)
Harmonix, a company formed from a computer music group at MIT in 1995, released Frequency in 2001. The game allowed the player to control multiple instruments and gave a feeling of more creative control. The game was well-reviewed, but its abstract style did not allow the player to give a "performance" as in other games and thus proved difficult to market. Frequency was followed by a similar game, Amplitude in 2003. Harmonix later released more socially driven, karaoke-themed music games in Karaoke Revolution and SingStar (2003 and 2004 respectively). Donkey Konga, developed by Namco for Nintendo and released in 2003 (2004 in North America) achieved widespread success due to its use of Nintendo's Donkey Kong franchise.
Guitar Hero, developed by Harmonix, was released in 2005 by then relatively unknown publisher RedOctane. The game was inspired by GuitarFreaks, but while that game had used Japanese pop music, Guitar Hero featured Western rock music. The game revived the rhythm genre which by this time had begun to get boring, flooded with Dance Dance Revolution sequels and imitators. The game had several sequels, with the franchise earning more than $1 billion in sales; the third game was the best-selling game in North America in 2007. Harmonix's later Rock Band franchise, which also earned in excess of $1 billion, used multiple instrument controllers and cooperative multiplayer, allowing players to play as a full band. The Guitar Hero franchise followed suit with Guitar Hero World Tour, developed by Neversoft rather than Harmonix. Guitar Hero installments based on specific bands, such as Metallica and Aerosmith, were later published. Additional songs could be purchased on the internet and added to Guitar Hero and Rock Band games. Artists whose works have been featured in the games have also benefited from royalties and increased publicity, in turn generating further sales of their work. The success of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises widened the console video game market and its demographics, with the popularity of the music game driving increased sales of consoles. In 2008, it was reported that the music game had become the second most popular video game genre in the U.S. (behind action, having overtaken sports), with 53% of players being female.
Saturation and fallout of peripheral-based games (2009–2010)
Analysts for the video game market considered 2009 to be critical to further success of the genre. Both the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises expanded in this year with new games on other gaming platforms including handheld gaming devices and mobile phones and with titles targeted towards specific genres or demographics, such as Band Hero for pop music and Lego Rock Band for younger players. Sales of music games were down in the first half of the year, though part was attributed to fewer purchases of the instrument controllers which players had already purchased and could reuse for other games. However, though analysis had expected that United States sales of Guitar Hero 5 and The Beatles: Rock Band to be high, close to or exceeding one million units each in the first month of their release, the resulting sales numbers were lower by nearly half of the projections. Though signs of the impact of the late-2000s recession on the video game markets were considered a factor in lower sales, it was also taken as a sign of the waning popularity of the titles, now considered to be saturating the market. As a result, analysts have lowered expectations for future music games; projections for sales of DJ Hero, a spinoff of Guitar Hero published by Activision, have been reduced from 1.6 million units in the first quarter of sales in the United Sates to only 600,000. Further contributing to the decline is the lack of innovation in the genre, as such games have not changed their basic play model over their last several games, leading to consumers becoming less likely to buy additional titles. Total sales of rhythm games, having reached $1.4 billion in 2008, reached only $700 million in 2009, with analysts predicting the market will settle at the same "healthy" $500–600 million level seen by the Call of Duty series.
The weakening market for rhythm video games has created fallout effects impacting both game developers and distributors. Publishers and distributors have recognized that in 2010, most consumers likely have one or more sets of instrument controller hardware at their homes, and that further sales would be primarily driven by software sales and additional content. Activision scaled back its 2010 Guitar Hero release schedule to just two full games, reducing the number of SKUs from 25 in 2009 to 10 in 2010. Activision has also closed some of its in-house developers, including RedOctane, Neversoft's Guitar Hero division, and Underground Development, bringing the remaining employees and assets under their own control. Viacom, which had previously paid Harmonix $150 million for their performance behind Rock Band in 2007, are now seeking to get a "substantial" refund on that amount due to the weak sales in 2009. Viacom is also seeking to further reduce costs by negotiating new deals with music publishers to reduce the costs associated with music licensing for the Rock Band series. During the third quarter of 2010, Viacom began seeking a buyer for Harmonix, recognizing they did not have the efficiency and capacity to deal with the cost of maintaining a video game developer compared with dedicated video game publishers.
The kinds of people buying games was changing and they wanted something different. Rhythm game developers tried to add new features to their games. Rock Band 3 and Power Gig: Rise of the SixString added new stringed guitar controllers. They also added kinds of game play to help players learn how to hold their fingers as if playing a real guitar. Despite these new modes, sales of music games were still low in 2010. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and DJ Hero 2 sold only 86,000 and 59,000 copies in North America during their first week of sales, respectively, a sharp contrast to Guitar Hero III which had seen nearly 1.4 million units in its first week in 2008. Analysis of music game sales through October 2010 show net sales of around $200 million through October, one-fifth of the revenue for music games for the same period in 2008, and that the market will likely not break $400 million by the end of the year. End year sales were less than $300 million.
By the end of 2010, the rhythm market, initially propped by game bundles with instrument controllers, was considered "well past its prime" and has shifted towards downloadable content and potential integration with motion control systems. Citing the downturn in rhythm games, Activision shuttered their Guitar Hero division in February 2011. Viacom completed its sale of Harmonix in late 2010 to an investment-backed group to allow it to continue developing Rock Band and Dance Central on its own. Analysts suggest that the market for these types of peripheral rhythm games may be stagnant for three to five years after which they may resurge on new consoles or based on different distribution models such as a stronger focus on downloadable content.
Motion control and dance games (2011-present)
With the introduction of motion control to both the Xbox 360 (through Kinect) and the PlayStation 3 (through PlayStation Move) in 2010 and 2011, along with existing Wii motion control, some analysts believed the rhythm market would resurges through a new wave of dance-based video games and band-based ones that use platform-agnostic controllers to replicate real-life actions. Games such as Dance Central, Michael Jackson: The Game, and Child of Eden are all games based on the new motion sensing technology aimed to encourage more engaging dance routines. Industry pundits believe that as sales of music games requiring peripheral controllers lag, dance-based games, along with rising popularity of pop music, will continue to thrive for some time. Dancing games such as Just Dance and Dance Central boosted late-year sales; Dance Central was the top-selling game for the Kinect in North America in November 2010, and both games led to an 38% increase in sales compared to November 2009, according to NPD.
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