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Action video games

Rhythm game, or rhythm action, is a genre of music-themed action video games. Games in the genre primarily focus either on dancing or simulating the playing of musical instruments. Players must press buttons at a precise time corresponding to a sequence dictated by the game. Doing so will cause the game's protagonist or avatar to dance or play their instrument correctly, thus achieving a greater score. Many rhythm games include multiplayer modes in which players compete for the highest score or cooperate to simulate a band playing together. While conventional control pads may be used as input devices, rhythm games often feature novel devices which emulate musical instruments. Dancing games sometimes require the player to physically dance on a mat, with pressure-sensitive pads acting as the input device.

The 1996 title PaRappa the Rapper has been deemed the first influential rhythm game, whose basic template forms the core of subsequent games in the genre. In 1997, Konami's Beatmania sparked an emergent market for rhythm games in Japan. The company's music division, Bemani, released a number of 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. Imitators of the game began to flood the genre, until it was revitalized by 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 spawned two hugely successful franchises in Guitar Hero and the later Rock Band. The success of both expanded the console video game market and its demographics, as well as providing a new source of revenue for artists whose music appeared on the soundtracks. By 2008, rhythm games were considered to be one of the most popular video game genres, behind other action games. However, saturation of the market in 2009 by numerous spin-offs from the core titles led to a nearly 50% drop in revenue for music game published, causing them to scale-back plans for further expansion in 2010.

Definition and game design


Rhythm game, or rhythm action,[1][2] is a subgenre of action game that challenges a player's sense of rhythm,[3] and includes dance games such as Dance Dance Revolution[3] and other music-based games such as Donkey Konga and Guitar Hero.[3] 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 accuracy and being on the beat.[3] The genre also includes games that measure both rhythm and pitch, in order to test a player's singing ability.[4][5] In addition to rhythm, the occasional game may challenge the player to control their volume by measuring how hard they press each button.[6] While songs can be sight read without having performed them before,[7] players usually practice to master more difficult songs and settings.[8] 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.[9]

In some rhythm games, the screen will display an avatar who performs in response to the player's button-presses.[3] However, these graphical responses are usually in the background,[6] and the avatar is less important to the player than it is to spectators.[4] 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.[3] The popularity of rhythm games has created a market for speciality input devices.[3] These include a variety of controllers which emulate musical instruments, such as guitars, drums, or maracas.[10] A dance mat, for use in dancing games, requires the player to step on pressure-sensitive pads.[11] More conventional inputs, specifically control pads, may be used however.[12]


Origins and popularity in Japan


The genre has been traced back to the electronic game Simon,[10][13] 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.[10] 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.[14] The later PaRappa the Rapper has also been credited as the first rhythm game,[14][15] as well as one of the first music games in general.[16] The game required players to press buttons corresponding to the order they appeared on-screen;[15] this basic mechanic would form the core of future rhythm games.[10] The success of PaRappa the Rapper sparked an emergent popularity of the music game genre.[10] Unlike most other games in the genre, the game also featured a completely original soundtrack and an acclaimed plot.[15] 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 emulating a record.[17] The game was a surprise hit, inspiring Konami's Games and Music Division to change its name to Bemani in honor of the game,[17] and to then begin experimenting with other rhythm games over the next few years.[18] One of those successes,[18] 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.[10] 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.[10] 1998's Pop'n Music, a game similar to Beatmania, featuring multiple colorful buttons was also successful.[19]

Dance Dance Revolution, released in 1998, was a rhythm game in which players danced on pressure sensitive pads, in the order dictated by on-screen instructions.[11] The game was highly successful not only in Japan but globally, unlike games such as GuitarFreaks, DrumMania and Beatmania (though the latter had some success in Europe).[20] 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 a greater degree of freedom than normally found in rhythm games.[10][21]

Vib-Ribbon was released by NanaOn-Sha (the creator of PaRappa the Rapper) in 1999, and also eschewed 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 afforded a release in North America.[10][12] 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.[10][22] In 2001, Taiko no Tatsujin combined traditional Japanese drums with contemporary pop music, and became highly successful in Japanese arcades.[23] The game was later released on consoles in the West (as Taiko Drum Master) and the franchise continues to receive new installments in Japan.[10] 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.[10] Gitaroo Man's creator, Keiichi Yano, further created Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS utilizing its touchscreen features, which was a highly-demanded import title and lead to a sequel in Japan and a Western variation of the game in Elite Beat Agents.[24]

Popularity in the West

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 greater feeling of creative control.[25] The game was critically acclaimed, but its abstract style did not allow the player to give a "performance" as in other games and thus proved difficult to market.[10] Frequency was folled by a similar game, Amplitude in 2003.[26] Harmonix later released more socially driven, karaoke-themed music games in Karaoke Revolution and SingStar (2003 and 2004 respectively).[10] 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.[10]


Guitar Hero, developed by Harmonix, was released in 2005 by then relatively unknown publisher RedOctane. The game was inspired by GuitarFreaks, but while the latter had used esoteric (to Westerners) Japanese pop music, Guitar Hero featured Western rock music. The game reinvigorated the rhythm genre which by this time had begun to stagnate, flooded with Dance Dance Revolution sequels and imitators.[27][28] The game spawned several sequels, with the franchise earning more than $1 billion in sales; the third installment was the best-selling game in North America in 2007.[29] 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.[30] The Guitar Hero franchise followed suit with Guitar Hero World Tour, developed by Neversoft rather than Harmonix.[31] Guitar Hero installments based on specific bands, such as Metallica and Aerosmith, were subsequently published.[32] Additional songs could be purchased via the internet and added to Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, generating further revenue.[30][32] 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.[30][32] 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.[33] 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.[33]

Saturation and fallout

Analysts for the video game market considered 2009 to be critical to further success of the genre.[34] 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.[35] 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,[36] the resulting sales numbers were lower by nearly half of the projections.[37][38] 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.[39][40][41] 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 fiscal quarter of sales in the United Sates to only 600,000.[42] 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 iterations, leading to consumers less likely to buy additional titles.[43] 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.[44] Wedbush Securies analyst Michael Pachter concluded that 2/3rd of the 12% drop in total video game sales was due to the saturation of the rhythm game market.[45]

The weakening market for rhythm video games has created fallout effects impacting both game developers and distributors. Publishers and distributors have recognized that by 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.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48][49] 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.[50] 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.[51] Ultimately, 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 cost of maintaining a video game developer compared with dedicated video game publishers.[52]

With the introduction of motion control to both the Xbox 360 (through Project Natal) and the PlayStation 3 (through PlayStation Move) in 2010 and 2011, some analysts believe there may be recovery for the market through a new wave of dance-based video games and band-based ones that use platform-agnostic controllers to replicate real-life actions.[53] 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. Rock Band 3 and Power Gig: Rise of the SixString introduce new stringed guitar controllers, and modes that help the player learn accurate fingering towards playing a real guitar.[54][55]

Despite these new modes, sales of music games faltered 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,[56][57] a sharp contrast to Guitar Hero III which had seen nearly 1.4 million units in its first week in 2008.[58][59] 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.[60] It is suggested that the rhythm market, initially propped by game bundles with instrument controllers, is "well past its prime" and has shifted towards downloadable content and potential integration with motion control systems.[61]


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  • Ashcraft, Brian, Arcade Mania! The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Games Centers (Kodansha International, 2008)
  • Rollings, Andrew & Adams, Ernest, Fundamentals of Game Design (Prentice Hall, 2006)

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