Sunday, August 06, 2006

On musical games

"Musical games" are henceforth defined as games where the player's input depends on rhythm, and that input is assisted/rewarded with music. Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, and Frequency are all examples of musical games.

I have long been unable to put my finger on why I find some musical games compelling (DDR, Amplitude) and others humdrum (Beatmania). Recently I played Guitar Hero which allowed me to recognize a key difference.

OK, some background. I adore Amplitude (by Harmonix), and was greatly looking forward to Guitar Hero (also by Harmonix), only for months I didn't have enough money. Well, I go over to a friend's house, and his sister happens to own it... And it was a huge letdown. This led to a greater analysis and eventually the short essay you're reading now.

The difference is the existence of "game" mechanics. DDR's input in no way resembles a popular instrument, and missing a step does not miss the note. Amplitude has a number of tracks such that playing the entire song in real life is impossible, and to boot has a number of powerups that affect more than score. Meanwhile, other games have the logical conclusion of being able to play a complex song note for note. Guitar Hero is much the same way. These don't do it for me because one has to wonder why one doesn't simply learn to play the actual instrument.

I have and still do dabble in creating music on the computer, electric piano, harmonica, and ukulele. When I can actually produce music of my own whimsy, however humble, it is far more gratifying than performing a song well in, say, Guitar Hero. Whereas Amplitude uses music as its cornerstone and then builds game elements on top, most musical games merely use the music alone and do their best to ignore the "game" portion.

So, after I worked this out, I started wondering: Why are "performing" musical games popular? It's obvious why one might pick up and play a few times; instantly the music is better than it would be on a real instrument, so there's more feedback. But what about when you start looking like this? Why not just learn to play the piano?

The answer, I decided, is inertia. Just before writing this I saw a fascinating YTMND site, whose content was nothing more than a one-edged, one-surfaced torusoid, but what made it amazing were the comments made by users. The vast majority of comments - and there were a lot of comments - was about how amazing the shape was. I was stunned; it's an interesting shape, yes, but could so many people have never really seen such a shape and examined it?

It's inertia; People tend not to be very inquisitive. They don't bother learning about topology on their own even if, when shown a strange shape, they think it amazing. They stick with their Bemani game instead of moving on to a real instrument because it's familiar. People have a great deal of inertia.

So, this is my call to everyone reading this: KILL YOUR INERTIA. Go forth and do stuff; go forth and learn stuff. If you play a lot of shooters, go take a gun safety class and rent a gun, take it for a spin, see if you like it. If you like this blog, go research game companies and the history of the industry and game theory. Explore the interests you don't know you have.

Oh, and before anyone brings up the "money" argument, most musical games are played in the arcade at a substantial "rental" price, to the tune of 15-20$ an hour; If you can afford to play the game, you can afford to save up and spend some time with the instrument. And don't forget about friends! How many people do you think have absolutely no friend with an instrument in the house? Surely, they could borrow it or just tool around on it at their friend's house.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Hopefully this sheds some light on why I think musical games I dislike are popular and why, unlike other games I dislike, I actually believe they shouldn't be popular in a more perfect world. To me, no matter the genre, it's mostly about "game" part.

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