Friday, February 27, 2009

Guitar Heroics in the news this week

Gametrailers has a good Guitar Hero: Metallica interview/trailer with more gameplay than the usual quick-cut promos on YouTube. Full disclosure: I never had any real love for Metallica. I never detected a hint of a sense of humour in anything they wrote or how they played, which is a wee bit much for corporate metal. Then Lars' bullshit in the early Napster days sealed the deal. So the fact that there are some 45 Metallica tracks on this doesn't really stir my tea. Queen, Thin Lizzy, Slayer, Mastodon, and double-pedal drumming are quite another matter, plus the open drumming with no track to follow is pure win. (Completely hilarious upgrade of lyrics to "One" by MetalSucks.)

Kotaku tells me that EA wants some of this hot music game action. Might Activision, EA and Viacom/Harmonix turn up on music retailer market-share charts sometime soon? There's at least as much skepticism regarding the rock/rhythm genre's future as there is money being thrown at it. Is there actually a shark to be jumped here, or, as I'm inclined to think, will there be steady growth in the music game business overall even if certain high-profile efforts turn out to be epic fails?

And finally, a Wired headline writer rather labors the point with Why The Music Industry Hates Guitar Hero, but the article itself is a very sensible call for Warner Music, Bronfman and his lawyers to chill on the bitching about licensing fees and start cooperating with gamemakers. If it's really true that MTV/Harmonix is boycotting WMG and Warner/Chappell content from the Rock Band online store, the acts that "get it" ought to be kicking up dust. (GH: Bronfman edition pic from Digital Daily link.)

A mind less bound by the parameters of perfection? Sez who?

The ideas expounded upon in this Epicenter Q&A with Vint Cerf -- one of the "creators" of the Internet and now Chief Information Evangelist at Google -- on Recession, Recovery, and Innovation in Hard Times are not music/game specific, but both businesses will benefit from paying attention to what he has to say. And I never knew that he looks almost exactly like The Architect from The Matrix, which in a way makes sense.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How safe is the rhythm method?

More on handheld gaming today. Since the DS and PSPs arrived at the office, I've been playing Elite Beat Agents on the former (screenshot right) and Parappa The Rapper on the latter. EBA is original and weird and totally Japanese and I'm into it. Parappa is a PS1 classic and excellent nostalgia, and as fun to play as it used to be. So the portables are getting my attention at the moment, and apparently I'm not the only one.

After a lengthy period of lackluster support, on Monday Sony Corp began a major push to put the PSP back in the spotlight it had enjoyed at its US launch in early 2005. A slew of titles were announced, including the debut of Rock Band Unplugged, for which extra songs will be downloadable via wifi. Incidentally, Guitar Hero: On Tour for the DS was the top selling handheld game in the US in 2008, so a miniature Rock Band is not a total longshot. Other upcoming exclusive PSP games include LittleBigPlanet, Assassin's Creed, Madden NFL 10, and Motorstorm: Arctic Edge, all of which of course have their own busy soundtracks. And there will be a Hannah Montana rhythm game, which with any luck will coincide with the end of her 15 minutes. In a very welcome move, the games will also be interoperable with their PS3 console cousins.

Today Gamasutra ran an article titled "Behind The Charts: The Portable Rhythm Game Jam," about the discrepancy between the critic-and-gamer rhythm-action favorites Elite Beat Agent and Patapon, and those games' actual sales figures. EBA was voted Nintendo DS 2006 Game of the Year by IGN and Best Music/Rhythm Game of 2006 by GameSpot. But as of last month it had only sold 179,000 copies (according to NPD Group), when Nintendo had expected 300k in its first month on the market. It's worth mentioning that I don't think this figure includes used-games sales, which I suspect would be high for a game that only takes a handful of sessions to finish. I bought my used copy at Gamestop on Broadway for $10.

I'm waiting for Patapon to arrive at the office to see what it's really all about, but I've heard it's truly brilliant (trailer at bottom of post). Here's the Gamasutra description:

The Patapon... is a warrior tribe bent on reclaiming its land from the enemy Zigotons. Ultimately, the tribe finds meaning in a loftier goal and that quest leads them, literally, to the far end of the world. The player commands the Patapon in battle through a set of four talking drums, each mapped to one of the standard PlayStation controller face buttons. By tapping out command phrases in time with the game's background beat, the Patapon can be instructed to advance or retreat, attack or defend. Keep the beat well enough and the Patapons reach a fever pitch, during which their attacks are exceptionally potent.

Sounds great, but despite IGN's 2008 Best New IP award and GameSpot's Most Innovative Game for the year, and a huge promotional push from Sony, after one year on the market Patapon had sold only 229,000 units in the US. In contrast, Guitar Hero: World Tour, which cost around $50 because of the additional hardware that has to be attached to the DS unit, sold 1.1m copies in its first six months on sale.

So is the problem with rhythm games per se, or did the mighty GH brand make the crucial difference? Is it that handhelds are not well-suited for rhythm gameplay, or simply that the mass market will tend to favor familiar franchises over ground-breaking but unknown titles? The article and its commenters throw some ideas around, but the precise answer is obviously elusive. This will be a busy space for watching break-out hits and lamenting the ones that fell by the wayside.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More on music and mobile apps

My post last week on music promotion via iPhone apps preempted a smattering of news on the subject. Yes, I have special powers too weird to go into right now.

MusicAlly reports that Universal Music Group acts Lady Gaga, the Pussycat Dolls, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em, the All American Rejects, and Keri Hilson are all releasing apps today. They're all free, and include "video content from the artists’ Kyte channels, as well as branding and advertising, click-through links to buy music and merchandise, a built-in RSS reader to pull in news updates, and community features like chat, comments and sharing."

Small bespoke games will be an utterly normal element of these packages in the near future.

And there's this from Wired's Gadget Lab on the introduction of paid apps to Google's HTC G1 phone and any other device running the Android mobile OS. Apple/iTunes keeps a tight rein on what kinds of apps it will sell, and keeps 30% of the revenues they generate. The open Android app market has no approval system, and all the coin will go to the app makers.

We live in the future. More please.

Cute article at Games Radar on "Things gamers would never have believed 20 years ago." In at second place:

The Boss would be releasing new music through videogames.
-- The only example of games and rock colliding 20 years ago was the Atari 2600 effort, Journey Escape, which featured mullet-haired denim rockers, Journey... So who would have dared believe that, one day, video games would be used by such immense legends of rockery as Def Leppard (Guitar Hero III), Motley Crue (Rock Band), Guns N' Roses (Rock Band 2) and Bruce Springsteen (Guitar Hero World Tour) to debut songs? That's Bruce Springsteen. Born in the USA. The Boss. So massive the whole of the 80s could barely contain him and now, in the 21st Century, he's harnessing the power of games to release new music.

Adding: "A Nintendo console would be used for playing Sega and NEC games" and "That boring load times are still blighting us" are also good'uns. I have a mate in London called Alex Kydd. Photo from Game Radar piece.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lily Allen gives me the fear

Ars Technica reports that cheeky chanteuse Lily Allen's label is crediting a Flash game with boosting interest in, and hence sales of, her single "The Fear." EMI-owned Parlophone hired viral marketing company Matmi to create an "advergame" to promote Ms Allen's release. Matmi came up with a wee platformer called "Escape the Fear," which has apparently been played over 2m times, for an average of five minutes a go, with "tens of thousands" of clickthroughs to downloads and pre-orders. "The Fear" is charting worldwide and has been #1 in the UK for all of February.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Music distribution via mobile apps is on the way

A story on Wired's Epicenter blog, ostensibly about an iPhone app offering all four albums by 90's guitar-string dodgers The Presidents of the United States of America, offers a glimpse into the potential for mobile apps to forge a new music market. Apple has led the way but RIM and Android will be along shortly, if they know what's good for them.

Points of note:
- Dave Dederer, former singer and guitarist for the band, is now vice president of business development for mobile audio company Melodeo.
- Crucially, he and his bandmates retained the full rights to all their music. Since the iPhone store is open(ish) he can do what he likes with his own content and avoids the licensing entanglements that usually make such efforts hugely problematic.
- For $3, fans old and hopefully new get access to (via streaming) four albums, rare and live recordings, and anything else the band wants to make available. Plus updates.
- Next step is more bands with their own versions. A label-centric app for Seattle-based Sub Pop is hinted at.

From the article:
Dederer also said Melodeo is looking at the idea of using the iPhone app store to promote albums before their official release, circumventing the old way of "paying tens or or hundreds of thousands of dollars in... to get the album in heavy rotation on the radio." He continued, "instead of paying for exposure, you let the fans pay for the right to preview the music -- they can't own it, it's going to be streaming -- and have them link through to iTunes to pre-purchase the album."

Image found on via Google.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nom nom noms

Joystiq reports on the nominations for the Game Audio Network Guild awards, the development community's top honours for video game sound design and music. The PS3's Little Big Planet has the most noms with eight, followed by World of Warcraft (5), Fable II, Gears of War 2, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Dead Space (4 each). The full list of recognized games -- aka titles to acquire for the NYU-MVGRP library -- is at the link above. Voting is open now at the GANG site.

From the perspective of this blog, the category list provides a useful classification system for audio design and music in games. The top award is for Audio of the Year, followed by Music OTY, Sound Design OTY, and Best Soundtrack Album. Then it gets into the nitty-gritty. Best Interactive Score, Handheld Audio, Audio - Other (??), Cinematic Cut-Scene Audio, Dialogue, Original Instrumental, Original Vocal - Choral, Original Vocal - Pop, Best Use of Licensed Music, Best Game Audio Article, Publication or Broadcast, and Best use of Multi-Channel Surround in a Game.

There's a lot of music business going on in that lot...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Indie label Asthmatic Kitty on "What is Working?"

This is a fantastic article from a Hypebot series in which indie music sector professionals are asked, "In this fractured media landscape, what is working? What outlets and tools are helping your artists build an audience?" The guys at Asthmatic Kitty give one of the most lucid and positive responses you'll ever read to this kind of question. Not going to summarize here, except to concur with them that the frequent and spectacular failures of "sprinters" should not be distractions to the "marathon runners" -- even asthmatic felines. As Mr Colbert would say, "These guys get it!"

Short calls and long views

Ran into two contradictory headlines on music games over the weekend. The Motley Fool (I had no idea they were still around after dotcom era 1.0) goes with Activision is Music to My Ears, reporting on the Guitar Hero publisher's holiday quarter net profits of $429 million, adding:

The company doesn't break out sales or profits by product line, but it was happy to announce that Guitar Hero III has passed the $1 billion sales mark. Guitar Hero: World Tour was the best-selling console game of the quarter, dollar for dollar. And Nintendo may rule the handheld sales charts in number of units shifted, but Guitar Hero: On Tour collected more money than any other handheld game in 2008.

See a pattern here? So do Vivendi-Blizzard's management, and the analysts following the company. In that conference call, the best-selling PC game franchise World of Warcaft was mentioned 15 times, and the equally successful Call Of Duty 20 times. Guitar Hero got 47 mentions, plus another nine for the upcoming Metallica expansion -- more than even "sales" (27 mentions).

The author also notes that Europe is just getting started on GH and RB, that penetration in Japan is a possibility, and that Activision Blizzard "will live and die with the Guitar Hero franchise."

So it's all coming up roses until I see Music Games Fall Off a Cliff, in reference to a Silicon Valley Insider article titled Guitar Zero: Gamers Growing Bored Of Music Games. The horror! Apparently earnings at Viacom (owner of MTV and Rock Band) are being dragged down by a sales slump in RB, and that Activision is even more poorly placed to deal with the apparent collapse because it was "doubling down" on music games, hyping more GH titles and the upcoming DJ Hero. The SVI piece includes:
We're a bit surpised at how quickly music game sales are falling, but not by the general downturn. Two factors at work here: First, music games sold so amazingly well the past few years the market is approaching its saturation point ... Music games were, basically, a very 2008 sort of fad. And all fads come to an end."

I'm with the Motley Fool on this, and find the SVI analysis to be very narrow. No mention of the suddenly alarming economy and the effect it might be having on entertainment industry revenues; no mention of the massive popularity of downloaded tracks and song packs to GH and RB; no mention of this year's Beatles game, which will grow the rhythm games market to include all sorts of people who hate Aerosmith and/or Metallica; and the fact that music games are ruling the PS2 charts, still the most widely owned console in the world. And these are just the most obvious blind spots. Music and video games are going to continue to expand each others' overall businesses in ever more harmonious and lucrative ways. There's a bigger picture here that post-holiday-season sales drop-offs are not going to reflect adequately.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Just because one lolcat is never enough

Song request

FAO Activision and/or Harmonix MTV: I can haz Franz Ferdinand song download pack? The original GH had a (pretty bad) cover of "Take Me Out," def time for an upgrade.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Top games sales in January

Wired's gaming blog Games | Life posted January 2009's Top 10 Game Sales By Platform. Let's see how the music titles stack up:

Guitar Hero World Tour on the Wii was the 7th best-seller overall, and #4 in the Wii top ten. The Xbox 360 version of GHWT was 18th overall, just behind the 360 version of Rock Band 2 at #17.

In the Xbox 360 top ten, RB2 comes in 7th ahead of GHWT at #8. On the PlayStation 3, GHWT is 5th and RB2 is 10th.

More interestingly, on the PlayStation 2 -- lest we forget, far and away the best-selling gaming console evah -- music games absolutely dominate.


Not only do rhythm games take four out of the ten spots, but at least four other titles (Madden, WWE Smackdown, NBA2K9 and GTA:SA) are all known for soundtracks with strong exposure effects for featured artists. It's expected that the next-gen consoles will get most of the spotlight, but the PS2 has by far the higher user base -- 140m PS2s sold worldwide compared to 44m Wiis and 28m Xbox 360s, sayeth Wikipedia -- and continues to sell well. The PS2 chart is a stronger indication of music games' overall popularity than the other top tens.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On hip-hop and samurai

This deserves a longer post, but one of my absolute favourite cultural mash-ups is Japanese hip-hop. There's a history here. I saw DJ Krush live in London in 1998, celebrated my 27th birthday in a hip-hop club in Shinjuku, and have watched every episode of Samurai Champloo at least twice. So the buzz that's picking up around the new Afro Samurai game, and in particular the soundtrack by The RZA, is piquing my interest. I haven't seen the anime itself, but the game looks and sounds a little like this:

Adding: The RZA, mastermind of the Wu-Tang Clan and one of the few truly gifted weirdos in hip-hop, also produced the soundtracks for Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and most of Kill Bill. As for Samurai Champloo, I bought two soundtrack albums and the PS2 game, which was undeservedly overlooked. It was rather too much of a button-masher, but the soundtrack was fully integrated into the gameplay, to the extent that it had DJ controls as part of the HUD (heads-up display) and fight mechanic. Within the game you enter a record store -- this is all in late feudal Japan, mind you -- to buy various tracks, which you select from during play to perform different groups of moves. It doesn't always work smoothly, but it's an honest stab at being true to the hybrid hip-hop/samurai/anime aesthetic that defined the series.

A great book on this topic is Ian Condry's "Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization" (Duke University Press, 2006), which I've used in class and in the lit review of my dissertation.

Kids rock

A European Union report has concluded that games pose no threat to children, and that in fact they stimulate "learning of facts and skills such as strategic reflection, creativity, cooperation and a sense of innovation." The report pegs the total value of the European games market at $9bn, calls for the strengthening the existing "PEGI" voluntary content ratings system shared by the EU's 27 member states, stresses parental involvement over national bans, and reveals the average age of the European gamer as 33.

All jolly sensible. And therefore clearly inappropriate for policy. But as the song says, "The Kids Are Alright." For readers born post-1990, that's a track by the Who. They were great, the song's great, go download it. The Best of the Who is also available in Rock Band, all master tracks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Well, he's paid tha cost

Snoop Dogg -- I'm so old I saw him live at a club in London when there was an extra Doggy in there -- is coming to Rock Band as part of a global-MTV-media-mega-deal that includes a weekly late-night variety show called "Dogg After Dark" set in an LA nightclub, an album with Dr Dre and Pharrel titled Malice in Wonderland, and "bringing hip-hop to" the Rock Band download store (fo'shizzle? I guess the Beasties don't count, huh*). No details on which tracks yet. The D-O-double-G indulges in a little Dali-esque third person license in the press release:
When [MTV overlord] Van Toffler and I sat down boss to boss, a global quintuple threat takeover was masterminded. The world of entertainment keeps changing, we felt it was the right time to let Snoop Dogg back on MTV so we could continue to run thangs (sic) with music, movies, DVDs and bring hip-hop to 'Rock Band'.

Word. So, hip-hop on RB. With DJ Hero set for release this year, we might finally be seeing a little musical/racial diversity in the rhythm game space.

*I picked up the remastered reissue of Paul's Boutique tonight. It's 25 years young and phatter than ever. I'm hearing layers and undertones on the CD that'll never make it through an MP3 compression. Sometimes only the best will do.

Break-ups go better with jazz

Tried out Erik Loyer's first Opertoon iPhone app, a mash-up of grown-up graphic storytelling, animation, and music that's quite unlike anything else you've seen before. "Ruben & Lullaby" is a love story told in expressions and gestures, both of the characters in the "game" and of the player manipulating the device. Below is the YouTube demo, which is better than any description I might attempt. I played it for about 20 minutes last night and after I'd exhausted what the characters could do I closed my eyes and just played around with the musical variations the app is capable of. This is a very promising innovation in interactive music games and narrative, even if as a standalone it feels somewhat limited. The app sells for $2.99, and I hope it shifts more than a few units. More like this please.

Adding, until I looked up this game on iTunes I didn't know that there is an age rating system for iPhone apps; this opertoon is for 4+ only. What other age cut-offs might there be? What are the criteria? Hmmm...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Whattup, G?

On CNET, Is Google's Eric Schmidt the next David Geffen?, in which the mighty G-Force emerges as the next great powerbroker in the music business, what with the current re-negotiations over 3/4 of the Majors' licensing deals with YouTube underway (WMG has thrown its rattle well clear of the pram), and its mobile OS Android underpinning's MP3 sales system. The real question for me is why no-one appears to have seen this coming. I followed a link from this to Amazon, Apple and the price of music from January, which has lots of juicy tidbits on recent shenanigans in the paid online music space. Are the major labels and Amazon in cahoots to stymie Apple? Does MySpace Music have any legs? Is anyone using DRM any more at all? Great stuff.

Emergence and kingpins

Popmatters' games and multimedia blog Moving Pixels has a great piece on emergent music games -- as opposed to linear games, like GH and Audiosurf -- in which players generate music through their actions on-screen. A familiar example is Rez, which I downloaded from Xbox Live a few weeks ago in a rare instance of retro-gaming, and Auditorium (see a few posts below). Others in the emergent category that I have yet to try out include Everyday Shooter and Electroplankton. The upshot is that emergent music games are relatively rare, but they offer a glimpse of a new form of narrative that is only beginning to be explored. The Clash picture is from this piece.

Speaking of Popmatters, its music blog Crazed By The Music has a series of articles about "The New Music Kingpins of the Post-Napster World", in which it names Guitar Hero as one of those kingpins. There are a couple of factual inaccuracies in the piece, but the overall tone is basically positive.

Chopin up the classics

Here's a new concept: an RPG based on the life of classical composer Frédéric Chopin and featuring his music. Eternal Sonata, released by Bandai-Namco and available for PS and Xbox systems, is described below by a reviewer from the Minneapolis Music Examiner. (Hey, how about an RPG where you get to play Prince, rather than just a prince?).

In the game, two different worlds exist. The first is that in which the adventure takes place, and the other being our own world, over the night of the 16th-17th of October, 1849 (the night that Chopin passed away). Though it is commonly accepted that Chopin died of tuberculosis, the game describes him as having a troubled dream (in which he abides in the fantasy realm) that he eventually decides is his true reality, and so leaves his body in the real world behind.

Music in the form of original compositions and some of Chopin’s piano pieces performed by Stanislav Bunin permeate the game. You can collect score pieces and perform them with other characters in the game, as well as finding and unlocking some of Chopin’s greatest musical compositions. There are also cut scenes between chapters in the game that flash to images of early 19th century France and Chopin’s life. At times, these feel almost like history lessons in addition to providing more depth to the story. The cut scenes are surprisingly informative, supplying a good amount of information about Chopin’s patriotism, his life in France, compositions, romance, and illness.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Boston as next game design hub?

Notwithstanding New York's obvious status as center of the known universe, I latched onto an AP story playing up Boston and Massachusetts' potential as a game design hub, and efforts to lure new companies there following the success of Harmonix, among others. If successful, this would be a graceful elucidation of some of Richard Florida's Creative Class ideas. Also good to see the music scene there highlighted as a contributing factor.

"Building the company in the Boston/Cambridge area, home to MIT, Harvard and other colleges, ensures a deep well of talent, according to Harmonix co-founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos. The Boston area had another big plus a thriving music scene centered on local clubs and the Berklee College of Music.

"...the rise of video games is due in part to their ability to take advantage of new mobile and web technologies that demand expertise in software, design, animation, audio and music. Successful games can also be branched out into ring tones, toys and other forms of merchandise, including the Massachusetts College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design."

wrt Harmonix, may I request that they please sort out an iPhone version of Phase? kthxbai.

Make room for the mushrooms

Via Drum & Drummer blog.

MS should listen to this advice

A headline that says it all:

Ditch the Zune, Microsoft. Bring me Xbox Mobile.

Need more reasons for why this is a good idea? How about 97 million of them? That's the number of Nintendo DS units greasing palms since its launch. You can have another 44 million while we're at it, the number of PSPs sold so far. Even the iPhone is basically a tarted up gaming device now.

And MS is still trying to make a better iPod.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Symphony of destruction

The New York Times reports on 14-year-old Danny Johnson, who recently broke the record score on Guitar Hero III. He says he's busted 80 guitar controllers in nine months of intensive practice -- he broke the one he used to beat the record -- but his new sponsorship deal should pay for the next hundred at least.

Two best bits:
"When you’re hitting that many notes and playing that fast, it just terrorizes the controller," said Scott Johnson, 45, Danny’s father.
Danny, who plays piano, guitar, drums, saxophone and oboe in real life, said his Guitar Hero prowess made it easier to complete complicated sequences on an actual guitar.

Danny has his own YouTube channel run by his brother. Here he is pulling off 100% on 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia'. Watch and marvel.

Auditorium game designer a stand-up guy

I discovered the browser game Auditorium a few days ago, resulting in two weeknight "WTF it's 4:30am?" moments so far. It's gorgeous, absorbing music game that's nearly impossible to describe, though it only takes a few seconds to learn. Getting better at it takes longer, of course. I needed to contact the company behind it to have my username reset (email with it got lost in my trash), and found myself chatting away with Dain Saint, one of the game's two designers. Going to try to get them to come up from Philly to NYU to visit a class.

Here's a small taste. The demo is free, full game a very reasonable $10.

Guitar Hero is patriotic

A true American man-hug: Activision shells out for a NASCAR Guitar Hero sponsorship, including at the Daytona 500. All well and good, but will it piss excellence?

Via Kotaku.

Colbert maximum rock

The inspiration to finally get this blog on the move came this week, courtesy of The Colbert Report. As if any more proof of Stephen's "getting it" were needed, his 80's stalker classic "I'm Right Behind You Now, Charlene" has been available for free at the Rock Band online store for months. On Monday the game version of the song made an appearance on 'Better Know A District', with a freshman congressman managing 24% on guitar to Stephen's 100% on vocals.

First post

Welcome to the new blog. NYU's Music Video Games Research Project is go! Come back regularly for news and analysis of the convergence of the music and video games industries, plus updates on activities of NYU-MVGRP.