Plugged In

How dance is saving the rhythm game genre

Plugged In

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Just Dance 2 - Ubisoft

Music games are singing the blues.

It's been over five years since Massachusetts-based developer Harmonix revolutionized the genre, thrusting the original Guitar Hero to the top of the charts, winning a stunning collection of awards, and birthing a franchise that'd eventually rack up over two billion dollars in sales.

But now Guitar Hero is just a memory, euthanized by publisher Activision last month following a sharp downturn in revenue and a series of poorly received spin-offs. And competitor Rock Band -- Harmonix's next work, published by Activision rival EA -- isn't in much better shape. Although its most recent effort, Rock Band 3, earned considerable acclaim, it's widely thought to have fizzled at retail. Tellingly, Harmonix shed around 15% of its staff last month -- and although they emphasized that the beat of Rock Band "marches on," they're seemingly concentrating on other projects for the present.

So with its two leading figures taking such a beating, is there any hope for rhythm gaming? You better believe it -- and you better learn the steps if you want to keep up.

Thanks in large part to the work of publisher Ubisoft, music gaming is finding a new foothold by getting people dancing. Just as Rock Band and Guitar Hero began to slide, the company scored a massive hit with 2009's Just Dance, a simple, budget-priced Wii game with an unashamedly poppy soundtrack -- everyone from the Beach Boys to Baha Men -- and no hard-to-store custom controllers.

Check out the Hottest Dance Games of 2011

Propelled by careful marketing and a trim $40 price point, Just Dance would boogie its way to becoming the best-performing non-Nintendo game ever released on the Wii, rocketing to two million sales in just four months. Although Just Dance was far from the first hit dance game (Konami's arcade classic Dance Dance Revolution predates it by over a decade), it was the first in ages to really strike a chord with Western family audiences.

A hugely successfull sequel followed, and a genre was born.

Or reborn, perhaps. From the ashes of 2009's collapse, a new style of music game is finally hitting its stride -- and if you thought the plastic-guitar games were ubiquitous, you ain't seen nothing yet. With both Sony and Microsoft platforms now boasting high-tech motion control systems, Ubisoft, as senior vice president of sales and marketing Tony Key told us, is looking forward to a bumper year.

"Dance exploded in 2010," Key said, "but the genre will be even bigger in 2011. As the leaders in the genre, Ubisoft will lead the charge, starting on April 12 with the release of Michael Jackson The Experience for Kinect and Move."

That'd be the same Michael Jackson: The Experience that's already sold two million copies on the Wii. Over 2010's critical holiday season, Ubisoft shipped a staggering 10.5 million dance video games (across 5 products), lifting its quarterly profit by 21 per cent over the same period in 2009.

Even critics are showing some signs of coming around. Just Dance 2 performed substantially better than its predecessor, and million-plus seller Dance Central -- the latest work from Guitar Hero and Rock Band creators Harmonix -- remains one of the best-reviewed games for Microsoft's Kinect system. Singstar Dance is the comparable Playstation Move release, combining Sony's long-running karaoke series with motion-controlled dancing, and has also fared significantly better than the original Just Dance with most reviewers.

And music behemoth Activision, which thoroughly stamped its name over the music game scene for much of the last five years, is watching the scene closely. No official announcement has been made yet, but the publisher filed a trademark on the phrase "Dance Hero" last month, and according to rumors posted on gaming blog Kotaku, the game's not only in development, it already has a preliminary track list.

Can the new breed of footloose music games haul the recession-hit industry out of its rut? Judging by February's charts, which have Just Dance 2 and Jackson holding onto two of the top nine sales slots, they're certainly helping. Much will depend on just how many dancing games new Kinect and Move owners decide they need -- but don't hang up your dancing shoes just yet. They're going to have a busy year.

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