Music Games: What’s Next?

I’ve been watching some of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) coverage this past week, and while a lot of it has me excited for what’s to come in the near and distant future, there’s been one aspect of one of my favorite genres of games that has had me just a little bit disappointed.  I love the fact that there’s going to be a Beatles Rock Band game, but other than that, I’ve seen really very little that has me excited for music games.  I’ve really gotten into these kinds of games over the past few years, mostly for the fresh and new experience that they provide in taking games beyond just the screen and allowing you to have a lot more physical and musical fun with your friends.  But it is admittedly getting a bit stale lately and I think it’s time for Harmonix and Neversoft, the companies that make the most popular ones, to venture out with something new.

beatles_rock_band_2_430x242.jpgEven with the new Beatles game, the structure is basically the same.  Each person plays an instrument or sings.  You can have a number of people sing in melody with the Beatles songs, but that’s really all that is truly new.  I find it a shame that so many homes now have closets full of fake plastic instruments, but these companies are having a hard time finding out new ways to utilize them.  The next Guitar Hero is taking some small steps by making the game a virtual DJ that anyone can jump in and play with at any time during a party, but I still sort of feel like this isn’t pushing any new concept far enough.  Without forcing more expensive and otherwise useless peripherals on customers, where else can they take this?

I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and I think I have a concept that I would push at a meeting if I were working at Harmonix or Neversoft.  One of the most fun aspects of any of these music games is that it recreates a live performance.  Harmonix realized this and created the Rock Band Stage Kit which gives it even more of that vibe.  But one of the things that these games is sorely missing is the opportunity to be spontaneous or creative.  At a live performance, you’re likely to hear alternate versions of your favorite songs with extended instrumentals or lyrics.  With Rock Band or Guitar Hero, you’re stuck with the rigid track as it appeared on an album.  Sure, both let you randomly mash buttons during solos of the developers choosing, but you aren’t really creating anything truly unique by doing that.

Why not give players more flexibility?  Give them extended periods of their choosing where they are free to create new drumbeats, bass lines, or guitar solos.  Even go so far as encouraging it by giving extra points for doing so.  Guitar Hero has a studio feature where you can create songs, why not have a similar option where you are free to remix your favorite existing tracks?  Or how about at the very least creating freestyle sections inbetween songs where players are free to create their own melodies before the next song begins?  I think however that the idea that would be the easiest to implement would be for modifying songs while you play them.  Allow the player to play a song acoustically or to change the rhythm if they’d like.  A unique function of a live performance is when a band creates a version of a song that you would only hear live, I think it’s silly for any music game to not consider this.

I think the main thing that discourages me is that these music games are doing exactly the thing that a musical experience shouldn’t do, they’re severely limiting creativity instead of actively encouraging it.  A lot of kids are moving on from Guitar Hero to play a real guitar, but it’s not because they are encouraged to do so by the game.  It’s because they’ve become bored with what little the game has to offer.  I think it’s great that these kinds of games are helping to encourage future musicians, but I think there’s far more those games can do in terms of bridging the gap between fake and real instruments.

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