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So You Want To Save Music Games: DJ Hero

February 6, 2010

Ne-Yo vs. Dirty Vegas – “Closer Days” mixed by Kodiax

With the declining sales of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, along with the disappointingly low sales of DJ Hero (which I flipping love), several video game writers have declared that music games are dying, never mind that the Dance Dance Revolution games have been alive and kicking for more than ten years and that Just Dance sells like hotcakes despite abysmal reviews.

I love music and I love video games. I credit DDR with helping me develop the rhythm sense to get into DJing. I have put tons of time into both DJ Hero and Rock Band 2. So it breaks my heart to hear that one of my favorite genres is dying. So here’s free advice for Activision, MTV/Harmonix, Sony Studios London, Konami, et al from an unqualified amateur writer. You want to save music games? I will write a series of pieces with proposals to save each major music game. Today – DJ Hero.

Here’s what DJ Hero should have been:
DJ Hero’s problem wasn’t the expensive controller or the ugly, ugly characters. It was that it seemed to forget about all of the changes that Rock Band had brought about. Two players tops? Oh and you can plug in a guitar controller for some of the
songs, but it’s still two players? You can plug in a microphone, but it isn’t for points and since there isn’t space for the stone cold rhyming, whoever is your MC looks like a tool? Sigh. DJ Hero should have been an add-on to the Guitar Hero games that added keyboard/turntables to the band set-up. That would have made those keyboard-driven songs in GH5 and Band Hero a lot more realistic. Make it a 5-player game minimum.

DJ Hero’s other problem was that it seemed to focus on mashups and turtablism. While the image of a DJ scratching records back and forth is the image most people have of a DJ, turntablism doesn’t really factor into most pop songs. The reason Mixmaster Mike (apart from his work with the Beastie Boys) or DJ Craze haven’t cracked the Billboard top 40 is the same reason Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen didn’t: virtuosity while technically impressive doesn’t mean sounding good. It can be alienating. Back in 2002 I went to see the X-Ecutioners live and the crowd didn’t really get into it until they played their crossover hit “It’s Going Down.”

Meanwhile most DJs in clubs and on the radio don’t scratch records. Most live DJing is about 1) picking the records and 2) mixing the records. Few gamers want to play a beatmatching game.

The pop, hip-hop, and dance producer’s biggest live tools are the keyboard and the sampler, both of which could be translated into gaming. Hell, you could map a simplified Akai sampler onto your basic controller (or an Alesis Air Synth for the Wii remote). That would make a much better game. Konami did it best with their 5-key-plus-turntable controller for Beatmania, they just did it too early in the product cycle of music games. Keyboard, drums, bass, guitar, vox. That’s what DJ Hero should have been.

Finally, the setlist: one criticism of DJ Hero was that its focus on mashups skirted the middle while failing to appeal to either the hip-hop or the electronic audiences it was targeting. The band concept I outlined above would have made single songs much easier to chart. Then can release an 84-song set (Rock Band 2 set the precedent) as a single game or better yet, two 84-song games, with one in hip-hop and one in electronic, with both titles exportable to your console’s hard drive so one could arguably have 168 playable songs,  (half on disc, half on hard drive) on day one. Or put the game engine as a download with, say, a 20-song download voucher, and sell the controllers separately to be more budget-conscious.

Those are just ideas. I don’t have all of the facts. I’m just going off of common sense.

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