By Antony Bruno
DENVER (Billboard) - Music games are about to come full circle, with the next stage of the struggling genre coming from the familiar category of dance music, driven by new motion-capture controllers expected to hit the market this fall.
Microsoft plans to have its Project Natal motion-capture game controller available for sale in time for the holiday season. The device is a camera that recognizes user gestures and body contortions as a means of controlling gameplay. Sony's Move, announced at the Game Developers Conference in March, is more like Nintendo's Wii system, with a controller that users hold in their hands, a sensor to track its movement and a camera to project it all into the game.
A host of game developers, including "Rock Band" developer Harmonix, is expected to release games that use these new motion-capture controllers as early as this year, although most titles aren't expected until 2011. Sources say they expect developers to unveil some of these new titles at the E3 video-game conference in June.
Dance-based games will feature heavily in that rollout and should provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the music-game market. Sales in the category plummeted last year as interest in the "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" franchises faded. The problem, according to Jesse Divnich, vice president of analyst services at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, is that there wasn't any innovation in features within the genre despite a flood of new content. And content, Divnich says, will sustain a franchise for only so long.
The precursor to music and rhythm games like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" was Konami's "Dance Dance Revolution," the hit arcade game that later migrated to home gaming platforms. The game relied on an exclusive floor-pad peripheral, which underwent little evolution, much like the guitar and drum controllers of "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band."
"It was massively popular, but it didn't really reach a mainstream audience like 'Guitar Hero,'" Divnich says. "Project Natal and Sony's Move will allow the dance category to reach a broader audience ... This could be a billion-dollar category over the next 24 months."
Unlike the "Dance Dance Revolution" floor pad -- or the "DJ Hero" turntable or the band kit for "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" -- these new controllers aren't exclusive to any one franchise. That means developers are free to create games using their functionality rather than developing exclusive peripherals. Analysts expect between 10 percent and 20 percent of existing console owners to buy a Natal or Move device, and both Microsoft and Sony are expected to bundle the controllers with new consoles shortly after their release.
A recent survey from Game Informer on the state of music games found that readers were most interested in "different music genres" (35.7 percent) and "more realistic gameplay and peripherals" (32.3 percent) when asked which features in a new music game would excite them most. Dance games based on Project Natal and the Move will feature both.
Current Wii hit "Just Dance" is an early indicator that dance games based on motion controls have great potential. Taking advantage of the Wii's motion-based controllers -- as well as tracks like MC Hammer's "You Can't Touch This" -- "Just Dance" has defied negative reviews to sell more than 850,000 units in the United States since its debut in November, according to NPD Group. In February it was the fourth-best-selling game stateside and the third-ranked game in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, the dance category allows for a broader sampling of music. While "Guitar Hero" and "DJ Hero" focus heavily on the use of specific instruments, dance games can incorporate all manner of musical styles so long as they're danceable.
"This gives all sorts of different bands the opportunity to get their music into these games," Wedbush Morgan Securities gaming analyst Michael Pachter says. "Everybody dances. Maybe we suck, but we'll try it."
Cynthia Sexton, executive vice president of global brand partnerships at EMI Music -- which contributed about half of the 32 songs on the "Just Dance" soundtrack after submitting more than 200 for consideration -- says dance games are already starting to pay off.
"For me as a label person and for our artists, it just means more revenue," she says. "I won't tell you what the check looked like, but it was very, very healthy. And I look forward to the next game, whatever that is."