Editorial | 3/16/2012 at 1:56 PM

Music Game Meltdown

The music genre implosion and the video game crash of 1983

In 1982, video games were big business. Really big, to the tune of billions of dollars. Arcade games were thriving with dedicated arcades popping up in every mall across America. It was hard to find a grocery store, a gas station, or bowling alley without at least a handful of quarter munchers on the floor. At home, the Atari VCS was the biggest hit, but the Intellivision, Colecovision, and many other second-generation consoles were also hooked up to the family TV set. Video games were such a large part of popular culture that they made appearances in other media; a video game movie, Tron, was in theaters, and "Pac-Man Fever" hit #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It looked as if the sky was the limit for the video game industry in general, and Atari in particular.

But all that changed in 1983. By the end of that year, the death of the video game industry was in the news. Atari alone lost over half a billion dollars, barely surviving at all. Smaller game companies either went bankrupt or sold for a fraction of their previous worth. The causes of the great crash of 1983 were complex, but over-saturation of the market and poor quality game releases were major factors in the outcome.

In the past two years, the once thriving music game industry went through a similar downturn. The Guitar Hero brand, once a major moneymaker for Activision, was discontinued in early 2011. While Rock Band is still releasing new songs regularly, the last major disc release, 2010’s Rock Band 3, was a poor seller, moving roughly 25% of the units of its predecessor. At one point, music games seemed invincible, and yet the genre still crashed, hard. The similarities between the crash of 1983 and the demise of the music game are impossible to ignore.

In the early 80s, this was the best thing you ever got under your tree

One of the biggest causes of the video game crash of 1983 was a congested market. Atari’s VCS was released in 1977, and steadily grew in popularity. A solid array of competing consoles included the Intellivision, with better graphics and sound than Atari’s aging system, and the Colecovision, packing a slick port of arcade smash Donkey Kong. A half dozen or so other, less successful consoles were also on the market and competing for consumer dollars. Never since has the home console landscape been as varied as in 1983.

With so many different consoles available, finding the appropriate software was a bit of an issue. When young Billy put Frogger on his birthday wish list, he might be referring to a cartridge for the Atari 2600, the new Atari 5200, Intellivision, Colecovision, or one of a handful of early home computers. In all likelihood, Billy’s confused grandparents, and many other consumers, might not know which cartridge he wanted. Add in the availability of adapters that let you play Atari cartridges on some of the other systems, and you really have a mess in the electronics department of stores across the country.

First and only entry in the "dog food maze game" genre

But gaming consoles weren’t the only area in which there was too much of a good thing. Atari’s VCS was a huge seller, with almost 10 million units in homes by 1982. The large potential for buyers led many companies to begin developing games for the VCS. There was no licensing system for Atari, as there would be for Nintendo and most subsequent consoles, so anyone with the resources available could manufacture VCS cartridges. Everyone and their brother developed games, most of them of dubious quality, and they clogged up retail shelves. Several games were obvious promotional tie-ins, like the Kool-Aid Man game, or Chase the Chuck Wagon, based on an ad campaign for dog food. (Yes, a game based on a commerical for dog food.) While there were some genuinely great Atari games, the vast majority were questionable rush jobs, undermining consumer confidence in the brand as a whole.

It wasn’t just the third-party manufacturers who released bad games, however. In late 1981, Atari released the VCS port of Pac-Man, programmed on a short schedule to make the important holiday season. Confident that the pellet muncher’s arcade success would translate to big sales, Atari printed 12 million copies, more than the number of VCS systems that had been sold at the time. The port was a poor one, with horrible flickering, repetitive sound, and a barely recognizable protagonist. Pac-Man showed players how obsolete the aging VCS hardware was.

The following year, Atari bet big by paying a tremendous sum for the license to Steven Spielberg’s masterful film, ET the Extra Terrestrial. With a mere six week window for programming, start to finish, the game ended up a mediocre mess. It’s frequently mentioned on “worst video game of all time” lists. Not even an adorable alien could save sales, and most of the ET cartridges were returned to Atari unsold.

I know Pac-Man, and you, sir, are no Pac-Man. 

All of these factors were reasons why the bottom dropped out of the video game industry in 1983. Just a few short years earlier, all was well, and profits were skyrocketing. But now, Atari was bleeding money, thousands of dollars a day at one point. Video games were seen as a passing fad, and fire sales where cartridges sold for $1 were not uncommon. Home computer sales remained steady, but the industry was largely dead until the Nintendo Entertainment System came along in late 1985.

So what does the video game crash of 1983 have to do with the rise and fall of the music game? In many ways, the same factors that played a role in Atari’s fall were also significant in the death of the music game. While the decline of Guitar Hero and Rock Band aren’t nearly as devastating as the crash of 1983 was, we can trace similar patterns in both cases. In each cycle, too many releases, poor quality, and major misfires had a negative effect.

The plastic controller that launched millions of sales

Let’s step back to 2005, before most people ever considered picking up a plastic guitar controller. Video games based around music weren’t unheard of, mainly due to the Dance Dance Revolution series, which had been around since the beginning of the decade. RedOctane, a gaming peripheral company, hooked up with Harmonix, already moderately successful with music games like Frequency. The result was the original Guitar Hero, released for Playstation 2 just in time for the holiday season.

Bundled with a miniature guitar shaped controller with colorful buttons, Guitar Hero went on the be a big seller, a smash hit, if you’ll pardon the pun. Critically acclaimed, and with a fantastic selection of songs (though mostly cover versions), the game ignited a passion in the video game playing public. When you played Guitar Hero, you really felt like a rock star, which made even non-gamers who were fans of the songs in the soundtrack were eager to try it out. By any reasonable measure, Guitar Hero was a success.

A year later, Guitar Hero 2 was released for the Playstation 2, and in early 2007, a slightly enhanced port of this title brought walls of notes and a slick new guitar controller to the Xbox 360. Guitar Hero 2 introduced cooperative play to the series, which let two rockers work together to please their adoring fans and upset their neighbors if the volume was too high. The feeling of being in a band was even stronger, but the best was yet to come.

In 2008, this was the best thing you got under your tree

In 2006, the wild success of Guitar Hero brought great interest from larger publishers, and RedOctane and Harmonix split up as a result. RedOctane and the Guitar Hero name became Activision properties, while Harmonix was snatched up by MTV. The last involvement Harmonix had in the Guitar Hero series was 2007’s PS2-only GH Encore: Rocks the 80s. Activision brought in Neversoft to work on Guitar Hero 3, which also released that year. It was the first game to include wireless controllers and had the likenesses of real musicians. It was also tremendously difficult, to the point of being enjoyable only by the hardest of the hardcore fans.

Harmonix's first solo effort changed the music game genre forever. Rock Band, released a few weeks after GH3, included a drum controller and a microphone for vocal parts. Now, four people could play at once, through a career mode that simulated the rock star experience. Additionally, Rock Band had robust support for regular downloadable content. These innovations were incredibly important to the future of the genre. 

Boss fights were an interesting but largely unnecessary addition to GH3

In 2008, Guitar Hero and Rock Band continued to be excellent moneymakers for Activision and MTV. Two Guitar Hero games for the Nintendo DS allowed you to get your strumming fix on the go. The first band-specific music game, Guitar Hero Aerosmith, hit stores in the summer, and the major fall release, World Tour, brought drums and vocals to the Guitar Hero series. Harmonix continued strong DLC support, and followed up their first game’s success with Rock Band 2

At this point, the genre was well developed, having sold plenty of plastic instruments and downloadable tracks in addition to the disc-based games themselves. Not content to rest on their laurels, however, both major players in the genre pumped out more games for 2009. The Guitar Hero franchise had no less than six releases throughout the year: two band-centric discs, for Metallica and Van Halen, the compilation Smash Hits, and Guitar Hero 5 were joined by the more pop-focused Band Hero and DJ Hero, with an entirely new controller. Harmonix scored the rights to the biggest band in music with fall release The Beatles Rock Band, and catered to a younger audience with LEGO Rock Band. In June, Rock Band went portable with Unplugged for Sony’s PSP. 

Best music game ever?

Here, it all came crashing down. The market simply could not sustain itself. More than ten music game releases in one year strained the wallets of even the biggest genre fans. All the different instrument bundles took up a tremendous amount of shelf space for retailers. Add in the various Track Pack releases for Rock Band, versions of each game for up to four home consoles and the portable systems, and you had dozens of distinct music game packages on shelves at any given store. The genre had pushed too far, and would never really recover. Sales were disappointing. 

As bad as 2009 was, 2010 was worse. Even with a drastically reduced released schedule, sales were abysmal. DJ Hero 2 sold even less than its predecessor. Green Day Rock Band was a solid entry but didn’t move many copies. Even a return to the harder rock roots of the series couldn’t save Guitar Hero Warriors of Rock, which barely moved off the shelves at all. Rock Band 3, with its long-awaited keyboard controller, was thought to be the last hope for the genre. But these hopes were dashed after sales data came in; even though the game had all but perfected the musical experience, it sold even worse than Warriors of Rock. For all intents and purposes, the plastic-controller music game genre was dead as of late 2010

Actual comic book ad from 1983

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that music games imploded in a very similar fashion to the video game industry in 1983. In both cases, there was a tremendous amount initial success. Atari made big bucks in the heyday of the VCS, as did Activision and MTV in recent years. But a flood of games, questionable quality control, and high-profile bombs doomed each company to failure, showing that history inevitably repeats itself. 

First let’s talk about over-saturation. In 1982, fifty different companies were producing games for Atari’s VCS. Hundreds of cartridges were on store shelves. Compounding the issue were releases for other systems or home computers. You might find eight different versions of the same game, for different, incompatible systems. It was tough to find exactly what you were looking for.

Awesomely fake comic book ad from 2009

Fast forward to 2009. Sally’s aunt goes to the store to buy her “the new Taylor Swift game”. Poor auntie has to wade through a half dozen or so different games before she realizes Sally wants Band Hero. Now she has another decision to make. Does Sally already have the instruments? Maybe she just has a guitar, so she might need the drums. One more thing: does Sally have an Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii? It’s extremely confusing to the average non-gamer, just as finding a copy of Q*Bert was back in the 80s.

Bad games don’t sell well, and can cause customers to lose trust and also interest in any brand. With no quality control system in place, Atari couldn’t keep the legion of competitors from churning out dozens of abysmal games each month. Conversions of arcade hits were usually good bets, but not always, since the VCS hardware couldn’t handle the graphics needs of the latest games. Donkey Kong was one example of a barely recognizable port. Finding a good game to spend your money on was often difficult, especially when you had to rely on word of mouth reviews.

Hopefully you never brought this version of ET home.

The music game genre was certainly not immune to this effect. The early games were groundbreaking, and killer new features were added with each new release, including better multiplayer modes, downloadable content support, and the big one, four person band play. But once Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour hit, the formula didn’t change in any significant way. Other than a few tweaks here and there, you were basically playing the same exact game from late 2008 through the end. The only difference was the selection of songs, and here there was a point of diminishing returns. Playing your first fifty songs on plastic guitars is great, but after several hundred more, the novelty wears off. Quite simply, the later games in the genre didn’t provide enough new gameplay for consumers to smack down large amounts of money. Just as with Atari, confidence in the music game genre plummeted.

Highly publicized failures have a similar effect on consumer trust. Atari’s epic mishandling of Pac-Man was a huge black eye to the company. What should have been a sure thing ended up costing the company millions in losses. The rush job on the ET game was a similar fiasco. Atari paid through the nose for the rights, then put an unplayable mess on shelves, relying on their name and the Christmas rush. The gambit failed miserably. In 1983, the press was loudly proclaiming the death of the video game industry.

Who are these people, and what did they do with Van Halen?

A few specific titles in the music genre stick out as failures, though not on a scale like that of Pac-Man and ET. Guitar Hero Smash Hits was notorious for being a double dip for Activision. The songs were the same that fans had already played, albeit with the original tracks and added drums and vocals. Gamers wondered why they should pay full price for what they had previously purchased. The band-centric Van Halen game was doomed from the start, being offered as a freebie with purchase of Guitar Hero 5. Leaving out half the band’s catalog and using the modern look of the band members instead of the iconic 80s versions were both poor choices. Harmonix fared better, but Rock Band 3’s sales failures were well documented, acting as a death knell for the genre among the gaming press.

While the mid 1980s were a bleak time for video games, eventually, things got back on track. Nintendo arrived on the scene, and the industry has been solid ever since. While plastic-instrument music games are finished at the moment, other music game genres, notably the dance game, remain popular and successful. More Rock Band downloadable content is released every week, so someone out there is still buying new songs. While Guitar Hero and Rock Band may never return to their past glory, they have had a tremendous impact on video games as a whole. Who knows? Perhaps twenty years from now, people will be reminiscing about the good old days, and something like Retro Hero or Band Classics will start the cycle all over again.