Scott Steinberg: Facebook could be in music games' future [Interview]

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Scott Steinberg"It was too many games in too short a time, playing to too niche of an audience at too high a price--in the middle of the worst recession possible." According to technology analyst and public speaker Scott Steinberg, this was what essentially killed the enormous music gaming franchises, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The age of sitting around your living room with three friends, plucking and fiddling with plastic instruments to Rush's Tom Sawyer is all but over ... for now.

Well, at least those exorbitant pieces of plastic are through. Steinberg details the rise, fall, and imminent resurrection of music-based video games in his new novel, "Music Games Rock: Rhythm Gaming's Greatest Hits of All Time," which you can read for free right here. (If you're so inclined to support the guy, it's also available on iBooks, Kindle and in paperback.)

According to Steinberg, music games inspired by Guitar Hero and Rock Band's wild success will get their second shot in the limelight on Facebook and in your smartphones. We recently sat down with Steinberg to hear his thoughts on just how Facebook games can take advantage of this golden opportunity, why it hasn't happened just yet and what the killer Facebook music game might be like.

What advantages would you say social games have to capitalize on the downfall of music games?

There's a number of advantages, right? Free-to-play and incredibly low barriers to entry. You certainly don't have high-end system requirements, and you don't have to buy pricey plastic peripherals. They can tap into your existing music collection or stream it live, and you have millions of players connected to a platform that's uniform.

You don't have to worry, for the most part, about bugs or errors, because everybody is playing the same thing at the same time. So, what you have is a ready made audience, say, on Facebook alone of 800 million people who are incredibly connected. [They] used to playing with one another and are taking part in a platform that's uniquely tailor-made to take advantage of digital music--and oh, by the way, it's completely free to play.

When you take it in this context, coupled with the fact that every human being on this planet is hardwired to enjoy music, that really is the common unifier. Social games really are uniquely poised to take the genre to the next level.

Music Games RockIn your book, you mention that the music genre has enjoyed a revival on social networks through Facebook games like Nightclub City and Dirty Dancing--largely simulator games. But what about games that more closely resemble the now-defunct rhythm games like Pump It? Which of the two do you think has a better chance at thriving on Facebook?

Actually, I would argue that some of the better ones that have a chance of surviving may not even be traditional games at all. Look at a service like Turntable.fm: Wouldn't consider it a game per se, except it's powered completely by gamification elements. You're creating custom play lists, you're interacting with other players in a social environment and ultimately you're competing for the approval of other users by liking the songs.

Or, if you look at other games like YooStar Playground or apps like VidRhythm--these are the titles that are to do particularly well. That said, simulation titles [have a] strong audience for them and proven capability, and certainly because that's where so many games got their roots [on Facebook]. There's likely to be a lot of people interested. I've even seen a number of unreleased games that are in prototype that essentially allow you to take on the role of managing or performing in a rock band--I think they're uniquely well-suited.

I think what's not going to translate over well is simply the standard tap in time with the on-screen indicator type games. Though, these can continue to succeed on mobile platforms, because in the mobile context you're typically looking to play maybe with one hand in a span of five or six minutes. Whereas social games may only be a 15-minute spurt, you're sitting down in front of a PC and you're typically more engaged.

There are some music creation social games on the fringe already, like BreakOutBand, that rely on players to share content to succeed. How important would that be in a social game centered around music?

I think user-created content, as it relates to social games, is massively important, because at the end of the day the developers can only take a game so far. And it's the players' ability to interact with and reshape that music or related content that really creates a sense of community, and allows a title to constantly keep feeling fresh and people coming back for more.

It's essentially a win-win, because for the developer it's a very affordable way to keep adding content to the game and keep people talking about it, and coming back after weeks and weeks. Players aren't constrained by office politics, licensing issues, and--to be frank--everybody loves to mix and mash creations.

But how much of that is going to be super-high quality, or chart-topping hits shall we say, versus underground little diddies? This is social interaction at its core, right? So, if you don't have that level of user interactivity, at the end of the day what you have is essentially a game with a bunch of canned content. And not much reason--unless it's saying you need to recruit other players to earn money for your band or unlock new stuff--there's not much incentive to pass it along.

A good amount of music games already exist on Facebook, but none are taking off like music games did before the turn of the decade. What do you think it would take for a music-based social game to enjoy success and notoriety like Guitar Hero?

You need to have a concept with extremely wide appeal that allows players to enjoy rock star wish fulfillment in a matter of minutes without the painful side effects. What also is important is to have recognizable band scenarios, you know, licensed music. But also the ability for players to put their own spin on it and a reason for them to engage with one another.

The problem is, to succeed on social networks where you literally have thousands of titles competing, dozens of them coming out every single week--all of which are completely free to play versus Guitar Hero, which was completely brand new. To have that success on Facebook or another social network, I almost think what you're going to see is a title that's going to have to align itself with Spotify or another one of these streaming services to tap into a massive database of real-world artists and then finds new ways for you to interact with that music.
Dirty Dancing Facebook game
Back to the branded music games like Dirty Dancing (pictured). As you know, they're reaching critical mass, so what do you think is the likelihood of a monster brand like Guitar Hero or Rock Band appearing on Facebook?

Oh, it's a certainty. It's not a question of 'if,' but just a question of 'when.' I think a lot of that is because the game makers aren't unawares. Activision, Harmonix, Mad Catz: They understand the power of social networks as a platform. The problem is that their business has been thus far founded in either selling peripherals--good mark up on those plastic guitars--or selling software for 60 bucks a pop.

They haven't had as much incentive to scurry and think, 'How do we make a free-to-play platform where we're probably going to make a lot less money in the immediate?' But slowly and surely, as so many game players are migrating to these platforms, convenience is winning. It's almost as if they're being forced to acknowledge it. It's a completely new approach to game design--Wal-Mart's not going to order a million units. They'll embrace it; it's just a question of 'when.'

Try to describe your dream music-based Facebook game to me. In other words, what do you think would be the ultimate approach to a music game on Facebook?

The ultimate Facebook music game would not only be able to tap into your full library of digital music, but also stream millions of songs on demand. [It would] allow you to set up on stage custom concerts for your friends, featuring this music or original music you created. [You would] style your avatars, build your own bands, create your own followings, sell your own virtual merchandise and connect over shared love of music with millions of players across the world.

It would effectively recreate the rock and recording industry experience, only in a virtual setting. What I mean is a combo listening service, social network, slash simulation game that effectively allows you to build a rock band and recording industry career from the ground up. I don't see any reason why you couldn't create avatars for your band--it's own look, logo, virtual stickers, t-shirts. You could buy branded gear like Gibson's or Marshall's, earn cash from touring, build your own virtual labels. I don't see any reason why a platform wouldn't be able to break new artists.

Wow, I think it's time for you to call the patent office. Thanks for taking the time to chat, Scott.

What do you think of the prospects of a wildly successful music game hitting Facebook? Who do you think could be the first to create the ultimate music game on Facebook? Share with us in the comments. Add Comment.
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