When Dance Central debuts next week, it could provide the type of innovation the music sub-genre has been seeking since the release of Rock Band. Dancing games were first popularized by Dance Dance Revolution in the late 1990s. However, the limitations of the dance mat prevented earlier dance games from attracting a wider audience of non-gamers.
With Kinect, Dance Central breaks free from the dance pad, giving players a wider and more natural stage. This should help attract new gamers who typically find video games contrived and unapproachable.
Another reason that Dance Central will likely be successful is its use of the types of psychological cues that have made music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band so successful.
Readers who have followed my previous posts know that I have been critical of the way game publishers have mismanaged the music simulation sub-genre. In 2009, music games suffered from market saturation and declining marginal utility. The industry is now trying to reinvigorate the market by making instruments more realistic, but risks alienating casual gamers who may feel intimidated by higher levels of complexity.
The solution we outlined in our book was simple. It included limiting the number of launch titles, increasing the time between launches, and developing sufficiently compelling new content to keep gamers interested. However, companies like Activision and Viacom had invested significant sums of money in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises and they were under pressure to provide a quick return on investment. Unlike recent Rock Band and Guitar Hero iterations, Dance Central provides the type of fresh and intuitive content that can reinvigorate the genre.
Researchers at the Canadian Centre of Arts and Technology at the University of Waterloo turned to slot machines to help them identify what makes casual games compelling (Harrigan et al. 2010). "They require little or no training or previous experience; require little time commitment although players can continue to play for hours; are quick and easy to play [and] offer instant rewards for play in terms of feedback (whether financial, through points, or audio and video rewards)."
They also found that music and other auditory stimuli were underused in casual video games. "We feel that sound in casual games is particularly overlooked, and could be one significant yet simple avenue for making games more attractive."
One reason that music games have been successful is that they excel in these areas. For example, when players hit the correct notes they are rewarded with visual and auditory cues. Therefore, even if the player fails to complete the level, enough positive feedback is given to keep the player from giving up. Slot machine manufacturers use these "reinforcement cues" to disguise losses as wins.
"The research is clear that players physiologically experience [losses disguised as wins] and regular wins identically. Thus, even while taking money from the gambler, the slot machine game designers have figured out how to reward the player."
Dance Central employs similar visual cues through rings (Spotlight) around the player's on-screen avatar.
"The better your performance," explains Harmonix, "the faster the Spotlight grows and fills with color. The Spotlight colors change from red, to yellow, to green, to blue when you perform moves accurately. Perform perfectly for a 'Flawless' result to earn bonus points."
Negative cues are also important, notes Harrigan, because they "provide enough of a frustrative value to make the game interesting for longer periods of time" but are not so frequent as to negatively impact the player's self-esteem.
Lastly, slot machine research has also demonstrated that social feedback is a significant motivator. Although slot machine play is inherently individualistic, designers have learned how to broadcast successful outcomes to others on the casino floor. This provides positive feedback to the winner and reinforcement cues to other players who are less lucky. Casinos also display pictures of winners with large checks and leader boards for high scorers.
Similarly, Dance Central features a battle mode that gives players important "peer praise through competition or sharing." In hip-hop music, rap and dance battles have long been an important source of encouragement for young singers and dancers and have increased hip-hop's international popularity, particularly in places like Korea, where the government hosts an annual break-dancing competition.
Taken together, Dance Central offers most of the features that make music games compelling. Hopefully, Viacom will manage its new franchise better than Rock Band by not compromising its long term viability in a race for short-term gains.
Harrigan, KA, et al. "Addictive Gameplay: What Casual Game Designers Can Learn from Slot Machine Research." (2010).