Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tony Hawk's Ride

Well, this is going to be interesting.

From Engadget:
...according to GameStop... Tony Hawk's Ride game with skateboard peripheral lists for $119.99 with a simultaneous Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 launch on October 13th.

That skateboard peripheral is required, apparently.

My initial reaction is that they're going to be bulldozing these skateboard controllers into a New Mexico landfill.

After that, though, I started trying to understand why I felt that way.

Here's the conundrum: before Guitar Hero, specialty controllers were always associated with niche games. I can't remember a single game before that with a specialty controller that was a huge hit in terms of sales volume.

Originally, Guitar Hero was going to be exactly that: a niche game. I don't think anyone expected it to be the giant, breakout hit that it became.

What people tend to forget, though, is what a masterful piece of design Guitar Hero was, both on the hardware and software sides. On the hardware side, the genius of the guitar controller was that, from a user standpoint, it was quite simple. Five buttons, a strum bar, and a whammy bar (which 90% of people never even used). It felt impressive, but it was also easy to comprehend.

On the software side, the game was incredibly well thought-out, and the difficulty level was masterfully managed. At the time, it was the best-designed and best-tuned gamed that I'd ever played (I think Rock Band exceeded it, but that's a separate discussion).

In sum, if a game could ever be called perfect, it was Guitar Hero.

Here's the problem for Ride: without that masterful game balancing, without a controller that's easy to comprehend, the game becomes annoying instead of fun. In particular, the ramping of difficulty is crucial, because the game has to be fun while people are learning how to use the controller (again, something that Guitar Hero did incredibly well). If any of those aspects fail, there is zero chance that the game is going to reach critical mass, and Activision can't really afford to release niche games these days.

So Activision is seemingly trying to capitalize on the Guitar Hero "model," but the Guitar Hero model is almost impossible to duplicate, because it was so precisely executed. It's like someone looking at a perfect game and saying "Hey! All we have to do is make a perfect game!"

Sure, Activision will flog this peripheral to death in a variety of games: snowboarding, surfing (hopefully), unicycling (kidding, I think), an RPG where the hero skateboards--whatever. But the first game out of the chute has to be a killer, because that's what generates the buzz. And it's important to remember that the original Guitar Hero was released with almost zero buzz, and very little publicity.

It wasn't marketing that made the game take off--it was all of us.

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