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Editorial - 'The Year of the Padless Game'

by Ben Parfitt on June 19, 2004 @ 11:36 p.m. PDT

Inevitably, as we all roll out of our beds in 2004 the games industry instinctively begins to speculate on the year ahead. Sony’s PSP and the Nintendo DS guarantee a fierce handheld battle in the run up to Christmas, but on the established formats there is one battle that is really going to let rip this year – the war of the padless game.

When asked in December what he hoped this year would bring to the gaming scene in the UK, Alex Croft, the buying director for major high street games retailer GAME, said, “We’re hoping that there will be even more new titles this year along the lines of Dance:UK, the Dancing Stage series and more from the Eye Toy brand.” What do these titles have in common? None of them require a joypad to be played.

These games are important because they remove a key barrier that prevents some potential gamers buying into the games scene. For instance, there must be thousands of soccer fans out there who would love to play Fifa 2004 or Pro Evolution Soccer 3 but are either not willing or not able to sit down with the manual and learn the complicated controls needed to play the games. This scenario is eradicated with the new breed of user-friendly games. This is fantastic news for retailers and developers because it means they are able to tap into a whole new market that they couldn’t access before.

The padless game has existed in many guises over the past two decades. Individual titles have included custom controllers of various sorts over the years. We’ve had light gun games like Duck Hunt on the NES or more recently Time Crisis 3 on the PS2. But undoubtedly the pioneer of mass-market padless gaming was Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution series, though even that series was launched tentatively. When released for the original Playstation Konami didn’t even produce it’s own dance mat peripheral and instead allowed third parties to take what they saw as that risk. Since then the series’ impact has been overwhelming. It single-handedly extended the life of the original PSone and took games into a wider range of retailers which would not have accommodated them before.

The next generation of padless gaming, Sony’s Eye Toy peripheral, knocked Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness off the top of the charts when launched in the UK July 2003 and in early 2004 it crept back up into the retail top ten. Whether you like the device or not, there’s no denying the impact it’s had on European gamers and the way it has altered the perception of gaming held by society. As a result instead of little Johnny playing his new FPS on his own in his bedroom on Christmas day, the whole family spent the afternoon waving their arms like psychopaths in front of Sony’s new device.

The battle for this new market is going to get a whole lot bloodier in Europe this year when padless gaming moves into a new realm – the karaoke game. At the end of August last year the Playstation Experience graced London’s Earls Court for the second year. As a gaming expo designed for the public as opposed to the trade, last years show highlighted a growing trend that has definitely not escaped the attention of developers – girls are now playing games. Most of them weren’t queuing for GranTurismo 4 but instead for one of two new karaoke games on show.

Karaoke games have been around in Japan for a little while now. Dream Audition by Jaleco first appeared in the arcades and has since been converted to the PS2. It works by assessing the player on their ability to hold a tune, but the pitch recognition technology had never proved satisfactory and only now Sony are confident that the technology has developed to a marketable level.

In the Spring of this year there were two games battling for Karaoke supremacy in Europe – Sony’s Singstar and Konami’s Karaoke Stage. Both games work under the same premise, providing the player with a microphone, a selection of tracks and a voice mapping system that allows the player to see how close they are to hitting each note in terms of pitch and length. Like the dance mat games the idea is simple – you sing the words on the screen and get rated via a heartless and un-negotiable statistic.

Differences between the two are mainly cosmetic. Sony’s effort came in three versions so as to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. There were Singstar Pop, Singstar Urban and Singstar Classics, each containing 25 licensed songs with their accompanying licensed videos from the likes on Blondie, Pink and Madonna. Konami’s effort has a longer play list but without the branded gloss finish. The single edition game contained almost 60 tracks but only just over half of these are recognisable. Both companies bundled hand held microphones with the games and both suggested that later updates will become available.

It’s not hard to see what market the manufacturers are aiming at with these products. Young kids who tune into Pop Idol, dream of becoming pop singers and have Justin Timberlake posters plastered over their bedrooms will leap at the opportunity to sing along to their pop heroes. At the same time, karaoke is fun for most people so the appeal of the games will be wide reaching. The scope of possibility for the marketing men is quite scary when considered at length. Imagine chart CD’s being released with bonus Singstar tracks included on them, or record companies paying for upcoming acts to be included on future additions to guarantee that kids are hooked upon the release of said bands debut album.

Whilst the rise of internet console gaming has proven that there still is a hardcore contingent out there playing games, so has the padless arm of gaming proved that the casual gamer is also growing in stature and buying power. It’s clear to see that most of these padless gaming ventures were conjured up around the table of the marketing executives as opposed to in the minds of the more creative element of the industry. They’re certainly a world away from the genius of design celebrated by the likes of Halo or Super Mario Sunshine, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less worthy than any other titles on the market. This new generation of games does throw up one conundrum that needs to be considered – as tiring as it may get pounding your kid sister at Madden on a Sunday afternoon, are you equally as confident at beating her at Singstar? Me neither.

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