Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just Dance and the Michael Jackson Dance Game

I think if there is any one video game from E3 that has the potential for blockbuster status, it's the Michael Jackson dance game. Ubisoft is developing the title, with the blessings of the Jackson estate, thanks to their success with Just Dance.

I can't think of a stronger example of Sean Malstrom's theories of disruption and the Expanded Audience than Just Dance. It was instantly reviled by the hardcore gaming press, and subjected to some of the harshest reviews, when not ignored completely. The published magazines still won't touch it; they don't want the terrible stench of "casual" gamers to invade their precious space.

Despite this rejection, Just Dance found its audience the old fashioned way, by word of mouth. It was simple, easy to grasp, like anyone could try it. Dancing in public is always an intimidating prospect, and this game managed to break the ice admirably. It was fun, especially in groups. There are combos and high scores, but this is not about dominance and power, but cooperation and social play.

Arcade games competed fiercely against one another for gamers' scarce quarters, so they needed something to stand out from the pack. What's needed is a strong hook, and very often this requires a new idea. Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros - each of these classics were very different from their peers, they offered compelling gameplay, they were easy to understand (these were iconic games), they rewarded creativity, they were social games played with your friends.

I believe those are the essential qualities of a truly great video game. Those qualities have largely been abandoned in the Playstation/Xbox era, so perhaps it seems strange that all these "non gamers" would invade the nerds' turf to play Wii Sports and Wii Fit and Just Dance. But this was precisely what video games were like 30 years ago.

Anyway, I hope I'm not rambling, because we're touching on a number of different topics. The bottom line is that Just Dance perfectly captures the values of the Expanded Audience and is one of the Wii's greatest titles. I'd even say it's the best game in the entire library, after Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort and Super Mario Bros 5. And I believe the millions of Just Dance fans would happily agree with me. The people themselves have turned this game into a spectacular hit, bypassing the hardcore gamers and their media gatekeepers in the process.

If you're a believer in Malstrom's theories, then you should be cheering Ubisoft. Just Dance has ushered in a new wave of dancing games, and you want them to succeed. And now comes the chance to take this emerging Expanded genre and create a blockbuster - Michael Jackson. Every one of us who spent an evening with Just Dance has said the same thing: "You have got to make a Michael Jackson dance game. Make it exactly like this!"

Here is a license to print money. If done correctly....that is, if Ubisoft understands why Just Dance became a hit, and if they ignore the tantrums of the hardcore set, and if they present a game that is accessible to all, regardless of age or skill....the Michael Jackson game will become a global sensation.

Above all else, what Ubisoft must recognize is that the Dance Game is, by definition, an Expanded Audience genre. If they look at Microsoft and Sony, and see that they are now getting into motion controls, and then decide to make a "hardcore gamers" game...they will fail. If they remember the values of classic arcade games, the values of Just Dance, they will succeed beyond their dreams. They shall rise to heaven, or sink into hell. No pressure at all.

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