At one point in the not too distant past, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was the highest grossing game in US history, netting over $830 million in sales in just four years.
Despite finding a significant mainstream appeal in the late ‘00s, rhythm games largely fell out of favour. Subsequent attempts to revive the genre with Rock Band Blitz in 2012 and Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live in 2015 were unable to find the commercial success necessary to truly revive the ailing rhythm game colossus.
But the gaming and music ecosystems have changed a lot in the intervening years and now free-to-play mobile title Beatstar from UK developer Space Ape Games has surpassed 35 million players and nearly $65 million revenue in nine months since launch, making it the current number one music game globally.
At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the collapse of the rhythm game genre was due to oversaturation as eager publishers moved to capitalise on the early success of Guitar Hero. But as Space Ape co-founder Simon Hade tells us: “I think the decline of music games was less to do with saturation and more to do with the business model rift between the gaming and music industries driven by the transition to streaming and free-to-play.”
The rift that formed between the gaming and music industry also presented a significant challenge when developing Beatstar and securing the sort of mainstream appeal rhythm games have previously enjoyed.
“For a music game to be part of the cultural mainstream it needs – by definition – to appeal to a broad cross section of people,” says Hade. “That means both that the game needs to be really accessible (i.e. free), and the music needs to be very recognisable and therefore highly valued by the artist and labels (i.e. expensive). Given these competing forces, making a music game with mainstream appeal became an impossible task.”
Toward the end of the ‘00s, both the gaming and music industry underwent a “seismic shift in business models”, and it has taken over a decade for both industries to realign into states that are mutually beneficial.
“Music games are a collaboration between a games developer and the artists, labels, publishers etc,” says Hade. “So the partnership needs to work commercially for everyone. That is a difficult needle to thread when the cost of launching a game can run to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
“In the late 2000s the music industry, decimated by piracy, went into defensive mode. Those who were charged with the responsibility of monetising music, and maintaining their share price in the wake of a global recession, became more conservative. They had to prioritise securing the bag and recouping advances paid out under the flawed assumptions that the good old days of CDs and record stores would never end.
“At the same time, just as music fans suddenly became accustomed to not paying for any music, so too free-to-play gaming turned the concept of buying a game – let alone buying a custom piece of hardware like a plastic guitar – into a niche activity.
“Within just a few years of the introduction of the iPhone the vast majority of gaming was happening on smartphones and revenue was coming from microtransactions and in-app advertising in games that people downloaded for free by the billions. Mobile free-to-play now accounts for the vast majority of gaming activity and revenues, surpassing not only console and PC gaming but also the movies and music industries combined.”
Indie developers soon began to reinvent the genre, with titles like Audiosurfer and Crypt of the Necrodancer, which explored opposite ends of the spectrum. Some premium games also appeared in the early days of mobile, but couldn’t find a footing in the free-to-play dominated environment.
“The problem was simply that everyone was conditioned to expect both their music and games for free and so developers turned their attention to lower hanging fruit such as making games about raising medieval villages or matching sweets together,” says Hade.
Over the past ten years the music industry has begun to bounce back, though Hade notes that streaming revenue for artists continues to be problematic. But from the perspective of how much money is being spent on music, the “industry is in boom time”.
“With record high revenues and generous valuations, music owners were able to afford to take more risks,” says Hade. “Everyone is eager to experiment with new business models whether that is bringing brands to the metaverse, or blockchain, or taking more risk in working with freemium business models.
“Likewise on the gaming side, there is now over a decade of experience in building sustainable free-to-play businesses, and so game developers are better equipped to design economies that value the music in a way that bridges the gap between what gamers are prepared to pay, and how music rights holders value their content. With the music industry open for new business models, and maturity of the free to play mobile gaming ecosystem the stage was set for music games to make a comeback.”
The rise of Beatstar
The journey to releasing Beatstar took four years, and saw the game change substantially over that time, initially beginning as an RPG story game with a rhythm mechanic.
“We had a strong vision for the gameplay but it wasn’t until a few months after global launch that it became obvious we were onto something great, so I’m most proud that we backed our instincts and persevered when it would have been incredibly easy to give up,” says game lead Charmie Kim.
“We would spend a lot of time focused on the question ‘How does this make the player feel?’ Whether we’re working on the core mechanic, the core loop, or the meta... I always go back to the feels! Being able to intuit the player’s emotional experience from a design or prototype is my most important ability as a game maker. Game devs are such clever people it’s easy to approach game making academically. Often we need to step back and remind ourselves that we’re building an experience, not a piece of technology or a graduate thesis.”
While developers have found some success with rhythm games that have original soundtracks, it’s harder to find the sort of success Space Ape was looking for without recognisable and popular music. Working with a third-party IP can be tough though, and often involves giving up a degree of creative freedom and control.
“The secret to making an IP-driven game work is that the game has to bring something strategic to the IP. If your game is seen as a mere exploitation of the IP, i.e. a way for some brand manager to hit some target or make a bit of money from the upfront, then the relationship is going to have an unhealthy tension and many of those games end up being forgettable at best, and often cancelled.”
Space Ape’s strategy for how Beatstar adds an artist’s “brand bank” is by serving as a cross-genre music discovery experience.
“This is incredibly valuable for our music partners,” says Paul Thackwray, music and marketing lead for Beatstar. “Players unlock songs randomly and the game serves up new songs via Events and the Tour Pass (our version of the Battle Pass made famous in games like Fortnite and Brawl Stars). In a world where people are paralysed by choice, high quality curation of music is really valued. Anyone over the age of 30 tends to default to playlists from their twenties and can’t be bothered seeking out new music. Kids also don’t realise how many bangers are out there and you just have to look at the revival of Kate Bush, Metallica or Fleetwood Mac to see how powerful it is when a new generation discovers old songs.
“Beatstar is like a big diverse music festival where everyone is up for hearing a new band, and experiencing a new song. The game mechanics force players to really pay attention to the musicality of the work and so music that is discovered through this ‘lean in’ experience connects so much. Also, when we drop a new release song into Beatstar on the same day as it is released on streaming (or in the case of Black Eye’d Peas recent tune ‘Don’t You Worry’ featuring Shakira and David Guetta ... two days prior to release) then that song can be played by millions of kids in the opening weekend, and generate 20% to 40% of the streams that the song might get on Spotify in the same period. We also put substantial money behind marketing that features the track that raises awareness and drives pre-add’s and plays a significant part of a new release strategy.”
While working with licensed music can present certain challenges, it is not without its benefits. For developers looking to incorporate licensed music into their games, Hade has a few important suggestions.
You should expect licence holders to want a very detailed description of the game and plan, a lot of confidence in your projections for the game, and a security buffer in case you’re wrong.
“This is the biggest challenge with working with any IP, whether it is a big movie or toy brand or a massive artist,” he says. “It’s really hard to innovate, test and go through the agile development process that is so important when making games, and also lock yourself into a design and a launch schedule at the beginning of what could be a multi-year project. Try to do all your game design and innovation with original content first so by the time you engage with licence holders you know what you want to make and how long it will take.”
Identifying the relevant rights is also another potential pitfall; often underlying copyright and rights to the recording are owned by different companies. And that’s before things like album art, marketing rights, and artists name and likeness come into the picture.
Hade adds: “If you are thinking about music, I definitely recommend reading ‘All You Need to Know About the Music Business’ by Don Passman or talking to a music lawyer early to understand what rights are easier or harder to get, and adapt your product to take the path of least resistance.”
Finally, you should expect to share a “big chunk” of the game’s revenue while also taking on most of the risk if you want to work with globally recognisable artists.
“This factors into your thinking around performance marketing and ROAS calculations and such,” Hade explains. “Using licensed music in your ads might improve conversion and decrease your CPI, but it raises the bar for what the player needs to spend for that campaign to be positive if you have a rev share on the backend. All of that needs to be considered when considering what the metrics for success need to be for the game to be viable.”
With all of these considerations, it’s not surprising that most developers opt to use an original soundtrack for their game, but Hade suggests it’s perfectly viable to licence a few songs for your game.
“When we were small, we did that – for example, with our arcade shooter Fastlane: Road to Revenge. You can get good songs for a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of dollars, and there are a lot of indie artists with strong gamer followings who are eager to explore collaborations and work with structures that the big labels can’t.”
For developers looking to launch a game with a catalogue depth on the scale of Beatstar however, it is “extremely difficult.”
“Our licences are the result of nearly four years of work. It took us one year to close our first label deal,” says Hade. “Then another year to close our first publishing deal. After that it got easier because we had set the precedents but still it was a lot of work and out of reach for most smaller developers”
With the notable success of Beatstar, it does beg the question as to whether the doors are once again open for a renewed interest in the rhythm game genre. It’s certainly become a prime point of focus for Space Ape, with a little over a third of the studio focused on music games.
“Eventually people will point to Beatstar as heralding the dawn of a new golden age of music games,” says Hade. “But we’re a ways off. It is still incredibly difficult to define a partnership for a music game that works for all stakeholders.
“When a song goes into Beatstar, we need to obtain explicit approval from the music label (multiple labels if there are featured artists), the publishing copyright is usually owned by two or three entities, and every writer credited on the track needs to approve the use. Some songs in Beatstar required sign off from as many as eight different people. We have some big hip hop tracks that have more than 15 separate sign-offs!
“Merely identifying who needs to approve each song, and tracking them down is a huge task in and of itself. But then each of these people need to see a big enough opportunity to agree – so the commercials need to make it worth their while.
“At Space Ape we are incredibly privileged to not only have a decade of free-to-play experience, but also be part of one of the biggest games companies in the world: Supercell, makers of Clash of Clans and Brawl Stars. This means we can pay generously for the music, and take on a lot of risk with upfront fees and marketing outlay because we have high confidence in our ability to operate the game for years and make it commercially viable. Not many companies are in our position but Beatstar’s success has paved the way and I expect us to soon enter a second golden age of music gaming.”