LOS ANGELES — Here we are at E3, a magazine from Boston. And from Boston, there are some amazing developers of video games.
The biggest local question: Can Harmonix keep it going with Dance Central 2, or have we seen the end of the music video game?
Four local game makers had big news to unveil at the show so far this year, including Irrational Games, of Quincy; Turbine Inc., of Needham, Quick Hit Inc., of Foxborough and of course Cambridge’s own Harmonix Music Systems Inc.
Harmonix has the most riding on the expo. The music game maker is on troubled waters. In February, Harmonix, which created the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, announced nearly 40 layoffs amid slumping sales figures that spurred parent company Viacom/MTV Games to unload it in a firesale.
At E3 this year, Harmonix showed off the sequel to its latest project, Dance Central, an Xbox 360 exclusive title that was one of the first games built on Microsoft’s Kinect motion capture technology.
Dance Central 2 continues the trend of completely controller-free, full-body motion capture which has made Kinect different than Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s Move technologies.
The sequel adds real-time multiplayer, allowing two people to bust their moves at the same time. And if you get tired, another friend can jump right in mid-song without penalty.
“We just wanted to get people dancing together,” said Kasson Crooker, senior producer at Harmonix. “The game really shows off Kinect really well. Whenever people talk about Kinect, they talk about our game.”
Dance Central was developed parallel to Kinect, and released around the same time.
“Harmonix adapted and embraced Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, making Dance Central the system’s first killer app,” said Will Tuttle, a video game industry expert and editor in chief at GameSpy.com. “While this week’s announcement of multiplayer dancing in Dance Central 2 wasn’t earth shattering, you can bet that fans of the first game will snatch it up.”
Dance Central 2 will include more than 40 songs, including music from Rihanna, B.o.B, Usher, Nicki Minaj, and Far East Movement. AL CQ
Harmonix introduced Dance Central here at E3 last year. The game was a success when it launched, selling about 2.5 million copies so far, Crooker said.
Tuttle thinks the company will come out of this year successfully.
“No matter what they do next, I think Harmonix has shown that they know music games far better than any developer in the game industry,” he said. “More importantly, the musicians themselves now respect Harmonix enough to work closely with them, ensuring a finished product that is more polished than competing games.”
But a change was obvious for Harmonix at the show this year. In years past, the company was a larger-than-life presence at E3. In 2009, during the Beatles Rock Band hype, the company erected mock concert stages and had one of the largest booths at the show. Last year’s was 100,000 square feet, with Dance Central. Harmonix had dance floors created to show off the game. This year, Harmonix, under new ownership, was relegated to sharing space with five other Kinect games inside Microsoft’s booth.
The problem for Harmonix has been the plateauing and quickly declining popularity of music games. Sales problems resulted in conflict with Harmonix parent company Viacom/MTV Games, which put Harmonix on the block. In December, Harmonix was bought by New York investment firm Columbus Nova LLC for $50 in cash and the assumption of $100 million in liabilities.
Elsewhere around the Bay State’s presence in LA, tiny Quick Hit actually busted out of the gate first, with the announcement Monday that it would be essentially bought out by Majesco Entertainment Co., of New Jersey.
Quick Hit produces a free online football strategy game which received a coveted NFL license last year.
Majesco paid about $800,000 for nearly all of the company’s assets and will hire all of its employees, including CEO and founder Jeffrey Anderson who will join Majesco as its Senior Vice President of Social Games.
The move makes sense for Majesco, as the company is focused on casual and social gaming and is trying to make a big move into sports this year. Majesco also announced Monday that it would develop an NBA licensed basketball game that uses casual elements combined with motion capture technology. That game is due out next spring.
Irrational, the Quincy-based arm of 2K Games, is the studio behind the Bioshock video game franchise. It did not exhibit at E3 last year, but this year it showed off a new game and hinted at a second new title in the works.
At a Sony press event Monday, Ken Levine, Irrational’s creative director, announced that the PlayStation 3 version of its upcoming Bioshock Infinite game would be compatible with PlayStation Move for motion capture. Levine also said that he had a “pet project” in the works – a Bioshock game for Sony’s new PlayStation Vita handheld system. He did not give the project a name or release any other details on the game.
The barebones announcement still set off fuses of excitement in the gaming community.
“That’s all we know. But like, isn’t that enough to pique your interest? It’s enough for us,” blogged Justin McElroy, the reviews editor at Joystiq, who was covering the Sony event.
Another consistent local success story at E3 is Turbine. After being purchased by Warner last year and taking its popular online role playing game The Lord of the Rings Online from a subscription model to a free play model, Turbine now runs the number 3 and 4 online RPGs in the world, in Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons Online.
At E3 this year, Turbine announced the Rise of Isengard expansion pack, which adds three new regions for players to explore as well as expanding the leveling-up ability to 75, and adding a 24-player cooperative mode as players explore and save Middle Earth. (more on that later this week)
Also at E3, Immerz Inc., with an office in Cambridge, showed off a new and improved version of its KOR-fx device, which places an audio peripheral on the user’s chest, allowing them to actually feel what’s going on in a game or a movie. The company sees applications for the device in movie theaters, theme parks, and now with video games. Inventor Shahriar Afshar CQ announced yesterday the company’s first partnership for a video game built with KOR-fx technology, High Flyer Death Defyer, upcoming from Game Mechanic Studios, which also makes the Resistance franchise on the PlayStation.
The newly designed version of the KOR-fx was a brilliant move. Immerz waited until the product was ready in order to set a release date. Blast checked out this product at E3 last year, and it just wasn’t ready for shelves. There were too many wires, and it felt like you were being hooked up to some kind of polygraph by the time you turned on your movie or video game. The new version can be used wired (with fewer wires) or wireless, so that it does not get in your way. It was a smart move that will help the product when it launches this fall, especially in its near $200 price point.