2010 marks an interesting shift in the music-rhythm genre. Between Harmonix offering realistic music instruments alongside its abstract controllers for Rock Band 3 and Activision winding down Guitar Hero production to just one release a year, the once-dominant gaming pastime is rapidly changing. InstantJam, out in a few weeks' time, is offering something new, and what could quite easily be described as the Holy Grail of the genre. What if you could play along with any track you own?
Running in a browser, whether it be through Facebook or any other website, InstantJam will use the MP3 files on your computer and lets you play with a standard USB guitar or computer keyboard. From Led Zeppelin to Crystal Castles, the system already has several thousand tracks in its database, with the number rapidly climbing each day. While some previous PC music games created note tracks procedurally, here each track is constructed by hand to ensure it's both authentic and enjoyable to play. So how does it work, and why hasn't anyone done this before?
Instead of having to licence each track from music companies, the software simply plays it from your computer and runs the note track on top, cutting costs and ensuring that the game is free to play. As well as solo-play, you can compete with friends asynchronously through Facebook Connect for the highest score, and if you don't own a track, you can purchase songs from Amazon or iTunes directly through the game, which not only gives the developer royalties, but an added bonus for the player. "We give you currency as an in-game incentive, which would cost you more if you were paying for the song," says Castle. "So as a gamer, you are never going to go out and buy currency in our game, you would be silly to do that. You would just buy ten songs, buy an album, because everything you buy would add more wealth in you game."
Looking at the declining popularity of genre in recent years, we asked whether players are still interested in another music-rhythm game. "People are still just as interested in playing the music they want to hear, there's just less novelty now," says Castle. "When I get a game that has 60 tracks in it and I only know ten of them, that doesn't feel like a very good deal. It's like, 'Wow, really?' And they're not even the ten songs I would pick, they're just the ones I know. So that's the problem. And I think we've changed that model, [the other publishers] are basically on a path to make it more core, even harder and harder to play, teaching you how to play a guitar... I don't agree with it as a philosophy, I think it's the opposite, I want to open it up to more and more people."
Castle, who co-founded Command & Conquer studio Westwood Studios, understands the reluctance of publishers wanting to be the first to put their games on the service, and sees InstantJam as the perfect test bed of its features. "I've come from the business and I've tried to defeat all the potential arguments," he says. "We're not a competitive threat to [publishers], we're non-exclusive like the Walmarts that are beating them over the head. It's new, it's challenging."
InstantAction has already signed up indie publisher Greenhouse, bringing the likes of Braid, Wold Of Goo and The Maw to the service by September, and hopes to attract publishers with its own "killers apps" in future. InstantJam is currently in closed beta, with a full rollout coming within the next few weeks, and will aim to accommodate between six to eight million concurrent users, making it "the biggest, most robust audience of any Facebook game today". Mac and Flash versions will be available soon after. Castle promises iteration and expansion for the title from day one, and hopes it will be just the title to push the in-browser service into the hands of gamers. "This wouldn't be possible without the InstantAction platform," he says. "So it's our chance to prove to the world that it's an incredibly powerful platform, and doing it in a way that any one else was expecting."
InstantJam is currently in closed beta and will be available in a few weeks' time.