By Kieron Gillen on March 12th, 2009 at 7:31 pm.
Tonight, I’m the Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.
Jim made me do this. Of course, if I noticed you could get the free client I’d have done it anyway. Who cares if it’s two gigs to download? Of all of RPS, I am the one who dances. Of course, Alec and Jim have owned a dancefloor or eight in their time, but I’m the one who at the slightest sniff of a floor-filler is twitching as if some distant musical hacker is trying to take over my nervous system. Which they are, but that’s another story. In fact, a proper story I’ll probably end up writing.
(Walker doesn’t dance. I don’t hold this against him.)
HighStreet 5 is basically a dance MMO, merging rhythm action with a micro-mayment MMO. The MMO grind turned into the bump and grind. Which sounds like quite original idea, but it’s a total rip of previous MMO Audition Online. After going into HighStreet’s High-street-musical-meets-anime-apocalypse universe for a while, Jim asks me if anyone’s in it. The servers are packed, I tell him. He’s amazed that anyone plays it. At which point, I realise Jim – like me before him – doesn’t quite grasp how enormous Audition Online actually was. Wikipedia throws around a number of 300 million players. Which clearly must take all made accounts as active players, and being a free-to-play MMO just means that 300 million people have played the thing for a second. And there may be some other fudging. And… still, throw all the mathematical downgrading on that number you like, and you’re still left with a phenomenally large figure. So while Audition Online may be its WoW, if HighStreet 5 even manages to be its Warhammer… well, of course it’s going to have people playing.
It’s a game about dancing, and its key mechanics are actually identical to Audition. A song plays. You’re presented with a string of keys to input – either the cursors or the number-pad depending how easy or hard you’re playing it. You do so. You throw the move. The crowd goes wild!
Well, that’s the theory. I found myself embarrassingly standing totally immobile as everyone else bounced around as if they were on an amphetamine-rampage version of High School Musical. Eventually I realised – remembered, really, from my time with Audition – that the trick wasn’t pressing the keys in time. It was pressing the required keys, and then tapping the Space to set it off. So you groove along with easy presses, until you get a string of a half dozen things to hammer out in a rush. By which point, you’re not really looking at your character at all, rather your desperate Typing of the Dead (House Music Of the Dead, perhaps?) button mashing. Which makes it somewhat lucky that there’s a movie mode so you can rewatch it afterwards to bask in your brilliance if you take it seriously. There’s also moves to learn, and health-bars and stuff which I really never quite worked out how they work. So I totally lost my dance-off with this cutie.
Oh god. “Cutie”. I’ve gone native.
Actually, there is a main difference over Audition which actually genuinely unnerved me. In Audition – at least, as far as I remember – all the dancing took place in a closed arenas. So you all hung around in social areas chatting, and then actively selected to go to another dancing zone. So the people in the area were all dancing, and probably competing with you. Think Guild Wars with busting moves and breaking dreams and other Ste-Curranisms. It’s not like that in HighStreet 5. The game takes place in open areas, with the duels and even general dancing taking place in front of your peergroup. That made the initial me-not-getting-the-controls crushingly embarrassing, as I stood there like an enormous ninny swaying to the beat. When I got the basics, it was even worse. I head down to the beach and, turning my back on the crowd, started to do my moves. I appear on the score table in the area, with my successes and failures visible. The cool girl in the flourescent mini-skirt and that skater-looking guy sat around, watching impassively. It was totally high-school – the sense that I was being entirely judged for tiny actions. I’ve never felt as much of a newb in any online game I’ve ever played.
Mainly, because I looked like one. Because this is where the financial model starts to come in – you get a handful of items and a basic clothing piece (my schoolgirl crop-top you can see above) to start with, but everything else costs in-game credits. You purchase them with real money, and exchange for services. Everyone else in the game – and I mean everyone – is dressed in some novel, personal way. In my normal clothes, I feel like Carrie White, y’know? Are they going to throw tampons at me? I find myself wishing I selected a bloke character instead of the girl. This was magnified by the fact my girl was as amazonian as the game would let me. I was just like a carthorse surrounded by circus ponies.
So, yeah, the game got me in touch with my inner insecure teenage girl.
Clothes, by default, are only purchased for a week. Pay double, and you have them for 30 days. Pay double that and you can have them indefinitely. In other words, there’s an obvious payoff there. Hair, boots, accessories, whatever – all are paid the same. Renting a venue? Requests to the DJ? Even addressing things to the global channel? All takes real money.
Admittedly, as a game which understands having desirable things to buy is the cornerstone of its business model, it does allow you to play dress-up with more than a little flair. The game’s a whirlwind of angel-wings, as if Fallout 3′s plot involved a nuclear bomb based around causing by splitting a glitter atom. In half the costumes, I felt like the inside of Jamie McKelvie’s head. I was hot! I was punk! I was hot AND punk!
But here I am pretending to be a Warren Ellis character.
And here I am hitting the low point of my career, by cosplaying inside a videogame.
And here I am looking very cool indeed.
They crave that Furry dollar.
So – free and fun to play? No actually. It’s a shame Audition has been the success it is, because its mechanics are a fundamentally deceptive presentation of the art of dancing. That earlier description of a rhythm action game was a straight lie, as there’s no rhythm to your entry. You hammer out that list, then press space, have a moment’s break, then go back for the next line – or lose your combo with a fumble. While the fancier stuff is all very well, music is about a metronomic click. The beat. Go back to Dance Dance Revolution and it understood that, as much as I raise my eyebrow to its fascist-line-dancing control-diktat nonsense. While there’s room to put your own sequences in and improvise – though I never got it – it fundamentally doesn’t capture a tiny part of the joy of dancing. Which is perhaps odd, because the holy-state-of-flow is what the most action lead of videogames capture. When I play Space Giraffe, I can see God’s footsteps. Or something.
I suspect that Audition’s success has actually crippled development in this subgenre, much like how WoW’s position has crippled more hardcore gamer parts of MMO development. And even more than back in the trad fantasy lands, it desperately needs someone willing to attack the fundamentals.
Also, having S-Club 7′s Bring It All Back play three times in a row was scary.