Analysis and commentary on life and tech, with different bend.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Feature: Konami V Roxor - The Suppression of a Dance Revolution
Editor's Note: Welcome to Digital Stardust's first full-length feature piece. Due to the length of this piece in an RSS reader, you may find reading this easier on DiS itself, where you may also choose to put in your two cents. With regards to the piece itself - this has been in the works for a few months now as we've been patiently tweaking and revising it to ensure we drive our point just right. This post only seems more relevant in light of Konami's current lawsuit over Rockband, which bears some eerie resemblances to their past lawsuit against Roxor. Although the technical points of the lawsuits may be different, we cannot help but see the similarities between the two and hope the past does not serve as an oracle for the future in this case. So, without further ado, please enjoy Digital Stardust's "Konami V Roxor - The Suppression of a Dance Revolution".
July 1, 2005 - a day infamous in music gaming history. A new press release showed up on Konami's global homepage indicating suit had been filed against Roxor games seeking "an injunction and damages against the manufacture of dance simulation game 'In The Groove'."
Many fans of dance games were outraged. Konami, developer of the Dance Dance Revolution franchise, was providing no updated legal arcade-based method to play Dance Dance Revolution in the North American territory and many were quick to point out all machines in the US were illegal Japanese imports, confirmed by the screen in game that indicates the game is "licensed for use in Japan only." Others simply felt that Konami did not want an up-and-coming competitor taking "their" market. But is this why? Or was it a simple case of patent infringement, as a majority of the lawsuit indicated? Could it have been a case of corporate greed? The outcome has been decided already but the unspoken influences of the two rivals live on.
First, let us take a look at Dance Dance Revolution.
Dance Dance Revolution
Rewind to December 1997 at a thriving Japanese arcade. Amongst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, a new machine is wheeled out with two speakers outlined in neon tubing, five keys arranged in a piano-like fashion with a scratch table, a display, and two smaller sets of speakers above that - also outlined in neon tubing. The machine is set down, plugged in, and left alone in a similar fashion to the identical machines being deployed in other arcades. Soon throngs of Japanese teens and young adults are playing this new machine, the "ultimate dj simulator", pressing keys in a timed fashion and "mixing" together a selection of specially composed tunes. This is beatmania. The machines were wildly popular, spawning many new sequel "mixes" in addition to a game that would share much of the same music library - Dance Dance Revolution.
Winter turned to spring 1998, which saw beatmania 2nd Style break sales records and even more widespread popularity. Spring became summer and as in August 1998 Dance Dance Revolution was released, drawing a majority of its music from the first two beatmania mixes. This was not a dj simulator, however - this time players danced to the music through a set of preset steps in the shape of arrows corresponding to locations on the "dance platform" ranging from beginner difficulty to extremely difficult, full blown aerobic routines. Just as beatmania was a hit, Dance Dance became a wild success and soon became known as "DDR" for short.
The popularity and demand for DDR in Japan lead to a quickly paced release schedule for the series - a 2nd mix in January 1999, then a 3rd mix in October 1999. 3rd Mix made the jump across the Pacific to US arcades by year's end, taking on the name of "Dance Dance Revolution" sans a mix number. This release was notable due to the speed with which it occurred (just over a year after the Japanese 1st Mix release, unheard of at the time), the market it was being launched into (the North American market traditionally shows poor sales for more unusual or novel games on consoles, let alone the bust arcade market), and the expenses Konami asked of arcade operators in terms of cost of purchasing and maintaining an arcade unit. American audiences were slow to take to the game, but nevertheless a cult following quickly began and regular players would arrange coordinated playtimes to compete for bragging rights and social interaction. A year later in October 2000 Konami released Dance Dance Revolution USA to arcades with an expanded song selection and slightly improved graphical interface. Konami would not release a new official US arcade edition until September 2006, a long six year wait.
Back in Japan the Playstation market was well established and several home versions of DDR were released, prompting fans in the US to request a home version in their territory from Konami. After a two year period of silence Konami reluctantly released a home version based on the first US arcade edition in 2001 (DDR USA had already been released a year prior to arcades). Despite the game being nothing more than port of a two year old game with "old" music, the game became a sleeper hit, with sales of the game well beyond expected levels as new fans were introduced to the home version. Driven by sales numbers, Konami released Dance Dance Revolution Konamix for the Playstation in 2001, two years after the release of DDR USA, which the game was based off of. A Disney-themed edition was also produced, which eventually saw an unmarketed US release prior to Konamix, now a highly sought after Playstation collectable due to its perceived family-friendly selection of music.
After what seemed like confident backing of the series by Konami USA, the company entered a period of lopsided releases, drawing the criticism of fans. Many arcades had benefitted from the widespread popularity of DDR to the point where major news outlets were asking if the US arcade was making a comeback. At the request of patrons many arcades sought to obtain newer releases from Japan, which contained many new features and much higher song capcity per unit. Despite many arcades being forced to obtain bootleg units due to the extreme difficulty in obtaining legitimate arcade units, many fans began to play the more "superior" versions of DDR with new features many were unaware of, leading to the criticism of Konami deliberately holding back newer features from the US market as well as the feeling of a "missing gap" in the series' progression. Another common criticism that arose was handpicking of particular songs for the official US releases. A common example is the ever-popular but still unreleased original version of Smile.dk's Butterfly in any US version of DDR, despite Konami's Jason Enos indicating on several occasions they had the rights to do so.
During the introduction process of the series to the US and Europe the Japanese editions of DDR - considered the "main line" of the series - were sporting significant improvements. 3rd Mix introduced non-stop mode (no rest period between songs), 4th Mixintroduced a battle mode in which 2 players compete for higher score, 5th Mix added full length songs (as opposed to the standard average 90 second song), 6th Mix (or DDRMAX) introduced "freeze arrows" and heralded the second generation of games in the series by making the jump from older hardware based on the Playstation 1 to hardware based on the Playstation 2 - resulting in significant graphical improvements and a much higher song capacity. An alternate branch of DDR games were also introduced under the Dance Dance Revolution Solo brand that featured six-arrows instead of four.
Fans of the series began to play the imported arcade versions, which generally were regularly updated annually with newer imported editions from Japan that boasted even more songs and better features. DDRMAX2: Dance Dance Revolution 7th Mix was introduced to Japanese arcades in March 2002, featuring a new "Oni", or challenge, mode in which a player could only miss four steps out of a nonstop 5+ song series. Dance Dance Revolution Extreme was released in December 2002, featuring both the Oni an Nonstop modes in one game (the two had until now only been implemented in alternating editions), more music, and a better library of crossover songs from the beatmania franchise and other Konami-produced titles. Despite these innovations the actual gameplay itself changed very little in the sense that one was still pressing arrows when they reached the static arrows after scrolling up and additional criticism arose regarding Konami's consistent recycling of modes and features instead of innovating the series. Konami would not release a new arcade edition in any territory for four years.
The home console releases in Japan were consistent and generally straight ports of the newer music introduced in the corresponding arcade mix, with fewer "revival" songs than in the arcade due to DVD-size constraints. All new features were intact. The North American home versions released also bore the name of the Japanese editions (confusing gamers further as no new official US arcade releases were occurring) but did not sport any of the newer music or features introduced. Gamers were left frustrated as they could not play their favorite songs from the arcade on the equivalently named home edition and were again stuck with "older" songs. Konami did attempt to remedy the issue, however, by providing a handful of licensed songs from North America in the game.
With the arcade line of releases on hiatus Konami began to develop new console-only releases for both North America and Japan beginning in 2003, however these releases were not consistent in either name or content between territories. Japanese releases came on Playstation 2 and were generally updates of fan favorites through the series, or original songs brought into the newer generation of Playstation 2-based DDR games. None were considered to be part of the main line of Nth Mix releases.
Konami USA was finally able to bring athe DDR music library in North America current through various console releases. DDR Extreme 2 was released for Playstation 2, confusing gamers somewhat as the arcade never recieved a second DDR Extreme title. Though different, the US and Japanese versions did share a common graphical interface, due to using the same base programming code to save costs. Konami USA also began to release a new line of Dance Dance Revolution games for the Xbox, then later the Xbox 360 under the names Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix and Dance Dance Revolution Universe, respectively. Each recieved multiple sequels and have not been released in Japan due to poor uptake of the Xbox consoles. Note that gamers do not consider these to "compete" with the arcade editions as the game engine is a completely different build than the one used in the arcade.
North American gamers certainly appreciated the regular releases and music a constant criticism remained - they could not play their favorite songs in the arcade with any uniformity or preference due to songs being split into different songlists when comparing console editions and arcade units. Additionally, arcade machines were now considered "old" with no new machines being released in over 3 years and home releases outstripping arcade units due to having newer music. An additional constant criticism was DDR's percieved stagnation. No new methods of play had evolved since DDRMAX in 2001. Enter In The Groove.
In The Groove
In 2001 many gamers, frustrated with way Konami was handling Dance Dance games in North America, began to develop an open souce clone of the game for PC that would allow for custom music and step (or dance) patterns. This program became known as StepMania. As fans of DDR became increasingly frustrated with Konami's release patterns the resources of the SM community grew as more fans became aware of its existence. Caution was at hand, however, as Konami was currently in suit with Andamiro over claimed patent infringement by DDR competitor Pump It Up. The suit specifically dealt with a patent Konami held regarding the interaction of a dance pad with a computer. Because of this great care was taken to encourage independent music and step pattern writers to create original content for the game. To avoid the same patent infringement the program did not include or endorse a particular method of input during play. Although the suit was settled, the software's programmers did not change their stance in encouraging original content.
Regardless of the officially encouraged movement by the authors of StepMania many fans assembled songlists identical to DDR counterparts in order to satisfy their desire to have consistent music selection between the different available software selections available. Programmers also added options to the software that would enable it to act as an arcade machine, but again did not endorse or suggest a method by which such a machine should be deployed.
Once the arcade options were developed into SM a game titled In the Groove was announced to be in development for the arcade by Roxor Games. Initial screenshots showed a highly stylized interface with a blue motif for the main menu and the in-game interface similar to DDR but changed, ostensibly to avoid confusion with DDR. Fans of DDR and StepMania showed an immediate positive interest. After extensive development that drew upon the resources of the StepMania community in terms of soliciting feedback and requesting the assistance of several prominent music and step chart composers, In the Groove was released to arcades in October 2004 - two years after Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.
Reception of In The Groove was extremely positive due to the improvements the series boasted when compared to the DDR franchise. A connected USB drive could save player statistics, show the player's name in game (as opposed to "Player 1"), and save screenshots. The most significant feature, however, were the addition of many "modifiers" that would change the way arrows displayed as they progressed up the screen. While DDR used 2-D sprites for the arrows, ITG used fully rendered three dimensional arrows, allowing for modifiers that would make the arrows appear to be scrolling up the screen from an angle, pulse with the beat by means of stretching in and out, spin around during the scrolling upwards, float in a wave pattern across the screen, among others. These modifiers could be individually activated or be be enjoyed as part of the scripted step pattern through use of the highly popular marathon mode, which was ITG's answer to DDR's nonstop mode. Another popular change was the requirement to hit three or four arrows at once, forcing one to use their hands. The developers of Dance Dance Revolution had repeatedly stated they would not allow this in the franchise.
While ITG was had a higher difficulty it was considered a significant improvement over the DDR franchise by fans, who enjoyed the newer difficulty options and refreshing mix of original soundtrack and licensed music (some of which was shared with DDR by coincidence). Response was positive and arcades began to purchase units based on patron demand. Both standalone units and DDR unit conversion kits were made available. Arcade operators reported better maintenance and support for ITG units as Roxor was based in America as opposed to Konami, who did not provide support for imported units as they were labeled for use strictly inside of Japan. Roxor provided regular support for In the Groove in the form of actively participating in internet music gaming community discussion as well as providing regular software updates to machines in order to eliminate programming glitches.
The following spring Roxor simultaneously announced a home release of In The Groove as well as In The Groove 2 for arcades. ITG was released in June 2005 for Playstation 2 in partnership with Red Octane, a few short months after being announced and within a year of the original arcade release. Roxor had again beaten Konami to the punch by providing a 100% accurate port of the arcade game to the console, complete with duplicate song lists in addition to a few "preview" tracks and modifiers for the upcoming In the Groove 2. This addressed a key frustration of many DDR fans and brought high praise to the franchise.
The Clash of David and Goliath
Shortly before the release of ITG on the home console rumors began circulating on DDR Freak, a popular music gaming community, that Konami had filed suit against Roxor. While somewhat surprising to fans, many had speculated as to why Konami had not taken action earlier to prevent the original arcade release of ITG as the games were so similar. These rumors were confirmed on July 1, 2005 when Konami's homepage announced they were filing suit in Texas against Roxor games for copyright dilution through trade dress infringement, patent infringement, and injuring Konami's business reputation.
Fans were frustrated and many declared this to be the final nail in the coffin from Konami in regards to the future of dance gaming. Fans expressed outrage and disappointment in many arguments - primarily that Konami was being hypocritical, as a majority of units in North America were illegally imported (all imported units clearly stated "For use" or "licensed for use in Japan ONLY"). Another argument was that Konami had not released an official US arcade unit in five years (the last being DDR USA) and as such had demonstrated a lack of interest in the arcade product. Still others speculated about the timing of the lawsuit - Konami was attempting to stop release of the home platform edition, which would take more of their market. Others simply felt Konami had been shown up by a superior product and was now attempting to fight back to maintain a vice grip on the dance game market. Some fans felt Konami had a legitimate complaint and Roxor had "stepped on Konami's toes" by not "asking permission". Which is the correct argument? An examination of Konami's suit is critical in answering this question.
The Lawsuit Itself
Konami's lawsuit has three essential points: Roxor violated Konami's aforementioned patent that covers the way a dance pad functions and communicates to the arcade or console unit; That In the Groove rode on the success of the Dance Dance Revolution brand and caused monetary damages to Konami by diluting the Dance Dance Revolution trademark; That In The Groove has caused monetary damage by injuring Konami's business reputation. Note that these points were never decided as the case did not go to trial.
The first point of the lawsuit is Roxor's alleged violation of Konami's patent on the dance pad interface. Roxor has claimed no patent violation occurred but it is widely held that Konami brings this argument due to the conversion kits that have been offered which turn DDR machines into ITG units. Konami argues this process violates the patent on the machine, which contradicts the common practice of arcades changing motherboards in arcade units routinely, allowing games to be changed. An example is changing a board in a Mortal Kombat machine to a Pac-Man board so the machine now is a Pac-Man machine.
The second point is that Roxor deliberately rode on the success of the DDR franchise and damaged it in turn. ITG conversion kits came with a full marquee and array of decals and stickers to allow the complete covering of all DDR trademarks on the machine (these marks and logos are collectively called trade dress), however many arcade operators did not do this. Konami argues Roxor did not do their part in requiring operators to cover all DDR trademarks on the machine and as a result a layman would observe someone playing In The Groove and assume it is Dance Dance Revolution. Konami further argues that ITG is an inferior product and that a layman would conclude the observed "Dance Dance Revolution" is also an inferior product.
The third point goes in hand with the second point. Continuing the example of the layman, Konami argues that because this person has observed "an inferior product" and assumed it is DDR, they will also assume Konami's products are inferior. As a result Konami claims to have suffered significant financial damage. Konami alleges Roxor is aware of this and has deliberately continued to produce infringing product. As a result Konami requested the court award treble damages based on intent. Litigation and discovery were widely expected, and reactions were varied.
Many fans educated themselves on the lawsuit, reading the lawsuit papers directly and drawing conclusions. Many persisted in the argument that Konami merely felt shown up by Roxor's product and was hitting back, possibly to ensure the dance game genre stayed within Konami's "vision" (control). Others lamented Roxor may have some fault, but that many claims could be dismissed.
Summer 2005 turned to fall and In The Groove 2 was released for arcades, despite pending litigation. It boasted even more arrow modifiers and more USB drive connectivity options in addition to a much expanded songlist that included all of the In The Groove 1 songlist. Roxor pushed the standalone unit option, however continued to provide conversion kits for DDR machines in order to encourage sales of the game.
In January 2006 Roxor announced In The Groove 3 for arcades, and In The Groove 2 for Playstation 2 at the In The Groove North American Tournament Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada. Roxor partcipated in several trade shows that year, however In The Groove 3 was not on display as expected, presumably due to development delays. With the lawsuit still weighing on the dance game community, speculation continued as to the final outcome of the case and the court trial.
Despite a positive outlook for the In The Groove franchise, a press release was put out by Konami and Roxor on October 18, 2006 indicating the matter had been settled. The cost? Roxor immediately transferred all rights and assests associated with In The Groove to Konami, in addition to agreeing to "respect Konami's intellectual property rights" (read: Not make a new dance game).
Fan reaction was mixed. Some fans expressed outrage at Konami and called for a boycott of Konami product while others expressed profound disappointment at the settlement, expecting Konami to squat on the rights to the ITG franchise. Still yet others agreed with the outcome and supported the resolution. Roxor's developers remained silent on the matter, except to request fans of the dance game community continue to support dance gaming. This sentiment continues in private conversation with developers.
A year and a half has passed since the settlement and lasting effects have come to light. Despite popular opinion, Konami has yet to issue a statement regarding the ultimate fate of the In The Groove games. A possibility of continuation exists through integration of features into Dance Dance Revolution or a completion of In The Groove 3 for arcade or In the Groove 2 for home console, as the fate of the alpha builds and source code for both games remains unknown.
Sales of the standalone arcade unit of In The Groove 2 also continue. Some speculation exists that an entity at Konami was sympathetic to the situation as Roxor released two more patches post-suit for ITG 2 that enable custom songs and stepcharts to be used from StepMania - a sort of "last hurrah" for fans.
In The Groove for Playstation 2 is no longer on retail shelves. It is believed this is due to a combination slow intial sales in the general market in combination with the pending litigation at the time. The game is sought after as a collectors item.
Dance Dance Revolution finally recieved an arcade update through the form of Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA in 2006 and SuperNOVA 2. Konami V Roxor is widely credited with spurning Konami to finally release a new arcade edition worldwide (a first), complete with a matching Playstation 2 release featuring a corresponding songlist, also worldwide. The theory that ITG spurned a release is furthered by the fact the EU release ofSuperNOVA stated "The ORIGINAL and still the best" on the cover. There is minor variation in a few licensed tracks between the arcade and home editions, ostensibly to provide an incentive to play each edition. SuperNOVA was the first official US arcade unit to be released in six years, with the previous official release being Dance Dance Revolution USA. SuperNOVA 2 was released to arcades worldwide in late 2007. Dance Dance Revolution X, a new title to commemorate the franchise's 10th anniversary, has been recently announced.
The developers for In The Groove continue in new positions. Some remain at Roxor, others are freelance. Previously contracted staff for the development of In The Groove have used their talents in the Pump it Up series of dance games. It is also worth noting some of the music announced for In The Groove 3 has found its way into Pump It Up, as one of the composers retained the rights to their music and was allowing Roxor the access through a license.
So what's the future of music gaming? No one is certain as it is a constantly changing field a decade old. One thing is certain, however - In The Groove will have a lasting effect on Konami. One can hope it is certainly for the better. This is Digital Stardust, signing off.