These are trying times for Harmonix. Two weeks ago, it was announced that the Cambridge-based developer was being put up for sale by its parent company, Viacom. Fans of Harmonix had only hours to imagine that Viacom was selling high before a deluge of reports suggested otherwise. According to the financial statements, Harmonix's revenue had dropped by half between 2008 and 2009, whereas its losses in the same time frame had doubled. That wasn't all: Wired's Chris Kohler reported that Harmonix had lost $321 million in the first nine months of 2010.
Granted, it would have been hard for the company to offset those losses given that it hadn't shipped a game in 2010 until October 26, when the superlative Rock Band 3 came out. And though early sales figures aren't encouraging for that title, either, Harmonix has, for the first time in years, something brand new up its sleeves, something that might just set the world on fire.
Dance Central is one of the featured titles for the Kinect, Microsoft's new, hands-free input device for the Xbox 360. Kinect uses a combination of cameras and sensors to allow players to control games with gestures and speech instead of a control pad. Usually, with ambitious new hardware such as Kinect, "proof of concept" is good enough for a launch title. Dance Central is something better: a genuinely good game.
It's simple enough to describe in one sentence. Just match the dance moves you see your avatar performing on screen. That's all. You can choose from dozens of songs, each with three increasingly difficult dance routines, but nothing fundamental changes from the first to the last. Of course, if you're not a dancer — or even if you are, I'd wager — this is easier said than done. Basic moves like a step and clap soon give way to twists, turns, high leg lifts, and upper-body contortions that make you dizzy just watching.
But Harmonix provides an easy transition into every routine. Prior to dancing, you can practice each individual move. Given how clumsy Kinect can feel in other applications, the precision is astonishing. Performing the same move over and over, you'll notice parts of your avatar's body light up if you're not matching them correctly. It isn't just the big moves that are important. To nail it, every muscle in your body needs to be tuned just so. In the same way that playing Rock Band will make you a more skillful listener of music, playing Dance Central teaches you what makes a successful dancer.
If the game has a failing, it's that it's a bit too solitary. I had a group of friends over to play, and praise was unanimous. Yet, as opposed to Rock Band, only one person can play at a time. (In the two-player "Battle" mode, you take turns.) Given that the pre-dance breakdown ate up time and most people needed more than one song to get comfortable, it took a couple of hours for everybody to get a turn.
Whatever the future holds for Harmonix, it's hard to imagine that the company won't come out the other side of the sale stronger than ever. If you can get geeky white guys to dance, you can do anything.