Music game developer Harmonix might have started the fire for the music game industry. But it’s stopped burning, leading Viacom to sell the critically acclaimed developer, the company announced today.

After taking off like a rocket in 2005 with the launch of Harmonix’s first title, Guitar Hero, music games have been disappointing lately. The games let players pick up plastic controllers that look and feel remotely like instruments and rock out to songs from the likes of Billy Joel and The Who.

But the music game industry as a whole has started to stagnate. There really wasn’t anywhere new to go after Rock Band introduced multiple instruments like the microphone and a drum kit. Harmonix’s most recent game, Rock Band 3, basically took the same theory to another level by adding “pro” instruments designed to teach players how to play and simulate an actual guitar with multiple strings and frets and larger drum kits. Aside from that, music game developers have been releasing special editions that feature individual bands like The Beatles and Green Day.

Music games generated $152 million so far this year in the U.S. That’s down 50 percent from a year ago, according to Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter. In 2009, music games generated $875 million in sales, but this year the category will be lucky to generate $500 million, Pachter said. Music games have been the biggest drag on game sales, down 8 percent from a year ago, according to market research data from NPD.


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Harmonix’s most recent game, Rock Band 3, was a huge hit with critics (and it made our list of top ten games for the holiday season.) The game garnered a score of 93 out of 100 across 46 reviews on Metacritic, a website that aggregates review scores for games, music and movies. Its Rock Band series has been one of the bright points of the genre and regularly receives praise from critics.

There still aren’t many new directions for the music game genre. Introducing new instruments and the like can be extremely expensive, and the large price tags can turn off gamers (the pro guitar for Rock Band 3 costs a whopping $150). So Rock Band 3 may very well be Harmonix’s — and the industry’s — swan song if they can’t find a new direction to take the series. Viacom probably expects a dim future for the music game industry if it is offloading a developer that regularly sees a lot of success with critics.

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