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What's behind the add-on phenomenon?

According to The NPD Group, the official bean-counter of U.S. video game sales, consumers spent a record $1.3 billion so far this year on plastic guitars, steering wheels and other add-ons. But video game peripherals have been around since the ’80s — why all the fuss more than two decades later?
/ Source: contributor

"There is no way we're putting that there," my wife tells me.

We’ve just spent 20 minutes surveying our 1,100-square-foot apartment in search of a spot for our new “Dance Dance Revolution” pad. The only place to stash it is under the couch, and my wife knows it.

”OK,” she concedes, allowing the unorthodox storage given our growing game-related gadgetry.

I’m not the only one with an increasing stockpile of video-game peripherals. According to The NPD Group, the official bean-counter of U.S. video game sales, consumers spent a record $1.3 billion so far this year on plastic guitars, steering wheels and other add-ons, the result of games like “Wii Fit,” “Guitar Hero,” “Mario Kart Wii” and “Rock Band.”

But video game peripherals have been around since the ’80s — why all the fuss more than two decades later?

"The whole industry is big right now, which I think is the primary driver behind the increase in peripheral sales,” says NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier. “ New hardware systems spur purchases of additional controllers and specialty peripherals."

Dan Hsu, former editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly, agrees. "Part of the popularity is due to how big gaming has become in general," he says. "More gamers means more potential customers, which means more peripherals."

But industry growth isn't the only thing driving game-gadget popularity. The games themselves shoulder most of the responsibility.

"I think we're looking at very specific kinds of games, not a trend towards peripherals," says Ben Kuchera, gaming editor for Ars Technica, a technology news site.

"Without the rhythm game explosion and insane sales of the Wii — a system that is built around a novel peripheral — none of this would have happened. People don't wake up and think they need plastic guitars or a balance board — they see compelling games behind these devices, and want to experience them in the best way possible."

Indeed, it takes a special type of game to justify the use of a game peripheral, otherwise it becomes another Power Glove or Sega Activator, long forgotten in a musty attic. Good software drives peripheral excitement — never the other way around.

Take "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," two music-based rhythm franchises that have cluttered many a living room. Hsu says the developers behind these games went the extra mile, licensing music from the original artists. This makes the playing experience that much more authentic, "which makes the peripherals worth it."

And today’s add-ons work more often than they fail, both in terms of delivering more immersive gameplay and attracting new players — many of which whom are intimidated by standard controllers.

“There’s something inherently more approachable about a guitar, a bongo drum or a steering wheel than an Xbox 360 controller,” says Josh Buhler, a longtime gamer from Salt Lake City. "If I had to explain to my mother that she had to push up, down, left, right in quick succession to win a game, she'd have zero interest in playing it. But throw down a dance pad, and it makes sense to her."

Casey Willis, a cartoonist from Atlanta, agrees. "My girlfriend used to hate racing games," he explains. "But one day while I was playing Mario Kart Wii, she wanted to try. Now she loves it, and it's all because she gets to turn a wheel instead of pressing left or right on a directional pad."

So what are gamers doing with all these extra living room toys? After all, an electronic drum set is a lot less discreet than a softball-sized controller.

It’s not easy to find a viable solution, says Kuchera, who, at last count, had a dozen plastic guitars in his house. "I write about games for a living, and I can tell you my spouse is complaining!" he says.

Buhler camouflages his stuff behind the furniture, tucking away his “Rock Band” drum set behind a large houseplant and the microphone stand in a corner, somewhat obscured by his entertainment center.

"I moved my couch away from the wall just far enough to sandwich in three guitars," he admits. “Storing all of this extra gear requires a bit of creativity.”

Mark, from Portland, says the extra hardware lying around his house affords the opportunity to play more games. "They can be a great conversation piece for adults," says the husband and father of two. "Leave them out so dinner guests can see them, and you might get to play ‘Guitar Hero’ after dessert."

Ruined decor aside, there is a downside to peripheral glut — compatibility and price. The “Guitar Hero” ax won’t work with “Rock Band.” Your “Rock Band” gear, in turn, won’t work with “Guitar Hero” peripherals. And these fake instruments ain’t cheap, costing anywhere from $50-90 a pop.

"How many people are going to want three sets of plastic drums, which are often required for different games?” asks a frustrated Kuchera. “No matter how good a game looks, people will eventually say enough is enough. They won't stand for it."

But at this point, consumers seem to agree that the advantages of peripheral-based games far outweigh the annoyances. They’re already lining up for what’s next. And publishers such as Sony and Microsoft have already begun working with game-makers to ensure future compatibility with software updates.

This fall, the makers of Guitar Hero are releasing their response to MTV's “Rock Band,” a new game called “Guitar Hero World Tour.” And much to the pleasure of wannabe rockers, the included drum set bests the competition with raised cymbals, velocity-sensitive detection pads and quiet durability (that's geek talk for "more awesome").

"And just where are we going to put that?" my concerned wife asks, when I tell her I plan to buy it.

"We'll make it work," I assure her. "Besides, the drums are collapsible!"