Ubisoft Describes the Origins of Just Dance and Reflects on its Success
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"People dared to dance in front of a screen and in front of people"
Gone are the days when any gamer with respect for the enjoyment of others can casually dismiss the Just Dance series. It may not be to all tastes — this writer would rather play Urban Champion again than dance — but it is hugely popular, with yearly releases doing little to diminish its appeal. It's a title that rose with the Wii, in many respects, and let's not forget that it was recently confirmed that Just Dance 2014 was the 8th-biggest selling game in the US for the whole of 2013, with most copies sold on Nintendo's last-gen system. Its brand power and its relationship with Nintendo's little box of tricks is impressive, something that will hopefully be replicated this year with the inevitable new entry on Wii U — that seems like a no-brainer as a release.
The franchise is now approaching 50 million sales worldwide, and in an interview with IGN Xavier Poix, Managing Director at Ubisoft Paris, explains the origins of the series as a mini-game, and how the initially small-team had to back its principles in the face of a great deal of cynicism. It should be remembered, too, that it was the Wii that launched the franchise that's now a significant multi-platform player.
In the French studio, we’re used to embracing new technology quite early in the process. We have a long history with Nintendo. We were very lucky, two years previous to the launch of the Wii, to be able to get the first prototypes of the Wiimote. We started working in Paris here on a game for launch and, I brought the prototype to the team in Montpelier, where we were in the process of creating a new Rayman. Eventually we created Rabbids. If I remember, we had a game where you needed to hit the Rabbid’s head based on the rhythm of a song… that was the first musical game we had.
We took another approach [compared to Red Steel], the approach that Nintendo also took with tennis [in Wii Sports]. It wasn’t about exact controls. It was about feeling the movements. The idea in all of these games [in Rabbids] was to make sure that what the player wanted to do happened in the game as a consequence of the gesture - that you didn’t exactly have to do the gesture itself. There was a feeling that we should get rid of all this crap about being sure that what the player does is exactly what they get on the screen. We should liberate the feeling of moving. We eventually had a game in Rabbids TV based on dance - we could impose some gestures to do, and some moves. That was close to the final game that became Just Dance.
While the small team had to overcome the 'serious' games mentality prevalent at that time — which, to an extent, is still prominent today — the team believed in the potential of the product, with test groups showing huge enthusiasm. As the NPD 2013 results also show the franchise is still going strong, even on the Wii, perhaps due to the fact that realism is less important than simply having fun — the Wii Remote can be cheated into giving you points, but "if you’re just sitting on your couch you won’t have fun and you won’t play the game anymore". Poix is also confident that it'll continue to attract an audience, in contrast to the largely defunct rhythm-music genre typified by the Guitar Hero franchise.
People were not so much skeptical about what we were creating as an experience. They were more skeptical about how long it would last.
People have always said, ‘Look at Guitar Hero. Dance is going to die as well.’ But dance is universal. I don’t think that people will stop dancing. They’ll stop playing plastic guitars, because that was a new creation. We didn’t invent anything, we just made a game about dancing. Thanks to the universal nature of that experience, I think we couldn’t and we won’t die.
Are you a Just Dance fan, and do you think it'll continue to be one of the best-selling franchises in gaming? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.