Raise your hand if a room in your house contains a plastic instrument. My hand is up. And since I can’t tell if anybody reading this is raising their hand or not, I’m just going to assume a bunch of you are because it helps my point. It’s the internet, this is considered research. So this article started in my head as a review of Rock Band 3, which it still sort of is. The more I thought about it though the more I realized that one basically has to take music games as a whole, at least Guitar Hero and Rock Band anyway. Why were they so popular? Why are sales numbers dwindling now? How the hell did Harmonix, the main force behind creating the genre via Guitar Hero, get sold for FIFTY DOLLARS? That is less than I paid for Rock Band 3!
I started playing the first Guitar Hero a few months after it came out and I was HOOKED. I have no musical talent what so ever. I can’t read music. I’ve never played any sort of instrument. So music as an ACTIVITY instead of something passive was probably the biggest draw for me. I can’t say that these games made me feel like I was playing a guitar, because I have no idea how that would actually feel. But I did get a sense of participation in the song, however false or fleeting it is given the circumstances. The first Guitar Hero game had fifty something songs, which at the time seemed like a healthy amount. Since then…well, there are MANY songs one can “play” with plastic instruments now a days.
Case in point, as I sit here and write this, I have 443 songs available to me when I load up Rock Band 3. (This does not count any of the Guitar Hero games, although there is some overlap.) The fact that I have 443 songs is a testament to why Rock Band is such a better game than Guitar Hero. In actuality, it’s not a better GAME. In fact, precious little has changed gameplay wise since the first Guitar Hero. Colored notes come down the screen and one must match finger placement and strumming the fake guitar in time to those notes. I could go into great detail about how that has been made better or how instruments have been added, but it’s not worth it. At the core, I am doing the SAME thing I was doing in the first Guitar Hero. The graphics are prettier sure, but there has been no leap forward for me. That being said I have yet to try what is probably the biggest addition to Rock Band 3, namely “pro mode” that will actually function with a REAL guitar, ostensibly teaching you how to use it. I’ve heard conflicting reports of whether this actually works in creating honest to god guitar skills in people, so I’m going to withhold judgement on that one. Even the inclusion of pro mode fails to explain why Harmonix was recently sold by MTV/Viacom for fifty bucks. What the hell!? Harmonix was purchased in 2006 for 175 MILLION DOLLARS. I’m bad at math, but read that again. Purchase for $175 million, sell for $50. What happened?
I think, sadly, what happened was Activision. They are the parent company of the Guitar Hero franchise. As most video game nerds know, once Activision determines they have a successful franchise on their hand they beat that shit into the ground.
Guitar Hero 3, Guitar Hero 4, Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero 6, Guitar Hero Aerosmith, Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero Van Halen, Band Hero, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero: Yanni. I only made one of those up. All of this came out since 2007. The numbered sequels included new guitar and drum peripherals of course, adding to the space that these games potentially take up in your living room. Harmonix has been better but by no means innocent, with Rock band, Rock band 2, Rock band 3, Rock Band Beatles, Rock Band Green Day, and Rock Band AC/DC. I love this genre and play it more than most I’d wager, but there is NO way I’m buying all of those. It’s too much. However, for those still in invested in such games, the Rock Band franchise is the way to go. And this is not me going on a big bad Activision don’t support them kick. I’ve enjoyed both Modern Warfare and Black Ops (map packs being insanely expensive aside) so if a quality games comes out, even faster than a normal cycle, I don’t mind. What Rock Band and Harmonix did right were two, in this case related, things: Backward Compatibility and DLC.
First, the backward compatibility. Part of the reason I have 443 freaking songs is that Rock band 3 supports (for a fee, sadly) the ability to import songs from Rock Band 1 and Rock Band 2 onto the console hard drive to make them playable (and fully integrated) into Rock Band 3. Guitar Hero KIND of lets you do that, but only between certain games and trying to figure out exactly what songs will transport to what game is insanely convoluted and dumb. Rock Band isn’t perfect, there are some songs that for music copyright reasons can only be played off the disc they originally appeared on, but this is under 10 of the 200 something songs available. I don’t want to get up off of my lazy ass and switch the disc anytime I want to play a certain song vs another. Having 443 songs right in front of me to choose from (or sometimes MORE fun, to have the game choose randomly. With that many songs I really don’t know what I’m going to get!) is a delightfully daunting task.
Now, the OTHER reason that I have that many songs is DLC. While the Guitar Hero franchise released game after game, Rock Band did something right. They realized what I was talking about earlier, namely that the core gameplay of these games hasn’t changed. What has changed is the music selection itself. Everybody has a favorite song or band they want to rock out with. So, when Rock band 2 was released on September 14th, 2008, DLC was already available. Since the game was released there has been new songs EVERY SINGLE TUESDAY for Rock Band. Harmonix has NOT MISSED A WEEK. They realized people love choices in their music and set out to please them. While there are some crazy people out there who have purchased ALL the DLC, most of us pick and choose. Much like buying songs from Itunes, the Rock Band music store is an enormous listening of all kinds of music. Sure, the weeks when country track packs pop up I cry a little and ignore them, but some people love em. It has reached a point where anybody looking to expand their music selection in the game will find SOMETHING they like on the music store, which is a huge selling point. Kudos to Harmonix for keeping the DLC every week streak alive.
So….$50?! Even with the solid DLC plan, people are tiring out of music games. Rock Band 3 sales have not met expectations. Rock Band Beatles did not capture the hearts of America like it was predicted too. Harmonix has made about a good a music game, with as good a selection, as they possibly can under the current system. I think MTV/Viacom saw the writing on the wall and realized that this profitable wave would soon be crashing into shore and decided they wanted to sever ties. Old fans of the genre are falling off (hell, I only bought Rock Band 3 two weeks ago and it came out last October. These games used to be midnight release material for me!). No new fans are getting involved. Not even the pro mode guitar seemed to get the huge sales numbers back. I think this genre can resurrect itself back into glory, but the technology is not yet in place.
The next step, which might be impossible given copyright laws but who knows, is tied to DLC. Harmonix needs to make the selection of songs unlimited. I’m talking the WHOLE ITUNES library available to download. Forget for a second how much that would cost Harmonix. What they need to do is to make a program that will take a song, ANY SONG, and “listen” to it. This program will then convert that song into a Rock Band song, complete with note charts for guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. It needs to do this in a reasonable amount of time and without any input from human beings. This is a tall order, but imagine if Harmonix pulled this off. The Rock band music store links itself to Itunes and players can just browse through everything. Oh, I like that song? I can download the MP3, but for 2 dollars more, I can Rock Band it too! (Rock Band is now a verb! Apple loves that shit!) In this age of being able to watch any movie at almost anytime (hi netflix instant streaming!) or hear any song whenever via Itunes, Napster, hell even searching on YouTube, being limited is not something people will stand for. I have no idea if this “Rock Banding” any song is technologically possible or financially feasible. But I believe it’s the only way a once thriving and now niche industry can come back into the spotlight. I doubt it will happen. But I doubted that playing a fake plastic guitar would be any fun too.
Filed under: Commentary, Games | Tagged: AC/DC, Activision, Call of Duty, DLC, Elrood, fake plastic instruments, Guitar Hero, Harmonix, harmonix sold for fifty dollars, Itunes, map packs, Metallica, monkeys, MTV, music games, pro guitar, Red Octane, Rock band, The Beatles, Van Halen, Viacom |