The day the music died: Thoughts on the quiet end of the rock performance video game

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More so than movies, or music, or television series, video games have a shelf life. In that, I mean that their experience is so connected with technological progress — the more the game can do, the more you can do — that sometimes even landmark titles are rendered near-unplayable next to the modern experiences built on their foundation. (Tried playing Goldeneye anytime recently?) There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part video games are designed to be enjoyed and replaced.

In that sense, it’s weird to be writing an obituary of sorts for Rock Band, which was once the pinnacle of the booming music/rhythm genre. Why should Harmonix’s once-popular franchise be any different than all the other games we’ve loved and left behind?

Well, for one, how many video games have managed to sustain an ongoing content ecosystem for more than five years? For 281 straight weeks, Harmonix has been delivering new Rock Band songs every Tuesday for players to bash away at. Between Harmonix’s own creations and those that have been uploaded by indie developers to the Rock Band Network, there are more than 4,200 songs you can play in Rock Band — and that’s not even counting the songs connected with Beatles Rock Band, released in 2009.

Yesterday, with the fitting release of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” that content stream came to an end. Admittedly, the era of the plastic guitar has been over for some time. Though Harmonix has been keeping the downloadable content (or “DLC”) flowing, there hasn’t been a retail release in the Rock Band series since 2010, the same year that its competing franchise, Guitar Hero, also published its last entry.

And that’s the other reason why Rock Band’s end is a bit different: it marks not just the end of a gaming franchise, but that of an entire genre, one that appeared suddenly, boomed brightly and faded from prominence almost as quickly at it arrived. I suspect future generations will look back on the rock performance video game with bewilderment, ranking it alongside watching DVD bonus features and purchasing ringtones as strange, confusing things the Western world did in the new millennium’s first decade.

Actually, I do worry we’ll see these games as being just like ringtones: a desperate money grab by a flailing music industry, feverishly trying to monetize anything it could as the CD market collapsed. But that would be a mistake. For a brief moment, these games represented a compelling extension of music into popular culture, with a participatory focus that brought people together in both music listening and performance. We can learn as much from the genre’s rise as we can from its fall.

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I first played Guitar Hero, Harmonix’s initial creation, sometime in 2006. (It may have, in fact, been Guitar Hero II.) A group of old debating friends and I would regularly get together for gaming sessions, and at some point Eddie brought along his plastic guitars. And I was hooked instantly.

Now, the idea of the music or “rhythm” game was nothing new, but it was a concept held back by technological constraints. It wasn’t until the CD era that you could replicate quality sound on a game console, so it took the Playstation’s PaRappa the Rapper to become the first truly influential rhythm game. Where the genre thrived, though, was in the arcades: Dance Dance Revolution for dancing, and Konami’s Guitar Freaks and Drum Mania for musical instruments.

Konami’s decision not to promote the latter games (which are basically the same system as Guitar Hero/Rock Band) in the American market or develop a home console version looks super dumb in hindsight, but it’s not that surprising. American arcades were dwindling and the console market was a dangerous place for games that required expensive add-ons. In the late 90s, Sega had declined from a major player in the console market to an also-ran  in no small part because people believed it had released too peripherals and add-ons for the Sega Genesis. And most third-party controllers were cheap, gimmicky and rarely performed up to par. (The Power Glove was, indeed, so bad.) No wonder the company would be cautious about releasing a home version of Guitar Freaks.

But if the game works, people will play it. And Guitar Hero really worked.

Timing is everything when it comes to breakout games, and Guitar Hero was perfectly timed in two ways. The first was the success of the Playstation 2: by the time of Guitar Hero, Sony had sold more systems than any other console in history, and the generation that grew up on Nintendo and Sega was proving that it was willing to stick with gaming into their late teens and early adulthood. The second was digital music. Teens and college kids suddenly were walking around with hard drives filled with not just their own music, but their parents’ music: classic rock, funk, soul, dance. Suddenly, it became easy to quickly and affordably (ie. freely) get an education in the entire history of rock music, meaning a game that covered the range of that history now had a wider audience.

But even more than the great soundtrack, or the easy access, what I remember most about my first time playing Guitar Hero was the feel of the experience.

What people don’t always appreciate is the degree to which rock and roll music is a tactile experience. Think about how the general stage layout places all the band’s core members in plain view, how the instrumentalists with the more precise instruments (the guitars) are generally out in front. Recall how at even the biggest megashow you’ve been to, the camera operator spend a great deal of his or her time zooming in on the fingers, the hands, the guitar picks. We don’t place our performers behind walls (unless you’re Pink Floyd) or curtains or any obstructions at all: rock music demands that we see finger hitting string, drumstick hitting drum.

To understand why, let’s turn the camera on the audience. While some rock shows still demand dancing on the part of its fans, most don’t. Instead, the audience often mimes along. The quiet ones tap their toes or slap their leg. Others will subtly move their fingers at their side, like there’s a small fretboard on their thigh. Still others mouth the words. Those without a fear of public performance go all-in: drumrolls, air guitars, full-on belting.

You see, the populism of rock music lies in idea that the audience can almost do it themselves. Yes, there are rock gods who seem distant, miraculous in their performance. But at one point, they were normal like you. And more importantly, with enough practice — and copious piles of guitar magazines — you can at least simulate what it is they’re doing on stage. Nearly every wannabe rock guitarist or drummer learns by listening to their heroes and copying the riffs, learning the fills. You may never be a star, but for a fleeting moment, you can almost pull off what they do and feel like the real deal.

That’s why Guitar Hero was brilliant. With a guitar controller that felt like a smaller version of the real thing, and a game interface that was easy to learn but increasingly hard to master, it simplified that feeling of rock approximation and brought it into the living room. I found myself wanting to play the songs over and over again until I got them right — and then, to do the same at a higher difficulty level. I felt that tinge of accomplishment when the cover song I was playing came out of the crappy TV speakers note-perfect, not unlike they came right out of my actual electric guitar.

I remember when Eddie, in the midst of one of our first sessions, put the plastic guitar behind his head and continued to absolutely dominate the scoreboard. We all reacted the way you would at a rock show: “Woah!” “Fuck yeah!” “Awesome!”

Of course, what we didn’t realize yet was that it’s actually SUPER EASY to play Guitar Hero behind your head.

It didn’t matter. It felt like the real deal.

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The first music game I owned, personally, was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. This was, in no small part, because it was the first game I could own: the Wii got me back into gaming, and it was the first game in the series to be released for the system. But it was also the moment where Harmonix and Guitar Hero went their separate ways, with Activision buying the franchise and leaving Harmonix to pair with MTV and EA to release Rock Band. As much as I enjoyed Guitar Hero III, and certainly played my money’s worth, I found myself drawn to what Harmonix had developed. With the Wii version of Rock Band being admittedly undercooked (especially from a DLC perspective), the game became my top reason for buying an Xbox 360 in early 2008.

At the time, the difference between the two products seemed rather simple and obvious: Guitar Hero had guitar, Rock Band also had drums and vocals. But looking back, there was a much more fundamental difference between the franchises at a gameplay level that made Rock Band a larger shift than it might have appeared.

Guitar Hero had always had two-player modes, but the majority of them were competitive: you and a friend played the same notes to see who could get a higher score. (This idea was taken to an absurd extreme in Guitar Hero III when completing certain riffs would give you “attacks” you could use against your opponent and impede his or her ability to play.) What’s more, the game’s harsh difficulty curve meant that it could also be a rewarding single-player experience. Like a kid in the basement with guitar magazines, Guitar Hero rewarded those who would spend hours trying to master it.

Rock Band had its share of difficult songs, no question, but it never felt as if it was challenging to the same degree. Along those lines, though some of us may have had a favourite instrument we’d happily play on our own — mine were the drums — Rock Band was typically a game that got pulled out when other people were around, when the “full band” experience could be had. In its gameplay decisions, Harmonix biased playing with others: you could get a higher score if everyone activated “overdrive” at the same time, and there were certain segments where the band’s ability to perform a part in unison would increase the score multiplier.

What Harmonix did was take a genre that had a social element and turn it into an almost entirely social experience. In this, they were decidedly part of a trend: Rock Band deserves a place alongside Wii Sports as probably the most important party-focused video game of the past decade. It helped that with karaoke going mainstream, the idea of singing in front of your friends in your living room wasn’t an entirely crazy idea. And once again, you had the tactile experience: the guitars felt like guitars, the drums felt like drums, and you felt like a rock star for four minutes; certainly a feeling worth sharing.

Over the next couple of years, I regularly hosted Rock Band parties for my coworkers. They reached the point where if I hadn’t held one in a few months, people would be clamouring for them. It struck me that the music experience Rock Band offered was decidedly cross-generational: you had 20-somethings and 50-somethings and everyone in between bashing along to the biggest hits of the past 40 years.

And it was, absolutely, a music experience: some of these people wouldn’t know what to do with a game controller in their hands. They weren’t playing a video game; they were performing music, with buttons for strings, but with all the right poses.

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In the interest of full disclosure — at the risk of causing myself a heart attack — I decided I’d calculate just how much I’ve spent on the Rock Band franchise since purchasing the first game in early 2008.

Here’s the pre-taxes breakdown, admitting that some of these numbers for both pricing and song counts could be a little ways off.

  • Rock Band w/ gear set: $170
  • Rock Band 2 and 3 games: $70 x 2 = $140
  • The Beatles Rock Band: $70
  • Lego Rock Band (for the song download): $35 (on sale)
  • Rock Band 2 w/ gear set (for better drums + another guitar): $100 (on sale)
  • Cymbals for Rock Band 2 drums: $25
  • Keyboard for Rock Band 3: $80
  • Individual DLC songs: 133 x $2.25 =$308
  • Individual DLC songs from the Rock Band Network (indie tracks): 10 x $2.25 = $22.50
  • 3-Packs of DLC songs: 12 x $6.40 = $77
  • Larger packs + full album DLC: 8 packs at various prices = $114
  • AC/DC Track Pack: $10 (on sale)
  • Classic Rock Track Pack: $15 (on sale)
  • Beatles Rock Band DLC (Abbey Road + Sgt. Pepper full albums): $35.70

TOTAL ESTIMATED DAMAGE (pre-taxes): $1,202.20

TOTAL ROCK BAND SONGS OWNED: 613

PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL AVAILABLE ROCK BAND SONGS OWNED: 14%

…holy shit.

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Back in 2009, I wrote about the differences between Guitar Hero and Rock Band. My essay captures an interesting point in time: when it seemed like Rock Band could do no wrong and Guitar Hero could do no right. Harmonix was delivering week after week of great DLC, had just released the super impressive Beatles Rock Band (perhaps, objectively, the best experience the company put together) and had the enthusiast gaming press eating out of the palm of its hand. In contrast, Guitar Hero had lost its way, prioritizing gimmicky features and copying Rock Band’s multi-instrument approach with far less success.

When considering the future of the genre, I argued that Harmonix’s business plan was more sustainable because it prioritized music fans, not gamers:

Not only is it aimed at an audience of music lovers who aren’t going anywhere, but their support from the music industry itself is only going to increase, especially when the love and care of The Beatles: Rock Band is paired up against the twisted disrespect of creepy Kurt Cobain in Guitar Hero 5. Long after the music video game’s peak popularity has come and gone, Harmonix will still be successful because they’ve built a business around appeasing those of us who value the “music” above the “video game.”

I wasn’t wrong, in the sense that Harmonix’s business model did outlast the competition. But I overestimated the long-term appeal of the social experience that the company chose to bet on.

One problem with social gaming from a business standpoint is that, as occasional activity, players don’t need to buy as much of it. Both Harmonix and Activision were releasing new games each year like a sports franchise, and though they offered an improved experience for the most part, all they really brought to the table was more songs. If you’re only bringing the game out to play at parties, do you really need more than 60-70 songs? (I mean, sure, *I* apparently did — did you SEE that dollar figure?! — but most didn’t.)

But the real problem with social gaming — and no, I don’t consider playing Call of Duty online to be social, have you TRIED talking to those punks? — is that it’s a lot of work. As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of how hard it is to get a group of people organized to do anything, and it gets worse when your friends start becoming parents. It seems hardly a coincidence that Rock Band’s core lifespan was about four years, just like an undergraduate degree: the appeal of the ultimate dorm room game begins to wane when you don’t have bored neighbours looking to bash away the hours.

I do wonder what would have happened had Harmonix (and then, in a game of monkey-see monkey-do, Activision) not turned the rock performance genre into a social-only experience. Perhaps it was always going to head in that direction, and there’s no question that, for a time, it turned Rock Band into one of the biggest gaming phenomena on the planet. But I wonder if the genre would have a stronger pulse today if it had solo enthusiasts still willing to devote time to making it through to those last, finger-splitting songs.

Then again, even a devotee like myself has my limits. I’ve only broken Rock Band out once since moving to my new apartment. The drums live in my closet, the guitars in my gaming ottoman. I used to regularly check for new DLC each week but haven’t downloaded anything in a year; not even my beloved “Call Me Maybe” being available for purchase could get me to break out the gear and rock out again. How could I blame casual gamers for quickly growing tired of the franchise when even a big spender like myself can no longer find time for it?

But better to burn out than fade away, as someone conspicuously (but not surprisingly) absent from music video games once put it. And frankly, Rock Band was one heck of a fire. At a time when the role of music in mass culture was up for debate, Rock Band brought people together in their living rooms to strum, smash and sing their way through the history of rock and roll. It simulated live performance so closely that, for a fleeting second, you almost forgot that you were pressing buttons, or trying to hit notes on a screen.

It didn’t matter. It felt like the real deal.

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