By Jon White, Multimedia Reporter
The music genre was one of the most popular genres for gamers during the last generation of video games. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were household names. It seemed that least one friend would have a music night at their place once a week. Sadly, Activision oversaturated the market, and then unceremoniously dumped the Guitar Hero franchise that fatigued gamers, and gamers turned their attention elsewhere. While Rock Band was less imposing on the market, the damage done by Activision spread across the marketplace and Harmonix stopped updating their downloadable songs last year. Their final song of choice? ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean. The immortal words of “The day the music died” was perfect, as it signaled the final death rattle of the genre that once populated living rooms and parties alike. Nowadays, the games industry is posting record profits but is struggling with how to stay profitable, with first-person-shooters and annual franchises getting most of the sales. The catch is that many of these titles have to sell a few million copies to break even, a practice that will cause the industry to burst. Perhaps it is time to crack open the music genre again. There is the potential to make it a profitable business and it does an excellent job of introducing people to new forms of music. Bringing music to new potential fans while also in a party setting, is a viable option for businesses. You know when people hear a song at a party and he/she ask, “Who does this song? I like it?”. The music genre does the same thing. The industry can approach this genre again knowing what can happen if you try to do too much, learn from it and make music games a thing again. When the game is made by music lovers, it makes the love of music much more genuine.
The road to becoming popular was a long one. While music games existed for years, they were niche titles as games like Guitar Freaks and Dance Dance Revolution had a cult following, but did not break any industry sales. Along came a developer in 2001 called Harmonix, that created a music game for PS2 called Frequency. The game was a critical hit and garnered a cult following. Two years later, they released the sequel, Amplitude, but the changes alienated fans and it was not as well received as the first.
Rather than try and go for a trilogy, Harmonix took the time to try a whole new idea for them; the end result of this try was the first Guitar Hero releasing in 2005. While the game borrowed the idea of using a peripheral from Guitar Freaks, Harmonix made their own adjustments to the plastic guitar to make the design their own. The guitar seemed like a gimmick, but once players saw the labour of love that was put into the set list, it was an air guitarist’s dream game. Rather than opt for a list of top 40 tracks, they opted for 30 tracks (plus 17 bonus), that read like a list that a guitar teacher would put together. There were the usual songs that beginning guitarists would try to play, such as ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Smoke on the Water’, but the rest of the list read like someone who knew what songs made people into real guitar heroes. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s ‘Texas Flood’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Spanish Magic Castle’ and Eric Clapton (then in Cream)’s ‘Crossroads’, were songs that experts knew but casual fans were unfamiliar with. Guitar Hero was there to introduce people to a broader range of music.
The sequel arrived the next year, with the same idea attached. The set list was expanded, but there were plenty of songs that would be unfamiliar to casual music fans, and it turned players into fans. Sadly, Activision saw the potential sales (Guitar Hero was a commercial and critical success), so they bought the name and kicked Harmonix off of the project. Activision handed the reins over to Neversoft, the developer famous for making Tony Hawk games.
While some companies would take the defeat and walk away, Harmonix essentially declared war. They went to rival game company, EA, and pitched Rock Band. It took everything that made the first two Guitar Hero games successful and personal and expanded it to the whole band. While the bass felt tacked on in Guitar Hero 2, in Rock Band it felt like as much care went into the bass as the guitar. Add in a well-thought-out drum peripheral and a great microphone, and one really had an instant four-player co-op experience in their living room. Again, the set list for Rock Band was filled with less popular songs, but they were chosen for how much the developer loved them and for how much they incorporated the full band mechanic. Whereas Guitar Hero 3 had a lot of filler or top 30 tracks (there were some classics in there), and it felt more like a manufactured product as opposed to a labour of love. Unfortunately, Guitar Hero 3 outsold Rock Band, mainly due to name recognition and the cheaper price tag.
However, Harmonix was smarter for the long term goal. Activision saw the sales from Guitar Hero 3 and decided to release a new game essentially every 3 months at full retail price. Guitar Hero 3 did release DLC, but it was infrequent and came in packs you had to buy. Rock Band on the other hand, had the idea to just spend two dollars on a song and download it into your song library. They released a minimum of three songs a week, sometimes putting full albums of artists (one could choose to download the album or just select tracks). If one did not like what they offered, they did not have to buy it. Some of the artists that got the full treatment were The Cars, The Pixies, Megadeth, and The Who. It felt like a glorified iTunes, where one could buy the music they wanted, as opposed to the full package, just to get the songs they wanted.
The following year, Guitar Hero followed the same idea, by expanding the number of peripherals for its franchise and the idea of weekly song downloads. Again, the song choices mostly felt more like trying to capitalize on what was popular, as opposed to artists supporting other artists.
Rock Band decided to really show off their love to musicians, by opening up The Rock Band Network in early 2010, allowing artists to create and upload songs themselves, as well as Harmonix doing their own weekly downloads. Independent artists came out and showed full support, including bands like Flight of the Conchords, Reverend Horton Heat, and Between the Buried and Me. The end result was a massive well of eclectic music choices that would satisfy even the most jaded of music lovers.
Sadly, Activision exhausted the market and they shuttered Neversoft studios which promptly halted any new downloadable content. Harmonix was able to keep on for a while, but they finally had to call it quits. Even the idea of creating a keyboard peripheral, as well as a peripheral to actually teach people to play the guitar was not enough to rejuvenate the genre, although it kept long-time fans happy.
When one can see the graveyard of the plastic instruments at second hand stores anywhere, it shows that there was once a lot of love for this genre, which in turn opened up a lot of opportunities for artists to be heard. The game was easy enough to pick up, so that even inexperienced gamers could hop in and get ensnared by a siren’s song of an unknown artist/song. People are always looking for excuses to be social, so why not try and get this genre going again? It is more apparent than ever that digital downloads are the way to stay profitable, as most games have them in some way, shape, or form. By choosing to not over-saturate but actually focus on customer desires, developers are making the consumer come to them. Also, these games were known for their fun, not their production values (much like most AAA titles are these days), so the only real expense is due to licensing issues.
Music is an essential part of society, so why not have it re-incorporate it into a medium that used to embrace it heavily? The time has come to help push music back into people’s homes through games again, which combines fun and social interaction. If you still have your peripherals and games, try hooking them up with some friends and see what happens. You can guarantee that a music discussion and perhaps some exploration will happen. Music is always good for the soul.