Don’t let rhythm games die… we still need them
Long gone are the days where your friend’s basement would transform into a stage, the sound of a clicky strum-bar and the smell of Mountain Dew and Cheetos permeating the air. Most of us no longer congregate to argue over who gets the next turn on a tiny plastic guitar shaped controller, while listening to bands like AttackAttack! Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band were all incredibly famous in their heyday, but when and why did we lose our groove? Perhaps the answer can be found in the games’ past.
The first installment in what would be a colossal franchise hit shelves in 2005. Guitar Hero would be the lovechild of RedOctane, a producer of specialized game controllers, and Harmonix. While their title wasn’t as completely unique as Guitar Freaks, an arcade title that had already taken Japan by storm, Guitar Hero was a smash hit. It was such a success, that devs thought they could make lightning strike twice and it did. Guitar Hero II would be the holiday gift of choice for gamers in 2006, selling 805,200 units (second highest selling game of the season, only topped by Gears of War). By the end of that fiscal year, it would become the third best selling game on PlayStation 2.
The Beginnings of a Rivalry
Having found so much success, it’s no wonder that the franchise attracted the attention of larger publishers and corporations. RedOctane would go on to work with Activision after the Guitar Hero franchise sold for $100 million. Harmonix, the other half of the once dynamic duo would be acquired by MTV Networks. This schism would lead to healthy competition when Rock Band released in 2007, with rival publisher EA. With Rock Band’s introduction of a microphone and drum set, players could finally play together, in bands rather than one-on-one with guitars. The combination of new gameplay mechanics and a more pop-centric tracklist would go a long long way for Harmonix. In fact, in 2008, Rock Band would go on to be the number one title of the year across all game genres by revenue, selling over one billion dollars in North America alone by 2009.
Unfazed by the competition, RedOctane and Neversoft unleashed Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock upon the world. Even without new instruments and an even more Hard Rock focused tracklist, GH3 crushed the game charts. The now incredibly popular rhythm franchise sold more than 1 million units across all consoles in 6 days. By this time, Guitar Hero was more than a household name, it was the game everyone simply had to have. But it was this rampant success that may have laid the groundwork for the franchise, and ultimately, the entire genre’s downfall.
By 2009 Activision had multiplied Guitar Hero offerings a few times over, with Guitar Hero World Tour adopting the full band gameplay of its rival, and the addition of mobile and handheld iterations (not to mention spinoffs like DJ Hero). And while both Rock Band and Guitar Hero continued to sell well, a noticeable decline over iterations was noticed by many in the industry. Rhythm games had peaked and were on the way down. In 2010, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock would release to a world seemingly done with tiny plastic instruments. GH: WoR sales numbers were abysmal compared to their once record shattering figures, selling under 100,000 copies in its first week. Rock Band 3 sales? Even worse.
Despite rave reviews, Rock Band 3 overall sales were less than impressive. In an interview with Edge Alex Rigopulos former Harmonix CEO, stated that Rock Band 3 hadn’t “yet sold to the level we hoped it would out of the gate”. Harmonix remained optimistic, citing ongoing DLC support and the release of the Fender Squier PRO guitar peripheral as a possible boost for overall sales. By the time its successor would hit shelves, 1.2 million units of Rock Band 3 would be sold.
A hiatus would follow for both franchises, as shooters would come to dominate the gaming world stage. But years later both goliaths would return to slug it out one last time, one last incredibly disappointing time. Rock Band 4 would be the first foray for the franchise into the “next gen”, yet it lacked anything worthy of the hardware it would be played on. RB4 shipped without key features such as online multiplayer, practice mode, and custom set lists. While one would think this would be a great opportunity for their competition, Guitar Hero Live stripped away the full band experience along with the bass guitar. Rather than focusing on DLC, this new iteration would use a music video channel approach instead. A questionable tracklist and missing features would bog down the former of the two games, while unfulfilling gameplay modes and microtransactions sunk the latter. It would seem that these rhythm games would go out with murmur rather than a bang.
Why We Need Instrument Based Rhythm Games
While these games had their pitfalls, they did immense good for the gaming community as a whole. In the first golden age of online gaming, where more and more people spent time in lobbies rather than with their friends on a couch, these games provided a truly social activity. Sure, they had options to face off online, but there was nothing more fun than watching your friend fail or totally destroy a guitar solo. At parties, they became almost a new form of karaoke, and between friends, it allowed for a chance to realize everyone’s inner dream of performing for the masses. Mastering the faux frets of our tiny guitars felt satisfying in an entirely new way.
I spent many a night downing energy drinks, eating snacks and playing my heart out on a 5 buttoned controller. All of this was amidst arguments over what band had sold out or whether inhale or exhale screams were more ‘hardcore’. As awkward teenagers wearing more bracelets than we could count, our ’emo sweep’ hairstyles hiding our acne, we could only hope to be as talented as our favorite bands and performers. Guitar Hero and Rockband became a power fantasy in a way that most games simply couldn’t. As young gamers who were born well past the age of the arcade, this would be our substitution. Players who failed at songs would be dashed to the shame of the couch, as the last player who called ‘next’ would step in, ready to show off. These plastic instruments were the nexus around which my friends and I would gather around a few days a week, at least before we had to get home for school the next day.
The latest releases of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero were met with incredibly low sales numbers, continuing the downward spiral of both franchises. GH was meant to be more than a game but a platform for microtransactions, and this may have been the biggest problem. Many gamers seemed to clamor for a quality track list on a disc, for gameplay that brought them back rather than alienating them, and a focus on features over DLC. Rock Band 4’s lack of features at launch scared away all but the most hardcore of fans.
Personally, I would like to see a return to form for both games. It seems almost insane to have to ask for it, but a new iteration in each series with all of the features fans have come to love, would be great. Advertising with our favorite bands of days past, giving real fans a chance to play at music festivals, and less focus on microtransactions could bring back passionate music fans. Rock Band was always at its best when it focused on pop-rock group play, and at its peak Guitar Hero was known as the more ‘hardcore’ experience catering to those who liked their rock with a side of head banging.
Rhythm games are far from dead, as titles like Crypt of the Necrodancer, Voez, and Thumper have all found some moderate success but they’re far from achieving the heights that Rock Band and Guitar Hero did. The world of games has changed drastically over the lifespan of both these franchises. High end graphics and VR transport us to the dungeons and battlefields of our favorite games. But, I think there are still many of us who just want to be rock stars, strumming on our trusty guitars, on a stage set in our very own living room.