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Getting The Band Back Together – A Rock Band Retrospective

The stage lights burn hot on my face as I clutch the guitar, my left hand carefully positioned over the neck, right hand ready to hit the strings like my life depended on it. The crowd are restless; they don’t know what’s coming next. I do. I’ve seen the set list. This one’s a show stopper, one that they’ll remember for weeks to come. I level my breathing, nervousness setting in as the singer starts up. “Carry on my wayward son! There’ll be peace when you are done…” Don’t mess this up, I think and then – the drums strike, signalling to the rest of the band to begin. My fingers press hard onto the buttons of my guitar and I… wait, buttons?!

While you could argue that the Rhythm Game genre came into prominence with Dancing Stage (Dance Dance Revolution for you lot outside the UK) it’s true jump in popularity was with Harmonix and Activisions 2005 PS2 release Guitar Hero. Loosely based on Konami’s arcade game, GuitarFreaks, Guitar Hero was an instant hit. The design was simple. The player held a smallish, plastic, guitar shaped controller (designed to look like a Gibson SG) with five, colour coded buttons on the neck and a bar on the body that could be clicked up and down. On the screen was a track down which coloured dots representing the five buttons would travel. The player must press the required button and “strum” the bar as the onscreen prompts passed a specific line to play the song, simulating playing an actual guitar. Score well on a song and you progress to the next one, unlocking new tracks as you go.

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When Guitar Hero came out I’d been playing real guitar for almost ten years, self taught but becoming more and more proficient by the year. When I saw Guitar Hero I scoffed at the idea of playing music on a plastic instrument with only five buttons. It looked like something Fisher Price would produce, something I was about to become quite familiar with as our first child was just on the way. Then I gave the game a try when I was in our local Game store. I liked it. It was… fun. The next weekend I went back and had another try. The weekend after that I went back and bought a copy. And that was the start of what has become probably one of my biggest gaming obsessions.

2006 saw the release of Guitar Hero 2, jumping the series to the then fledgling next gen machines with a version for XBox 360. Not only was this the start of annual releases for the game, something that would sour the reputation of the series with gamers until it’s hiatus in 2010, it also saw the departure of developer Harmonix from the series, Activision replacing them with Tony Hawks developer Neversoft. And it’s there that we leave Guitar Hero for, while it laid solid foundations for the guitar rhythm genre, Harmonix had much bigger plans.

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In 2007 Harmonix, through publisher MTV Games, released their new take on the genre. Rock Band was both a revelation and a revolution. Enabling up to four players to compete onscreen playing either guitar (lead and bass) drums or vocals, it was a highly skilled party game with a flexible difficulty level, allowing high ability players to compete alongside newcomers. Partnering with Mad Catz, the game was sold solus with a number of instrument options. The full band pack came with a wired guitar (modelled after a Fender Stratocaster) a wired microphone and a wired drum kit comprising of four pads, a kick pedal and two wooden drumsticks. It was a monstrous, meaty pack but was immensely popular and became very hard to find at the Christmas of that year. Harmonix had single handedly taken the basic concept of the guitar rhythm game and turned it into a band rhythm game. But their long term plans were even more revolutionary.

Harmonix aimed to position Rock Band as a platform as well as a game. It launched with a robust music store, a service that provided focused DLC in an iTunes style shop front with a pledge to add new music every Thursday. This DLC was planned to be compatible across all games in the series and this, along with a decent online environment, allowed the game to live on beyond it’s, admittedly fun, single player campaign and raised the title above it’s only competitor, Guitar Hero, which had DLC that (in the early days at least) was often incompatible between different versions of the game.

2008 saw the first sequel in the franchise with Rock Band 2, an iteration that not only refined the main game but also demonstrated further Harmonix’s commitment to the series as a platform. Rock Band owners who picked up the sequel would find in the box a code which would allow them to copy most of the tracks from the first games disc to their hard drive for play in the second game. Compared to Guitar Hero where players were required to switch games to play specific songs, this was a revelation. Harmonix continued this through the series spin off games, Lego Rock Band and Rock Band Green Day, with the only exception (due to licensing) being the Rock Band Beatles spin off.

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Rock Band 2 also introduced the Rock Band Network, a platform into which artists could self publish versions of their own songs with Rock Band instrument tracking, opening up a whole host of independent music available for the game. The Network, coupled with the store and the exportable content meant that there was a huge amount of content available for the game (at the time of writing the official Rock Band list stands at 4221 total tracks – http://www.harmonixmusic.com/games/rock-band/legacy-songs/)

As Guitar Hero started to follow in Rock Band’s tracks, adding features with each release to rival it’s competitor, 2010’s Rock Band 3 took the formula further by introducing a “Pro” mode and a new instrument – the keyboard. Pro mode further set trends that, in this instance, Guitar Hero did not follow, presenting players with a visual representation of guitar tablature or keyboard music that required them to form chords or play individual notes – in other words, the game became a music tuition software. Mad Catz released not only the keyboard but a pro guitar controller which came in two flavours; a real Fender Stratocaster with MIDI pickups and sensors in the neck, a rare instrument to find, or a cheaper, more mainstream alternative; a Fender Mustang with 102 individual buttons representing finger positions up the neck and six plastic strings which could detect when they were plucked. For music aficionados, these instruments were highly sought after as they could also be used outside of the game through MIDI output connections.

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While Guitar Hero stayed in the media limelight as the popular poster boy for band rhythm games, Harmonix’s behemoth maintained respect with gamers. As well as the main series and its spin offs, they also released a number of portable titles for iOS, PSP and DS systems, as well as a download only console game, Rock Band Blitz. These smaller titles were similar in gameplay to Harmonix’s earlier PS2 music game, Amplitude, played without instruments and relying on quick button presses rather than co-ordinated dexterity. The licensing agreement with Mad Catz also led to a varied number of instruments being produced for the games, mirroring real life instruments, including a set of replicas to accompany the release of The Beatles Rock Band and even some real wooden instruments.

The non game impact of Rock Band and, indeed, Guitar Hero should also not be downplayed . A number of music acts, notably Canadian Prog Rock group Rush, had a resurgence of popularity following inclusion of their songs within the games and some artists even used the platform to host new music, for example Guns N’ Roses releasing the debut song from their Chinese Democracy album, Shacklers Revenge, as a track in the retail release of Rock Band 2.

The music store continued adding fresh content for three years following the release of Rock Band 3, until the song American Pie by Don McLean signalled the end of regular updates. A fitting choice given the lyric “The day the music died.” – rhythm games were waning in popularity as gamers were looking to the future and the next generation. Motion controls were starting to make an inroad with Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move controllers beginning to test the waters, and UbiSoft’s Rocksmith games pushing further with the Pro mode established in Rock Band 3, allowing players to plug any of their real instruments into their PS3 or XBox 360 consoles and play along to the songs on the disc.

However, one could argue that this was all too much in the way of experimentation – Kinect and Move were eventually relegated to secondary features and Rocksmith has barely made the impact you can imagine UbiSoft hoped it would. Harmonix, now an independent developer, continued to experiment with Rhythm games, releasing the Dance Central franchise and Fantasia: Music Evolved for Microsoft Kinect across the XBox 360 and XBox One consoles, but the focus on Kinect as a controller limited the appeal of the games. In 2014, they began a kickstarter for a reboot of their popular PS2 title, Amplitude, a campaign that met its goal, with the game releasing on PS4 in March of 2015. But there was still the lingering shadow of Rock Band.

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For me, Rock Band was the pinnacle of rhythm gaming. I followed the franchise through its lifetime and, while my song library of 499 tracks is barely a scratch on the total number available, I put in roughly around 1000 hours of gameplay across the franchise. I still own all my instruments including the Pro Guitar and Keyboard of which I use the MIDI functionality within my home recordings (here’s a video I made on how to connect the Rock Band keyboard to your iPad, folks! http://youtu.be/X3clK6lFFDc) but, as a musician, I always preferred to play the games as pure arcade escapism, finding a lot more fun and skill in playing the “five button” versions of the songs over the pro versions, which felt too much like “work”. To say I was hungry for more Rock Band would be an understatement.

In February 2015, Harmonix surprised the gaming community. Three new tracks were added to the Rock Band store for download. This followed with a further two tracks the week after along with a cryptic call to complete a survey asking gamers what they would look for in a new game in the series. On March 5th, it happened – Harmonix announced that Rock Band 4 would release in late 2015 on XBox One and Playstation 4 consoles. The crowd went wild. This was the encore they’d asked for. The announcement hit all the right notes – back compatibility with DLC and controllers, new modes, back to basics gameplay. Rumours persist that a new Guitar Hero is also in the works, but this time Harmonix got there first.

There certainly still seems to be an appetite for rhythm games in the community and there’s a lot of excitement for the new Rock Band title; time will, of course, tell if it’s a return to top form or a simple cash in to try and relive former, younger glories, but one thing’s for certain – when Rock Band 4 takes the stage, there’ll be a hell of a crowd there to see it, and hopefully it’ll pick up some new, younger fans along the way!

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