PAX East 14: Is the World Ready for the Return of Plastic Instruments?

In a presentation at PAX East, Harmonix indicated that it has not abandoned the Rock Band franchise as most had assumed. The Rock Band/Guitar Hero style of music game was once among the most popular genres in the industry, but it’s been quite a while since anyone has given them much thought. After a brief moment at the top, the music game bubble burst and both Guitar Hero and Rock Band were indefinitely discontinued. Given how rapidly interest in the genre declined, is there really any hope of its return?

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If anyone can bring music games back to prominence, Harmonix will be the ones to do it. One of the most unfortunate things about the decline of music games was the fact that Rock Band 3 was probably the finest music game ever made, yet barely anyone played it. Rock Band 3 was essentially the concept of the full band plastic instrument music game taken as far as it could go, it just happened to be at a time when no one cared anymore. Even though Rock Band 3 was fantastic, it couldn’t save what was already a sinking ship, so if the genre is to make a comeback it’s going to have to go beyond what it was before.

The two biggest factors in the music game crash were market over-saturation and design stagnation. When the genre began with the original Guitar Hero, it was a very simple game consisting almost entirely of cover songs, a handful of modes, and only the single instrument. With each new game the soundtrack got more recognizable and the modes of play expanded, but the major innovation wouldn’t happen until Rock Band came out. Rock Band established the full band gameplay and implemented the online music store, and from that point forward the genre didn’t really do evolve much more. Each new Guitar Hero and Rock Band game basically consisted of the same basic concept, and while hardcore fans could appreciate the minor improvements and additions made in the sequels, the casual players didn’t see much reason to upgrade when the game they already had did the job just fine.

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While most players didn’t get deep enough to really appreciate the improvements from game to game, that didn’t stop Activision from releasing as many Hero games as possible. During the peak of the genre, between Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, and Band Hero Activision was releasing 3-5 games each year, and that kind of output wouldn’t have been sustainable under any circumstances, let alone with the design stagnation that was taking place. The genre went from having 3+ games a year to having none in a span of couple of years, and there hasn’t really been any clamor for them to return since.

Understanding why and how the genre collapsed, what could Harmonix possibly do with a new Rock Band game? Well, if there’s one thing that would certainly play in their favor it’s the new console generation. While there isn’t a whole lot to be gained from the increased horsepower of the new consoles with this type of game, the mere fact that people are replacing their living room gaming machines means there is an opportunity. One of the main reasons there wasn’t much demand for a new game was because people were perfectly content pulling out of the old ones at parties a few times a year, but if they’ve packed away their old console in favor of a new one, the lack of backwards compatibility means more people may be willing to pick up a current generation Rock Band game.

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With the convenience aspect set aside, what can a new Rock Band offer from a gameplay perspective that would actually get people interested again? This is the real question, and the one that would have to be solved if Harmonix really does attempt to bring the series back. As someone that once really enjoyed the genre but has little desire to return to it, I can’t think of anything that would bring me back. However, just because I can’t think of reason doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, and I’m not opposed to the idea if the concept could be made fresh again. If any developer could revitalize this dead genre it’s certainly Harmonix, though we can only hope Activision doesn’t also return to kill it again by releasing a hundred Hero games a year.