In the late aughts, you could not escape the plastic instrument revolution. You’d see kiosks in game stores with guitar controllers hanging from them, all with Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” blasting from the TV speakers. Drum sets and microphones would be sitting on Best Buy floors, with kids waiting in line to use them. If there’s one group responsible for that revolution, it’s Harmonix. As the creators of Guitar Hero, Harmonix already had their foot in the door when it came to making classic music games, but their magnum opus, the Rock Band series, was the spark that ignited the powder keg. Rock Band’s rise to icon status and fall from relevance was faster than a Jimi Hendrix solo, but thanks to Harmonix’s subtle hints, the series has the potential to come back. It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to use those Fisher-Price-esque plastic instruments, so the idea of a Rock Band game in 2015 or 2016 is a curious one. But curiosity doesn’t mean success: Rock Band is a series that has delivered so much in so little time, and with much more innovative peers on the market, Rock Band’s hand is stacked against them. A Rock Band game succeeding in today’s gaming world is highly unlikely.
Rock Band’s genesis stemmed from Harmonix’s previous franchise, Guitar Hero. Before being bought by MTV Networks, Harmonix designed a fresh new approach to the rhythm game. Guitar Hero was the westernization of the rhythm genre, a rocked-out title that took the niche appeal of Japanese games like Dance Dance Revolution and Beatmania and made it palatable to the West. After their separation from the Guitar Hero franchise (which was purchased by Activision, along with publisher RedOctane), Harmonix expanded their vision beyond the guitar with full band gameplay. Introducing drumming and vocals allowed the rock star fantasy to come alive. Rock Band released in 2007 to unanimous critical acclaim. With classic rock anthems in its track list and a strong focus on local multiplayer, Rock Band was heralded as one of the generation’s defining games. Rock Band also pioneered a great use of downloadable content. Its song store allowed players to choose from its library of new Rock Band tracks. The pick-and-choose DLC system let players pay for songs that they wanted instead of confining it to expensive hit-or-miss tracklists of 30 or 40 songs. Rock Band’s ambition was furthered with the sequel Rock Band 2, which released a year later. Online band multiplayer and an expanded career mode dwarfed the comparatively slim Rock Band 1, all with the Rock Band DLC store being updated every week.
But as the generation continued, the band multiplayer of the series began to lose its appeal. With both Rock Band and Guitar Hero producing spinoff after spinoff, the band subgenre became packed with auxiliary tracklists and little innovation. Guitar Hero eventually collapsed under its own weight, with Activision retiring the series after releasing upwards to five Guitar Hero games for consoles in a single year. Rock Band pressed on with Rock Band 3, which introduced new controllers to better authenticate real-world instruments and continued support for the Rock Band DLC store. But Rock Band 3’s progressions were hampered by an unbalanced track list, expensive new controllers, and the growing disinterest in the genre as a whole. Rock Band 3 marked the death of the band game fad, as the final DLC song, Don McLean’s “American Pie” was released to the Rock Band Store in 2013. Since the series’ retirement, Harmonix has gone back to basics. After a reminiscent detour in the arcade game Rock Band Blitz (a spin on the company’s past game Frequency), Harmonix pioneered the next big music game boom with the Kinect game Dance Central on Xbox 360. Their current projects include Fantasia: Music Evolved (a Kinect rhythm game based on the Disney movie Fantasia) and the Kickstarted reboot of their PS2 classic, Amplitude.
Despite past successes, Rock Band was Harmonix’s claim to fame, so it makes sense that the series isn’t entirely forgotten. At this year’s PAX East, Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos expressed interest in bringing the series back from the dead and into the next generation of gaming. But as we’ve stated before, bringing back a series like Rock Band is difficult. The main issue is trying to innovate with something like Rock Band, specifically the gameplay. The controllers themselves offer little room to expand and create something new, since their functionality was so consistent over the years. Pressing the fretkeys or tapping the cymbal pads never changed during Rock Band’s entire run as a franchise. Sure, you were given more drumpads and more microphones (for vocal harmonies), but these nuances never felt transcendent. They were extraneous, optional, and dare I say it, gimmicky.
But Rock Band’s standstill of innovation lies in a recent survey distributed by Harmonix. In the survey, readers are asked questions regarding play time, amounts of controllers, and past downloads of DLC. The final question, however, is the most interesting: a list of what players would like to see in “the future of Rock Band.” Of the options, only one provides any substantiality for the series: “a new Rock Band title on CURRENT-GEN consoles (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U).” All other options, like DLC sales and new games on legacy consoles, don’t do anything as a “next-generation franchise.” That leaves a current-gen Rock Band game as the only worthwhile choice (and the choice that’s likely to be the most popular). But the problem lies in pure uncertainty; we really don’t know how Rock Band can evolve any further. Harmonix has already aimed to close the gap between being a gamer and being a musician with their efforts in Rock Band 3, which ended up missing its mark considerably due to a terrible cost of entry and a lackluster teaching mode. Building another successful Rock Band game would mean eliminating that gap entirely, which would be interesting if the Rocksmith series hadn’t already done it. Rock Band is a game series, not a teaching tool, an idea that made Rock Band 3 a schizophrenic and unappealing finale to an otherwise fun series.
The problem with a Rock Band reboot is that all opportunities to advance the series further have either failed or have already been done. Rock Band 2 defined the series with pitch-perfect online play, a great setlist, and a constant vibe of fun over authenticity. Rock Band 3 tried to be both a teaching tool and a game, but only succeeded in providing a rock star fantasy simulator like those before it. As a teaching tool, Rocksmith succeeded where Rock Band 3 failed. But simultaneously, Rock Band as a game series has reached a dead end. Where else can the series go? Unless Harmonix can completely change and renovate the controller-based instrument gameplay, the “next-gen Rock Band” will simply be Rock Band on PS4, Xbox One and Wii U. It would be the equivalent of a HD remake of Rock Band, albeit with new songs. This conundrum makes a new Rock Band game a sketchy proposition. Harmonix have the potential to make Rock Band great again, but right now, the odds are not stacked in their favor. Other games have succeeded where Rock Band itself failed, and as any rock star knows, following up an incredible opening act is not easy.