Admit it: During its heyday, you practiced Guitar Hero and Rock Band to show off at parties. The music rhythm games — loaded with classic rock anthems you now drunkenly sing with cover bands playing at bars — were the best social glue for house parties and friends without plans on weekends.
And almost abruptly, we stopped playing them.
It’s been five years since the last Rock Band and Guitar Hero games were released, and both franchises are embarking on a comeback tour this October. Their release dates within just weeks of each other are a stunning coincidence.
What killed the video game star? And what does the future of music gaming look like? The story is not unlike the live-fast, die-hard redemptive-comeback journeys you’ve watched on Behind the Music.
From MIT to MTV
Harmonix was founded in 1995 by Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy while they were students at MIT. Egozy was a computer engineer who liked music. Rigopulos was a music major who liked programming. Time would eventually write that both men were among the most influential people of 2008, but right now the pair was just trying to create a game that wasn’t boring after 15 minutes. They formed Harmonix, a technology company built on the idea that anyone should learn to play music regardless of actual knowledge to play music.
Over a decade later, they would crack the code with Guitar Hero, released on the PlayStation 2. The very accessible pick-up-and-play nature skyrocketed Guitar Hero to success.
It’s not hard to see the appeal. It was air guitar given a physical form, a suburban past-time with tangible scores that can be measured. And, like Donkey Kong and its Atari forefathers, Guitar Hero lived up to the essence of gaming: achievement without achieving. You didn’t sell out Madison Square Garden, but you broke your own high score on Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”
In 2006, just a few months before Guitar Hero II would be released to critical praise and achieve sales of over $200 million, Harmonix was purchased by MTV (of Viacom) for $175 million.
The Two Towers
A lot of things come in twos. Pepsi and Coke. Marvel and DC. Schwartz, the upside and the downside. Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
By 2007, Harmonix’s acquisition by Viacom separated them from Guitar Hero publisher RedOctane, who in turn was purchased by Activision. This birthed two music gaming franchises almost immediately. Activision held on to Guitar Hero, while Harmonix with MTV Games unleashed Rock Band, which featured a complete four-piece group.
Loyalties with gamers weren’t formed. Like Pepsi and Coke, the games were things to consume based on moods or whatever was nearest. Guitar Hero maintained its arcade gaming roots in 2007’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock: Just get the high score.
Rock Band approached it differently. It was possible to play solo, but Rock Band’s heart was in its multiplayer. Nothing felt better than when your friends assembled the full squad: the vocalist, the drummer, the bassist, and of course, the guitarist. You felt powerful as a group lost in benign abandon, wailing Red Hot Chili Peppers to five stars and computer-generated applause.
Guitar Hero was head-to-head shredding. Rock Band was group euphoria.
The two franchises competed for the same would-be rockers — Guitar Hero eventually expanded to a four-piece set, Rock Band upping with a keyboard — they reached a ubiquity that would explode on the Best Buy sales floor. Both games released DLC, entire albums to add to your library. The total cost of the games, with peripherals, totaling near the thousands.
We rocked all night and we partied every day. So we stopped.
The wave breaks
This is the part in the documentary where the band suffers an identity crisis and splinters, their fourth or fifth album underwhelming. For music games, too much was too much.
Yearly installments and spin-offs that made heads spin were the norm. Guitar Hero: Rocks the ‘80s, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (the hell?), The Beatles: Rock Band (worth it), Green Day: Rock Band (not so much). There were portable and handheld versions, because you needed to strum “Wonderwall” on the subway.
Then there was Band Hero, a saccharine Guitar Hero featuring Top 40 hits. DJ Hero, which spawned two games but failed to pass expectations.
Was it that simple? Did we tire of strumming on plastic toys for as long as it would take to learn a real instrument? Much of Reddit thinks it was oversaturation, as does Chris Taylor writing for Mashable:
The first culprit: oversaturation. There are just too many games competing in the genre (Band Hero and DJ Hero, anyone?), with too many pricey controllers. A Warriors of Rock guitar bundle will set you back $80. Considering many of the controllers do not play nice with similar games, that’s a lot of dough to drop on pretend jamming.
Another Reddit user, whose name has been deleted, offered this:
As a huge fan of rhythm games before GH/RB were a thing, I have a few theories. The song list got stale, fast. After you’ve done a few releases with the best classic rock songs, the only place you can go is to license more obscure stuff that the general audience may or may not like.
For the most part, rhythm games are meant to be pick up and play focus. I think the tour, making a band, etc. to unlock songs took away from the pick up and play aspect.
[T]he games became too serious. You had a guitar, drums, singer…etc. I believe it got overwhelming. It became less pick up and play. A tutorial shouldn’t take more than one minute to play these types of games. I believe it went too far.
Taylor echoes him/her. “The series also felt like it was running out of great rock anthems for users to emulate,” he wrote on Mashable. “Reviews of Warriors of Rock complained that the set list seemed dull and full of synth-heavy tunes.”
Some also blamed the lackluster economy of the late ‘00s. These games asked for a lot of money, and broke gamers acted accordingly. Activision lost $233 million over 2010’s Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, the final iteration, and laid off its Guitar Hero-centric division afterwards “due to continued declines in the music genre” according to a press release.
“The economy was in trouble, and many of us had rhythm games we were happy with and had nowhere near finished,” wrote user einexile on Reddit.
Space was another factor. After a few games, the guitars piled and the obnoxious drums needed their own corner. Changes in the games would change the controller, making purchases on new peripherals actually necessary to play.
Personally, my reasons for retirement were all of the above. By 2010, I had just started college. Space, money, time? I had none, but I kept the memories. Christmas 2007, when the first Rock Band was released, my cousins and siblings jammed to Bon Jovi and OK Go as the snow fell outside my old home in New Jersey. (I’m still in Jersey, but that’s not the point.)
Our own Yasmin told me in an email:
We stopped playing because [my siblings] didn’t see each other as much as we got older. Guitar Hero feels stupid when you’re playing alone.
Neel had lived out some genuine college glory days.
I was a junior in college. My old frat was taking part in some inter-fraternity charity competition — I think the name was Dime Wars — where you were supposed to raise money through pennies, nickels, and quarters, but not dimes, dimes were evil and meant you lost points. The second day of the week-long event was a Rock Band competition. My frat hastily put together a rag-tag four-piece band, and confusingly enough, I was slotted in as lead guitarist.
I was never an expert at guitar. I was good — could play most songs on Expert, all on Hard — but it was nothing stellar. But we were playing from Rock Band 1, and we drew the Smashing Pumpkins “Cherub Rock” — a song I’ve basically listened to death since I was God-knows how old and had already played it way too many times at home.
I slayed that solo like I was motherfucking Billy Corgan himself. And we looked pretty fucking great doing it. I had on my long black hair wig I found a purpose for at every theme party in college, plus an oversized, dirty purple & blue flannel shirt, and torn jeans with ripped-up Chucks. I looked more like the Indian Kurt Cobain than Corgan. (A year later, when I would start shaving my head periodically, I would finally start to realize what Corgan meant when he sang that he felt like a rat in a cage, despite all his rage.)
Fast forward to the summer of 2012 when I’m moving out of my old college apartment. All my Rock Band equipment is in neglect, covered in sick layers of dust and dried-up liquor that coalesced into some horrible scum. I’m missing a drum stick. I can’t even find the goddamn microphone. They’re the last things I need to fit into my Toyota Camry, and they’re not going to fit.
Without even a moment’s pause, I hurl everything into the nearest dumpster by the parking lot and hit the road. I have fond memories of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but eventually me and all my friends found other things we wanted to do and the games lost their luster. Those two games were emblematic of their time, but that time died off fast. I don’t really miss it.
But if someone manages to snag the new games and has a spare guitar, I don’t think I’d mind sparring for a few rounds.
By December 2010, Viacom sold Harmonix for roughly $200 million.
This is the part in the music documentary when the band, maybe 5 years after fame, have split up and are working in less glamorous gigs or moved on completely. But the music never dies. Just ask Grateful Dead.
Getting the Band Back Together
Since the fall of music games, Harmonix found stability in Dance Central, a series of rhythm games exclusive to the Xbox, that requires no instruments at all. They’ve sold well, but they didn’t quite reach the levels of its band-centric predecessors.
But this year, the band is making a comeback.
Both Activision and Harmonix announced they’re stepping back on stage with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4. Both games are being developed with long-term plans that will sustain each game for years to come. Like a band that found fortune too fast, they’re pumping the brakes.
Guitar Hero Live is reinventing itself from the ground up. Touting a far more realistic presentation over its arcade-like predecessor, Guitar Hero is featuring a live-action video and a more accurate six-button control than the previous iterations’ five buttons. In an interview with IGN, developer Jamie Jackson told his team to “pretend that nothing else has ever been done.”
Harmonix, meanwhile, are going back to the well with Rock Band 4 after years of kind of putting up with people bugging them for it. In an interview with Polygon, Harmonix said Rock Band 4 will be the only Rock Band of this current console generation. Even though oversaturation was kind of more Guitar Hero’s fault, it’s nice they’re being considerate. We’re older now, with bills and student loans to pay.
Five years later and some of us may or may not have started playing real instruments. Though our younger years are behind us, it doesn’t mean we still can’t shred with friends and families in our living rooms. The gaming climate today is ripe for a return to rhythm gaming. When Microsoft and Sony were unveiling the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, they touted their consoles as the living room’s heart for entertainment, and party/social games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are exactly what anyone needs as social lubricant.
Comeback albums almost never live up to expectations. AC/DC’s Black Ice, Guns ‘n Roses’ Chinese Democracy, and Limp Bizkit’s… well, there’s no expectation for them. But these are music games, it’s not like you wrote the songs. Your living room four-piece will be fine, and you’ll rock the next house party again soon.