Rock Band has been on hiatus for just long enough for us to forget we own a stack of plastic instruments. Come on Harmonix; it’s time for a comeback tour.
I’m confident Rock Band developer Harmonix is working on a new entry in the series, because it keeps coyly referencing it via social media. Every time somebody pins one of the team down in an interview and demands a new Rock Band, they’ll carefully avoid saying anything concrete while making a special point of maintaining that the series lives on.
This is a point of concern, of course, after the glut of music games last generation drove that business pretty much to its knees. Both Activision and Harmonix made mistakes there, I think, and what could have been a solid genre has been written out of history as a fad – and an expensive one at that.
With a new Tony Hawk on the horizon, though, it suddenly feels like we could bring back some of those properties and genres that were wiped out when video game greed collapsed in on itself. I’m ready for a new music game, and because of the two major franchises I always felt Rock Band was the superior one, I’m ready for Rock Band 4. Here’s why, and what I want to see:
The world needs a default party game
The plastic instruments lie forgotten in broom closets and landfill. The Wii has gone quietly to casual heaven. The Kinect just never took off. So when I get a bunch of friends together in my house, crack a few beers, and start thinking about what to put on the telly, I can’t think of a game I know will go down well with everyone.
Rock Band was one of those rare games that can be enjoyed by participants and audience alike; at the very least, you’ve got some tunes going to cover the awkward silences of your introverted, nerdy friendship group, amirite? It was accessible to people who’d never otherwise pick up a controller, but it provided bragging rights to ultra-competitive hardcore types.
In short, it was the perfect party game. I want that back – and I want it with new-gen connectivity and snappiness, not the dull old disc-whirring and loading screens of the past generation.
Diverse customised characters to reflect your friendship group
What I loved about Rock Band especially, as opposed to Guitar Hero, was creating my own character. I had a rule in my house that everyone had to start out with an avatar that resembled them as closely as possible – boring clothes, sensible haircut and all – and then earn their way to splendour.
Rock Band enabled this with a template-based but surprisingly varied cartoon character creator, and I’d hope that, moving forward, Harmonix would build in even more options, allowing us to really nail down our looks. I found it really satisfying seeing the core members of Oranjegracht on stage and in inter-gig cut-scenes, all of us recognisably ourselves as a group, thanks to careful build, face shape and colouring choices. “Oh, that’s Caspar, and that’s you,” friends would say as they watched us playing – usually rapidly followed by “What is Nicole wearing? My god.”
Character customisation really shines when you play in groups, and the effect wouldn’t have been half so good with only one body type, for example. This is one aspect Harmonix should really hold on to, and add to if possible – maybe we don’t need to get all Elder Scrolls and Dark Souls up in here, but a few more nods to the diversity of the human race would be great. Your journey as a rock star is way more meaningful when it’s you, I think.
Watching our band progress
As I mentioned above, my house rule was “start real, earn spectacular”. Quite a few of my regular bandmates balked at this at first, but in the end, the avatars they ended up with were far more extravagant and ridiculous than what they would have created originally, because starting off with a boring outfit really motivates you to invest in new customisation pieces wisely, and to appreciate the changes you make.
But it’s not just the fact that you grow from jeans and a crew cut to Valkyrie armour and a top hat over metres of braids; it’s the way your band moves on from tiny venues to big ones, from local trains to private jets. Guitar Hero does this too, but Rock Band, and especially Rock Band 3, gave a really good feeling of progression with it’s tiny, busy cutscenes; excellent none-too-serious flavour text; and well-designed venues.
There’s a reason RPG elements have snuck into so many genres, and it’s because human brains are suckered in by progression. Progression is exactly what Rock Band provides, which is quite a feat giving that nothing meaningful changes as you advance except the difficulty. I want that back in my life: me and up to three buddies, picking up where we left off last month, exclaiming over our increasing fame and wealth.
I said before that Rock Band is accessible at all skill levels, and that’s true. Even people who fear even picking up the guitar will be complicated can croak badly into a microphone. But with no fail mode and lower difficulty levels that really turn it down, every instrument can be played by everyone at your party.
My rock band Oranjegracht was made up of myself and my partner, who played together a couple of times a week for a few years; two friends who would play with us every few weeks; another friend who played with us every night for a month but then vanished; a classically-trained vocalist whose monthly sessions set high scores we never broke without her, even though she never knew any of the songs; an infrequent visitor who could play any instrument after studying the screen for 30 seconds; and various party goers who couldn’t even hold the gear the right way up.
All of us had a good time. When we were alone, my partner and I knuckled down, repeating songs, pushing for new high scores, practicing tricky passages. With our more regular band mates we’d work on increasingly difficult songs but also return to easy favourites. At parties we’d just go crazy. And then: everything else in between. Rock Band is so flexible; the only accessibility problem is finding songs people like, which was never a problem for me and mine.
The only change I’d call for moving forward is a better skill ramp between medium and hard. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I spent with Rock Band and I still can’t play any but the simplest songs on hard. Am I probably a bit crap? Yes. Do loads of other people hit the same wall? Indeed: song difficulty needs to scale more slowly at hard, I think. (Similarly, guys, please think carefully about whether you want to challenge Rocksmith and provide a “learn to play real instruments” thing. I posit that you do not. We’re here for the fantasy.)
Music is brilliant
Have you ever been reading someone’s profile and they say “I love music” and you just immediately swipe left? Because if you need to say you love music, and you’re not going to qualify it with “I’m in a band” or “I collect LPs” then you may as well say “I breathe oxygen”. Loving music is human nature.
Music games provide a really cool way to engage with music. In a time when the ubiquity of personal music players mean we mostly listen to music as a background to doing something else (walking, reading, working, gaming), music games hold your attention, and draw it to aspects of music you might not otherwise notice – the bass line as opposed to the bass drum, the synth as opposed to the guitar, how lead guitar doesn’t always follow the melody.
It’s also a great way to discover new music or educate yourself on the best of the past. While Guitar Hero arguably had the better band-specific collections (Aerosmith and Metallica were brilliant, Green Day and The Beatles not so much), both franchises fronted excellent collections of music. Balancing the need to get pop and post-millennial recognisable favourites in there alongside sixty or so years of classic rock is a hell of a chore, and anti-DLC proponents never appreciated the online music stores that helped fill in the gaps, but the results of both Harmonix and Activision’s efforts were impressive.
Rock is incredible
Rock is the most important genre of music since music exited the classical age. Go on about jazz and swing and whatever if you like; it’s rock that has had the most profound, lasting, and ongoing effect on popular culture. Pop, R&B and hip hop definitely hold greater sway over the public consciousness today, it’s true – but these important genres wouldn’t have had space to flourish if rock hadn’t slid into a niche and then cranked it open like a crowbar.
Music is eternal; if you’re willing to take the time to learn to appreciate it, you can see worth in any genre or style that has ever existed. But people have to be willing to try. In these days of people thinking that Kanye is going to make Paul McCartney famous, anything that draws attention to classic music and helps keep it alive is a good thing in my books.
Both Rock Band and Guitar Hero were made by people who loved rock and its many spin-offs and descendants, especially, I would argue, glam, metal and grunge. The over the top characters and costumes, bombastic sets and general flair for the dramatic are a send up of a hugely diverse musical world so loving that you often can’t tell what’s parody and what’s something a designer thought would just be totally epic.
It’s absolutely time
With four years of amnesia behind us, the world is ready to spend money on plastic instruments again. It’s ready to see better graphics on the gameplay formula we know and love. 2010 doesn’t seem that long ago when you look at the numbers, but when you’ve just spent a few hours waxing nostalgic over Rock Band you see that actually it is forever ago. Come back, rhythm action music games; all is forgiven in the post-annual release age.