The Instrument Genre years
With the death of the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero series and Harmonix being let go by MTV Games, we’re currently seeing the demise of the music-game genre. Or at least the musical-instrument genre – dancing seems to have stepped up to at least partially fill the void. All of which makes Ubisoft’s sudden entrance into the instrument genre, due for this September, even more unexpected – but more on that later. Only 3 years ago, the music game genre was booming. In fact its success was so remarkable that, in a record year for games sales overall, the rise of the music genre seemed to be most responsible for a bumper 2008. Guitar Hero and RockBand were the two titles underpinning the music genre so with the former now gone people are naturally asking if, and how, Rock Band can survive. Harmonix themselves have been teasing an announcement at the forthcoming E3 but the hints have been pointing at either new IP and/or a use of motion controllers. So is Rock Band quietly going to slip into the background of Harmonix’s lineup?
Well firstly, the massive sales success of 2008 was never going to be repeated simply because a large proportion of the quoted numbers was down to the money spent on expensive instrument controllers – controllers that have to be compatible with all future versions of the game. Rock Band 3 added the keyboard controller but for the most part their target market already owns all the instruments they need for the foreseeable future. This should be a good thing – Harmonix have always said that they want Rock Band to be a platform on which to sell content so not having to ship and push instrument-controllers is only to their advantage.
The Rock Band Platform
Presumably the households are now out there with their controllers, they just need to start buying the new stuff Harmonix are selling. Originally that was purely going to be DLC, which went along with the ‘platform’ idea – a disc was simply a portal to playing and downloading whatever songs each person wanted. Since we don’t really have any sales figures or trends for the DLC we don’t really know how well that’s done for Harmonix, but they’ve been remarkably consistent to that goal, releasing new tracks every week in batches that have only gotten bigger. Add to that the Rock Band Network that allows bands to create and put up their own tracks for sale and it’s clear that Harmonix can’t be accused of shrinking away from the idea of Rock Band as a digital platform. But Rock Band 2 – a boxed retail release – ended up being released only a year after the first, much sooner than many expected. Perhaps this was a case of striking while the iron was hot since the game sold respectably – over 4 million compared to the first title’s 5 million or so (according to Screen Digest).
Another reason for releasing new discs and instrument bundles is that it simply represents great promotion. Having the discs on store shelves along with the giant instrument boxes, automatically gives Rock Band visibility which they need in order to build an audience. New discs and bundles give retailers a reason to keep stocking Rock Band titles – an old product way past its peak sales is not going to stay in shops for long, especially when it takes up a lot of valuable floor space. Without steady sales or a large marketing spend – a la Nintendo with their evergreen DS and Wii first party titles – the only way to keep growing the market for Harmonix’s digital content was to have fairly regular retail disc releases, hence RB2, Lego: Rock Band and so on. Of course, those regular releases have to sell for this to work.
Splitting the platform
The more worrying cases are those of The Beatles: Rock Band and Rock Band 3. Beatles represented a victory for Harmonix and MTV Games over Activision in securing the rights, but it almost certainly cost them too much. The marketing push for Beatles was much higher than for any other Rock Band, probably to ensure they made the licensing fees back…and yet Screen Digest reports sales of about 3 million – a disaster that seems to have led to MTV Games getting rid of Harmonix and ultimately closing down. And, apparently because of the licensing conditions they agreed with Apple Corp, the Beatles tracks they had and could release would only be compatible with The Beatles: Rock Band, effectively splitting their own platform. Limiting their potential DLC sales to only Beatles: Rock Band owners serves no-one and as a way of encouraging sales of that game, it hasn’t paid off – it turns out that The Beatles, even with a game that is a lavish tribute to them, were not enough of a carrot to bring in customers in anywhere near the numbers expected.
Rock Band 3, with its introduction of keyboards, harmonies and pro modes, has caused another division within Harmonix’s DLC library – all DLC being released after RB3 is no longer compatible with the older games, so anyone wanting to buy new content has to buy the newest game. Judging by the disappointing sales of 3 this hasn’t worked out and it means the DLC is now being sold to a potential audience that is much, much smaller than before. On the other hand you could argue that the people who are likely to buy Rock Band 3 are the dedicated fans, the people who were buying most of the DLC before. Without any numbers we can’t say if that’s true of not.
What’s clear though is that Rock Band 3 is a game that focuses on the hardcore members of its audience with the addition of Pro Mode. This sought to bring the game much closer to playing a real instrument – with the keyboard in Pro Mode you’re playing the actual notes of the song verbatim, for example. For the guitar it requires a more complicated controller – either a Mustang controller with fake strings and 100 buttons or a specially made Squier guitar that can also be plugged into your console.
One of the main criticisms of the instrument genre from the uninitiated has always been “Why not play a real instrument instead?”, which is to miss the point. The appeal is that the games lets novices and the relatively unmusical experience some of the pleasure of playing music or, perhaps more accurately performing music. Along the way it works as a remarkably good teacher of timing, rhythm and some of the co-ordination involved in actual musicianship, which just happens to be a side-benefit of the game. Rock Band 3‘s Pro Mode, requiring expensive controllers, some of which can double as actual instruments, does start to make this question pertinent again. For any player looking for a greater sense of immersion in the music ‘playing’ experience there is always the readily available and often cheaper alternative of simply buying an instrument and learning the real thing. By all accounts I’m certainly not the only one to have made that jump. So why release the complicated $150 Mustang controller? The Squier guitar is less questionable but still, at £195/$280, a relatively expensive way to go about learning a real instrument.
Harmonix might argue that the Pro Mode and its controllers are only aimed at a tiny niche that want to learn instruments within the Rock Band framework, but it’s also the cause of a split in the DLC library between Rock Band 3 and its predecessors. Surely that’s a large change in the direction of their platform for the sake of this niche?
My Rock Band experience
Rock Band is a series that I’m a huge fan of. If I were to list the games that have had the largest influence on me, not just as a gamer but as a person, then Rock Band would have to be near the top. I’ve probably spent as much time with that game as with any other. I’ve certainly spent as much money on it – thanks to the huge collection of songs I’ve downloaded – as I have on several other games. It’s brought massive amounts of joy to me and many friends, gamer and non-gamer alike. The reaction I’ve witnessed from ‘non-gamers’ has helped to confirm, in my mind, the potential future reach of interactive entertainment as a medium. Perhaps most importantly to me, playing Rock Band convinced me to get back into playing music after an 8 year hiatus, as well as to learn 2 new instruments in the bass and electric guitars.
Rocksmith – the pitch
Which conveniently brings us to Rocksmith, a game that isn’t really a game at all – it’s explicitly aimed at teaching you how to play guitar and it works with just about any electric guitar. Leaving aside any questions over how (and how well) the technology works, there was a lot of skepticism at the announcement since the the consensus was that the instrument genre was now ‘over’. Rocksmith isn’t really in the same genre at all though – it’s aiming to be a tool firstly and foremost. Ubisoft have previous experience with serious games that aim for self-improvement – their My…Coach games, from my experience, have been cheap and popular games on the Nintendo platforms. With the success of Just Dance on the Wii, Ubisoft could also argue that they understand the music genre. The major expense for creating Rocksmith would be licensing the tracks but Guitar Hero and Rock Band have already helped to establish a new appreciation for gaming among record companies – they already know how licensing can increase their own sales. With the added cachet of Rocksmith being for real budding musicians, there shouldn’t be a shortage of artists happy to have their music licensed. Meanwhile for retailers, they don’t have to take a gamble on the delivery, storage and floor-space costs of giant instrument boxes, so they’re going to be much more eager to stock the title.
Beyond the sales questions, is Rocksmith a good idea as a teaching tool? Obviously it’s too early to say but it’s worth pointing out one of the aspects of the instrument genre that could make Rocksmith particularly useful – the note-highway. From what little that has been shown, we already know that Rocksmith uses a horizontal highway instead of a vertical one and it hasn’t been angled away from the viewer either, but the principle of scrolling ‘notes’ and matching your timing as they reach a point seems to be much the same. As a way of engendering muscle memory in a player, the scrolling notes approach has already proven to work in Rock Band and the like – as a way of teaching music it could be brilliant. Your vision is focused on one small space with your body reacting as notes enter, while with sheet music and guitar tab the sensation is much more of ‘reading’ and it feels much more like you’re processing the information – at least until you’ve spent a lot of time with either system and acclimatised yourself to them. Either way, the panning/page-turning and scrolling of either sheet music or tab can add another concentration breaking hassle to learning music and further removes you from learning at an instinctive level. While learning with an electronic ‘aid’ might seem alien to some, for today’s generation of new guitar players and gamers it is much more natural. Feeding the information in steadily on a scrolling note-highway, akin to the punch-cards on old player pianos, completely eliminates the need for the brain to process the timing information being communicated in sheet music or tab (usually very poorly relayed in the case of the latter).
Of course, sheet music is a much more subtle and powerful way of communicating music; tablature is a democratic way of doing so, readable and writable by just about anyone anywhere. That doesn’t mean, particularly for beginners, that Rocksmith couldn’t sit alongside those two or be helpful in conjunction with them. Ubisoft might well be onto something with this title and they might even have exploited a gap that Harmonix should have filled first. Rock Band 3‘s Pro Mode attempts that while still being part of the game and I can’t help feeling like it compromised the Rock Band platform as a result, while the route it offers into real guitar playing isn’t as appealing to the average consumer as it should be.