There was a time when everyone was playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero. And then they stopped. All of them. At the same time.
The billion-dollar plastic guitar industry vanished overnight. It was a painful time for everyone associated with that genre.
But Harmonix, the studio that created both franchises, endured. It bought itself out from its owners Viacom, launched a dancing franchise with Xbox, teamed up with Disney and experimented with new genres and platforms – all with its expertise in music at its core.
And now, five years after the last major Rock Band release, Harmonix is dusting off those plastic instruments to launch Rock Band 4. But why?
In those five years we've seen that hundreds of thousands of players continue to play the game each month. So, we know there's still a dedicated hardcore base that's playing regularly, but we also know that there's been a long enough gap that people who did stop playing are now missing it,” says Harmonix product manager Eric Pope.
Every time we make announce something, the reaction is Hey this sounds great! But what about Rock Band 4?” It's also a good point to get the game out as lots of people now own a PS4 or Xbox One.”
He adds: It's also a good time for Harmonix. We've spent the last five years stretching out and trying various new things in the music gaming space. We've pushed the limits of what you can do in a music game with Dance Central on Kinect, A City Sleeps for PC, as well as other projects in virtual reality and mobile. The Rock Band 4 team is bringing with them a ton of new knowledge to a franchise they are already experts on.
"We have no intention of engaging in a retail arms
race with anybody this time around."
Eric Pope, Harmonix
Last time around, the battle between Rock Band and Guitar Hero was fierce; new versions of both games came out almost every other month. The market became saturated, gamers lost interest and the bubble burst. The fear is that history could repeat itself, especially as there are reports of a new Guitar Hero coming this year, too.
But Pope insists it won't be drawn into another plastic guitar war.
It's no secret that the band game space got really crowded last time,” he says. It was a lot to keep up with as a fan of the genre. So some fans rather understandably needed a break.
We have no intention in engaging in a retail arms race with anybody this time around. We want to deliver the best game the series has ever seen. The current state of consoles is really exciting for us, as it gives us an opportunity to really deliver on the ‘Rock Band Platform' ambitions we've always had for the game. It's much easier today to grow a single game, adding new features and content along the way, pivoting based on player feedback.”
The ‘Rock Band Platform' is something Pope continues to reference throughout the interview. He says that the fourth Rock Band game is not so much about trying to recreate the glory days of 2008, but rather to be a game for the new machines that is aimed at those hardcore players that are still buying DLC today.
While the Rock Band phenomenon – or fad, as I've seen it called - reached far beyond anyone's wildest expectations in 2007 and 2008, it was always a dedicated core that came back every week to check out the new songs we were releasing, bought the new entries in the series, and re-upped on hardware when we put new stuff out,” says Pope. Rock Band 4 is for them.”
Alex Verrey, communications director at publisher Mad Catz, adds: Digital distribution has moved on considerably. The plan is for Rock Band 4 to remain relevant throughout the console cycle and continue to surprise lovers of music and rhythm gaming the world over.”
Harmonix is eager to keep its old fans with the launch of Rock Band 4, and hopes they will be able to use their old instruments and songs when the new game launches – which will be music to the ears of old-school fans.
But when it comes to bringing in new players, Harmonix has to overcome the fact that rock music just isn't very popular at the moment. But Pope believes rock may be about to make a comeback. And perhaps Rock Band can help.
As a self-acknowledged music snob, I am a little bit bummed out that guitar-driven rock isn't the force in popular music that it once was, but I also know there's never been a better time to be into it,” he concludes. There are tons of amazing bands around the world putting out really great stuff without having to go through the traditional industry channels, and the internet puts it all at your fingertips.
One of the most rewarding parts of making these games has always been how it exposes new audiences and generations to music they'd otherwise never hear on the radio. I think the decline of heavy radio rotation for guitar music is only another opportunity for Rock Band 4 to make a statement.”