In 2005, the music rhythm genre was revitalized in the West with the release of Guitar Hero, developed by Harmonix. This new era of popularity peaked a couple of years later when Guitar Hero III and the new Harmonix franchise, Rock Band, came along in 2007. At that time music rhythm games were among the most popular in the entire gaming industry - the sky was the limit. With that in mind, publishers tried to capitalize on the immense popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band by releasing numerous spin-offs and iterations in a short period of time, saturating the market. This lead to a sharp decline in music game sales for 2009 and a gloomy forecast for 2010. With Green Day: Rock Band just around the corner and Rock Band 3 coming out later this year, what direction does Rock Band need to take to reinvigorate the franchise?
Harmonix haven't revealed much information on Rock Band 3's feature-set, but a few things have slipped out. First, we know the game will have vocal harmonies, which comes as no surprise considering The Beatles: Rock Band already incorporated that feature. Second, details have emerged which suggest a new keyboard peripheral is in the works. There's also the interviews with Dhani Harrison (son of The Beatles' George Harrison) and MTV discussing the possibility of two new features - teaching players more about music through Rock Band and utilizing motion controls such as Natal and Move. All of these features are speculation at this point as Harmonix haven't officially announced anything yet, but at the very least they show the studio is experimenting with desperately needed innovative ideas.
There's also the question of the relevance of future band-specific Rock Band titles. Landing the license for arguably the biggest rock band of all time, The Beatles, was a huge coup for Harmonix, who had high hopes for The Beatles: Rock Band. While that game was a brilliant tribute and commercial success, it still fell short of many analysts sales projections. This likely occurred because of a fundamental demographic mismatch. The Beatles can resonate with all age groups, however, they naturally appeal to older baby boomers who don't seem interested in gaming, which the inability of The Beatles: Rock Band to penetrate that market further demonstrates. Along the same lines, a recent poll from Harmonix on future band-specific games is somewhat troubling. The poll gave readers a choice between Led Zeppelin, Queen, U2, The Eagles and Pink Floyd - all classic rock bands that target the same uninterested audience.
On the other end of the band spectrum, Green Day: Rock Band is set for release on June 8th. This time it seems Harmonix have got the right audience in mind, as Green Day appeals to a younger age group, one that is currently playing music rhythm games. The problem here is not the audience but the format. The younger, tech savvy generation is much more likely to opt for the convenience and freedom of choice digital distribution offers, calling into question the point of having Green Day on disc. This game could've easily been released as a downloadable track pack and would likely achieve the same results. Either way you look at it there's a mismatch, meaning the band-specific disc needs to go the way of the dinosaur.
The initiative that looks the most promising for the future of music rhythm games is Rock Band Network. The idea behind it being to give artists the ability to create Rock Band tracks based on their music without Harmonix as the middleman. Rock Band Network provides users with the software needed to convert their songs and place them on the Rock Band Store, earning 30% of the revenue. This idea seems like a realization of the original promise behind Rock Band - namely, creating a music platform where users can pick and choose from a wider variety of tracks. Rock Band Network could easily become the gaming equivalent of the iTunes Store and could even integrate with it. For example, buying a track on Rock Band would also give you access to an MP3 download from the iTunes Store or vise versa. Hopefully Harmonix continue to develop the network because there is a great deal of potential in the concept.
To summarize, the music rhythm genre has declined over the past couple years due to an excessive amount of retail releases and a lack of innovation - the only major change since the original Guitar Hero has been the full band ensemble of Rock Band. Harmonix, creators of both Guitar hero and Rock Band, need to take the lead as they have done in the past. Some of the rumored details of Rock Band 3 sound intriguing but they will continue to encounter the same saturated market unless they truly make Rock Band a music platform. Rock Band Network appears to be a big step in that direction and I can't wait to see more of it.