It was a small story from one earlier today, one that went unnoticed by most and probably left most who did notice it unmoved. Harmonix Music Systems, the once-mighty video game company behind the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, announced that it would be putting a halt to the new downloadable content made available weekly for the Rock Band series as of early April. With no new games in the series in the works, and now no new downloadable content to go with it, the minor announcement was essentially the fork in the back of the franchise that once captivated both the music and video game world. Rock Band is dead.
This would've been virtually unimaginable four or five years ago, when the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises were so omnipresent they were showing up as key plot points in episodes of South Park and The Office, serving as a platform for bands like Motley Crue and Guns N' Roses to release new music, and causing soothsayers like Bruce Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt to predict that "in the history of rock 'n' roll, Rock Band may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs or MTV." In 2008, Rock Band and Guitar Hero were two of the three biggest-selling franchises in the video game world, along with the ultra-iconic Mario series. Sales were so booming that Viacom, which purchased Harmonix through MTV Games in 2006, gave the company a bonus of $150 million early that year.
In the years that followed, though, game sales started slowing. The desire to flood the zone with new installments in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises while the games' cultural capital was at its peak resulted in market exhaustion, especially as the Guitar Hero franchise (now no longer being developed by Harmonix) developed full-band play virtually identical to that of Rock Band, and released a slate of competing titles that offered little gameplay innovation, rather just offering new slates of songs to be played. The best days appeared to be behind Harmonix in 2009, when Rock Band 3 debuted to underwhelming sales, despite offering the new innovations (more musically complex drums and guitars, a new synthesizer peripheral) that recent installments had been lacking. It seemed like customers had decided they'd gone far enough with the music video game genre.
Still, the company was putting out new downloadable content every week—usually just three to five songs, along the theme of a band or a genre, but occasionally a full classic rock album or a seven-or-eight song theme pack for Valentine's Day or to promote an artist's new album. Those full-album downloads and more ambitious song packs dwindled down to just the standard handful of songs a week, often along no theme but whatever the company had available at the time (and also less and less strict in its adherence to the "Rock" ideal, as pop songs by Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen were among those offered). Over the years, the company built a song library in the thousands, but after today's announcement, it looks like the current catalog is now final.
As someone who considers—or at least, has considered—himself in the top percent or so of Rock Band superfans, this news is pretty goddamn depressing. I'd long made peace with the idea that there probably weren't going to be any further new titles, or new instruments or cool new add-ons to come in the series, but that was OK—I'd grown up a little sine the height of my fandom, and I didn't need the game to monopolize my life anymore. But I still checked every week to see what new songs were available, and every month or so, I'd download about a dozen of the best new ones and play them through with my friends. It was always fun. And knowing that's not going to happen any more is a huge bummer.
It's hard to overstate the impact that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games had on my life when I was in college. I'd heard about the first Guitar Hero through friends, but not being close with anyone who owned it and not being a big video game guy by nature—my parents didn't even let me own any until I was 13, and by then it felt too late to catch up—I didn't play it until one night I was in Best Buy, and noticed that they had Guitar Hero available for play. I decided to give it a try. I played it until closing, and came back the next night and did the same.
By the end of the week, I somehow found room in my budget to purchase a PS2—my first video game system since the N-64 back in the late '90s—and bought a copy of the game for my own, playing it obsessively, emerging from my dorm room only sporadically in the weeks to follow as I attempted to master (or at least pass) Pantera's "Cowboys From Hell" on expert. I've never been heavy into drugs, but after my first taste of Guitar Hero, I felt I knew pretty well what it felt like to be a crack or meth addict, because I instantly and instinctively reoriented all of my life's scheduling and prioritizing in order to play as much Guitar Hero as humanly possible. Everything else became of secondary importance, and that seemed right and fair.
What about the game was so great, so addictive, so all-consuming? Well, I'd always been a huge music fan, but I was never much of a musician—I picked up the guitar a little in school, but found it unsatisfying, because I was pretty sure I didn't have the songwriting chops to ever write songs as good as my heroes, and I was too far away from having the technical skill to even match what they did. And that was the magic of Guitar Hero—it allowed you not only to feel like you were playing some of your favorite rock songs on guitar, but also allowed you to sound exactly like them as you were doing so. It was as close as you were likely to get to feeling like you were really the guitarist in Deep Purple playing "Smoke on the Water," or in Black Sabbath playing "Iron Man." It was an absolutely intoxicating feeling, especially as someone who'd never felt that rush playing their own songs on their own instrument.
Rock Band, released a year or so after I first got into Guitar Hero, was even better. Not just because it added more instruments than the fake guitar into the mix—drums, which I quickly set on mastering with the same fervor that I did with the guitar, and vocals, which was less technically challenging but far more immediately satisfying—but because it compounded the game's social element. You could have Guitar Hero parties, but they involved a max of two people at once, and left those who weren't interested in either the guitar or the game's competitive aspects a little cold. But now, with the full-band setup, four people could play at once, and there seemed to be something for just about everyone—rare was the malingerer at a Rock Band outing that couldn't get into one of the four instruments, or just into the whole fake-concert atmosphere in general.
For a couple of those years, Rock Band was a pretty major part of my social life. I would play with my friends just about any time they were at my apartment, since unlike with Guitar Hero, this was a game that was never totally satisfying to play on your own. After a year or two (and a game or two) the rate of Rock Banding slowed, but I would still have people over whenever there was a new game out—we played through the entirety of Beatles: Rock Band the night it was released, and when The Clash's London Calling was released as a full-album download, one of my personal all-time favorite albums, we had a drunken mini-party for that too. With music such a large part of the bond between me and my college friends, it was a great way for us all to experience the music that we loved together, trading off instruments and fake-living out the whole "Dude! We should totally start a band!" dream that any decent group of friends has at some point in their lives.
My own investment in the game waned as I left college and started working—by the time the synths came out for Rock Band 3, I was too busy to learn to master it the way I had the guitar and drums. But I still loved playing it with friends on occasion, getting to sing the new songs, feeling that old rush of fake-performing great music again. However, I could feel the love for the games slipping away around me. Most of my friends were still into it, but fewer new people seemed to care or be interested in playing. Even one or two of my friends expressed that they were getting sick of it, saying the whole Rock Band thing was "done" and that we should all move on.
It never even occurred to me that Rock Band could be "done." Sure, I knew it wasn't always going to be as popular as it was in 2007, that it would fade from pop culture and stop showing up in primetime TV shows and such. But I figured among big music and video game enthusiasts, there'd always be a place for it, because even after it stopped being cool and novel and new, it never stopped being fun. To me, saying that you didn't want to play Rock Band anymore because the moment was "over" was like saying "Oh, you still want to do karaoke? God, how '80s." Even if karaoke isn't new anymore, people will always love (and be willing to pay) to get drunk and crowd in a room with their best friends and sing their favorite songs at the top of their lungs. Why shouldn't they want to do the same for free, in the privacy of their own homes, with a full-band setup? I didn't understand.
I still don't really understand. Maybe I'd overestimated the amount of people who loved Rock Band because of its musical involvement, rather than its appeal as a video game. I remember talking to somebody once who said that they played Rock Band like they'd play any other video game, trying to beat it at the highest difficulty levels, without caring about which song was being played or how much they felt like a rock star or whatever while playing it. This was inconceivable to me, but maybe it makes sense to true gamers, who probably made up a fairly big part of the Rock Band core audience. Maybe those people stopped caring about the Rock Band series as it became clear that there was only so much you could do with the whole "play a song as close to the real thing as possible" video game structure before it became stale. If so, I guess I couldn't blame them.
But I have to believe there are a good number of people out there like me, who loved being given a platform and opportunity to play songs as close to the real thing as possible as much as I did. And on behalf of those of us out there, I ask Harmonix this: Please don't give up on Rock Band altogether. Yeah, it might not be your cash cow, flagship game anymore, and you might not get any further $150 million bonuses based on the robust sales of new titles. But there's a core of us that still love the game, still love the feeling it gives us, still love the way it allows us to connect with our favorite people playing our favorite songs. And we're always going to be around.
Just...don't forget about us. If you can't afford to release new content every week anymore, then do so when you can, do so for album anniversaries and special occasions and times where we feel like celebrating the wonderful and rich history of rock music. We'll gladly pay $1.99 per song for the privilege, and we'll do so from now until video games themselves become obsolete. We don't demand further innovation, we don't need any more gimmicks and we don't give a shit about point rewards or being able to buy new guitar straps or whatever. All we want is more music. Don't break up the Band just yet.