Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2

In Part 1, we explored an abridged history of plastic-instrument games and their surge and ebb in the general market. In this installment, we will examine how specifically the two major primary-developer/publisher pairs (Neversoft/Activision of later Guitar Hero titles and EA/Harmonix of Rock Band) approached their products, and the shortcomings of the principles guiding each. Since hardware was by and large interchangeable and affected each series equally, the differences in tactics boil down almost entirely to software and available content libraries. Let the case study begin!

This is what the thunderclap at the end of a Slayer song looks like...

Exclusivity. While Guitar Hero: Aerosmith was the first game of its kind to both focus primarily on a single artist and secure exclusivity to that band's master tracks, it was soon followed by a disc-only add-on "track pack" for Rock Band of live AC/DC songs. The release dates were June 26th and November 2nd of 2008, respectively, so the ability to pinpoint who "started it" is subject to reasonable doubt. All that can be said is that, while it resulted it great individual conscriptions for each series and some inspired curation for the track lists of Guitar Hero: Metallica and The Beatles: Rock Band, the net effect was resentment for whichever series you didn't follow and confusion for anyone trying to get started. It was an arms race knowing full well that mutually assured destruction was going to be the end goal, and one cannot be at fault for assuming Activision made the first move, given their track record in the categories to come.

Iteration. The guilty party in the realm of market-flooding is nothing but a numbers game. Harmonix, in its time so far with the Rock Band series, was certainly no slouch, taking only four years to at least oversee the creation of 1/2/3, Beatles, Green Day, Lego, Unplugged (for PSP), Mobile, iOS, Reloaded, and the disc-exclusive aforementioned AC/DC Live. While other physical offerings existed in the form of "track packs", the songs included were already or eventually became available as DLC add-ons, so the need to purchase them was trivial. Nevertheless, this pales in comparison to the machinations of late-00's Activision firing on all cylinders. In that same timespan, the Guitar Hero series saw the release of III, World Tour (4), 5, Warriors of Rock (6), Aerosmith, Metallica, Van Halen, Smash Hits, Band Hero, On Tour/Decades/Modern Hits (for DS), mobile versions of 3 through 5, and the original DJ Hero by virtue of including limited "guitar" gameplay. By a lead of 16 to 11, 145% of the other, Activision was the clear aggressor.

Celebrities. The main entries of Harmonix's series have often stressed the players' in-game avatars as an expression of living out their personal rock fantasies; celebrity likenesses were limited to games where no songs by another artist existed (The Beatles, Green Day) or representations locked to the songs the given artist performed (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Queen and Spinal Tap in Lego). It was escapism, without a doubt, but at least it had the decency to be well-tailored. The Guitar Hero series, on the other hand, never fully committed to a direction with this, even in its main games; World Tour included likenesses of Ted Nugent and Jimi Hendrix, and the inclusion of Gwen Stefani in Band Hero and Kurt Cobain in Guitar Hero 5 led to some notable legal kerfuffles over likenesses not being locked. While Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock conlcuded the era stressing the pre-made characters of the series (many of whom had existed since the Harmonix days), the changes were reactionary.

The lyrical juxtapositions are what make this video so fun.

Libraries. For all of its console iterations, Harmonix has endeavored to stress their games as part of a "platform" by ensuring whenever possible that songs from previous games would be made available in later editions without the need to change discs. Beyond some songs from Rock Band 2, the European release of Rock Band, and the entirety of The Beatles: Rock Band, they have succeeded; this, combined with their rigorous schedule of weekly DLC of anywhere from 3-song artist packs to 20-song albums, has resulted in an available library which is steadily approaching their hard-coded limit in "official" releases alone. In fact, there is enough content right now to handily achieve that 3,000-song ceiling… but that is a story to be saved for Part 3. Suffice to say, the Guitar Hero games did not keep up this level of support and only began to relicense songs as another reactionary move. Offerings from past full games were spotty; even the most ardent players' selection numbered only in the hundreds by the time DLC support was discontinued.

Features. Harmonix again is no innocent here, but its addition of gameplay mechanisms were generally tied to the advent of new hardware; keyboards, cymbals on drums, special-made "Pro" guitars. Again we see a hallmark of Activision toward the end of the last decade in the department of adding things for more bullet points on the box art: "open" bass notes, double bass drum charting, and the character-dependent gimmicks of Warriors that, for the game's final campaign challenge, mandated assigning their "superpowers" into four-character band member load-outs. And this is saying nothing of their horrid failure at shoehorning in a narrative to the proceedings. Again, is it the disjointed design throughout Guitar Hero games came as a result yet more reactionary decisions by the wire-to-wire brand recognition leader. After what was regarded by many as a solid showing in Guitar Hero 5, it is a shame that it ended the way it did for Neversoft.

If you chose wrong, you could "pass" a song... but still lose.
Philosophies. The numerous public statements of Activision CEO Robert Kotick has firmly cemented his image as a man who thinks somewhat lowly of games beyond their capacity to move units, and likewise looks down somewhat on his audiences. The vision his direction paints is the need for persistent superficial change to justify rapid-fire sequel and spinoff generation and distract consumers into purchasing. Harmonix subsequently can be seen as thinking too highly of its player base: a swath of complex modes, coaxing musical teaching, an available song library which borders on intimidating, and a nearly impeccable public relations profile to cap it all. One hopes that this divergence in approach is why the Rock Band series survives on and Guitar Hero has been sidelined for an unknown time; why one has matured with grace to a small core fan base and the other has flamed out.

Empowering fans. Make no mistake, most people who followed one series followed the other; their player bases are inexorably tied. The same people that hacked in custom tracks in one series did so in the other; leaderboards see a recurring set of names, forums see recurring personalities, and so on. The last major difference to explore is how each series attempted to appeal to this hardcore base's fervor in an attempt to revitalize both their properties and the subgenre as a whole. Activision clearly displayed the least trust in their rollout of the in-engine "chart creation" toolkit of GHTunes and GHMix; simplistic sound presets and chart-oriented composition tools made the system good for little but sketchy, copyright-dodging recreations of old video game themes.

Feel the rock! Just listen to that fidelity!

Harmonix, as you can guess, did something different with the idea of user-generated content; something far more daring, perhaps almost noble in both its scope and its faith in the people who would use it. They released a set of tools to create charts, but also a peer review system and legal clearance pipeline to authorize third-party downloadable content. Knowing their own limitations in being able to release DLC and their dependencies on meeting sales figures, this alternative source of content served as a way to include current bands, or bands with smaller but avid followings. Harmonix could focus on the surefire sellers without shutting out independents and up-and-comers from inclusion!

The results, however, are a sordid story all their own. It is a story which, I think, reveals something at the core of what defines the central flaw of the "gamer" archetype, and perhaps what this short series has been building to. It is also a story I have witnessed first-hand, and played a minor role in attempting to prevent. That's right; Part 3 will be solely devoted to the history and lessons learned from the Rock Band Network, source of such legitimized, for-profit content as the video below.

 You are not prepared.

Brace yourselves; it's going to get really silly, really fast.


  1. being player 2 in a game video that got national news attention (the kurt singing funny songs video) will be the greatest moment of my life and its all downhill from here

    1. personally pissing off courtney love will be the greatest moment of my life