Thursday, March 1, 2012

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 3

The Rock Band Network, or RBN for short, was an extremely bold move with great potential at redefining the kind of music that could be made available for band rhythm games. As of this moment, any act with master recordings and legal reproduction/sales rights to their songs can, with time and effort, make their music into a playable file, or "chart", of for-profit downloadable content for the Rock Band series. The entry cost is relatively low, even with hiring outside parties to do the charting and the added cost of piggybacking onto Microsoft's XNA indie development distribution program; most songs are capable of at least breaking even financially under the right circumstances. Acts from well-respected independent labels from Sub Pop to Fat Possum to Polyvinyl to Barsuk have all released material at some point or another, and even Matador and EMI made attempts to release music through this alternative pipeline. This was a major opportunity at expanding the song selection exponentially, and hopefully appealing to a wider swath of people and realizing the promises of series-as-platform on a new level.


Suffice to say, this did not happen.

Or rather, it did at the outset, and slowly but surely the major contributors balked due to songs frequently stalling out mid-process, leading to submissions drying up and content variety plummeting. EMI gave up, Sub Pop ceased licensing songs, and Matador and the rest of the Beggars' Group now categorically refuses to use the system... and all these developments are at least a year old. Very few artists were safe from failure on the part of the pipeline: upstart acts, recognizable names, and even bands with Harmonix employees in them have all been let down at some point or another by the shortcomings of the service. Many failed, but the true and more revealing pattern is in what always got through, to be shown later. For now, a moment of silence for some of the artists of victimized songs:

  • Amazing Baby
  • Billy Idol
  • Blondie
  • Bomb the Music Industry!
  • Bon Savants
  • Buffalo Gun
  • The Dandy Warhols
  • Death of the Cool
  • Fleet Foxes
  • Fucked Up
  • Megasus
  • The New Pornographers
  • The Smashing Pumpkins
  • Tijuana Sweetheart
  • The Tragically Hip

It was expected that some would endeavor to code the information for the game (instrument "gems", vocal pitches, lyrics, lighting and camera cues, etc.) on their own, but for those who did not want to concern themselves with this, Harmonix invited a select group of people to bear witness to the project in its alpha stage and practice using the tools involved. This would allow third-party authoring services to be available for willing clients on day one, including access to Sub Pop for potential deals. It is here that the problem first took root, and where its source is derived. Not from the companies involved in providing the pipeline, not from the established labels and artists who would submit work to it, but from the fans handpicked to act as the medium between these two industries; it was these first contributors who served the seeds sown that would eventually render the entire project neutered.

Many of these people were already familiar with the practice of hacking into previous games and DLC files to create illegal "custom" song files for private play; many were (and still are) also notable members and frequent visitors of online communities for modern rock-oriented rhythm games, such as ScoreHero. Two of the three companies born from the alpha invites were staffed almost entirely by devotees of ScoreHero or the official forums; the largest, RockGamer, has swollen over time to dozens of people to date and engulfed many formerly independent authors and/or testers; consider it an illustration of free market consolidation on a microcosmic level, and at a blistering pace. RockGamer's chief strength and explanation for their growth was their reputation, founded on the quality of their work; while the first-run versions of songs by others were often well-produced, first drafts from RG are often considered immediately fit for shipping with little if any revision. Unfortunately, the early lionization of RockGamer work and the employees responsible for it, combined with the heavy influence and influx of the more "hardcore" forums fan bases, acted as the first step down a long and unfortunate road.


It was maybe inevitable that the ScoreHero community and its ilk would eventually take hold of the general day-to-day operation of RBN. The level of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of a song's related game data and the laser-like, blinders-on attention to detail needed to work in RBN is right in the wheelhouse of the most radical subset of rhythm gamers. The problem, though, is the amount of insider activity and cross-pollination between these two communities, which bloated to the point of a controlling majority. Many songs not coded by authors from ScoreHero, performed by "musicians" from or associated with ScoreHero, or deemed challenging enough to satisfy the difficulty demands of ScoreHero were neglected almost perpetually, resulting in those songs that became nothing but wasted venture capital. No artist was safe from finding themselves put on the back-burner for extended periods of time in favor of the next gem-packed opus.

Navigating the quasi-cliques that inhabited the forums and charged with examining and approving the work of others was the greatest issue. While a number of smaller, later-forming authoring services often banded together with one another to complete the necessary testing of their work, a select few firms and individuals were and still are responsible for a vast majority of current activity, nearly all of whom associate on external forums. While a strong core of contributors is vital to the life of an effort like RBN, there comes a tipping point where that higher echelon becomes cloistered and inhospitable to outsiders. The level to which preexisting affiliations dominated discourse was evident in a contest run to bring in "new blood" for third-party playtests and peer reviews (that is, ones not done by other authors). The contest was held by, whose owner is a more-than-good acquaintance of several RockGamer authors, and judged by Rhythm Authors members and a handful of "favored" independents. One of the two first-place winners, out of a total of four prize recipients winning a 4-month XNA membership, was a forums regular at both and ScoreHero... and a former RBN playtester whose XNA membership had previously expired. This amount of blatant collusion would be inspiring if it wasn't so exclusionary, wrong-headed, and counter to what could potentially generate sales from the general population, or at least invite dissenting opinion.

But again, a reality check: the general population doesn't buy much DLC, if any, let alone buy from or perhaps even know about RBN or its releases, leaving it at the mercy of such individuals. Of course, it doesn't help that many outsiders who do know of it have since formed a measured but somewhat negative overall opinion of the program. While remedied by combining storefronts in Rock Band 3, the first ten months of RBN's sales operations were done in a separate storefront listed below the regular weekly DLC. As a result of the technical shortcomings inherent in grafting such a large undertaking onto the previous game, RBN developed an image of being "second-rate" work and music from its outset. Certainly, an ever-growing dearth of recognizable names, a light smattering of ill-formed charts reaching market, and the very knowledge of outside, non-Harmonix parties doing the work did not help.

I don't even-

It even reached a point where RBN authors managed to operate completely against the previously stated design documents of the company graceful enough to allow them to use their tools and infrastructure, all under the banner of "experimentation". An extremely vocal and spoiled subset of players who tend towards in-game drumming had been clamoring for the charting of heavy kick drum sections exactly as they are in a given song, which would require the use of an additional hardware kick pedal for double bass play. That this functionality is available in the more recent Guitar Hero titles is not an inconsequential factor, although these complaints have been around since plastic drums were first popularized in the original Rock Band. Harmonix has categorically denied the inclusion of this in their own work... but RockGamer, "titans of the industry" they are, had trumpeted their plans to sell two separate versions of a handful of upcoming songs, one of each pair gleefully overstuffed with orange horizontal lines, and were quickly followed in kind as the de facto standard-bearers.

That players with separate versions cannot play with one another, and that the split sales make their returns even harder to collect against XNA's minimum payout, come secondary to the id-like impulse of proportionally equating 'notes' with 'fun'. Internal discussion into creating a standard way of demarcating these versions in the store had even gone so far as to suggest it be called "X+", meaning "expert plus"... the exact name of the difficulty setting that the Guitar Hero series uses for this style of charting. This demonstration of an absolute lack of professional courtesy was only brought to a close by a Harmonix employee rejecting the use of their primary rival's nomenclature outright, forcing their relent to "(2x Bass version)" appended to a song's title.

No. NO!

This example is minor now, by most measures. As time has progressed, "experimental charting" has only grown more appalling; vocals have since blown through "saxophone with A-G note names so real instruments can play along into the mic, or just so the vocalist has something to do" and hit "forcing the vocalist to say the word 'boner' when no vocal part is playing and decoding a garbled Unicode/'leetspeak' transliteration of death metal growls on the fly because a prog-metal concept album's titular alien is hacking into the game." (See video below.) One cannot help but be astounded at how far down practices sank. Then again, one could have quickly gathered that same impression of amateurish behavior much earlier from the avalanche of idle chatter, flat humor, endless in-jokes, grammatical neglect, AIM-speak and emoticons that engulf a good deal of the non-Harmonix posts on the message boards.

Oh for the love of-

As far as the actual content is concerned, I bear my own personal dissatisfaction, but this goes beyond simply being music that I don't care for, of which I can assure you there is plenty to be had for sale now. I understand that there will always be people who like music I do not, or who value different things in their video games than I do, and that I will never see eye-to-eye with them. They have as much a right to enjoy their tastes as I should have a right to seek out mine; to explore interesting bands I've never heard of in a number of genres and styles, and maybe get lucky and find a few songs I am already familiar with. But there is a vast imbalance of power in this regard… one that has only grown with time while I have been a direct observer. At the start there was a number of exciting and unfamiliar bands with a wide array of sounds, brought to the table by a vast span of authoring houses and independents alike. Now, the independent and DIY aesthetic that the service seemed to attempt to nurture has been all but stamped out and left to die by the stifling influence of an entrenched alpha-nerd cognoscenti. To see this well-intentioned experiment crippled by the same people it was entrusted to from the start is just depressing.


Here is the situation as I see it, in its simplest, starkest terms. Rock Band Network was presented by Harmonix as a tool for a broad, diverse, and open assortment of artists who, after learning the skills and system over time or entrusting their songs to others who did, could share their creative spirit for modest exposure and profit. It has since been largely co-opted as an engine for churning out flash-in-the-pan Internet meme tie-ins, ScoreHero vanity projects, music from video games, music about video games, music from video games about video games, and metal, metal, metal. Make no mistake, for all my disdain of the material I'm sharing here, these artists have their place, and their right, to reach their audiences. The problem is not that these songs are for sale, but that they make up almost the mathematical majority of the store's output, comprising a preposterously bloated and still-growing share of time, attention, and marketplace space.

Make... it... stop...

This is what happens when you let the collective ur-nerd run wild; a distillation of every crummy, note-spamming custom chart hack made since the first Guitar Hero game, only now jacked up on the steroids of legitimate business deals, legal clearances, and quality assurance protocol. Rather than aim to introduce new music to people who played the game, it instead defaulted to catering to only those with obsessive difficulty demands or reinforcement of existing "nerd"/"gamer" culture. Lip service was paid to Sleater-Kinney to bide time between releases by Parry Gripp and Amberian Dawn. A band that opened on tour for MGMT couldn't get enough time and attention to clear the system, while authors fought tooth and nail to clear the LeetStreet Boys (see two videos above), even after being rejected twice on content grounds and having charts trade authors' hands several times over the course of a year. What was supposed to be an extension of Rock Band as a vehicle for music of all stripes has become a sad devaluation of the already shrinking band game genre as a whole, committed by the people who seek to make these games cater to their own narrow whims as much as is financially feasible.

This almost happened. For real.

I could go on forever about terrible pricing structures by authoring services trying to make charting a day job, self-congratulatory vanity projects ranging from podcasts to botched "megamixes" put out as official content, periodic witch hunts over occasional failures of the review system (where the blame never gets attributed in any way to the reviewers), and link YouTube after YouTube of even more ridiculous things people expect others to pay money to play in Rock Band right now. I probably would if I hadn't already, many times before, in various venues. But the truth is that most of my resentment has cooled off, and only pity is left. The critical moment where RBN might have flourished and gained momentum is well in the past, and now even the largest of authoring services are huddling together for warmth and attention under the laxest review-trading policies to date. There are rumors of a panel at PAX East; with the luck they have had recently, I would not be surprised if it was scheduled at the same time as either the keynote address or the closing ceremonies, if it materializes at all.

Stop the world, I want to get off.

But my sympathies for many of these authors have their limits, knowing full well that it was the cultural reductionism and selfish impulses they possessed that brought about their own downfall. My true regrets are reserved for Harmonix, who set out to democratize an entire subgenre of games in the hopes of fostering greater musical appreciation, and were instead shown that "nerd culture" is its own sociological vacuum, from which escape is almost impossible. They dared to believe that people who played their music video games the most were devoted because of a love for music that extended beyond the "nerd culture" barriers, and for this they were punished.