It’s no secret that the rhythm game genre is dying, or at least wheezing its last wretched breaths. From 2008 to 2009, both the Guitar Hero franchise and Rock Band franchises saw up to 50% declines in revenue – Activision responded by releasing even more games, to the collective sigh of the entire games-consuming public. The last major title in the genre, the venerable Rock Band 3, released in 2010 and the finest entry of the bunch in my humble opinion, barely sold a million copies. Compare this to the monstrously successful Guitar Hero 3 from 2008 which sold somewhere over 3.5 million copies and it paints a pretty depressing picture.
It’s now mid-2014 and we haven’t had an entry from either Activision or Harmonix since. We’ve had Rocksmith since then, but to my mind that’s a different genre entirely – it’s more like an Education Video Game considering how effective it is at teaching you to play real electric guitars, whereas Guitar Hero and Rock Band were more like interactive jukeboxes. This is part of the reason I believe the public wasn’t hugely impressed by Rock Band 3’s additions to the series: Keyboard (Keytar) support and “full” guitar support, using a guitar with strings and literally hundreds of buttons. I’ve always subscribed to Jeff Vogel’s view on these games where the point isn’t to become (or fake becoming) a musician or learn a new talent, it is simply to augment the pre-existing joy you get by listening to music by having a tangible, physical connection to the music. The same way you sometimes get an uncontrollable urge to tap your fingers, bang your head or stomp your feet when you’re enjoying a song, Rock Band and its ilk provide you with an outlet to express your passion for the music you love, and throws in a helpful dose of gamification to keep you coming back.
It’s a fantastic product, one that speaks to the very heart of human desire that should fundamentally never age. So why has it failed so miserably? Analysts at the time were convinced that the series had at least 10 more years of life in it, and it barely lasted two more. It’s generally accepted that the reason for the failure was oversaturation; too many games in too little time. We’re now up to the Eighth Generation of video game consoles, and there’s not a single rhythm game to be found in the list of upcoming titles for any console.
It’s a fantastic product with demonstrated mass appeal, there’s literally no competition right now, and it’s almost been so long now that there’s possible nostalgia value in a new entry to the series, re-imagined for the new high-memory, always-connected, hyper-social generation of consoles. So I propose a new entry into the Rock Band series.
Rock Band Online
This name alone should be enough to evoke an impassioned response from the target demographic. It’ll either be something along the lines of “Finally! Online mode as the focus!” or more likely “Not another ‘online’ game!”. Don’t be too quick to judge!
What I’m picturing here is a massive rethink of the way these games have been sold in the past. There’s got to be at least 10 million plastic guitar controllers out in the wild, so the first step would be to make sure as many of these controllers as possible are compatible with the game. I’d like to even see cross platform controller compatibility, assuming Microsoft is willing to play ball this time. Work with a third party like Mad Catz to distribute an RBO controller, but don’t emphasize this too much. An online-only system where you can order individual controllers (perhaps through the game itself?) and have them shipped to you would be the leanest way to do it; you’d have to buy the controllers individually. The days of buying $300 packs with all the controllers is done guys, live with it.
Free To Play
This is, for better or worse, the way the wind is blowing these days. Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2 are by far Valve’s most successful games, and the model is consistently proving its success on mobile and on the web. The game should be available as a free download from the Playstation Network and from Xbox Live. The free version should come with a minimal song library (< 5 songs – probably from in-house Harmonix bands), but have all the great customisation content that Rock Band 3 had. Brick and mortar stores aren’t completely dead yet, and there’s still a decent amount of exposure to be had there, so a disc version could be sold that would essentially work like the previous generation did; a solid collection of tracks and a $50 asking price.
Works Offline – But Why Would You?
Certainly the disc version should function at least as well as Rock Band 3 does completely offline. The nostalgia value alone would sell a heap of copies, assuming the tracklist on the disc is worthwhile. The game should try its very hardest though to convince the user to upgrade to the true RBO experience.
Streaming Music Is The Future
Spotify is looking likely to overtake iTunes as the largest music service in Europe. Clearly, streaming music services like Spotify where you pay a reasonable monthly fee for unlimited access to an enormous library of music, managed entirely for you, is the wave of the future. Rock Band Online would bring this model to the rhythm music genre, and with it, bring it into the 2010s-era and beyond.
There are technical challenges to overcome here, though. A single song in Rock Band 3 could oftentimes be over 30MB in size, which is considerably larger than a song in Spotify. This is because Rock Band 3 has to include more tracks for each song, separating out the drum track, the guitar track and so on into individual files, and mix them together while playing. This allows the game to silence the guitar if you miss notes, for example. Spotify also lends itself to slow downloads pretty gracefully; if the song buffer underruns, it simply pauses until the download catches up. This wouldn’t work in a game, particularly online. The tracks would certainly have to download ahead of time, but I’m convinced that advances in audio compression and increases in broadband speeds worldwide can mean this issue will get less relevant over time.
Massive Libraries Are Awesome
Being able to pick any song in the entire Rock Band catalogue and be able to instantly play them would be an unimaginably awesome thing to behold. Gone are the days where you have to go through a soul-crushing 50-step checkout process for each individual song and wait an eternity for it to download off the PSN. Simply have an active subscription, do a search (or pick from your favourites) and you’re instantly playing a track.
If you’ve played the Rock Band series before, its Tour mode and challenges are the most dynamic, engaging and addictive elements. The tour mode takes your virtual band through a world tour, playing gigs of randomly-generated tracklists based on some criteria, so there may be a “60’s” challenge or a “hard rock” gig, which will pick songs in your library (including downloaded ones) that you have to play and meet a minimum number of total stars. This mode gets better and better the more tracks your have in your library, since the game has a larger pool to choose from. Think about how incredibly epic this would be if the entire Rock Band catalog was your “library”. You could pick up the game and have an entirely different experience every time, and have a wonderful time learning new bands and new songs at the same time. If you don’t feel like discovering new music today, Quickplay and Challenges are always there for you!
Online Won’t Suck
Anyone who’s played a Rock Band game online before knows the biggest problem with trying to play with strangers: they never have the songs you have. In order to play a song, everyone in the band must have purchased it. The more band members, the less likely a song will meet that criteria. It meant you pretty much had to arrange your bands ahead of time and make sure they buy the same music you do, which is way more of a commitment than most people are willing to put in. This is a non-issue with Rock Band Online. Every player will “own” every song. Every player must be subscribed in order to use online features. This means huge things for the way online can work:
- You could structure your matchmaking based on either genre preferences or which challenges you’re trying to complete.
- Band members can drop in and drop out at any time and the system will always try to keep your band filled so long as you’re in the menus.
- Unless you’re in Quickplay mode, the game should pick songs based on “structured fun”, players don’t necessarily get to pick each individual song that’s played, but it’ll automatically get picked based on the selected challenge or the collective’s determined preferences.
It’s Cheap And Profitable
For the end user, the subscription price should be set around about what it is for the rest of the music streaming market – around $10 per month. Assume that music licensing will take about 70% of your revenue. With subscription numbers of just 10,000 users, you’d take in about $100,000 per month or $1.2 million per year, being able to keep about $360,000 per year to maintain a small team producing new content to justify the subscription cost. That’s not an enormous amount of money, you’d barely be able to employ a team of 5 with that, but a devoted team of 5 could produce more than enough content to justify the streaming price. I’d say, roughly 1-2 tracks new tracks per week minimum to keep the subscription cost justified. The more tracks you add to the service, the better value the subscription cost seems.
If the response from the public is larger than just 10,000 users, you can scale up your team to produce more music per week and extra customisation content, to further reward your plastic-guitar-obsessed fanbase.
It Encourages Social Behaviour
These games have always been more fun to play in a band than by yourself. The luckiest among us would’ve had a group of friends to play in the same room with. This should definitely still be supported, but you should be able to supplant missing band members with people online totally seamlessly, who may have access to a controller type you don’t have (such as a drummer).
During their heyday, these gamers also had a very active presence on sites such as YouTube. These days there are streaming services such as Twitch which are becoming enormously popular, but YouTube is still also there. The best bit is, those videos people used to upload of themselves nailing a song can be generated (and streamed!) by the game itself, utilising the recording features of the PS4 and Xbox One and their respective cameras. This increases exposure of the game, which good for publicity, and it’s also enormously fun and seamless for the gamers that like to record themselves shredding it.
Rhythm Games Have A Future
Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about here. I’m just a passionate ex-Guitar Hero and Rock Band player who sorely misses the good old days. When the new consoles were announced, I was genuinely excited for the what the new system features could bring to this dying genre. Since then, literally nothing has been announced and I seriously feel like there’s a big hole left in the market that the right game, with the right execution could fill. Harmonix has an enormous back catalogue of music they could bring into the current generation of consoles, and by doing so revive the genre, restoring their place as the kings of music video gaming. I realise that the game I’m proposing is enormously complex, I do see that. Most of the functionality I’m suggesting here has already been solved by Harmonix in the past, though, and if there’s anyone out there who can make it happen, it’s you guys.
Harmonix, if you’re listening, please. There’s so much potential out there and people like me just waiting for you to get on board. I’m available to chat any time if you’re interested in hashing out the details. :)