When people think up games for lists such as out 7 best games of the 7th generation (or 7 For 7 for short), they think of game of the year winners or critically acclaimed blockbusters. But how many of these lists include games that were just wildly popular and genre redefining?
Rock Band was probably never really in contention for a major game of the year award but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a big game for the current console generation. The mark of a game being among the best isn’t just what the critics think but what the gamers think. I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who didn’t love playing Rock Band.
When Harmonix created the Guitar Hero franchise, they managed to create a game that became a cultural phenomenon. While not everyone could play guitar, many people loved picking up the plastic axe that was a signature of the Guitar Hero series. The relative accessibility of the gameplay, the spectacular soundtracks and gamer’s long-lost dreams of being a rock god combined to make Guitar Hero a hit.
The Guitar Hero game was also massively popular as a party game too. People would go to a party, have a few drinks and rock out. The problem was that the multiplayer aspect of the game was a bit lacking.
Enter Viacom. While Guitar Hero publisher Activision bought Red Octane, the company who made the guitar peripheral synonymous with the game, Viacom bought Harmonix and brought it in under the newly created MTV Games label. With Harmonix unable to continue work on Activision’s Guitar Hero series, they expanded the idea of Guitar Hero to other instruments and made a band game, something they had been considering while working on Guitar Hero.
Rock Band brought together four instruments into one game. While Harmonix had already done games with guitars and vocals in Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution, they hadn’t made a game with playable drums and they certainly hadn’t put all the pieces together into one game.
The result was a game that was new but still familiar. The guitar and bass tracks still followed the vertical scrolling note track made famous by their previous efforts in Guitar Hero. The lead vocals were displayed with a lyric track and pitch indicator similar to what they used in Karaoke Revolution. People familiar with Guitar Hero or just karaoke in general would be just fine picking up Rock Band.
The drum peripheral and gameplay was new for Rock Band. As such, I think most of my friends were competing to play drums at first. Well, that and vocals (often to my chagrin). Similar to the guitar, there were coloured scrolling notes to indicate what to play with a bass line showing when to hit the bass pedal.
In order to make the transition from just playing guitar to playing the whole band, including vocals, Harmonix had to pick songs that were recognizable. This was a philosophy change from their Guitar Hero days where recognizable songs were nice but there was a difficulty curve to be maintained.
As making a fun social game was a priority, iconic rock songs from the 1960s through the 2000s were selected for the game’s soundtrack. Not only could you rock out with your friends but you could pretend to be Metallica, The Rolling Stones, The Who and more iconic bands that everyone wished they could be when playing in their garages. They also threw in some more modern music if that’s more your speed but my friends and I lived in that ’60s through ’90s play list.
And it was because the game encouraged people to come together as a band that this game was so popular. The social aspect is what turned Harmonix’s Rock Band from a hit on the scale of Guitar Hero to a major gaming powerhouse.
People would have parties where Rock Band would get busted out because it was lying around the living room. My friends would occasionally gather just to play Rock Band. Some bars substituted karaoke nights with Rock Band nights and pack the place full.
Like I had mentioned with Uncharted last week, Rock Band wasn’t just some blockbuster game that set the course of its own franchise but opened the floodgates for games in that music and rhythm game genre. After Rock Band exploded in popularity, all sorts of games came out with licensed music and a party atmosphere as a hook. The likes of Just Dance and DJ Hero probably weren’t likely to happen before the Guitar Hero and Rock Band phenomenon. Rocksmith, the game that has you playing actual guitars in a game, probably wouldn’t have been developed if not for Harmonix’s success. Even Guitar Hero, now developed by Neversoft, who had made their name with the Tony Hawk franchise, were playing catch-up by going to full band gameplay instead of the traditional guitar-only setup.
Perhaps more admirably, it was Harmonix that pushed the bounds of music gaming with the likes of The Beatles: Rock Band that showed the evolution of The Beatles, adding vocal harmonies, taking the game off the concert stage and into the recording studio and showing there’s a lot you can do with the visual of a music game than showing performers playing. That doesn’t include the addition of keyboards to Rock Band 3 along with the harmonies.
While the individual components of Rock Band weren’t really anything new or revolutionary in gaming, the combination of them into one cohesive whole was what made Rock Band and the franchise a massive hit. It was bringing people together that made Rock Band a massive hit.
A lot of people talk about games being better when you play with friends but that’s because those games tend play differently when playing with other people like games that focus on the multiplayer component or that have terrible AI co-op. Rock Band didn’t do anything different when playing with friends but it just felt more fun.
Rock Band may never have one a game of the year award and may not technically have deserved one but it certainly was one of the best and most important games of this generation.