Music Game Wars Heat Up — What Will Rock Band 2 Do?
Rock Band redefined the music-game genre. But how are the rock stars at Harmonix going to keep their edge when everybody else’s game has a drum set, too?
If you want to rock out with a full band, Rock Band is currently your only choice, as it features lead guitar, bass, drums and vocals. But later this year, the new Guitar Hero World Tour (above) will add those extra instruments, bringing the game up to speed with Harmonix’s innovative hit. Activision is also adding an in-game music creation tool to an upcoming version of Guitar Hero so players can compose and share their own songs.
And Konami, which originated the guitar-and-drums genre many years ago in Japan, is bringing out an American game this Christmas called Rock Revolution.
Full-band music games, with their absurdly large outfits of plastic instruments, are about to go from a novelty to a very crowded genre. Where consumers will ultimately put their money is anyone’s guess.
MTV Games’ Rock Band, developed by the team at Harmonix that originally created Guitar Hero, was released alongside Activision’s Guitar Hero III last Christmas.
While Guitar Hero III has outsold Rock Band, there’s no denying that MTV has made huge inroads, especially since it split up the $170 all-in-one package into separate parts. Month on month, Rock Band for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 rack up higher sales than Guitar Hero.
So it’s clear that Activision’s hand had been forced: No serious person doubted that the next iteration of Guitar Hero would contain drums and vocals. But with Thursday’s announcement of Guitar Hero World Tour, Activision is attempting to turn up the heat just a bit by adding an extra drum pad and raising the "cymbal" pads off the main body, to create what it says is a more realistic experience (right).
As more expensive, bulkier music peripherals hit the marketplace, the likelihood that players will want to add them to their collection goes down. Guitar Hero World Tour will not be compatible with Rock Band instruments: Activision has said time and again that only its official controllers will work with its games. So Rock Band owners would have to add another drum set to their living rooms if they wanted to play World Tour.
From what we’ve seen of Rock Revolution (above), neither Activision nor MTV has anything to fear from Konami. Rock Revolution does indeed sport the genre’s most complex drum controller (right): It’s got six pads on the top, plus a kick pedal.
Of the three drum sets, however, it’s likely to be the least enjoyable to play. The pads are tiny, the layout is confusing, and the whole thing feels cheap and toylike.
But it’s not just that. Konami’s game won’t feature vocals. The graphics are dated, and the on-screen presentation is plain. And as Guitar Hero and Rock Band move toward authenticity by using predominantly original master tracks, Rock Revolution’s song list is mostly covers.
It doesn’t much matter that Konami created Guitar Freaks and Drummania, the Japan-only arcade games that were directly responsible for Guitar Hero’s birth many years later. The company is clearly hoping to sell a cheaper game and coast off the popularity of music games — not climb to the top of the genre.
Ultimately, Harmonix’s strategy with Rock Band is to build a platform: It wants to sell users the hardware, then continually get more cash out of them for downloadable tracks and new discs. While it will release what I’ve heard insiders refer to as "version 2.0 instruments" with tweaks and new features for Rock Band 2 this holiday season, Harmonix is almost definitely not going to make any change that renders the current instruments incompatible with the new songs.
But that isn’t to say that the company doesn’t have the chance to come out on top of Activision. Although Guitar Hero World Tour will feature a music-creation mode that lets players come up with their own tracks and trade them online, who’s to say that Harmonix hasn’t been readying a similar feature for the next Rock Band?
In fact, we talked about just these kinds of possibilities when I visited Harmonix for Wired magazine last year. At the time, CEO Alex Rigopulos called music creation "really fertile territory for major areas of exploration in Rock Band 2."
"For the most part, what we focused on in (Guitar Hero and Rock Band) was the performance aspect, the reproduction aspect of a live performance," he said at the time. "It’s not a personally expressive element of music-making. That’s something we have always wanted to come back to. The moment that we gave up on it as a major feature of Rock Band 1, we didn’t want to give up on it completely.
"It’s sort of a no-brainer," he said. "Just free-form banging on the drums is something that people wanted to do."
Harmonix could also one-up Activision by letting players add vocals to their custom-made tracks, which Guitar Hero World Tour won’t allow them to do. Although Activision told Game Informer magazine that "copyright concerns" prevented it from doing this, Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins rightly pointed out this week that the same concerns would apply to the instrumental parts, so the excuse doesn’t quite wash. If Harmonix did let players create and share their own vocals, that would be significant.
Electronic Arts and MTV have yet to pull the veil off this year’s edition of Rock Band — indeed, it hasn’t even been officially announced yet. But all eyes will be on Harmonix at E3 to see if it can hold on to the business it helped create.