April 2015 Cover Story – Rock Band 4

It’s been a month since Harmonix announced the return of Rock Band – one of my favourite franchises of all time. I’ve been mulling over what they’ve said, and have been thinking about what they really need to deliver on in the next iteration of the series to really encapsulate the feeling the original gave to gamers and musicians alike back in 2007.

Playing Rock Band for the first time was one of those things you can really only experience once. After playing hours upon hours of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, having the ability to bust out songs on drums, sing, and eventually bust out on the keytar in Rock Band 3 was like opening a door to something completely exciting, refreshing and bewildering all at the same time. The catch was almost instant for most of us who had been playing the Guitar Hero series before, and Rock Band quickly became my primary choice when it came to picking up plastic instruments and jamming. Also, as a drummer the ability to more-or-less play songs I’d either been learning at the time, had already learnt or even some that were completely unknown to me was an experience I really took with open arms. It was an exciting experience, and while Guitar Hero: World Tour came with all of the things Rock Band did, it just wasn’t the same. The drums had a multitude of problems and had to be manually calibrated to pick up hits, I wasn’t a particular fan of the guitar itself and singing was fairly standard. The song library was minuscule compared to Rock Band’s – which now boasts over 3,000 songs available to purchase and download.

The ultimate jamming experience

Harmonix really delivered when it came to ushering in a new way to experience the music/rhythm genre. I spent hundreds of hours jamming to my favourite songs, and in turn I even purchased the $700 electronic ION drum kit so I could really hone the experience (mainly because I broke one of the drum heads on the standard kit). Between that and FIFA, my time for other things was fairly limited. When I was in a band back in my home town, we’d even have sessions after practice where we’d jam on Rock Band, and it brought us together as both friends and musicians which was really damn awesome. It was one of the most social experiences you could have gaming, and that’s always been one of the most important things about Rock Band.

After Guitar Hero dug itself into the ground, dragging Rock Band with it, the music/rhythm genre pretty much fell by the wayside. We’ve had two Rocksmith games filter through, but while they’re great, Rocksmith’s marketed at people who actually want to learn the guitar or bass and those who already have a knowledge of playing. We’re with a new set of consoles now, and with the announcement that Rock Band 4 is coming later this year and that a new Guitar Hero game is basically inevitable, there needs to a few things that have to be ironed out for the genre to – first and foremost – make a solid comeback and to sustain that for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s seven to eight year console cycle.


Over-saturation will destroy the genre again

I think the most obvious thing that both of these titles, especially Guitar Hero, need to take note of is that the reason these games fell into the gaming abyss in the first place was the way they oversaturated the gaming landscape. Guitar Hero is the main culprit here, but because of its failures Rock Band also took a significant part of the impact as well. Every few months, it seemed like a new Guitar Hero would launch with absolutely no improvement over its predecessor, instead brandishing just a new selection of songs. That was all. Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits, Smash Hits, Band Hero, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Metallica, Van Halen… Heck, there were even three titles released on DS in the space of a year. It was ludicrous, and they were hovering at around full RRP every single time. It’s ridiculous to think that from the original’s release in 2005 to the series’ final release in 2010, 22 Guitar Hero titles hit store shelves, with two DJ Hero games also coming out in that time as well. That’s 24 games released within the space of five years! It’s still bewildering to me five years later that this happened, and with only six core entries in the series which brought change, all of the others were just add-ons. No improvements whatsoever. This needs to stop. It was the reason these games fell out of popularity before and it very well could happen again if we get more than annual iterations. These themed titles should be released as digital expansions at perhaps $20 – $30 each. It’s the only way to avoid this kind of event again whilst keeping the popularity of the genre running high.

Market it as a service, not just a game

I think, if anything, Rock Band 4 should be more of a service than it is a game. We’ve seen it with a few titles, with Warframe and DC Universe Online coming to mind instantly, and when I think of what a music game should be, considering that the only implementations of new features it could have are new instruments and perhaps prettier graphics, it becomes clear that you can’t argue with the fact that launching Rock Band 4 as a service that can just tentatively grow over the next six or seven years with the new consoles is the most efficient way to market the game and service the masses that pay top dollar for it. I’m not convinced that this will be the case, as publishers still need to make money and releasing add-on song packs and content through a digital medium probably won’t benefit them like the over-saturation of retail Guitar Hero games did (because in being completely honest, I still bought most of those titles), but it does make complete sense to go all digital considering that’s what the new consoles are aiming for in the long run anyway. It might not work as well here as it would in the US, but it makes complete sense to me that this is the necessary evolution of what music games should be.


Song requests rock, keep them going

In keeping with the idea of new song packs and making Rock Band a service, what the team has set up right now with its song request form is excellent, but the question remains as to whether it’ll stay after the game launches. We’ll have to see, but I think keeping it up and using it as a way to gauge interest in particular songs might be beneficial for Harmonix and the community as a whole. I’ve already made a bunch of requests, and I can see this being some sort of service akin to that of the Rock Band Network.

New instruments, more fun

Rock Band games and their sequels have always pushed the boundaries when it comes to bringing new instruments into the fray. Rock Band 3, its pro settings and the introduction of the keyboard (aka keytar) as a playable instrument was excellent and made for some great experiences with songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, Space Oddity and 20th Century Boy. I’m excited to see what the new Rock Band brings in regards to new playable instruments, but the problem Rock Band 3 had with bringing in keys was that a lot of the songs available didn’t support it, hence limiting the experience you can have with the instrument quite a lot. The new instrument(s) Harmonix bring into Rock Band 4 need to be important in a way that the keys weren’t, and they also need to be fun to play. We’ll just have to see how that goes, but refinement of the old instruments and a new instrument or two that contributes to the overall experience is something that I’m looking forward to checking out. Also, we need a rhythm guitar option!


The Screaming Trousers (band name not final)

The social experience

Perhaps the greatest part about Rock Band was the interactivity with those around you – either literally beside you, online or via the leaderboards. The social experience within Rock Band was fascinating and it brought a lot of great memories and friendships with it. This needs to be a massive part of Rock Band 4, and implementing a strong online infrastructure is going to be key to the success of Rock Band 4‘s longevity. It’s been a long while since I picked up a plastic instrument with my friends and jammed to Misery Business, Dammit, In Too Deep and so on, and now that I reside in a different area I won’t be able to do it in the same room so I want to be able to jam online with them. This system kind of worked last time around, but it needs to be pushed heavily considering the current landscape we find ourselves in with the new consoles and the digital, online-focused age of gaming.

Bring the challenge

Finally, I really loved the Rock Band 3 challenges. They were simple, yet encouraged the best out of you and more-or-less forced you to step out of your comfort zone. From easy challenges like playing a specific set of songs, to the more challenging ones like getting one-hundred percent in a song on Expert bass while only up-strumming or getting a 500 note streak in one song… There were also ludicrous ones like completely smashing the Jesus of Surburbia solo, playing through the whole Rock Band 3 setlist in one sitting and so on, but that’s what made the game really enjoyable even when you were playing by yourself. It encouraged you to continually do better and experiment with the songs on offer. This needs to have strong implementation in Rock Band 4 to keep players coming back for more, and something that would be particularly enticing is having daily, weekly and monthly challenges much like the Xbox One’s achievement system. It’d be a way to keep you on your toes and also a way to possibly even earn cool stuff for your character in-game.

There’s a lot for Harmonix to mull over when it comes to crafting a true successor to Rock Band 3, as in my opinion it is by far the greatest music/rhythm game to hit shelves during the previous console generation. Mind you, I still play it to this day and absolutely adore it. Rock Band has been a crowning jewel for a lot of gamers, myself included, and remains as one of the most entertaining and unique experiences I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in. The next step in the series is one that I’ll be watching with great interest, and while the task may seem steep, I’m hopeful that Harmonix have acquired the tools to craft another great Rock Band game and do the music/rhythm genre justice on its comeback tour.

Rock Band 4 is slated for a 2015 release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.