“Too much of a good thing is never good.” That’s one of the oldest sayings in the book. Obviously, it follows the basic premise that anything, regardless of quality, loses value with immense quantity. Video games are no exception. Back in the late 70s/early 80s, when the industry was young and no one really knew what they were doing, companies flooded the market with anything. They believed that people would buy their items in bulk simply because the gaming fad was popular. This backfired immensely, leading to the 1983 market crash I’ve mentioned several times before. When Nintendo rose to prominence and brought gaming back up, one of their prevailing beliefs was quality always trumps quantity. They would make sure their work was top tier, regardless of time, and then ship out. This worked extremely well and has dictated business success for many developers.
Unfortunately the excitement of hype can still trip people up. Harmonix, with their music focused games, is an extremely recent example. They struck an untapped niche back in 2005 with Guitar Hero, a music playing simulator. It was an unmitigated success, making the company truck loads of money. People were witnessing a new multi-million dollar property in the making. Then, over the course of a few years, repeated updates and garbage releases drove the brand to the ground. What was once a huge hit, eventually spawning off the equally popular Rock Band, quickly became a defining example of overindulgence. Now Rock Band 4 is coming, and Harmonix has already promised that they have learned from past mistakes.
Out of all the crap that came out during the simulated music genre boom, both Guitar Hero and Rock Band are viewed as the high marks. For the former, this is the game that started it all. It was essentially Dance Dance Revolution for your fingers. With a crazy library filled with covers of songs like “Iron Man,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Smoke on the Water,” Guitar Hero let the everyday schlub pretend that they were a rock star. Those plastic guitars weren’t just controllers to them. Of course, this pissed off the people who could ACTUALLY play guitar, since you learned practically nothing from the game. Sometimes the line between pretend and reality got a bit too blurred in certain eyes. All of this was in Harmonix’s benefit though. Guitar Hero was a crazy success, and it’s 2006 sequel Guitar Hero II did even better.
Guitar Hero put Harmonix and their publishing partner RedOctane on the map, suddenly making them the hottest companies around. Everyone wanted a piece. As it turned out, Activision and MTV Networks got theirs. The former obtained RedOctane and Guitar Hero while the latter got Harmonix. Harmonix, not willing to leave this lucrative side of business, pushed out Rock Band in 2007. It was an instant hit, taking the popular Guitar Hero style of plastic instruments and moving it to microphones, drums, and adding bass guitar. This made Rock Band the group equivalent of Guitar Hero with Four people coming together and rocking their brains out. Rock Band came when Internet access was a vital part of consoles too, so DLC was everywhere. Over 4,000 songs are now available for download. It’s crazy, but a true testament to the brand’s popularity.
Though Guitar Hero and Rock Band are now both developed by different companies, they’ve had similar fates. Each quickly succumbed to pure consumer exhaustion. Guitar Hero was the worst of the two. Once Activision found success with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, they mined the property to oblivion. Band-centric games came like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica to disappointing sales. Guitar Hero World Tour was considered a subpar copy of the then booming Rock Band. Although it was an inspired choice, DJ Hero was a total flop, mainly because the average person doesn’t toy around with turntables on a regular basis. Believe me, these barely scratch the surface of what was pushed out. It wasn’t long until Activision stopped publishing new entries all together.
Rock Band wasn’t much better, though the recession was a bigger contributing factor. Over the course of five years, 2007-2012 to be exact, eleven games came out under the Rock Band name. Not even The Beatles: Rock Band was able to reach sales goals, and it was focused on the most influential rock group in history. Things were obviously getting out of hand. The extra cost for Rock Band was always an issue too. If you wanted to get this game and use it to the fullest potential, you couldn’t just drop $60 for the disc. You had to pay extra for every single attachment too, which many people did because Rock Band is pointless without a virtual rock band. This meant that over $200 had to be spent upon first purchase, and that’s on the low side. Rock Band 3 added a keyboard too. By this point, people were even wary of buying a new guitar alone for Guitar Hero. With money tight, why would anyone shell out the equivalent of a used console for a single game? The instruments frequently broke too.
I was wholly swept up in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze just like millions of others. My brother introduced me to the former after he played it all night with a close friend. It wasn’t long before he bought it and became one of the best players around. I ended up doing very well myself, but simply paled in comparison. I was able to play the guitar behind my neck which was a pretty fun “show-off” trick at parties. That’s really why the game took off so fast. Anyone could play it and have a good time. Guitar Hero would be on at my house for hours, and if I wasn’t playing it there, I was playing it at a friends house.
Rock Band only capitalized on this. The amount of group hours I’ve put into that game, without actually owning it mind you, is nuts. It’s how I connected further with someone who quickly became one of my closest friends. I was especially fond of the drums, though one of my personal favorite memories was playing the game at an early freshman outing in college. It was on a big projector and people were lining up in droves to play. Players lost left and right, disappointing the crowd eager to watch some group actually succeed. Then I went up on bass guitar with three strangers and we absolutely crushed “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Not going to lie…it felt pretty awesome.
Rock Band 4 honestly couldn’t be coming at a better time. The series has been absent long enough that people are beginning to miss it. There is legitimate excitement around this new release. Best part? Harmonix promised that all downloadable songs from the past games can be played here, along with the PS3 and Xbox 360 controllers. This is a clear business move because people will be more likely to buy if they don’t have to spend extra. Consumers are a lot more comfortable with money now too. Who knows, if Rock Band 4 does well enough, a new Guitar Hero might come back, and the classic music rivalry will begin again. Hopefully it doesn’t end with the public in complete disgust.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.