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Getting The Band Back Together

The significance of the gaming world’s most anticipated comeback story

“Break out your vintage songs and gear!” Rock Band 4’s official website encourages. “Rock Band 4 supports your previously purchased Rock Band DLC [downloadable content], along with legacy Rock Band instruments.” Well, good. Even though there are only three previous versions, the game has countless spin-offs and add-ons (Green Day: Rock Band, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks The ’80s, etc.) — making your collection of songs and instruments almost more valuable than the game itself. In a thread on Rock Band maker Harmonix’s forum called, “How Much Have You Spent on Rock Band Songs?,” users claim they’ve put down anywhere from $650 to “probably somewhere around $3,000 for everything spent on Rock Band related things.” AGENTNNC writes: “Either way, it’s worth every penny.”

And I agree.

I first heard about Guitar Hero in high school. While I wasn’t entirely sure how the game was played, I knew that it fell squarely in the “rhythm game” genre and that was enough for me. I had already plowed through Elite Beat Agents — a game in which you tap along to popular songs — on my Nintendo DS. Yes: I was enthralled by tapping.

Ready to tap again, I bought Guitar Hero II when it came out in April 2007 and started with the first song on the playlist: Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.”

Damn, it was fun. I was hooked.

For good reason, too: Like karaoke, these rhythm games gave me the feeling of being good at something that I wasn’t actually good at — i.e., playing music. The game requires just enough manual coordination to feel complex, but not so much that you actually have to, you know, practice. If you miss notes or your timing is off, the song will sound terrible — so it feels like you can actually affect the quality of performance, even if in reality, you’re just triggering glitches in a pre-recorded audio track. All of this minor euphoria is amped up when you play with other people: We’re putting a band together.

When Guitar Hero appeared in 2005, Guitar Hero and its full-band counterpart, Rock Band (which came two years later), were collectively ahead of their time. It didn’t take long for everyone else to catch up: Guitar Hero and later Rock Band burned bright and fast before completely oversaturating the market and taking a half-decade break. But now, both games are back and taking another stab at interpreting music’s digital future.

Getting the hang of Guitar Hero’s difficulty ramp is still one of my favorite gaming experiences: On “Easy,” you’re barely playing notes, maybe strumming on every other note and only using three fret buttons (the brightly colored buttons on the neck of the guitar that play the imaginary notes). On “Medium,” a fourth button is added. When you get to “Hard,” the fifth button is put into play, requiring you to learn how to shift your hand’s position up and down the neck as you play. When I first beat a song on Hard, I immediately logged onto the Guitar Hero forum and bragged about it.

At best, playing these games can feel instinctual and borderline transcendent. The fun isn’t reaching the end and seeing how high a tally you racked up; it’s when pure reflex kicks in — when your fingers respond to the audio-visual prompts by instinct alone. Somehow, when you’re really good at playing Rock Band, you don’t think, you just play.

Every Guitar Hero player’s big dream was to work up to “Jordan” — a composition by guitarist Buckethead — on Expert difficulty. Your hands fly across the neck of the plastic guitar, and around a minute-fifty you have to remove your hand from the strum bar and go at the fret from two ends. It’s exhilarating. Not only to play, somehow, also to watch:

Soon after it launched, Guitar Hero exploded in popularity. Harmonix and RedOctane split up (the former was acquired by MTV Games; the latter was purchased by mega-publisher Activision), and each of the companies set out on a new project. While a new studio worked on Guitar Hero III (Guitar Hero II came out a year earlier, and was less successful than its predecessor), Harmonix decided to raise the plastic instrument ante with Rock Band, which added drumming, vocals and bass tracks — not to mention plastic instruments for each element. Players soon got a drum pad complete with sticks and microphones to match Guitar Hero’s karaoke game predecessors and a bass-styled plastic guitar.

When Rock Band first hit the scene in November 2007, I threw down more than $170 for the full band set: the drums, a USB microphone, chintzy fake guitar and plastic drums. After an end-of-season soccer team meeting at our high school, three other friends came over and we immediately launched into … something. Could we call it band practice? Despite the fact that we were playing a videogame with volume that could be lowered, we somehow made a lot of noise. Not only did the clicking of the buttons often drown out the music, but banging on the hard plastic drum heads resembled playing actual drums — isn’t anything a drum if you bang on it loud enough? On vocals was Colin, who was active in the theater scene, so he was quite expressive in his performance. It was a videogame, sure, but we were totally rocking out.

Rock Band wasn’t only introduced as a new type of rhythm game, but a new place where users could interact with their favorite songs. In 2005, the iTunes Store and its revolutionary 99-cent singles had only been around for two years; people were still coming around to the concept of legally buying digital music. Rock Band’s rocking introduced a new and ambitious model for downloadable content. Think of it as the grandfather of in-app purchases — Rock Band had its own music store, and for more than five years, a handful of new tracks were released every week. After all, how could you truly be a band without the ability to learn and practice new songs?

All of this meant that I was amassing not only an enormous collection of plastic Rock Band instruments, but a library of virtual tracks. At last count, there were more than 700 lying dormant in my brain and, subsequently, my Xbox. Songs that were featured in the games saw sales increases outside the games as well. A 2008 survey found that, “tracks released on Guitar Hero III and Rock Band in late 2007 experienced upswings in download sales that ranged anywhere from 15 percent to 843 percent.” Songs we’d never heard before — because they were too old for radio play or had never been deemed good enough for radio play — became some of our favorites, not because of their catchiness but because the game had us repeat them over and over and over again until we achieved perfection.

The climax of this phenomenon was the release of The Beatles: Rock Band in 2009. The Beatles and Apple Records are infamously strict about how they license their music, which meant that the band’s music wasn’t available digitally anywhere else when the game came out. In fact, their catalog wouldn’t hit iTunes for purchase for another year — in 2010 for a rumored $400 million (and after years of speculation, appeared streaming on Spotify just this past week).

And like the Beatles, despite all the success, fame and money, Rock Band eventually broke up. Which was completely the fault of Guitar Hero’s publisher Activision. Between 2005 and 2010, Activision released 12 different versions of Guitar Hero for consoles, as well as three for the Nintendo DS. Many were half-baked spinoffs focusing on bands like Metallica, Aerosmith and Van Halen, as well as genres like country and metal. The same even holds true for the critically beloved DJ Hero — a critic at IGN called it “one of the best games I’ve played this year and one of the best music games I’ve ever played.” But if there’s anything more depressing than practicing that “Ace of Spades” solo, actually solo, it’s DJing a huge rave while sitting on your couch alone in front of your TV.

By the time Rock Band 3 came out in 2010, it was clear that the series needed a break. Not even adding a keyboard — Rock Band’s fifth instrument — could save it.

The genre had imploded, but even that was still great for superfans like me, because it meant there were suddenly a ton of cheap instruments available to buy. I picked up DJ Hero and its two turntables at Best Buy for $50 (when the game first launched, one turntable and the game cost $120). For my dorm room before my senior year of college, I nabbed a new, full-band bundle of Guitar Hero instruments for $15. But when I moved out, the drum set went into the dumpster. I’d guess I spent at least $1,000 on Rock Band’s digital catalog and plastic instruments. And I didn’t even get to cut a record.

So what do you do when you’ve already disposed of your instruments and a new Rock Band is about to be released? As my friend Jeff put it: “The idea of re-buying more plastic stuff is a nonstarter.”

For precisely that reason, the recent PR rollout of 2015’s Rock Band has been very, very explicit about a couple of things. As Rock Band 4’s website boasted, the old instruments will work on the latest generation of consoles, so buying more plastic shit isn’t necessary. (Although you’ll need to purchase an additional “Legacy Adaptor” if you play with an Xbox One.) Even more crucial: All previously purchased songs will be compatible with the new software — a considerable technical and bureaucratic challenge, given how modern music licensing works. All in all, Rock Band’s message is clear: Hey, we know you’ve spent a lot of money, and it would be dumb to make you spend more. Well, thanks guys!

Meanwhile Guitar Hero Live is a different story, one that feels slightly more in line with how people consume music in 2015. In addition to songs in the base game, Activision has also launched Guitar Hero TV, which it describes as a “continuous broadcast of music videos” to which you can strum along. In other words, the rhythm game version of Pandora. Even more importantly, it’s being made for hardware besides PlayStation and Xbox. It’ll be available for Apple’s suite of mobile devices and the newest Apple TV. The contrasts are clear: Rock Band 4 is made for fans to keep rocking on a new set of consoles, while Guitar Hero is aimed at letting people play without a console at all.

Most recently, Rock Band took a step to make Rock Band the most interactive it’s ever been. Pairing with Oculus Rift (a VR headset purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014), according to Harmonix you’ll soon be able to play a virtual reality version of the game — another step in Rock Band’s ever-evolving attempt to try and place the player even closer to that real-life rock star experience.

No matter the technology, none of this has much to do with rocking out in real life: in a real band, with electric guitars and other plastic-free instruments. Which is fine, actually. If these games have taught us anything, it’s that being your own Guitar Hero is just as rewarding.

Brian Feldman is a contributor at MEL He is a writer who lives in New York.

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