Play it loud: What to expect from the return of Rock Band and Guitar Hero

What to expect as Activision and Harmonix get ready to put their respective bands back together -- in a very different age for both music and games than the last go-round.

Remember the first few iterations of the dueling Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises? When Harmonix’s four-note, licensed music-built model jumped from company to company the first go-around, it created two franchises whose setlists and features grew like rival bands.

But, like two headliners dueling at a festival, the whole thing was still a fun ride at its best. And with the upcoming two-year anniversaries of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launches, both Harmonix and Activision have are setting up the stages again, with the announcements of Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live coming within weeks of each other.

Despite the same names returning, both acts are coming with new features this time, promising to differentiate themselves from both each other and the previous music game generation, while still keeping to what their core audience wants. In advance of E3, what predictions can be drawn about this console generation’s music games?

Guitar Hero Live

Bring Me To Life

In separate conversations, both Harmonix CEO Steve Janiak and Tyler Michaud, senior product manager at Activision, both gave very similar answers for the core reasons they were thinking about returning to to the rock game genre. Truth is, they never stopped thinking about it.

Janiak says that Harmonix has been dreaming about Rock Band 4 since the last iteration of the franchise, which came out five years ago. He says that the time is ripe for a sequel because the team's "specific ideas that we've had around innovation for this gameplay" are "made possible by the current generation of console hardware." He promises "substantial evolution" this time around.

Michaud’s response is similar, but notes that changes in the music industry, along with the games industry, drove Activision’s partnership with developer Freestyle Games. “There was a lot of interest in Guitar Hero, but in order to be successful, we needed to deliver a really meaningful, transformative level of innovation, more than just kinda new music.”

"The music scene has just changed so much. The way people experience live music, the way people experience digital music, is so different from where things were back in the days of Guitar Hero 2, Guitar Hero 3 -- five, six, seven years ago."

“You've got new consoles in the marketplace... The music scene has just changed so much. The way people experience live music, the way people experience digital music, is so different from where things were back in the days of Guitar Hero 2, Guitar Hero 3 -- five, six, seven years ago. What's funny is it's not like we sat back and pinpointed this year; it was really driven by the innovation itself that Freestyle Games has brought to life.”

Thus, at the core of both games’ reasoning is a dual combination of multi-pronged tech advancement, and an audience who -- despite how high costs ramped up last generation -- were still interested in the core band-game gameplay. Jainak commented that Harmonix has seen strong and steady DLC sales in the years since Rock Band 3’s release. Michaud’s points about the shift in the music industry, though, indicate another key factor -- there are new ways to make that music content feel fresh again too.

The Times They Are A Changin’

One of Guitar Hero Live’s major features is GHTV, an “on-demand” service with curated music choices that has players using the new six-button guitar to play over music videos instead of the “live” crowds that give the game its title. Michaud explains that this kind of gameplay has been inspired by both the aforementioned tech enhancements, and the shifts in how audiences listen to music.

“If I think back to how I used to experience my music, in the days of Guitar Hero 3, I was walking around with an iPod, and I had a finite library of music on there. Now if you want to experience music, you just go get it from the cloud or wherever -- whether you're on your mobile, or you're in your car, or at your computer.”

Though Michaud didn't make any promises, the mention of streaming services implies GHTV might allow Freestyle Games to give players access to new music without charging them for every single song download or shipping new discs, which were the two primary modes of song delivery from Rock Band 2 through Guitar Hero World Tour. And audiences might also engage with curated playlists like they might find on Pandora or Spotify -- perhaps opening the doors to similar celebrity-curated playlists. 

Speaking of music industry shifts, it's worth discussing that tastes in popular music have changed since Guitar Hero and Rock Band's salad days. Harmonix has an advantage here, since its licensing team has continuously worked with artists big and small over the course of its Dance Central series.

For example, the studio has licensed songs from pop diva Meghan Trainor, who blew up last year, thanks to Dance Central. But the team also has its eyes on licensing "great indie rock" and "identifying great underground acts" for Rock Band 4 — so don't expect a total shift in style.

And Michaud points out even artists not labeled as “rock” still work great in this gameplay format. “A lot of songs that you might not think are tailor-made for Guitar Hero are actually incredibly fun to play when you note-track it. Like Of Monsters and Men -- that jumps to mind as an example of something within GHTV [that] once you pick up and play it, it gets pretty amazing.”

Instruments of Destruction

Then of course, there is the question of the plastic instruments. When Guitar Hero jumped on the full-band model last time, this is where the differentiation between the two games became incredibly difficult, and increasingly frustrating -- as the two games had similar gameplay, but the instruments eventally had zero compatibility. This time, an unintentional truce seems to have been declared, with Harmonix and Activision seeking different niches to prevent another price and space overload from plaguing players.

Guitar Hero Live has dropped back down to just operating on guitars, but Michaud says the new six-button guitar is intended to last the entire console generation. “We've made a commitment that this guitar will be forward-compatible, so this is the guitar for the life of this cycle ... one guitar is essentially all you need. And Freestyle Games' development focus is very much on the guitar.”

"I personally believe that making gamers purchase new hardware to enjoy the software is not the right thing to do..."

Harmonix, sticking to the band model, is partnering with peripheral maker Mad Catz for new instruments. Mad Catz's Alex Verrey explains: "I personally believe that making gamers purchase new hardware to enjoy the software is not the right thing to do, and won't win you any fans. Harmonix's solution is to allow gamers who already own music controllers to utilize them with Rock Band 4, and we're working closely with first-parties to try to make that happen for the fans.”

That said, Verray promises upgrades for those who do buy new gear: “With the power of the new generation of consoles, we have been able to make significant improvements to the new music controllers which were simply not possible last generation. Latency is much improved, as is accuracy, and even the mic is now clearer, delivering a far higher audio resolution than before.”

How’s It Gonna Be?

There are, of course, unanswered questions in this pre-launch cycle.

First, what business models will support these games after launch? Both Janiak and Michaud describe their respective games as "platforms" for new music and experiences to be built on, and both reflected on the fact that the one-song purchase model doesn’t necessarily reflect how players consume music anymore.

Features like Guitar Hero TV’s updated, curated content is free out-of-the-box, but with developers quietly slipping optional microtransactions such as weapons or gameplay boosts into in-game stores, and both franchises having previously extended their respective value with song-based DLC, it’s very likely that players will be expected to spend more than a flat fee if they want the complete experience.

Second, there is the question of Twitch and YouTube. Again, Jainak and Michaud both praised Twitch and said broadcasting gameplay was certainly part of the way Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live would be designed -- but both were unable to address the big question of how Let’s Players and Twitch streamers could build sustainable channels out of these games.

Currently, LPers like AverageAsianDude must upload a seperate video without licensed music and ask fans to watch it in order to generate ad revenue for their channels, thanks to systems like YouTube's Content ID, which prevent the monetization of audio that's copyrighted by the uploader. Some LPers have successfully monetized their videos, but not without extra workload that could hinder the genre's expansion on these platforms. 

The legal questions at play are unresolved, and YouTubers and Twitch streamers may well be locked into being strictly unsupported marketing streams for Harmonix and Activision if they want to put the band genre at the center of their content.

The band game genre's revival would be an uncommon one. It will rely not only on console technology advancements or the creative will of its developers, but also their ability to navigate the political, economic, and technological shifts of 2industries. An eager fanbase might carry these new games to success, but the developers must also make specific strategic changes that have put further distance between them and the players than ever before. If these games succeed, they may provide a model for reviving oversaturated games, and also a blueprint for producing games in genres tied to such fluid and rapid-changing markets.

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