Not too long ago, Harmonix Uber Marketing Face John Drake was interviewed by gaming website Everybody Plays and reaffirmed Harmonix’s commitment to its first big franchise. In the interview, he was quoted as saying, “We never stop thinking about Rock Band, it's our favourite franchise. We own the IP for Rock Band, so we're hoping to start some ideas for that now. Obviously, with the console generation turn over, it wouldn't make a ton of sense to make a ‘last gen’ Rock Band right now. [But] we have some ideas, we're working some stuff around, so hopefully we'll have something to say.”
For the casual audiences that rode the wave of plastic guitar popularity and them promptly left it for a new wave, this doesn’t mean much. But for people that still find a certain undefinable joy in pretending—even for only three minutes—that they are talented musicians playing a song before screaming fans, this is a reassuring statement. After all, it’s not that rhythm games are bad. Harmonix’s success with Dance Central proves the ongoing relevance of the genre. And it’s not like music games suddenly became bad in 2010 when both Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors Rock came out as the “last” respective titles in plastic instrument games. Critically, the games reviewed very well, with Rock Band 3 in particular introducing a wave of innovations, such as the introduction of the keyboard and the use of a real guitar, a mechanic that would be picked up and expanded on by Ubisoft’s virtual guitar instructor Rocksmith. The genre tanked not because the games were becoming worse (which was the case with Activision’s Tony Hawk series that also got cancelled), but simply because the bubble popped on the casual popularity that lifted it out of obscurity.
Rhythm games had, up until that point, always been a niche. Whether it was the very first plastic guitar game, Guitar Freaks in arcades up to Harmonix’s own pioneering Guitar Hero on the PS2, plastic instruments had originally just been trying to carve out a small, dedicated, but still profitable space for themselves amongst other genres. And that audience is still there. What ISN’T there is the mega-audiences of casuals the briefly created the same boom/bust cycle that is now plaguing Nintendo as a fickle market ballooned sales for the Wii and just as quickly deserted for the debut of the Wii U.
I would wager that many people still have a plastic guitar or two—or even a drum set—sitting in a closet somewhere. Many of these instruments still only require a USB input or dongle, the same kind gracing the next generation of consoles. Harmonix doesn’t necessarily need to manufacture more plastic guitars and drums, it’s quite likely that the existing market still has their own, or can buy them cheap. Without the burden of manufacturing and distribution costs, Harmonix could feasibly make a new Rock Band game and, like other developers, just release a disc, nothing more. If they can add a few new tweaks or features, or even somehow read past purchases and convert that RB library over to yet another sequel so that people still have access to their old songs, I think there would be a market for it. Not a huge one, but who doesn’t enjoy the occasional nerd get-together playing guilty pleasure songs from the 80s and 90s with friends?
Rock Band fills out another colour in the spectrum of gaming. I think most people would agree they don’t want a machine with nothing but contemporary military first person shooters. Games should be about more than just making people feel like an American soldier. Rock Band is one of those alternatives, and it would be sad if the next generation of consoles was one that was filled with guns and dancing, but no appreciation or enjoyment of the actual music.