10 Years Ago: ‘Rock Band’ Changes the Music Video Game Industry
By 2007, Activision's Guitar Hero franchise was a known quantity and a wild success in the video game industry. But with Rock Band, which arrived that December, MTV Games changed the game.
At first blush, the titles seemed quite similar. Guitar Hero’s controller was modeled after a Gibson Les Paul. Rock Band used the Fender Stratocaster shape. A nice touch, but better yet: MTV added vocals, drums, and bass (via a second Fender-shaped guitar controller) to the mix. In Rock Band, four players could simultaneously act as a group and “jam.” All of a sudden, being a plastic electronic guitar hero seemed like nothing compared to teaming up with three other friends and pounding out Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning.”
MTV made a bold move just a year earlier when it bought Harmonix Music Systems -- the developer who invented the original Guitar Hero -- for $175 million. Harmonix was full of great ideas and savvy talent, but the deal didn’t include rights to the Guitar Hero franchise. Video game behemoth Activision didn’t publicly fret the MTV and Harmonix team-up.
“MTV trying to take on Guitar Hero is like us trying to go into the music cable business,” then Activision CEO and chairman Robert Kotick told The New York Times in 2007.
But Rock Band came out of the box roaring with rock ‘n’ roll. In November 2007, the company announced a glorious initial line-up of weekly downloadable content players could rock out to in the game: tracks from Metallica, the Police, Queens of the Stone Age, Foreigner, Wolfmother and more. Rock Band began with 58 songs available on the game disc, but with every passing week, the game added to its library of content.
“We are giving consumers a way to experience what is essentially a new game every week with more and more of the songs they love,” Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos said at the time.
Rock Band broadened the boundaries of music gaming. Plastic guitar slingers could play in multiple ways including on their own, with a group in person or online, and in head-to-head competition in person or online. It also blurred the line between video game and content delivery system.
MTV looked to buoy the lagging music industry through downloads from the original artists -- Guitar Hero III also offered downloads but used re-recorded versions by studio bands in the standard version of the game. The potential windfall of sales meant good news for record labels struggling to find new revenue streams as the bottom dropped out of the CD market.
While the downloads meant more cash for labels and bands, not everyone in the rock scene loved the idea of a generation doing Pete Townshend’s windmill arms with a plastic Strat. Roger Daltrey dug it. “Anything that advances music is really interesting. It’s better than all of those shoot ’em up, blow ’em up, kill ’em games,” he said at the time. But the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne wasn’t impressed, saying, "The games misguide kids into thinking playing guitar is just pressing three red buttons. It’s harder than it looks!”
With Rock Band’s revolutionary approach, competing with Guitar Hero didn’t seem to a problem. Beating it would prove harder. By 2007, early versions of Guitar Hero had sold six million copies and, Guitar Hero III, released ahead of Rock Band that year, racked up sales of $115 million in its first week. And with smaller price tag (Hero went for about $100, Band for about $160), Guitar Hero seemed to have the edge.
But Rock Band had a not-so-secret weapon: MTV’s reach. In the fall and early winter of 2007, Rock Band showed up on TRL, Real World and MTV News. VH1 even did a Behind the Music-style “mockumentary” telling an invented story about the origins of the Rock Band “band.” A promotional tour for the game finished in September with a featured showcase at the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas.
“We have a plan for three to five years,” then MTV president Van Toffler told the Times.
The first part of the plan worked out well. The reviews for the game were almost unprecedented: Wired called it "an ambitious kitchen-sink project with slam-dunk execution." GamePro said it was 'the closest to feeling like a true rock star," and the game pulled in Editor's Choice Awards from half a dozen publications. Those reviews translated to huge Christmas sales that snowballed into the new year.
Just eight weeks in, the response to game -- and the downloadable music -- was clear. Fans and gamers propelled its downloadable content to “double platinum” status, purchasing more than 2.5 million songs.
“Our goal with Rock Band was to create an entirely new way for people to interact with the music they love,” Toffler said in January 2008. “The incredible response to the downloadable content we’ve released to date motivates us even more to establish this platform as a way for people to discover new, up and coming artists through the game.”
By October 2008, Rock Band had moved four million units and pulled in $600 million. On the back of Rock Band, Viacom, MTV’s parent company, became the fifth-biggest video game publisher in the United States. The game became a full-blown cultural phenomenon: Time put Rigopulos and fellow Harmonix founder Eran Egozy on its list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2008. In the article, Steven Van Zandt went so far as to say, “In the history of rock 'n' roll, Rock Band may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs, or MTV.”
But Rock Band’s success, like that of the Guitar Hero, didn’t need a five-year plan. Or maybe it needed a better five year plan.
By the time Rock Band 3 rolled out in 2010, music games had proven to be a fad. A lucrative fad, but a fad nonetheless. A franchise that everyone from the Beatles and the Who and the Lego company got behind had become a flop. Shortly after the third edition’s release, Harmonix laid off 15 percent of its staff and Viacom shuttered MTV Games. And in 2013, Harmonix stopped releasing new songs to download (after building the library to an astounding 4,000 songs).
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