Without it we might not have had: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Tat Tap Revenge + just about any rhythm game that’s not a Japanese import.
Just a bit of a disclaimer: I know that people can get very….erm… opinionated when it comes to comparing rhythm games. So I’d like to say right now that I’m very sorry if my observations on this subject turn out to be contradictory to your own, all I’m doing is telling it how I see it.
What did it pioneer? Western style rhythm games.
Mario vs Sonic, Doom vs Quake, Call of Duty vs Battlefield, Fifa vs Pro Evo. Rivalling IPs have always been a hallmark of the game industry’s history, and one of the most defining of the recent times would definitely be Rock Band vs Guitar Hero. They were two IPs that desperately battled for domination over the (formerly) very lucrative rhythm game market and were constantly trying to outdo each other with every iteration. But unlike the other rivalry’s I listed, they were fighting over a genre that that only became a viable big time money-spinner relatively recently. If you were to go back in time to about 6 years (“now” being 2011, just in case you’re reading this via the archive) and started telling everyone that rhythm games would soon be a multimillion dollar business in the western world, then you would likely become the object of considerable jeer.
Don’t get me wrong, in a way there was a lot of money to be made in rhythm games back then too, provided of course you were part of Konami’s “Bemani” music game division which was flooding the Japanese arcades with exceedingly popular (to this day) Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania and GuitarFreaks cabinets. But even those weren’t really taken very seriously in the home retail sector as they were considered little more than novelty party games to the masses outside of Asia. So what changed? Well we owe our new found reverence of the rhythm game genre to one company in particular: Harmonix Music systems, who after a decade of obscurity released the landmark Guitar Hero in 2005 which woke westerners up to how fun rhythm games could actually be.
The characteristics of these kinds of games should be familiar to most people, even if you’ve only ever glanced at one you’ve probably at least got the basic gist of it. Basically there’s a big conveyor belt sort of thing that’s separated into several lanes and each lane is filled with little buttons representing notes in the music for that stage. To make those notes play correctly you have to wait for them to reach the bottom of the screen and then with the correct timing press the correct button on your controller relevant to that lane while…… uh…… you know what? That’s probably not the best description in the world. Just watch the first few seconds of this video and we should all be on the same page.
As genius as Harmonix is, this style of gameplay was in no way their creation. Instead they
totally riped off took inspiration from Konami’s Bemani titles, particularly GuitarFreaks which uses a near identical guitar peripheral to Guitar Hero/Rock Band. But it wasn’t the mechanics of rhythm game gameplay that Harmonix revolutionised as such, it was more the presentation and the content.
As you can see from the picture above, the way Bemani style game’s “look” is very different, and to be quite honest is relatively drab compared to what westerners are used to. One side of the screen is reserved for simplistic (but admittedly very awesome) pre-rendered animations, the conveyor belt is vertical to the screen instead of at a 45 degree angle, the buttons are very subtle 2D sprites and the UI is extremely cluttered. What’s more, almost every song in Bemani titles where either specifically made for the game or taken from the back catalogues of Japanese artists that (understandably) only Asians would have likely heard of.
What I’m trying to say is that even though mechanically Bemanis are nearly identical to western rhythm games like Rock Band or Tap Tap Revenge, there’s still no way you would ever be able to confuse the two. Their ascetics and content are were just so radically different from what we now thing of as rhythm games, and that’s all thanks to one particular pioneering Harmonix game. Without it rhythm games would have likely never been popular outside of japan and the entire sub-industry of music games simply wouldn’t exist in any form at all in the west.
So we owe everything to Guitar Hero right? Well yes and no. Guitar Hero was certainly the first popular Harmonix rhythm game and undeniably the one that breathed life into the genre. However it wouldn’t exist without a certain other game, one that was the true pioneer of western style rhythm games. Harmonix’s other game: Frequency, released in 2001 on the PS2.
What was it? A blueprint.
This look familiar? It should do! It served as the basis for almost every subsequent rhythm game for over a decade after its release! There weren’t any peripherals involved at this point but other than that you still got the 3D buttons, angled conveyor belts, licenced English tracks, snazzy 3D effects and all that Jazz that laid the foundations for Guitar Hero.
Surprisingly the gameplay was actually a little less derivative of Bemani games than Harmonix’s later works; instead of “playing” a single conveyor belt of notes you actually had up to 8 different ones you could switch between at any time using the R1 and L1 buttons and each of them corresponded to a different element of the music such as bass, vocals, synth, lead guitar etc. Once you’d hit enough notes correctly then that belt would begin to play itself automatically for a time, allowing you to switch to a different belt without that element of the music stopping. This meant that rather than just influencing one instrument in the virtual band while the rest of it played perfectly, you were instead gradually building the song up from nothing bit by bit. It was a little weird but also incredibly satisfying.
Of course the reason Frequency is on this list is because wasn’t exactly a mega hit, in fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say that it kinda tanked. Regardless, Harmonix didn’t give up and eventually released an improved sequel named Amplitude (pictured above) in 2003 which went on to…. also not do too well. But still, peripheral makers RedOctane took notice of Frequency/Amplitude and later commissioned Harmonix to combine it with what were essentially knock off GuitarFreaks controllers. The rest is history.
Sadly Frequency as its own franchise hasn’t been heard from since, but Harmonix did see fit to give it spiritual sequels in the form of Lego Rock Band DS and Rock Band: Unplugged (PSP) both of which bare Frequency’s on the fly instrument swapping mechanism. Not exactly a fitting tribute for a game with such a significant legacy, but I guess I can’t really blame them considering how few people would actually care.
Why was it forgotten? Obscure music and no physical instruments.
The most immediately apparent reason it never came even close to the meteoric success of its successor is that it lacked any kind of peripheral, something that these days we would consider an absolutely essential part of the experience. Part of the whole draw of music games is that they allow you to immerse yourself the illusion that you’re actually playing the music rather than just telling a computer when to play some pre-recorded soundbites. However without the physical instruments it was impossible to make that illusion particularly convincing, especially since Frequency let you switch which instrument you were playing whenever you wanted at the touch of a button.
But beyond that there was a far simpler and more depressing reason that Harmonix’s magnum opus didn’t really take off. Although the in-game music was made up of licenced tracks with very high production values most of the artists were so distinctly “underground” that a vast majority of players wouldn’t have had even the slightest clue who the hell any of them were. The only vaguely recognisable name on the playlist were the Freezepops, who even today are relatively unknown to mainstream music fans. Amplitude managed to do a little better in that department thanks to a single track each from Blink-182, David Bowie, Weezer and Slipknot. But other than that it was still far too obscure to garner mass market attention, and it’s that mass market you need to appeal to if you want your game to sell.
That’s something Harmonix learnt the hard way in 2004 when they took a break from music games and released a monition controlled extreme sports game called EyeToy: AntiGrav for the PS2. Despite a distinctive “meh” from critics compared to Frequency/ Amplitude’s “hell yes!” it went on to sell way more copies than both those games combined. Honestly, It’s a miracle they just didn’t give up on the whole thing right there and then.
Where are the developers now? Recovering from a music game meltdown.
From the moment Guitar Hero hit the scene in 2005, realised there wasn’t actually a scene to hit, then made one out of thin air, then hit it again, Harmonix went from obscure down on their luck developer to one of the biggest names in the industry. Of course inevitably this lead to Activision coming along in 2007 and buying up RedOctane (thus obtaining the Guitar Hero IP rights) in order to save them the trouble of having to develop a rival franchise from the ground up. It was a bold move at the time, but these days it’s just kinda what Activision is all about, it’s sorta like their a force of nature that keeps franchises from getting too good.
This didn’t slow Harmonix down one bit, within a year they launched a new rhythm game franchise called Rock Band, basically just a better version of Guitar Hero that introduced support for microphones and a new range of drum kit peripherals, both of which became industry standards soon after. Unfortunately Rock Band never managed to outperform the now Activision controlled Guitar Hero franchise in terms of total sales, but it was still a major success that earned Harmonix hefty financial bonuses from Viacom (their new publisher).
But as you’re probably aware, the good times eventually came to an end in 2010 when the entire music game sector totally collapsed. Sales of both the latest iterations of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, DJ Hero and newcomers Power Gig were abysmally low, and that was despite Rock Band 3 being heralded by many critics as the greatest music game of all time*. Ironically Harmonix’s other 2010 music game Dance Central managed to totally circumvent the crash by virtue of being the only Kinect game that didn’t kinda suck. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop everyone involved taking a gargantuan hit financially that they weren’t really expecting.
Now I wouldn’t (yet) call myself an expert industry analyst or anything, but pining down some of the factors that lead to the crash ain’t rocket science. Like a lot of the big issues in game development over the last year or so, it involved Activision doing what they do best: milking the cash cow till its udders bleed. If you include all the various spin offs such as DJ Hero and Band Hero there have been a staggering 14 different titles in the Guitar Hero franchise in the 5 or so years since they too the reigns. Essentially the entire rhythm game audience was so spoilt for choice that it was far more appealing to buy one of the many older titles at knocked down prices second hand than it was to buy anything new. If you combine all that with a post-recession public who are far less willing to splash out on expensive pretend instruments than they used to be, you end up with a state of play where no one can profit no matter how good their product is.
Anyway whatever the reasons were, the fallout was still harsh. Activision demolished what was left of RedOctane and Neversoft (the guys who took Harmonix’s place) putting an indefinite end to the Guitar Hero franchise that had once dominated the gaming scene. At one point it looked like Harmonix would join them too, as Viacom started frantically trying to sell off the legendary company that by their own admission they had no idea how to handle anymore. But to the surprise of many (myself especially) Harmonix was neither disbanded nor sold off to a major publisher. Thanks to some timely assistance from investment firm Columbus Nova, Harmonix essentially bough themselves from Viacom and once again became a fully independent game development team, albeit one that had to axe ~15% of their staff to stay sustainable.
Now that all their competition have bit the dust and Activision have publicly sworn off music games for the time being, they essentially rule the roost of the sector they nearly single headedly created anyway. Where they’ll go from there is anyone’s guess, but I think it’s safe to say that Frequency 3 isn’t on the cards right now.