Rhythm Nation

I remember the first time I heard about Guitar Hero. It sounded stupid.

On the week that Guitar Hero came onto the scene back in November of 2005, our Game of the Week was Gun, but what we were really excited about was the release of Kameo: Elements of Power. No one in our forums was even talking about this odd and expensive game full of cover bands and fairly simplistic gameplay. On the cusp of a cultural phenomenon, no one saw it coming.

It’s a ridiculous proposition when you think about it critically. Pretending to be something that you are not is one thing in the realm of gaming, but actually standing there, holding tiny plastic instruments in your living room or worse public -- that's something altogether different. In some ways guitar games get to the heart of both what it is to be a gamer and what we fear having exposed, the almost childlike innocence of living out the unreachable dream.

As adults we might as well walk around pretending to be Transformers for half the day.

And yet, it is a rare thing to put that guitar controller into someone’s hand and not see them light up from the inside. You can watch a game like Guitar Hero just click with someone, usually within seconds. They hit that Bon Jovi power chord or a classic rock lick, and the self-consciousness washes away like a veneer of maturity ripped clean from a hidden child.

Over the past four years, there may be no single genre that has been more important to video games than rhythm gaming. I don’t simply mean they have been financially lucrative — I mean to say that they have been integral in breaking down walls and facilitating a speedy transition from social exile to the mainstream-cool.

As daring a statement as it may be to make, Beatles: Rock Band may in the long run prove to be one of the seminal releases that cements a social phenomenon into the permanent zeitgeist. Even as the stage lights begin to fade on an overexposed genre, this could be a important nail into the coffin of gaming as the alien realm of the strange and infantile.

That’s not to say that every ex-hippie is going to put flowers in their hair, pop submarine shaped pills and trip out to Abbey Road dreamscapes, but that it becomes a lot harder to condemn an art form that is so publicly embraced by generational icons. It is easy now to diminish what The Beatles meant to children of the early 60s, but doing so is a grave error. It is the ultimate ace up the sleeve for a sancitmonious closed-mindedness that has historcially stonewalled gamers out of the really popular reindeer games.

This isn't some random sixties group looking to cash in on former glory. For forty years there were The Beatles and then there was everyone else. This is gaming's moon shot.

It is important to recognize how vigorously the legacy of the band has been jealously protected for decades by legal and cultural guardians with little patience for anything that might sully the Fab Four image. This isn’t a band you hear tossed into car commercials or who perform overpriced reunion tours for starry-eyed executives with too much disposable income. The Beatles image has been carefully crafted even as half the band passes on into that great drug trip in the sky.

Turning over this icon to guys who make video games with plastic toys for adults would have seemed in 2005 about as likely as the United States electing a minority to the Presidency, the kind of nonsense that pie-in-the-sky idealists ramble on about over fondue and wine from a box. Culturally speaking, gaming was simply not at that level. It was, like comic books, rock and roll and television before it, a persistently annoying but ultimately transitory phase. We would all grow out of it soon enough.

Sir Paul now includes Rock Band images in his public performances. In my minds eye I imagine borderline geriatrics staring up at this images in grudging acceptance. Perhaps I am overstating it, but there is a changing of the guard and our cultural exile is slowly coming to an end. Tell me you can’t feel it.

The reality is that rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band played and continue to play a key role. Yes, these games are experiencing a roughly 40% drop in revenue this year, this versus a 20% overall drop in gaming revenue. Yes, Activision has greedily made a hash of the genre. Yes, there’s not a lot of room for moving forward, and The Beatles: Rock Band may simultaneously be the most important and the last meaningful rhythm game for a while.

None of that diminishes what has been accomplished. Along with the Wii, the iPhone and the rise of casual gaming, rhythm gaming is perhaps the big toe on the foot in the door. Unabashed Rock Band fanboy though I may be, it gives me hope for gaming in the future to know that a hidden gem that nobody is talking about this week might define gaming for years to come.

That’s the sort of thought that gets me up in the morning.

Comments

That’s the sort of thought that gets me up in the morning.

You actually went to bed after getting your hands on The Beatles: Rock Band? I'm shocked.

Nice writeup.

Unabashed Rock Band fanboy though I may be, it gives me hope for gaming in the future to know that a hidden gem that nobody is talking about this week might define gaming for years to come.

Glad you ended with this - I was going to point out the likelihood that the next big thing is going to come out quiet and unnoticed while we rave about Rock Band: Beatles, just as Guitar Hero landed without fanfare while we were excited for Kameo.

Well, while you guys were excited for Kameo. I never really knew anything about that game OR Guitar Hero at the time.

Great article!

It's sad to see the revenue drop. (Well, I think Activision is getting exactly what it asked for by milking the genre as much as they can, but... I digress.) I know I personally don't play as much as I used to, but I still love to pick it up, and I get plenty of DLC as it comes.

I hope that the Rock Band Network helps bring things back a little, but only time will tell I guess. Either way, I love Rock Band, and with the DLC in the pipeline, it has plenty of longevity even if there's no more innovation in the genre as a whole.

I dunno. I think RB:TB missed it's moment. Speaking only anecdotally, I can say that the year and a half following the release of Guitar Hero III was the only time my casual-gamer group of friends were enthralled by the music-game phenomenon. We had several Rock Band/GH parties and had a great time...until they just got bored with it. No one even mentions it anymore.

The same happened with my hardcore friends - in July, we had a LAN party at Parallax Abstaction's place, and at one point descended to the basement for some RB. We got bored after about 2 songs - no one wanted to pick up an instrument - and we proceeded to have a blast with Little Big Planet.

Rock Band was a great game, and it did indeed break down barriers and do revolutionary things - I just think RB:TB is coming out at a time when a lot of people, myself included, are just bored with it. I think it's quickly changing from a "Must Have" to a "Fans of the Genre" game. A year ago, RB:TB would have been a day one purchase. Now? Maybe I'll pick it up for Christmas.

Maybe.

GH and RB are just DDR for those who never wanted the exercise or were too white.

And they'll go to the same place as DDR.

GH and RB are just DDR for those who never wanted the exercise or were too white.

I'm sorry, did I accidentally post to NeoGAF?

I still remember how silly it was walking out of Best Buy with the big box labelled Guitar Hero, and feeling a bit of buyers remorse. That was until i got home and played it for 4 hours straight until the walls of my game room were melting around me, due my eyes being locked into a vertical repetitive tracking motion.

To think that that platform brought the Beatles to modern gaming, i'm still amazed. Haven't bought RB:TB yet due to gaming burnout, but I know i will (the harmonies are what will get me); looking forward to the party we'll have when we do.

I knew Rock Band would be big, though admittedly not this big. Anyone who had ever tried Guitar Freaks in the arcade knew there was fun to be had. And add in DrumMania and you have a gold mine.

Speaking of which, they need a Rock Band: JPop version! I'd be all over it.

I'm gonna have to agree with Dysplastic. While RB: Beatles will surely sell well, I don't see it being the game that will "define gaming for years to come." I think the music rhythm genre is at or near somewhat of a saturation point here in late 2009. If RB:B had been released a year or two ago (especially before the pile of sh*t that was GH: Aerosmith), its potential for a huge impact would've much higher IMO.

Dysplastic wrote:

I dunno. I think RB:TB missed it's moment.
Maybe.

Usually at the point where the hardcore and casual fans both agree that something has outplayed itself is when the same thing enters the consciousness of the mainstream. Now is the perfect time for The Beatles to debut just as the music rhythm genre is about to collapse under its own weight.

I'm sure the genre will not die, but as it recovers and evolves I think The Beatles will be considered one of the important milestones.

I don't agree with your premise;

...Over the past four years, there may be no single genre that has been more important to video games than rhythm gaming.
... I mean to say that they have been integral in breaking down walls and facilitating a speedy transition from social exile to the mainstream-cool.
...Beatles: Rock Band may in the long run prove to be one of the seminal releases that cements a social phenomenon into the permanent zeitgeist.

As biased as I might sound starting this way: I was never a fan of the Rhythm-game concept. The most I enjoyed were two or three songs at most. The idea of trying to play a song that I didn't particularly love made the game as boring as it made it frustrating.

On the cusp of a cultural phenomenon, no one saw it coming.

A cultural phenomenon must go beyond the general population being aware of it's existence. Hybrid cars and "going green" and smoking no longer being cool are cultural phenomena. People buying a Wii as their first console ever to play tennis or golf and then let it collect dust because they realized they weren't gamers after all was the promise of a cultural phenomenon that didn't deliver.

I think games like GH/RB are on the right track though; bringing the console out during social events or even being responsible for these social gatherings will change the paradigm of video-games and those who play them.

A game review! Yes!

I sort of agree with Dysplastic, but sort of don't. Also: PXA's house?

Anyhow, part of the problem I've found is that I'm still running Gen 1 Rock band equipment, and it's all mostly broken. It's hard to have fun when the equipment just sucks. Every gamer does eventually get tired of games, no matter how good, but sitting down to a good set of RB drums and ripping through a difficult track is still awesome.

Stylez wrote:

I sort of agree with Dysplastic, but sort of don't. Also: PXA's house?

Oops. Sorry, I just associate it that way. He DID live there at the time.

I thought it was a great article and I disagree with the dissenters, but I'm not going to bother getting into it. I'll just let it be.

...the self-consciousness washes away like a veneer of maturity ripped clean from a hidden child.

Awesome line. Powerful and vivid.

...it gives me hope for gaming in the future to know that a hidden gem that nobody is talking about this week might define gaming for years to come.

That's one of the things I love most about gaming -- how it evolves and changes. I love that I can look back and smile broadly as I pass the history of games of yore to my kids and see that they are having the same experiences. For example they know Mario from the N64 and Wii yet they revel wide eyed and smiling with my stories of the NES and SNES.

As a gaming father, few things are more rewarding.

Excellent read, as usual El!

I'm not sure that Guitar Hero or Rock Band are as revolutionary as we'd like to think, nor that their concepts fall firmly at all within the realm of gaming Before them both, there was karaoke. In many ways, these are really just extensions of Karaoke, which involved singing to an onscreen rhythm and tapping into the same fantasy of being a musician. Karaoke is just as social with folks singing in group or individually, within a large room or in a smaller more private karaoke box (room). Like karaoke before it, Guitar Hero / Rockband will hit a peak and then find some level of mainstream interest that doesnt fade away once the 'new' factor is gone. Harmonix in particular has succeeded in bringing home a cost-effective way to build a large library of music to play and delivered on their goal of building an entertainment 'platform' where karaoke is a large investment for a consumer, and Guitar Hero is too caught up in non-compatible releases.

Rock band / Guitar Hero is a better consumer product than DDR, despite some funny commentary a few posts up. DDR fails for the typical gamer in that tracking down a controller, a dancepad, that will deliver a consistent experience involves a bit of work. Dance pads were ridiculously big and prone to wearing out, unless you went all out for a high end model which was still big. Start dedicating floorspace to one or two dancepad controllers and the social limitations of it all seem apparent to me. Despite the over-abundance of controller revisions with Guitar Hero / Rockband, they are relatively portable, easily store-able, and typically a move towards refinement as long as the publishers play nice with each other. Ironically, its fair to say that Guitar Hero & Rockband have a leg up socially on DDR, in that the controller size lends itself to getting together with a larger number of buddies to belt out a few chords and enjoy the fantasy of it all.

I think the cultural penetration of Rock Band/GH is far, far deeper than DDR ever was (with no ideas about sales numbers.) Legions of people in my social circle who have never heard of DDR not only know what Rock Band is, but want to come over and play.

Rock Band, and I would argue the Wii, have reinvented how groups of people play games together. I don't think DDR or Karaoke did anything of the kind.

This isn't some random sixties group looking to cash in on former glory.

Perhaps this is exactly what it is, albeit with a very well known random sixties group. I think this game says more about the revenue potential of the gaming business than it does about broader cultural acceptance of gaming as a pastime (and although the two concepts are related, they are not synonymous).

I watched a video of Ringo and Paul at a recent convention, and they seemed to be clueless about the actual product. They used generic adjectives describing it as "great" and "fantastic," and it quite honestly felt like they were just stamping their names and collecting a paycheck.

I have no doubt that the Rock Band treatment will be excellent, but how much of that was actually calculated? If Activision had been the higher bidder, would we have seen Guitar Hero: Beatles instead, where you can control the virtual Fab Four as they hammer out the latest Nickelback tunes (with special guest Kurt Cobain, of course)?

I watched a video of Ringo and Paul at a recent convention, and they seemed to be clueless about the actual product. They used generic adjectives describing it as "great" and "fantastic," and it quite honestly felt like they were just stamping their names and collecting a paycheck.

I think it's possible to see the relevance and cultural value of something without being knowledgeable about it.

I have no doubt that the Rock Band treatment will be excellent, but how much of that was actually calculated? If Activision had been the higher bidder, would we have seen Guitar Hero: Beatles instead, where you can control the virtual Fab Four as they hammer out the latest Nickelback tunes (with special guest Kurt Cobain, of course)?

My unequivocal answer is: no. I think the precise reason that Harmonix was able to ring in The Beatles is precisely because of what you describe.

There have been a bunch of good "story of the game" pieces and interviews with Paul in particular. While he's really quite clear he's not a gamer, and wasn't doing any hands on driving, it's also clear he understands what the point is, and that it's more than just a paycheck.

http://gameinformer.com/News/Story/2...

I had a great time with Gun!

As for RB:TB - it was one of the top stories on edition.cnn.com for a few days, and that tells me that it IS an important step towards the mainstream acceptance of gaming, even if it hasn't sucked me in yet (though DDR did).

As adults we might as well walk around pretending to be Transformers for half the day.

One could pick worse role models than Optimus.

My point really was just that the Rockband/GH formula is an evolution of karaoke. The only revolutionary aspect I see is that it succeeded in bringing that home at an inexpensive price point, like nothing else has Stateside, and added a variety of inputs that still play off the same basic mechanics. The controllers themselves, are just variations on input.

Westernized karaoke I think tends to focus on karaoke bars, a large room with a stage and folks take turns. It is difficult to draw a comparison to that experience, and while they had that in Japan, karaoke 'boxes' seemed awfully popular, which are private rooms, rented by a small group to sing along with a dedicated karaoke machine, their own songlist and rented by the hour. This second experience is strikingly similar to the in-home experience RB/GH provide, and one that did not make the transition State-side in any mainstream kind of way as far as I can tell.

I don't disagree with you that RB/GH have a console freshness to them, and have broadened the adoption of rhythm based gaming. I am a fan of the technical innovation, and appreciate Harmonix's ability to support their platform(in particular). At the same time, I think Rockband & GH must give a nod to acknowledge that their fundamental mechanics and interaction are firmly founded on an evolution of the basic karaoke experience.

(EDIT: Actually, nevermind me. I'm not even a big fan of karaoke, which itself is an evolution of our ancestors sitting near some campfire banging on rocks and howling to the beat anyway.)

rabbit wrote:

Rock Band, and I would argue the Wii, have reinvented how groups of people play games together. I don't think DDR or Karaoke did anything of the kind.

I think "reinvented" might be a little ambitious. Video games have brought certain people with certain common tastes together long before plastic guitars and drums. Sport games and Arcade Fighters have done that in my house long before the concept of rhythm games were first conceived.

But I think that similar to the Wii and it's mechanic approach of how to play games, GH/RB have added their grain of sand of how "common" and "mundane" playing video games really are; breaching (albeit, one inch at a time) the gap between people who enjoy video-games and people who could best describe the former as "I don't see the point".

Hobbes2099 wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Rock Band, and I would argue the Wii, have reinvented how groups of people play games together. I don't think DDR or Karaoke did anything of the kind.

I think "reinvented" might be a little ambitious. Video games have brought certain people with certain common tastes together long before plastic guitars and drums. Sport games and Arcade Fighters have done that in my house long before the concept of rhythm games were first conceived.

But I think that similar to the Wii and it's mechanic approach of how to play games, GH/RB have added their grain of sand of how "common" and "mundane" playing video games really are; breaching (albeit, one inch at a time) the gap between people who enjoy video-games and people who could best describe the former as "I don't see the point".

My Aunt and Uncle bought themselves a Wii with RB for Christmas. I could see my uncle playing pong and pinball back in the day, but neither of them has been interested in video games in my lifetime.

They also bought a Classic Rock track pack and 2nd guitar as well as a few other games just to try it out.

At both family gatherings since Christmas (Easter and my sister's graduation), we've played Rock Band. My Mom, Dad, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, GRANDPARENTS, etc have sat around a TV playing video games for HOURS on end. If that's not reinventing how groups of people play video games together, I don't know what is.

This is all I know ...

Todd Rundgren wrote:

I don't want to work.
I just want to bang on the drum all day.

MechaSlinky wrote:

I thought it was a great article and I disagree with the dissenters, but I'm not going to bother getting into it. I'll just let it be.

What you did there, I see it.

Few thoughts:
The lack of enthusiasm for the rhythm genre must be in our collective unconscious, because I haven't had the drive to fake-guitar for around 8 months now. I would say the dissappointment with the GH brand adds to my malaise - I honestly can't believe the latest iteration is real.
i have picked it up in stores and denied its tangible presence.

For those that dismiss the impact of GH, opting to compare it to DDR: Guitar FREAKS. It was GH at .75 a pop.

But the difference is that GH licensed popular rock standards and anthems - indeed, the presence of Freebird and SpinalTap proves rock authenticity. What a difference an experience makes when you jam to songs you know and love!

MeatMan wrote:
MechaSlinky wrote:

I thought it was a great article and I disagree with the dissenters, but I'm not going to bother getting into it. I'll just let it be.

What you did there, I see it.

Congratulations. Glad you caught that. You win.

Also, my nerd rage compels me to state that it is, in fact, The Beatles: Rock Band. So the correct acronym is TB:RB. The end.

I was pleasantly surprised at your subtle nod to Ms. Jackson (if you're nasty) in the title of this excellent article. Thank you for bringing the goods by giving a subtle perspective to a product I'd written off as just another desperate grab to extend the life of moneymaking plastic peripherals. This mesh of cultural phenomenon may be good for gaming, after all.