The Era of Plastic Rockers: Harmonix’s history of Guitar Hero VS Rock Band

Consoles still seemed innocent during 2006, offering only the likes of a mediocre selection of karaoke games. Gaming needed a rhythmic revolution: one that would usher in an Era of Plastic Rockers…

Sarcastination: Harmonix's Guitar Hero

The origins of a Rock God: Harmonix hits the road

Picture the year of 1995; love was in the air, dreams were on the wind, and MIT students were hard at work trying to graduate.

It was there that two starry-eyed students stumbled into each other – a programmer interested in music, and a musician interested in programming. Both had dreams of a melodic future, yet both were incapable of conceiving it by their own. But, perhaps luckily for us, the pair had a playdate with destiny: one that would usher in a pivotal Era of Plastic Rockers.

What do you get when you combine a powerful prowess in programming with a unmuted mastery of music? No, not the start of an odd joke –  the start of a revolution. The programmer and the musician joined forces and created what would later be known as Harmonix – the company that conceived the legendary Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises.

But lets get back to the start – the baby steps of Harmonix. How did they decide that rhythmic gaming was the way to go?

Well, after creating a successful music program controlled by a joystick, the pair got their first taste of rock-star popularity at the MIT Media Lab, where students went mad over a demonstration of the innovate tech . Perhaps it was this success that lead them to envision a grand future of rhythmic gaming; a rock-grade concert in every living room across the nation.

So, hot on the wheels of their new-found success, they sought a way to spread the revolution of rhythm through the newly-budding platform of consoles – but they couldn’t do it with existing companies; they just wouldn’t understand. Musical gaming was a mere child, and it was their job to feed it, nurture it, and show it a spotlight for stars – so together, they officially created Harmonix, a company undeniably destined for greatness.

Their first few titles focused on their own stash of karaoke games, testing the musical waters with Karaoke Revolution 1, 2, 3, and Party. It was met with a round of applause from living-room pop-stars, yet plummeted to the bottom of the barrel once it took a popularity hit, with their subsequent sequels declining from reviews of 81% all the way down to 53% at it’s worst.

So what, then, was Harmonix going to do about it? Why, dump the karaoke genre completely. They had dreams to be a rock star, not a girl group! From here on out, there’d be a few changes in the way things were done by Harmonix – less karaoke (well, until later, that is) and more hardcore rock. They created a couple of games – FreQuency and Amplitude – which audiences were mostly stagnant about, showing little interest in either title. But these games served as massive learning curves in developing musical interaction. Harmonix got it’s work experience; now it needed a breakthrough.

Their first majorly-selling game was offered by a big label – Sony Computer Entertainment. However, they weren’t looking for rhythmic gaming. Pffsshh! They were looking for innovation. They threw a folder of plans at Harmonix’s feet and left the room before they even got acquainted – Harmonix had no choice but to seal their deal with Sony by playing with their plans.

And so, oddly enough, their first taste of financial success came in the form of Eyetoy: AntiGrav, which used the Eyetoy camera – basically a webcam for the PlayStation 2 – to let the audience move their body to a futuristic sports game.

Alright, I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t Harmonix supposed to make music games, not sports games?” Well, yes, you’re right. And it might be for this reason that AntiGrav was savagely booed off-stage by reviewers, despite selling four times more than their earliest titles. The reception was less than admired by Harmonix, and as a result, fell into hardcore-levels of depression about the future of rhythmic rocking.

When the world of console gaming was so unforgivably ravenous, how would a music game ever stand a chance? Rhythmic gaming was unheard of. Foreign, even. Their most successful game was a horrendous failure. And Harmonix was fresh out of ideas; close enough to call it quits.

But then there was a light. Along came RedOctane, in what I imagine to be the dark bar where Harmonix drank away their sorrows. They swept the bottle from Harmonix’s cold hands and offered them a last-ditch solution; “develop a game for a guitar-shaped controller, and we’ll help you reach the stars”.

Harmonix looked up at RedOctane with dark, baggy eyes, and muttered to itself with a beer-like stench. What was there to lose? They burped and signed the contract – Harmonix would do it. RedOctane handed them a bag of their broken dreams, bent down to their ear, and whispered to them their final, fated mission – to birth a revolution of rhythmic gaming. Except, you know, better this time.

And so it was that Harmonix was back on their feet. They took their earlier concepts of FreQuency and Amplitude and cut out the best bits. They stuck them together with craft tape, added a sprinkling of chaos and madness, and offered unto the Rock Gods a promise of rock revival right across the globe. The Powers of Rock considered it for a moment, gave them their full blessings, and watched them with bated breath.

It was official. Guitar Hero was now on tour across the globe.

The first era: Guitar Hero’s rhythms run rampant

Harmonix's Era of Plastic Rockers

Harmonix blindly signs “their biggest fan”s outstretched autograph book from a red-roped crowd. The dazzle and wheeze of a  Polaroid cameras fail to penetrate the tinted screens of Harmonix’s newest shades – £2,500 from London, evidently, as the price tag doesn’t seem to have been taken off.

Nearly 10 years later after a slew of rough patches, Harmonix’s big year was 2005, where the crowds went wild for Guitar Hero. Critics and concerters alike were emptying their wallets for the Rhythmic Revolution of Rock, and Harmonix had achieved the life they so desperately worked hard for. Of course, Harmonix knew it was coming. It was their destiny, after all.

In the limo, RedOctane turns as he runs through the numbers.  “Good work on releasing the new Guitar Hero 2,” he says, hidden behind the rim of an insane fedora. “it’s selling like hotcakes: IGN gives it a 9.5, X-Play rates it 5/5, and Game Informer didn’t even hesitate when they yelled ‘9 out of 10!’ from the demo alone.” They slap Harmonix on the knee, convulsing in a wild fit of laughter. “They love it! People see those coloured buttons in their sleep now. We’re on the pay-roll, boy! The pay-roll!”

Harmonix looks out at the silhouetted crowd as a tinted window rolls up over it. Before they know it, months pass, and the release of Guitar Hero 2 finds ratings as the third best-selling game for the PS2, and the fifth best-selling game for 2006. They have it good, and it’s hard to breathe from the heights of success.

But one day, RedOctane and Harmonix would end up savagely splitting from the scene. Ensuing the success of the music genre was a plethora of deals from gaming’s publishing giants, and what ended was RedOctane joining the ranks of Acitivison, taking with it the successful name of the Guitar Hero franchise and leaving Harmonix to bite the musical dust. And it was a huge shame, too; Harmonix had big plans for their next move.

They envisioned the compatibility of a range of new instruments to create the ultimate musical experience. Their plan was to introduce not just a revamped guitar, but an entire band – the drums, the bass and even a singer. But now that RedOctane had merged into Activision, how was Harmonix supposed to realize their dreams?

Most people would throw in the towel at the sight of their mentor joining the dark side. Activison was a musical beast – a colossus in publishing with a keen eye for talent. But Harmonix had become too great to fall now, and they’d certainly die trying to save the genre – and if doing that meant a tarnished name, then so be it. Harmonix took their ideas, found a new published – MTV Studios, famed for their relationship with music across the world –  and developed what would later become the famous Rock Band franchise, under the publisher MTV.

The war between Activision and Harmonix had begun. It’s got to be the greatest musical war to happen in gaming so far – the Wrath of Activision and Rock Band – or, quite simply, W.A.R.

The second era: W.A.R. What is it good for?

Activision went on to release four more Guitar Hero games between 2006 and 2010 – Legends of Rock (2007), World Tour (2008), Guitar Hero 5 (2009) and Warriors of Rock (2010). In between, they filled some gaps by releasing independent and – ahem – real rockstar-named games such as Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen. Activision even released three of my personal favourite games: Band Hero and DJ Hero 1 and 2. With such a barrage of musical titles to choose from, in theory it would be easy for anyone to find their outlet and jam to it. Activison’s plan seemed blatant – supply as many games as possible to keep audiences entertained.

Meanwhile, Harmonix released the first title in the series, Rock Band, in November 2007. It dared to innovate the genre even farther by supporting the newly-released instruments of a drumkit, a bass guitar, and a microphone. And, perhaps to no surprise given Harmonix’s track record of success, the game exploded in popularity.

They were the first game to invite an entire, four-player band to the party, evolving the lone-wolf playstyle of Guitar Hero into the wolf-pack version of Rock Band, promoting concerts and party-play all across the nation. Rock Band’s success managed to gain the founders of Harmonix – our programmer and musician from MIT – a place in Time Magazine’s “100 most influential people” of 2008. Even a real-life rocker, Steven Van Zandt, is quoted saying himself: “in the history of rock and roll, Rock Band may just turn out to be up there with FM Radio, CDs, or MTV”.

But you’d be surprised to learn that Rock Band didn’t actually generate much profit at all. The cost of making the instruments and selling the game didn’t do much to benefit Harmonix or MTV, but that didn’t mean they killed it off right there. Instead, they formulated a new plan – to turn the Rock Band range of 1, 2 and 3 into a cross-game “platform”, allowing players to buy tracks individually and use across all of the franchise’s games. This was a stark contrast to Activision’s tactic of releasing disk upon disk of different songs. Nowadays, Rock Band’s track platform continues to flourish to this day and has ultimately done the franchise a huge favor. Good move, Harmonix!

Meanwhile, Activision was slow getting to to grips with Guitar Hero. Their slew of rapid releases forced many critics to come to a consensus: their repetitive release of games was over-saturating the musical gaming market. Analysts of the genre agreed that in order for it to flourish, musical games needed to innovate themselves instead of simply creating more games with more songs. The former CEO of RedOctane, Kelly Summer, even admitted it himself: he believed that Activison “abused” the Guitar Hero series, as “they tried to get too much out of the franchise too quickly”.

And heck, it shows in the aggregate review scores: where Guitar Hero was one a 91%, over the years it’s declined down to 74% at it’s worst (Warriors of Rock, PS3). Activision was even scolded by critics for releasing Smash Hits, a compilation of all of the previous games best songs, without adding anything new except party play. It was called “the definition of milking” by critics, and ultimately brought shame to the once mighty Guitar Hero name.

So it came to be that on February 9th 2011, Activision announced the end of the Guitar Hero franchise one and for all. But their actions had caused a catastrophic butterfly effect. The over-saturation of the music genre, combined with the untimely crisis of the late-2000s economic recession, drove audiences away from the idea of musical gaming. And even though Harmonix ultimately found success from Rock Band, this affected them too – it seemed that they too would suffer from the bloated musical market.

The following result, then, was dormancy from both publishers. Activision’s last Guitar Hero game was in 2010 with Warriors of Rock (not including mobile games), and Harmonix’s last Rock Band was in the same year with Rock Band 3.

It’s been five years since then.

It’s only now, in 2015, that both publishers have drawn their swords once again. Their slumbers were merely a recuperating phase in the next big musical rumble – Rock Band 4 VS Guitar Hero Live. Guitar Hero has a range of successful sales beneath it’s belt, had birthed the musical genre from the start, and is yet to be beaten sale-wise by Rock Band. Yet Rock Band arguably has new innovation, the advantage of youth, and more favorable critic recommendation.

Can Guitar Hero win back the world? Will Rock Band steal the show? It’s a battle of franchises with one goal in mind – to win back the hearts of those faded rockers that left the scene so long ago.

So pick up your plastic guitars and stand by a side! If you’re feeling adventurous, try out both games if you can. But dust of the drumkit, reboot that bass, and demuffle that microphone – there’s a new movement in the horizon, and the lost people of the Plastic Era are the deciders of this battle.

Let me know who you’re supporting as we watch history unfold over the next few months, and as always, thanks for reading.

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