Out of Tune: An Analysis of Rock Band 4

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Rock Band 3 was one of gaming's most commendable attempts to breathe new life into a dying genre. With an unorthodox 83 song soundtrack and its introduction of synthesisers, real guitars, and cymbals, it dramatically expanded the series' potential to both entertain and educate. Given that background, it only made sense that Rock Band 4 would carry that revolutionary flag forwards and be another historical advancement in the band game format. Particularly because Rock Band 4 was being released five years after the last entry in the series and had the opportunity to incorporate half a decade of lessons learned by the industry. That gap between games might not have been as long as five years if it weren't for Harmonix not wanting to compete with early blockbuster titles for the Xbox One and PS4, and preferring to take some time exploring new projects like Dance Central for the Kinect. However, by 2015 the console libraries had had time to simmer down, the buzz around the Kinect was receding, and the studio had already put out four Dance Central games in five years.

Rock Band made its return in October 2015, but contrary to expectations, it launched defined more by what features of the series it was gutting than by any intrepid discovery of the new limits of rhythm games. Gone were the keyboard and the pro guitar from Rock Band 3. The game even removed its predecessor's option to play synth parts on the guitar meaning that those songs that you bought thinking you'd be able to play them with five different instruments now had less reuse value. Existing on a different generation of consoles from the original games, this sequel is also devoid of support for many of the peripherals that the series previously used.

Harmonix released a notoriously contrived compatibility chart showing which controllers can and cannot speak to Rock Band 4's software. Of note is the lack of inclusion for many Rock Band 1 instruments, and even if you do have Harmonix hardware from the second title onwards, if you're on the Xbox One, you need a wireless adapter that first retailed at $25, and that launched a month after the game, to use it. For some players, the adapter was impossible to acquire as supplies of the gadget did not nearly meet the demands, and if you didn't own compatible instruments and could not get your hands on an adapter, you had to pay $250 for a bundle including a mic, guitar, drums, and the Rock Band 4 disc. In the UK, that price was £220 (~$333 USD), and in Australia, a stomach-churning $500 (~$355 USD). Compare this to the £180/$170 USD price point of the original game's kit. You were also hard-pressed to find these bundles if you lived in Europe. Product manager Eric Pope openly acknowledged that they were in short supply in the region, and when players did manage to drive home with a box of instruments in the back seat, they didn't always find that it lived up to their standards.

Because the controllers haven't been redesigned since Rock Band 2, the guitar and drums for the Xbox One still use the stiff, clumsy D-Pad from the 360. Fans also reported the game stuttering and lagging, and the drums not always detecting inputs which were unforgivable in a title that asked its players for precision performance. Combined, these faults could entirely ruin 100% runs. It's true that the first batch of Rock Band 1 controllers had more than its fair share of malfunctions, but Harmonix did, at least, offer everyone free replacement instruments on that occasion. It's also more understandable when a developer runs into those kinds of snafus with the first game in their series as opposed to the seventh. Harmonix responded to fretting Rock Band 4 adopters by releasing firmware updates for the instruments, but now you were downloading files and connecting console peripherals to your PC just to make the game playable. Even worse, you might be part of the majority of players who never knew these glitches or fixes existed but would be punished in the scoring all the same.

Somewhere along the journey, Rock Band also dropped the practice mode, drum trainer, freestyle drum mode, highly customisable characters, and percentage-based leaderboard comparisons from previous games. Many players also immediately noticed the big feature-shaped hole where online multiplayer should have been. Additionally, due to exploits that Harmonix discovered in the software, they deleted the original leaderboard scores in February 2016. If you want to read a little more on what was absent from the game's hardware and software, I wrote about it a few years ago over here, but back in the present, we're going to talk about what was missing from Rock Band 4's song library. The game has eighteen fewer tracks on-disc than Rock Band 3, and at launch, couldn't import songs from Rock Band Network or any previous game in the series, nor could Harmonix tell people when those imports would go live. As for the soundtrack they included in the game, it's not to everyone's tastes. It's difficult to critique music in the way we critique the practical aspects of a game because music tends to divide audiences into more select camps based on personal taste, but I can describe the changes Harmonix made and how I received them.

The earlier games relied on long-respected electric guitar-led music accompanied by a few experimental stripes. Rock Band 3 deviated somewhat from that pattern, and 4 takes that deviation even further. In the multicoloured halls of the Rock Band 4 soundtrack, you will find classic rock, indie rock, and alt-rock, but in comparison to Rock Bands past, there's less of that and more songs inspired by country and blues. Plus, where these country and blues songs appear, the inspiration runs deeper into their sound. These tracks include Caught Up in You by .38 Special, Cold Clear Light by Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys, Follow You Down by The Gin Blossoms, Kick It Out by Heart, Little White Church by Little Big Town, Mainstream Kid by Brandi Carlile, Milwaukee by The Both, Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo by Rick Derringer, Start a Band by Brad Paisley, Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley, and That Smell by Lynryd Skynryd. There are also more tracks playing it closer to pop than rock. See: Centuries by Fall Out Boy, Little Miss Can't Be Wrong by The Spin Doctors, Still Into You by Paramore, Tongue Tied by Grouplove, and Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson. Collectively, the songs in this paragraph make up a quarter of the game's track reel.

Of the pieces that remain, it's very hit and miss. I will give Rock Band 4 its due: in taking deeper cuts than any other mainline series title, it shines a few rays of brilliance that it might never have done otherwise. There are selections like St. Vincent's Birth in Reverse which sounds like someone made a jerky pop-rock song out of a Salvidor Dali painting; Queens of the Stone Age's My God Is the Sun, a hard rock hymn sung by a violent desert hermit; or there's Lightning Bolt's Dream Genie, a noisy tsunami of experimental metal. But then there are the misses; the tracks that were never astoundingly popular and that I could take or leave like At Night in Dreams by White Denim, I Will Follow by U2, or Pistol Whipped by Tijuana Sweetheart.

Even considering that most players are likely to find one or two wet squibs in each rhythm game soundtrack, it's hard to understand who Rock Band 4 is for. If you know the person who wanted about three times as much southern rock, considerably more sugary indie pop, and a lot of specific B-tier selections from America's various bands, I want to meet them. The best way I can describe the Rock Band 4 soundtrack is that the R.E.M. song they included was The One I Love. I like The One I Love, but then I like R.E.M. a lot more than most of the other bands in this game, and that kind of pick is unlikely to please anyone but an entrenched enthusiast. Considering that Rock Band 4 was snatching away the songs that players owned in previous games, there was an onus on it to guarantee that the songs it added were going to be of similar quality, and they were not.

While we've already acknowledged a few factors in creating the five-year hiatus between Rock Band 3 and 4, we should also address the most prominent of them: the crash of the band game market. That collapse was, in part, a consequence of many rhythm games with strong mechanical resemblance to each other releasing in quick succession. It can also be attributed to the high price point of those products, and arguably, the setup required to use them. So, it appeared as self-defeating for Harmonix to try and rejuvenate the band game format by offering a game that was closer to the original Rock Band than their last entry, required users buy more add-ons for their gaming machine, may have cost them up to the price of a new console, could require more faffing about to get into a workable state, and didn't import most of their older content. Sure, there are some original elements in Rock Band 4 that we'll discuss in detail, and after five years off, people may have been more willing to buy up instruments or adapters all over again, but there was still a sense that this was one step forward and two steps back. While there was always the potential for Harmonix to improve Rock Band 4 over time with patches and DLC, a lot of your sales are going to be made around the release of your product or not made at all, and there were a lot of deterrents for purchasing Rock Band 4 on day one or even month one. Given that Harmonix is one of the top rhythm developers in the runnings, you have to ask how Rock Band 4 came out so underproduced.

It's probably not down to executive meddling; this was the first Rock Band that Harmonix developed independently and product manager Daniel Sussman expressed that while feedback from MTV Games was instructive in previous development processes, it could also be creatively constricting. It's also not likely to be down to a change of team: many of the same people who developed the original Rock Band also ended up on the Rock Band 4 credits. A more likely culprit is the diminished budget in comparison to previous Rock Bands. The leaner development funds were probably down to Harmonix no longer having MTV Games to bankroll them and possibly also attributable to the declining profits that Rock Band had brought in over the years. When previous trends suggested that Rock Band 4 was unlikely to generate a lot of revenue, it's believable that it didn't make business sense to pour sacks of capital into it. And when manufacturing is so expensive, I'd bet that Harmonix having less credit in their account was a motivator in them pairing down the peripherals.

We could also speculate that self-publishing a Rock Band game for the first time came with unforeseen complications or that remaking the controllers and converting DLC over to a whole new generation of consoles diverted efforts that might have otherwise gone into developing features. Additionally, we should remember that the fourth Dance Central title, Dance Central Spotlight, comprised a streamlining of that series which was generally well-received by critics and fans, possibly making such a philosophy seem appropriate for Harmonix's other rhythm game behemoth. Although, Dance Central was never a feature-rich game, to begin with. Making it into a minimalist title means you lose far fewer gameplay elements than when you do the same thing with Rock Band.

What we do know is that Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos thought that with a superior real-world guitar game out there, there wasn't much use in a Rock Band 4 that supported the pro guitar. That dominating guitar series was Rocksmith, a software package dedicated solely to teaching people the guitar which saw releases in 2011 and 2014, right after Rock Band 3. You could make a good case that Rocksmith was better at this job than 3 because its interface communicated in more detail than 3's did. As for Rock Band 4's somewhat bland soundtrack, the track listing was once again constrained by Harmonix already have published most of the stadium-filling rock anthems out there. According to the company, they made an effort to include hotly-requested tracks from the fanbase, but they would still have to have stretched to find exciting rock songs that didn't appear in the six games and roughly six years of weekly DLC prior.[1] It's not surprising given the circumstances that Harmonix may have had to pick a few less popular tracks or may have had to wander away from the typical band game genres to get their 65 songs.

The music included in any mainline Rock Band is also subject to shifts in the tectonic plates of western music culture, and a lot did change in the rock and mainstream music scenes between the 00s and the 10s. Rock Band has always had soundtracks that kept their finger on the pulse of recent music, but the further we got into the 2010s, the more rock faded from the radio to make room for singer-songwriters' works, riffs on hip hop and R&B, and pure pop. The emphasis was no longer on music that sounded like it was made by ensembles; it was increasingly about showcasing individuals who provided a single human face to focus on and who espoused a personal brand. Music backed by lavish, shiny production as opposed to the dirtier, rawer sound of rock was also on the rise, even in the case of acts presented as bands.

This is not me telling you that pop as a genre is not worth your time (it is) or that it only ascended to the industry throne in 2010 (it didn't), but there weren't as many chart-topping rock acts breaking into the mainstream as there had been even ten years earlier. The bands which were setting the airwaves alight were mostly acquired from previous decades, and there was no equivalent of the explosion in popularity of groups like The Kaiser Chiefs, Kings of Leon, and the Arctic Monkeys, all of which took the spotlight in the period leading up to the original Rock Band. Rock Band 4 was trying to whip up contemporary rock tracks at a time when there was a famine of mainstream rock music. It's forced to make do with relatively unknown and therefore risky bands, as well as acts that stray from the essential rock sound, including the more successful pop artists of the era. But we've spent so long looking at what we lost in the intervening time between Rock Band 3 and 4, let's talk about what the series gained. The design of Rock Band 4 serves to fulfil four goals:

  1. Streamline the play.
  2. Award player performance in real-time.
  3. Allow for more player improvisation.
  4. Simulate song selection as an interaction between the performer and crowd.

Streamlining is about what design elements developers abolish, and we've already covered a lot of that, so let's skip ahead to point number two.

Player Performance in Real-Time

Most video games are concerned with rewarding you not just at the chunkier milestones but throughout the play. We don't just win items, resources, or points at the end of levels, matches, or quests, we also win medals, find loot, and pick up collectables during them. Rock Band, however, is built on top of the template of the early Guitar Heros and play in those games lacked these explicit ambient rewards. Hitting notes lit up your pleasure centres, and you could see your score, streak, and combo increase over the course of a song, but you wouldn't know what your hit percentage or star rating was until you'd played out your last chord. The original Rock Band fought back a little against this presentation: within any single play of a song, the game updated you on your star rating in real-time and informed you how close you were to the next star. Rock Band 4 takes that baton and runs with it.

You may be familiar with gold stars: a secret star rating above five stars that you can only attain on Expert difficulty. Players deep into the series care a lot about this accolade, but the gap between five stars and gold stars is wider than the gulf between four stars and five stars. Because players were never told how close they were to achieving that elite score rating, they couldn't know whether they were just inches off of it and might be able to snag it with another replay of a song or whether they'd fallen far short and any repeat attempts would be in vain. In Rock Band 4, if you achieve five stars on Expert during a song, the star meter then begins tracking how close you are to gold stars, eliminating this problem. It does mean that this award is no longer a concealed surprise, but after three mainline Rock Bands, most players who were serious about the game had already discovered this secret.

Additionally, pop-ups appear over the note highway to tell you when you've engraved a new personal best on the leaderboards or when you've overtaken a friend's score. The design works on not just the principle of regular reward but also the concept that community members are going to care more about beating the score of someone they know rather than that of a stranger. It's a generally correct assumption.

Player Improvisation

Up to this point in the Rock Band series, there had been some asymmetry between the drums and other instruments. The drums give you the chance to improvise music several times during a song by performing the fills in the track, but there was never an analogue for this feature on the microphone or guitar. You could freestyle into the mic in set passages to ignite overdrive, but the vocalist activates this score multiplier far less often than the instrumentalists, and when they do, there's not the same sense of call and response as you get with those sandbox sections on the drums. The guitar, bass, and synth, meanwhile, didn't give the player a chance to improv their own riffs, and for the guitar and bass specifically, it's hard to see how they would accommodate them.

Drums fills are ubiquitous in rock music. A popular spot for them is in transitions from verses to choruses, and a vocalist can introduce a personal touch to a song in more or less any period of silence, but the guitar and bass aren't exactly rife with equivalent sections in which instrumentalists could let their creative flag fly. The Rock Band guitar is also not as adaptable to music creation as the drums or mic. On the drums, you have four main drums and a kick, and if you've gone all out, the three cymbals included with the pro kit. You've got, at a minimum, a rudimentary electronic drum kit where each pad can correspond with part of a real-world drum set (e.g. The red pad is a snare, the green is a crash cymbal, etc.), and as a singer, anything you can vocalise can become part of the song. The Rock Band guitar, however, is over a hundred inputs short of a real-world guitar and it's not clear how its fret buttons would correspond to notes. Undeterred, Rock Band 4 introduces new music creation tools for the guitar and as well as a mechanical bed for vocal improvisation.

On the mic, we have the vocal freestyle system. In music theory, songs progress through a pattern of chords over time, and on guitars or pianos, we can input multiple notes from a chord simultaneously, but when singing, we only vocalise one note in a chord at a time.[2] However, if we want our performance to sound harmonious, it shouldn't matter which note we vocalise as long as it's part of the current chord. For example, if a phrase of a song is in D minor, we can sing a D, an F, or an A, and it will still sound consonant because those are all notes in the chord of Dm. If the current chord is a G# major, we can sing G#, C, or D#. Rock Band 4 allows you, on select songs, on the highest two difficulties, to do just that, and awards you the same points as if you'd sung the original note the vocalist did.[3] Lines on the note track chart out these alternate pitches, but this mechanic is most intuitively wielded by those who have some experience with music outside the game. This is because knowing how to produce an E note with your voice requires a little more training than, say, working out how to hit the green fret. It's likely that this mechanic can only be used on higher difficulties because of the more advanced understanding of music it demands and because only Hard and Expert modes harbour the precision note detection that lets you move between individual notes without hitting false positives. The system provides a great balance of allowing you to add your own flair to songs while still colouring inside the lines and lets you adapt a song to a smaller vocal range, as long as you show that you have the precision to pull it off.

There is also an equivalent for the guitar, but it doesn't give you the same degree of creative reign. In various tracks old and new, scripted guitar solos are, by default, replaced with freestyle guitar solos. In freestyle solos, you can make pseudo-random inputs to output procedurally-generated music. The game only gives rough instructions on what to do during these solos, asking you to strum to a certain rhythm or finger-tap through a section, but it's your choice which frets to hold down as you do it, and those combinations of frets translate to different notes and chords. This feature harkens all the way back to Harmonix's first project in 1995: The Axe, their low-entry virtual studio for creating guitar music. While that program was unpopular due to the lack of longevity in the experience, here Harmonix tries to find the system a reprieve by developing it a little more and placing it within a more complex music framework. It's an element the studio wanted to bolt onto the original Guitar Hero, but they ran into technical limitations while trying to do so. They later mocked up what would become freestyle solos in 2014, but didn't find an application for them until Rock Band 4 arrived on the scene.

Poring over the evidence, we can see Harmonix went hard on this feature, recording hundreds of guitar samples to make it work,[4] but those samples too often conjure up memories of free sound effects libraries, and the inevitable input latency, even on an automatically-synced version of the game, throws off your whole performance. We also run into that problem we discussed earlier where the guitar can't clearly map inputs to sounds as other instruments can. I know what's going to come out when I sing a B♭ or the sound I'll get when I hit the blue drum, but what chord am I playing when I hold down the green, red, and blue fret? The physical interface that the guitar comprises puts a throttle on how intuitive this system can be while remaining open to creative possibility, and as you might expect, a procedurally-generated version of a guitar solo can't remotely live up to a planned solo formulated by a Hendrix or a Townshend.

There are two disappointments here: One in this feature falling short of expectations and another in these warbling messes replacing the often masterful work of the original solos. It says a lot that DLC support for this mechanic eventually petered out. It was also long known that freestyle guitar solos, overriding the most testing sections of many songs, provided a cheap boost to achieve high scores. In December 2017, Harmonix banned performances that utilised the freestyle solos from being posted on the leaderboards altogether. This was announced as a temporary measure but has remained in place to this day.

The Performer and Crowd

The campaign modes of former Rock Band games ran you through live shows in one of two ways: Either you played a pre-built setlist from the developers, or you wrote up your own, but Rock Band 4 finds a happy medium between the two options. Stroll into a venue, and you'll be handed a list of four songs and asked which one you want to play. You can also opt to reroll that list if you're not feeling it. The game will add the song you chose to a setlist, and you will repeat this process over until you have the first three bangers of your set. If at the end of those three songs there's still more show to play, you select some more tracks using the same method. As in previous games, your song options often come costumed in a theme like "70s rock" or "indie". The audience also may ask you to switch the final song of the set for one of their requests. As you play these songs, you earn badges for hitting hammer-ons, scoring high, and generally being skilled, with those badges stemming from the game's dedication to live rewards. Earn enough badges and stars, and the audience may also clamour for an encore.

In the Rock Band games from 2007-2010, we saw and heard the crowd, but 4 systemises that crowd. There is, at last, a conversation between you and the audience, as a real band would experience. Having a small plate of songs to pluck our setlist from also means we're not boxed into playing whichever songs the designer wants, but at the same time, we're not faced with this gargantuan wall of content which can induce choice paralysis. Additionally, there's a little nudge in there to play songs you might never have by yourself. Regrettably, when you achieve gold stars in these live shows, they still only pay out the same rewards as if you'd gotten five stars, and more irritating is how little the setlist selection UI communicates. The only information it lets slip about a track is its name and the artist behind it. I assume it's so stingy with data on these songs because the designers don't want you dithering over your selections. However, because you can't hear an audio preview of the songs, or see their difficulty ratings, genres, or lengths, you are buried under an avalanche of predictable inconveniencies. Sets easily devolve into being too long, too challenging, or not matching your musical preferences. As the cuts on the soundtrack are more obscure than ever, the game should be vocal about what tracks are going to sound like because a lot of users won't know.

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This is part of what's frustrating about Rock Band 4. The developers talk about it as an attempt to bring the original Rock Band soaring back into the public eye without the distracting bric-a-brac of a game like Rock Band 3. They believed their duty was, instead of screwing on more modes and instruments, to take the core play and mechanically enhance it so that they could create the Rock Band they've been trying to since the first game. You might agree that these are worthy targets, but even if you do, you're unlikely to think the creators hit them all. The series is improved by the studio modernising Rock Band's reward loops, music creation capabilities, and setlist-building process, but there's not one of these areas of design that they advance as much as you'd hope for.

Their efforts are consistently undermined by everything from underproduced sound to taciturn user interfaces, and this is a problem for Rock Band because, without its sound and UI, it's nothing. And the whole time Harmonix was trying to mend the dilapidated feature set of the game, another disease was eating away at it, one that we got a whiff of in the dying days of Rock Band 3's DLC. In December 2015, two months after Rock Band 4's launch, Harmonix finally fixed it so that you could import Rock Band 3's soundtrack into your library, and then in January 2016, did the same thing for the Rock Band 1 tracks. Imports for 2, Lego Rock Band, and Green Day: Rock Band came later. Better late than never, but that still didn't mean that these tracks were attainable for everyone.

Syphoning your old Rock Band DLC down from the cloud was a laborious process. When Rock Band 4 launched, limitations on Sony and Microsoft's ends meant that players couldn't bulk download all their old DLC to their new consoles; they had to go through and individually click "download" on every track they owned. The task was enough to put you to sleep when the mainline Rock Band soundtracks alone collectively had over 200 songs. It wasn't until later that the studio added a bulk import feature. The release dates for the imports were also not international. Not only did European PS4 owners have their Rock Band 3 export delayed, but initially, only North American PS4 owners could take advantage of the Rock Band 1 import. It took a little time for that capability to be extended to Europeans and Xbox One owners.

Worse than that, Harmonix was still locked in a battle for the rights to eight songs on the Rock Band 1 soundtrack performed by bands with connections to Harmonix. These included Bang Camaro's Pleasure (Pleasure) and Freezepop's Brainpower. Despite Harmonix stating that these tracks would be available "at a later time", they never materialised. And even worse than that, a lot of the DLC that European PS4 owners were owed took an aeon to arrive. In November 2015, product manager Eric Pope identified "431 songs with issues on PlayStation Store in the SCEE region". At the time, Harmonix expected to have this mess cleared up by December 2015, but a year on from RB4's launch, European PS4 owners were still missing a king's ransom in content, including the entire soundtracks from Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band, Green Day: Rock Band, and Rock Band Blitz. Across all systems, DLC, both on and off-disc, took a while to migrate to Rock Band 4, but it wasn't until eighteen months after launch that European PlayStation gamers were handed the key to all the soundtracks from previous games. Keep in mind, many of these were customers who had paid over £200 for this game and all its instruments, and often had collectively paid large sums of money for previous Rock Band soundtracks and DLC. Even in January 2018, twenty-seven months after launch, some European users were still complaining of missing content.

When organisation, ownership, and laws are divided by region, simultaneous global rollouts of content are often impossible. In this case, it also seems to be that Sony of Europe simply wasn't as co-operative with Harmonix as other companies. Then there was the matter of the 2,000+ Rock Band Network songs that hadn't made the jump to 4. In November 2017, Harmonix released ten free songs by bands connected to the studio that were part of the original RBN. It was a generous gesture to celebrate a decade of the series. They also eventually reissued a number of popular Rock Band Network songs for 4, but they could never restore the service in its full majesty.

This is likely because bringing back non-RBN DLC required speaking to a relatively small number of people who had departments to handle communication with outside companies, whereas the artists publishing on RBN weren't coming from console manufacturers or record labels. A lot of them were indie bands and bedroom developers which was why they needed a smaller self-publishing service to get their music into the game. It's a fool's errand to try and track down every garage band who uploaded a song to the service and spend time and money renegotiating with every one of them. The real kicker is that because of the limited nature of the original RBN rights agreements, even if you bought a Network track that was later released for Rock Band 4, you have to purchase it a second time for it to appear in your RB4 library. This may be the brightest indicator in this game that we never truly owned the songs we "owned".

While they may appear to be unrelated issues, the difficulties in rehoming your content onto the PS4 and Xbox One, as well as the problems with instrument compatibility stem from the same source: they're a result of the series switching platforms. The Rock Band instruments and DLC before 4 were engineered for use with Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and other platforms of that generation, as were the tracks that made up players' music collections. When the industry switched out which consoles were current gen, it was almost compulsory for Harmonix to recreate their series on the new platforms. Users who didn't own the previous generation of hardware would want to play the game on a current platform, and people who did own an Xbox 360 or a PS3 didn't necessarily want two generations of consoles and quite possibly two generations of peripherals crowding their living space. But that platform switch was like knocking a leg out from under a chair. Suddenly, Harmonix was spending their time treading back over problems they'd already solved in the late 00s like making instruments compatible across games or allowing exports of songs from one game to another.

But I saved the biggest loss for last. Imagine you're someone who didn't own all the Rock Band games, but you picked up Rock Band 4, and you were going to fill in your back catalogue by buying up the earlier editions in the series and exporting their soundtracks. You'd be fresh out of luck because the exports for Rock Band 1, 2, Lego, and Green Day had all expired by the time that 4 came out. Licensing agreements usually last for specific timeframes and that timeframe for on-disc Rock Band tracks was five years. If you didn't grab your export within that window, you're not getting it at all. Whether you're playing for leisure or trying to take a curious peek into the history of rhythm games, it's now nearly impossible to recreate Rock Band 4 as fans of the series experienced it. We're used to titles that released decades ago becoming a rarity on the market and a challenge to preserve, but the Rock Band series started in 2007, and yet it's even harder to piece together than many of those retro classics.

To repeat an observation I made when talking about Rock Band 2, the DLC and the hardware of the series are both the spark that lit its beacon and its most serious liabilities. We'd seen licensing and peripheral issues take a toll on previous games in the series, but it's not until Rock Band 4 that their fuse burned all the way down and the whole thing imploded. We cannot separate that implosion from the fact that Harmonix's electronics and content are dependent on underlying systems, both legal and technological, that they have very partial control over. We also have to keep in mind, when looking at the problems caused by IP rights expiring, that it would be reductionist to view them as "Rock Band 4 faults". They're flaws that affect this product, but those weaknesses were created the moment that Harmonix made the licensing transactions that sealed the Rock Band 1 export in place.

The clock had been ticking for years, and this complication was not exclusive to Rock Band but is a built-in issue with how companies collaborate and reuse work in the current economy and within modern intellectual property law. Rock Band 4 is video games' harshest example of the increasingly widespread policy of letting players own rights to content but never that content itself. Its a demonstration of how badly people can be burned by that gap between owning a CD of a song and owning the rights to that song in a video game. Although I'd emphasise that while 4 has all sort of appendages rotting off of it, it's still difficult to track that issue back to extensive malpractice on Harmonix's part. This developer didn't get to decide how console cycles or music rights work.

Furthermore, while Rock Band 4 released as an underserving rhythm experience, I don't want to compress its feature set down to the systems we got at launch. If the game did significantly advance the series, then it did it by raising the bar for post-release support for a rhythm game. In December 2015, Harmonix introduced "brutal mode" which requires just as much discipline as its name suggests. In brutal mode, all but the most distant notes on the highway are invisible. You can get a rough sense of the patterns you have to play, but you have to memorise them and work out the timing with only the music and tempo lines on the track as guides. The average user will find this infuriating as the play continues to demand high accuracy while the interface is uncommunicative to a cruel extent, but the mode also coaxes you closer to the mindset with which a real rock star would perform music. They generally work without the sheet music in front of them, and without an instructor to tell them exactly what to hit when. For those who live and breathe Rock Band, obtaining "crimson stars" on a song, that is, a gold star rating earned in Brutal Mode, is an enticing challenge.

The same update that implemented brutal mode wired the full combo indicator into the UI. "Full combos" are when you hit every note in a song, and unless you're on vocals, don't input a note where there isn't one. For Rock Band's diehard fans, full combos on Expert difficulty are the gold standard of play, but now and then you do lose track of whether you missed a note during a run, and so Rock Band 4 has a display element to inform you whether a full combo is still possible. If there is a gold ring around the combo meter, all your play within that session has been part of a single, unbroken combo, and if there isn't, you flubbed a note somewhere. This inclusion is mindful of what the most dedicated virtual musicians care about without intruding on the casual experience. For someone who's in the know, that gold ring is everything, but for someone who isn't it, it doesn't distort or clutter the UI.

Finally, the December 2015 update added "taunts", short messages that you can use to challenge friends whose high scores you've just beaten, potentially creating a back-and-forth where you can compete for the top spot on a song. Designers often underestimate the value of social tools because they don't have a direct application in the gameplay, but here is an excellent example of a developer changing how players communicate and being able to make them more dedicated to the game through those social exchanges. Harmonix wasn't in the business of handing out many free features beyond this update, but in October 2018, they did start allowing us to peruse various cosmetic skins for the note highway. It only makes sense that if the note track is the centre of focus during play, that the most impactful aesthetic changes in the game would be to the track. The problem is, the highway existed as a black surface with colourful gems on it because that's what makes the notes stand out most. I've found that when applying other colours and geometry beneath the gems, it just creates extra noise when you're trying to parse dense, high-speed sections of songs.

The hardware end of Rock Band 4 also saw some significant changes. Eventually, Harmonix's Sussman echoed the view that the lofty buy-in for the game's instruments was a mistake and that it excluded people from the experience. The company found a way to slash those prices. In early 2016, Harmonix's instrument manufacturer, Mad Catz, announced that they were seeing record sales of products in the first quarter, but that they'd also seen a sharp increase in their losses for the rest of the year. Despite Mad Katz CEO Karen McGinnis describing Rock Band 4's sales as "strong" and its numbers exceeding Harmonix's expectations, it still wasn't raking in the cash Mad Catz was looking for. The publisher jettisoned their CEO, the chair of their board, and more than a third of their employees in a cost-cutting effort. Around this time, Harmonix severed ties with them, although it's unclear if Harmonix dropping them was a factor in their downsizing or if Harmonix left for greener pastures because Mad Catz scaled back their operational capabilities.

The studio had lost Mad Catz after the debut of Rock Band 4 almost as soon as they'd lost Viacom after the release of Rock Band 3. However, in March 2016, they formed a rosy new partnership with Performance Designed Products, a third-party manufacturer of controllers and gaming headsets. PDP continued pumping out the existing peripherals for the game, and went one further, collaborating with Harmonix to produce a new guitar that folds down to save space, helping to solve the long-running storage issues with the controllers. After all, if the drums can do it, why shouldn't the guitar? This alliance is also how Harmonix brought down the price of the instrument bundles. In October 2016, PDP re-released the Rock Band instrument package, but with the new foldaway guitar, a drumkit with supposedly improved hit detection, a mic, the game, and the Rock Band Rivals expansion pack, all at $50 less than the original bundle. They also took the price of the guitar + game bundle down from $130 to $90.

However, you have to keep in mind that these fixes came a full year after the original release and were delayed until November in Europe, although, Harmonix did offer European customers who'd pre-ordered some free songs for their trouble. None the less, the hardcore Rock Band community have had a strained relationship with PDP, to say the least. The "upgraded" instrument bundle kicked off a second round of players reporting problems with peripheral reliability, this time, for the drums. PDP also manufactured a legacy adapter which allowed those wired Rock Band 1 instruments to plug into the game, but if you blinked, you missed it; they stopped producing the adapter one month after they started. Although they declared a repeat run of the item in April 2017, it was notoriously hard to spot in stores, and by early 2018, PDP was sending out emails telling inquiring customers that they're not making any more Rock Band instruments, at all.

We only know this because fans are copy-pasting the contents of their conversations with the company's customer support team onto messageboards; publicly, PDP and Harmonix are inscrutably silent about the availability of the equipment. I would guess there simply isn't the demand for Rock Band instruments to justify these companies continuing to mould that plastic and solder those boards, and that's not too surprising. We know even under Viacom, Rock Band was burning a hole in investors' pockets. However, these companies could try a little harder to communicate with their audiences instead of leaving anyone who wants to get back into the series stumbling around in the dark.

As you can imagine, the manufacturer shutting down that supply chain has only caused the cost of hardware to balloon. At the time of writing, PDP's instrument bundle is selling for $900 on Amazon, and fans consider finding a reasonably-priced one as somewhat of a treasure hunt. Not only is it now impossible for many players to get the version of Rock Band 4 that fans saw at release, but it feels like the game is actively resisting attempts to be played in any form. Meanwhile, people who do have the instruments live in fear of them breaking, and them having to fish in the piranha-infested waters of the Rock Band peripheral market. And let's be honest, Rock Band instruments stand up to a lot of punishment but when the game is about relatively forceful interaction with them, they're going to wear down. Harmonix had tried to open up the availability of the software a little in March 2016, attempting to crowdfund a PC port of Rock Band 4 with a goal of $1.5 million. That they needed to do this suggested a severe lack of investor support. However, the product only received pledges for a little under $800,000 and was cancelled. It probably would have become beleaguered with these long-term hardware issues anyway.

Finally, Harmonix added something to the game that they definitely didn't mean to. In late 2018, Rock Band 4 began exhibiting rare glitches which cause the screen to freeze during play, either with the game still running in the background or hard locking. In the cases that the game does continue running, input lag after the freeze can be so severe as to make the rest of the song unplayable. In the same period, I also encountered several instances of instruments ceasing to take input in the middle of a song, even from the pause button, and only waking back up once I disconnected and reconnected them. These failures in the software can completely ruin your full combo or gold star attempts. Because these defects didn't exist in the first version of Rock Band 4, we know they were either patched in or came into existence when Harmonix performed server maintenance. As of March 2019, these bugs still exist, as does occasional stuttering during play. If you've been clicking on a lot of my sources here, you may also have noticed that I had to link to the Wayback Machine whenever I referenced the Harmonix forums. That's because, in March 2019, Harmonix shut down their boards and deleted all content within. There was about a decade of community history locked up in that space, erased because the traffic thinned to a trickle and Harmonix couldn't justify keeping them online.

After reading through this essay of breakages, shutdowns, and delays, you're probably not feeling too hot on Rock Band 4. I've felt the same way writing this, and I can understand if you're a little sceptical when I tell you, I've had a wonderful time with the game, putting over 300 hours into it. Its history is grim: Harmonix excised many of Rock Band 3's extraordinary features, took the splendour of the soundtrack down a notch, and about half of the new adornments in its systems are well-meaning ideas that don't add to the experience. The basic tools to play the game have too often been unattainable to players, and the series' content and legacy have been ravaged by licensing issues, but there is an amazing incarnation of this title. It's not the launch version that was heavy on cost and light on functionality, and it's not the version that you'd get if you tried to jump into Rock Band today, hunting down the rare unsold instrument packages and trying to go without the original game soundtracks.

However, it was possible at a certain time and under the right circumstances to obtain a form of the game that had a relatively rich feature library, wasn't absurdly expensive, and had hundreds of songs from previous Rock Bands singing in chorus. A lot of the reason I've had to talk about the miserable aspects of Rock Band 4 here is that they were what was new in this package, but that doesn't mean that the audio and tactile magic of Rock Band that we loved back in 2007 isn't still in here. It's just not noteworthy in an essay like this because if you've gotten this far, you probably know what the core play consists of.

If you still feel sad about the sorry state of Rock Band in this day and age, maybe this is a comforting thought: We don't have to define a game series, or in fact, anything else, by how it ended. Rock Band 4 is no more representative of the series than any other core Rock Band instalment, and for most of the years in which Rock Band was active, it was sensational. I wouldn't blame you for thinking of Rock Band 4 as a $250 box of disappointment, but even if it is, the series as a whole is one in which you can have some of the most entrancing experiences with rock music in any medium.

Rock Band deserves not only recognition as one of the best rhythm games ever made; it is owed attention and acceptance for introducing a generation of rhythm gamers to the pantheon of rock music both classic and contemporary. There are also countless stories of people having found Rock Band to be a gateway to playing music themselves; it gave them a taste of lining up physical movement with sound and making grand displays of coordination and rhythm. Wanting more of that, they picked up a guitar or some drumsticks, and now a talent for music is something they carry with them everywhere. Whatever problems may plague Rock Band 4, not many games can say they contributed so richly to peoples' connection to art and entertainment. As someone who found new bands, had uplifting sonic experiences, and was brought closer to the rock genre by this series, I can earnestly say that I wouldn't be the same person without Rock Band. Thanks for reading.

Notes

1. The original run of Rock Band DLC stopped on April 2nd, 2013, but further tracks were debuted in 2015, in anticipation of Rock Band 4's release.

2. Technically, some people can sing two notes at the same time in a technique known as polyphonic overtone singing. However, this is an exceptionally rare edge case, and the songs included in Rock Band never use polyphonic overtone singing.

3. The original coverage of the game over at IGN claimed that vocal freestyle just requires you to sing in key, but this is erroneous. The shifts in the UI's guidelines follow chord changes, not key changes, and Harmonix confirmed that vocal freestyles involve following chord tones, not just the current scale.

4. Loading Screen Tips by Harmonix Music Systems (Oct 6, 2015), Rock Band 4.

Sources

Rock Band 4: Behind the Scenes with Harmonix by Harmonix Music Systems (Mar 5, 2015), YouTube.

All other sources are linked at relevant points in the article.

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