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The original Rock Band was breathtaking as a game that found a balance between creating distinct activities for its players to engage in and uniting those activities through recurring motifs in the play and intervals of direct co-operation. However, the most iconic elements of Rock Band remain the instruments. Rhythm game peripherals give designers a degree of control over the tactile and manual experience of play that most developers never get. Yet, the strain that manufacturing such controllers can put on a company and these studios' reliance on sometimes volatile technologies can be lethal liabilities for a rhythm series. Both are problems that will disturb the waters of Rock Band before we're done talking about it.
Rock Band 2
Rock Band 1's dependence on physical products is probably why MTV Games heavily staggered its release across various territories. Manufacturing and distributing the peripherals for one region takes enough time and labour without trying to coordinate that manufacture and distribution for every country simultaneously. Rock Band 2 was put out in North America before its predecessor made it to Australia. Although, even if you got your box of instruments first, that didn't mean you got it functioning. Various guitars from the game's original batch had non-responsive strum bars, and all drum kits shipped with a kick pedal that could literally snap in two during play. It's the most viscerally shocking fault I've ever seen with a piece of video game hardware. The fragility and glitchiness of these instruments might be down to Harmonix realising too late that they needed a permanent team on the ground with their manufacturers in China.
To regain the public's trust, the company not only had to replace broken instruments for free but also had to ensure that the next generation of the peripherals visibly addressed the current issues. Rock Band 2 launched in 2008 with drums and guitars that were less prone to dropping notes, as well as a metal plate screwed to the drumkit's kick pedal. That slice of metal was not just a functional addition; it symbolically suggested more resilience in the instruments. But a few consumers took these upgrades to be part of a literal conspiracy. A class-action lawsuit filed by Kansas resident Monte Morgan accused Harmonix, MTV Games, Viacom, EA, and Best Buy of manufacturing instruments that would break on purpose so that people would buy replacements or upgrade to the Rock Band 2 peripherals. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense when we also know that Harmonix was exchanging broken instruments for working ones at no cost. Morgan would later drop the suit in 2009.
Beyond the simple fixes, Harmonix also added some new functionality to the instruments. As the experience in Rock Band derives from software and hardware, Rock Band 2 and the other sequels must represent not just an update to the content and mechanics of the games, but also their controllers. The Rock Band guitar and drums went wireless, a feature that Harmonix had intended to include in Rock Band 1, but according to the project lead, Greg LoPiccolo, couldn't do as Microsoft had not finished developing the wireless peripheral technology. The drums also now featured a small, hard circle in the centre of each pad, providing a target for players to aim at so that their strikes wouldn't wander off-centre.
On the audio-visual side, this is the first Rock Band or Guitar Hero game that could be auto-calibrated. Manual calibration is a dull and finicky task, but one that you had to commit to if you took the game seriously. A few milliseconds of calibration drift can be the difference between hitting a note and missing it, and with the increasing popularity of HD TVs in the late 00s, that was becoming a problem for a more substantial proportion of users. HD TVs tend to take longer processing images and sound than their more primitive ancestors which means that, without technical adjustments, you're going to see a more extended period between when your console thinks a note has hit the goal line and when your TV displays it happening. Similarly, you'll hear longer intervals between when you input a note and when the game outputs a sound. To make calibration less of a hassle, Harmonix made it so that one of those "screws" that holds on the Stratocaster's pickguard is actually a light sensor. By having the screen flash and measuring the time between when the burst of light occurs and when the sensor registers it, Rock Band 2 can determine the visual latency. A hidden microphone in the guitar uses an equivalent method to measure the audio delay. The version of the instruments I've described here became the template for the remainder of the series.
This is all relatively straightforward, but understanding Rock Band 2 as a piece of software is deceptively complicated. Because of the nature of the series and its content delivery mechanisms, a sequel for Harmonix's large scale rhythm game can't exist the way follow-ups do for most other titles. The primary purposes of most video game sequels are to dish out more content like story and levels, and rework the design, but Rock Band doesn't have stages or much of a story to tell. Harmonix could make their sequels comprise content updates by having them inject new songs into your library, but their downloadable music store potentially obsoletes the need to do that.
To other AAA titles, DLC is a mission pack or a new area that you sell in addition to the game proper. The cost and effort to produce it is considerable enough that you can't keep releasing new DLC all year round. Additionally, because quests or levels are complex entities where all the components are inter-reliant on each other, you can't just chop them up into four-minute chunks, sell those chunks off separately, and let your audience decide which ones to buy. But you can do that when you're selling individual songs which are shorter self-contained entities, and you can keep releasing those on a regular basis because you don't need to develop them from the ground up; all you need to do is license them, chart them, and host them. Most of the production work in Harmonix's model is performed before the developer steps in; it was done by the people who wrote, performed, and produced these songs which is what makes the model viable. But the existence of these weekly releases meant that players don't have to wait for a new entry in the series to get new material for the game, making a sequel far less essential. Although, I would say that, as with the original game, soundtracks in sequels can get players experiencing songs they might otherwise never buy.
Rock Band 2 was also unlikely to add any earth-shattering new mechanics to the series because the original game was very mechanically complete while also being fairly minimalist. The user's attention is already taken up at all times by the act of playing the music so you can't ease in many more tasks for them to perform alongside the core play. You could expand the experience by adding more instruments, but they would be their own Atlassian burden to develop. This is partly why Rock Band 2, and most other entries in this series, don't radically reshape how you interact with the experience. However, that doesn't mean that the series is lacking content or mechanical robustness; Rock Band 2 is a voluminous song pack, an excuse to release new controllers, and some tweaks to the feature set. If this was a different genre of game, it might be more, but the completeness of the original Rock Band and the gushing oasis of content in the form of the music store meant that it didn't have to be.
Despite the name, Rock Band 2's function is to be more of a Rock Band 1.5: a waystation between the first and third game, and it does that job excellently. Its patches to the original design come in the form of features like "Breakneck Speed" and "No Fail Mode". Breakneck Speed adds the option to notch up the rate at which the note highway scrolls which not only allows for a more gruelling challenge but can improve the readability of the note track. Remember, this switch is not increasing the tempo of a song, only the speed at which the inputs fly at the player which means the notes have to be more spaced out. The advantage of that spacing is particularly noticeable when speeding through guitar solos that are dense with notes and when you need to distinguish between two drum hits you must play at the same time and two you should play a fraction of a second apart. Truthfully, the interface always needed to indicate subtle gaps between drum notes better than it did, and while Breakneck Speed isn't a strict fix for that issue, it goes some way to help.
"No Fail Mode" is what it sounds like and is a feature which is cognisant of Rock Band's status as a party game. No one wants to be casually singing along to music at a public gathering and hear the track cut out halfway through, so, No Fail Mode swoops in to save the day. A secondary effect of this mechanic is that has players rethink how they deploy overdrive, a limited-use power which lets you double your score multiplier. In Rock Band 1, you would sometimes save your energy for the more demanding sections of songs like instrumental solos. Even if you couldn't hit many of the notes in these sections, you could still activate overdrive to make sure the gems you did hit scored higher than usual and kept your crowd meter from dropping to the bottom. Remember, when the crowd meter was empty, you would fail out of a song. Now that you don't need to use overdrive as a safety net, you can use it solely to optimise your score, lighting it up in thick jungles of notes or in sections where you know you can perform flawlessly. The disadvantage is that while No Fail is on you won't get to feel the sense of teamwork that you get with a bandmate using their overdrive to pick you up when you're down.
Minor improvements to Rock Band 2 include drum tutorial modes which instruct players on common drum patterns and on how to play fills. Meanwhile, on the vocals, spoken-word sections of tracks are now more flexible about what phonetic inputs they'll allow. They try less to detect correct annunciation and just measure whether you're making noise. The game also conceives of a new direction for the campaign mode. Rock Band 1's world tour was, like Guitar Hero's, one long setlist divided between several venues, so, while you were ostensibly taking to the stage at all these different concerts around the world, it felt like you were working from a single hub. In Rock Band 2, venues have multiple shows available in them, and having individual nested menus for each location is a surprisingly effective way to convey that you're travelling to discrete places. Beyond the gameplay systems, Rock Band 2 was also the site of a lot of important events in the rhythm game and even the music industry.
The Rock Band 2 release party was played by The Who who, according to LoPiccolo, had not performed in a theatre in thirty to forty years. The game also featured the debut of Guns 'n' Roses' track Shackler's Revenge. Prior to Rock Band 2, the last original studio albums (i.e. Not live, greatest hits, or covers albums) released by Guns 'n' Roses were Use Your Illusion I and II, which
landed on the same day in 1991. Meanwhile, the most recent original GnR song was Oh My God, part of the soundtrack for the 1999 Schwarzenegger film End of Days. Despite once being gods of rock, GnR hadn't produced a new collection of music for the best part of two decades, but in 1999 frontman Axl Rose had spread news of an upcoming album called Chinese Democracy. If you have any interest in rock history, I'd advise you to check out the troubled production of Chinese Democracy. Its winding history and its failure to materialise for nineteen years meant that it was the subject of plenty of rock industry myths and fans began to think of it as vapoursound.
When the album finally arrived, the first and only official single plucked from it was Shackler's Revenge, originally released as part of the Rock Band 2 soundtrack. GnR did something unprecedented in the music industry, that was, quite frankly, impossible to replicate. This wasn't just a case of a piece of music receiving a progressive release platform; because the track released with a gameplay component, it fundamentally altered how people experienced it. You'll also notice Bob Dylan's Tangled Up in Blue and AC⚡DC's Let There Be Rock on the soundtrack. Rock Band 2 was the first video game to feature a Bob Dylan song and the first rhythm game to use the music of AC⚡DC.
Lastly, Rock Band 2 was the first Guitar Hero or Rock Band game to have an on-disc soundtrack composed entirely of master tracks. Many of the songs for Harmonix's Guitar Hero games and some of those for Rock Band 1 were actually cover versions of the songs recorded by third-party studio Wavegroup Sound. In the case of Rock Band, it's something a lot of players probably won't have picked up on because the covers are masterfully close to the originals, but it's true of tracks like Ballroom Blitz by Sweet and Mississipi Queen by Mountain. When Harmonix's games announced that a song wasn't "by" an artist, but "made famous by" them, it was a subtle clue that you were playing a cover version. On Rock Band 2, however, every track is just as you'll find it on any official release by the band it's associated with. In 2008, a rhythm game with eighty-three tracks, all of them master recordings, was something unheard of, and it set a new industry standard. Every Guitar Hero and Rock Band game that came after took their songs from original studio recordings or live performances by the relevant band. However, there was a slight snag with Harmonix's concept of the persistent music library.
What Rock Band was doing with their in-game content may have been in the spirit of people in the real-world collecting LPs and CDs, but the difference was, we didn't retain a physical copy of the Rock Band songs we purchased. It's arguable that we've never owned them at all; what we were buying was not the songs, but the rights to use them within a context dictated by a contract between Harmonix and whatever record company held the license for the music. When that context changed, we could no longer guarantee that we would be able to access those tracks. You'll note that that's never a problem we would have had with a physical music medium. The way this problem first manifested in Rock Band was that players who wanted to be able to carry their on-disc songs from the original game forward to the sequel had to pay an export fee to cover the cost of Harmonix relicensing the songs. In a few cases, the labels who owned the tracks refused to license them out to Rock Band 2 at all, and so, you can't export classics such as Run to the Hills by Iron Maiden or Paranoid by Ozzy Osbourne. This would be a recurring issue throughout the series with certain songs never breaking free from their original disc release and certain games not accepting exported tracks that previous games did. It might not sound like the end of the world, but as with the hardware, put a pin in this one because there will be dire consequences down the line.
Rock Band Network
Another break between real-world music collections and our music libraries in Rock Band was the absence of an indie scene. It's not that there wasn't identifiable indie music in these packages; in fact, there was probably more than in most rhythm games due to Harmonix including songs from employees' bands. However, you couldn't have a wholly independently-produced Rock Band track because everything was published via Harmonix; if a song couldn't get the green light to be processed by them, then it wasn't going to make the soundtrack. If Rock Band's pool of DLC constitutes a music industry in itself then Harmonix was a big dog record company monopolising the whole thing, and where would our music industry be without independent publishing and smaller labels?
Many companies would have revelled in the control that Harmonix held over downloadable products at this point, but to their credit, the studio wanted to democratise the process of deciding what gets to be in the library. Around this time, Microsoft was distributing a free set of development tools for the Xbox 360 and PC by the name of "XNA". For a small licensing fee, almost anyone could publish their work in XNA to Microsoft's console under the Xbox LIVE Indie Games label. Remember, this was right during the indie explosion of the late 00s. Harmonix allowed any artist to create their own Rock Band track through a modified version of the music production software REAPER. Users would take their REAPER track and use a Harmonix tool called Magma to turn it into a file that Rock Band could read. The reasoning for that naming was that, I kid you not, all rock comes from magma. Users could then upload and sell their Rock Band creation via the in-game store using the XNA licensing. Harmonix called this store the Rock Band Network.
The New York Times had, at one point reported that Harmonix codenamed this project "Rock Band Nickelback" to defuse any interest in it, but Rock Band Network Senior Producer Matthew Nordhaus said he worked on RBN from day one and never heard the name. In another unusual twist, a Harmonix forums user calling themselves jjdude1 predicted the existence of this system all the way back in January 2008. Of course, what I've described is a development suite and store for the Xbox 360, but that doesn't cover other platforms. Because Microsoft had user-friendly self-publishing tools that the other platform holders didn't, they got the RBN service first, with it going into open beta on the 360 in January 2010 and then receiving a full release on the platform in March. In fact, the system may not exist if it weren't for XNA and it's a solid example of the often unpredictable benefits of opening your platform to a vast creator community.
XNA and XBLIG were set up with small independent devs in mind, but the same tools allowed a AAA studio to host a whole new gallery of independent creations. As for the PS3, the service launched there in April, but the number of tracks that Harmonix could upload at a time was severely throttled due to the limitations of PSN and tracks always came to Xbox 360 30 days earlier. Rock Band Network didn't reach the Wii until September, but the demand on the platform was so low that they shut down the Nintendo version of the store after just four months. The RBN was, for this rhythm game, what Bandcamp was for wider music, and the service ended up housing over 2,100 tracks, including favourites from artists such as Devin Townsend, Flight of the Conchords, and All That Remains.
It would be easy to dismiss the period between Rock Band 1 and The Beatles: Rock Band as a time when Harmonix was coasting on the success of their initial game, but it would be a lazy response. While I wouldn't call the first Rock Band sequel a revolution for the series, it's clear that during the games' first couple of years, Harmonix was still committing to fixing and innovating. Rock Band 2 adapts the initial band game concept to suit it to a casual atmosphere and was the stage for a number of firsts in music gaming. The peripherals bundled with it bumped up the standards for band game kit and became what we remember today as the canonical Rock Band instruments. It's also easy to forget Rock Band Network as it was not a game in and of itself, but it was an idealistic use of independent development tools; the largest scale effort there's ever been to incorporate player creations into a game while ensuring that they're paid for their labour. But if you're reading this feeling over-the-moon for Harmonix, don't get too comfortable, because the demise of the band game genre is on the horizon. Thanks for reading.
The Harmonix Interview: Greg LoPiccolo by Harmonix Music Systems (Jan 2, 2012), YouTube.
Rock Band Network PAX Panel by Harmonix Music Systems (Jan 13, 2011), YouTube.
Rock Band Credits by Harmonix Music Systems (2007), Rock Band.
All other sources are linked at relevant points in the article.