On March 4th Harmonix launched the Rock Band Network. It is essentially a set of tools for creating Rock Band songs (aimed at labels and bands, not home users), and an online platform on which to sell them. It’s only available on the Xbox 360 right now, with a paltry five songs being brought over to the PS3 every week (they are working on bringing the full service, but there are currently technical hurdles due to the way the PSN works).
The first batch of those was released yesterday, but the Xbox 360 catalog already contains over 100 songs. As a far as sheer volume is concerned, that is a definite record for DLC. And while that may seem overwhelming, I personally think that this is what will stop music games from being a passing fad.
You may recall that last year there was a lot of talk about the “plastic band” genre burning out. And to some extent this was inevitable. Before Guitar Hero, the rhythm genre consisted mostly of Dance-Dance Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper, and a few relatively obscure titles. In the space between 2005 and 2009, peripheral based rhythm games have had an incredible sugar rush that had to end at some point. Luckily both Harmonix and Neversoft has foreseen that people would not be willing to drop money on endless sequels that didn’t have any real gameplay additions, but I think that Harmonix’s approach is a much more viable one.
Neversoft have tried to do a lot of things to mix up the rhythm genre since they got the Guitar Hero license to play with. Among other things, they have tried some head-to-head multiplayer, they tried to add some limited music creation software, and they tried adding some new ideas to the basics of guitar playing. Unfortunately, none of these have really panned out or felt particularly useful. The versus mode isn’t fun, the creation tools are fairly limited, and the additions to guitar playing made the game much more difficult without really making it more fun. I can respect that they are trying new things, but thus far it hasn’t worked out for them very well.
Harmonix has been much more reserved with the gameplay changes. Since they moved to the full band set-up they have been careful not to mess with the way you play the game. Instead they have been focusing on consistently adding to the games library, primarily through DLC. The addition of the RBN proves that Harmonix is no longer, strictly speaking, a games developer. Rather they have created a new way to enjoy music.
I’ve always considered Rock Band to be a new version Karaoke, the primary difference being that Rock Band doesn’t require alcohol to be fun. As long as the song library was limited to the 10 songs a week that Harmonix could pump out, Rock Band was never going to be as popular and altogether useful as karaoke.
Now that many bands and labels are going to start releasing their songs (and, if there is any justice in the world, their back catalogs) without having to go through Harmonix, Rock Band has a real shot at becoming a mainstay as something other than a video game. If you needed any more proof that Harmonix has recognized this, take a look at their “Rock Band Local” service, which is a catalog of places that do “rock band nights,” a concept that they have been actively promoting for a long time now (they were even giving free DLC to people who gave them the contact information of local bars).
On a final note, if this works out than I seriously think that some labels will release some more obscure/older artists on the RBN. I’m personally hoping that Joy Division gets a few releases, and there are a limitless supply of other artists like that who would sell enough to justify the reasonably low cost of bringing them over to RBN.
In the meantime, you can always play your favorite songs in Audiosurf (but it really isn’t the same).