October 19 will mark 10 years since Rock Band 2 released on PlayStation 3 and in Europe (it had a brief window of exclusivity on Xbox 360). GameRevolution’s Tyler Treese takes a look back at Harmonix Music Systems’ iconic party game, and how its own success wound up being its demise.
Harmonix deserves a lot of credit for sparking a true cultural phenomenon with both Guitar Hero (it was responsible for the first two games) and Rock Band. While playing along with music using plastic instruments was already a thing in arcades, it was the first to truly realize its home console potential. By marketing it as a game meant for parties, the studio essentially created their own rhythm subgenre in the process. This brilliant move towards additional instrumentation wound up being a tremendous success for the studio, and Rock Band 2 wound up selling well over five million copies across its different platforms.
Rock Band 2 is the Perfect Party Game
While the original entry in the series was a tremendous proof of concept that plastic drums were just as fun as guitar (if not more so), there were some rough edges along the way. Namely, the online play was disappointing due to a lack of a true World Tour mode like offline multiplayer had, and the solo offering felt dull and by the numbers. There were also some issues with the original instrumentation, as hardware failure wasn’t entirely uncommon.
Rock Band 2 fixed all of these problems and gave the entire experience a new layer of polish. Not only did it come with better feeling plastic instruments, but the revamped tour mode provided a brilliant experience whether with friends or alone. It didn’t reinvent what Harmonix already started, but at this point, it didn’t need to. By simply adding features like a “No Fail” mode, they were able to open up rhythm games to a whole new audience that were previously put off by the difficulty.
It was released to both critical and commercial acclaim, and it’s easy to see why. Even a decade later, Rock Band 2 feels like a totally complete package that is a blast with friends. The soundtrack is filled with fun tunes, there are enough modes to keep anyone entertained for an afternoon, and it’s a blast whether you’re playing competitively or cooperatively.
So, if you’ve got a complete set of plastic instruments, over 80 diverse songs that are all enjoyable to play, a variety of solo and multiplayer modes, what more could you really need? Sure, the most hardcore of fans wanted additional songs to play, but the dozens of tracks that came on the disc were more than enough for the casual player that’d drunkenly play a few at a party every couple of weeks. Harmonix attempted to add more in-depth modes and another instrument in the sequels, but none of the gimmicks (including being able to play Rock Band 3 with a real guitar) ultimately proved a draw to consumers. People already had a fantastic party game that they liked plenty, and the sales of future installments (aside from The Beatles: Rock Band) suffered greatly as a result.
The problem ultimately became that Harmonix created a platform (complete with a robust DLC store), yet was relying on $60 installments that featured little in terms of innovation for the series to be financially capable. The two monetization schemes were at odds with one another, and while they tried to merge the two by allowing players to export songs from one game to another, that only contributed towards quickly oversaturating the market alongside Activision (who did the exact same thing with Guitar Hero and its various spin-offs).
At one point you could walk into GameStop, look at the wall of PlayStation 3 releases, and were tasked with choosing a title from the original Rock Band, both of the main sequels, Rock Band Track Pack Volume 2, the AC/DC Live expansion, and genre-specific track packs for classic rock (two of them in fact), country, and metal. Oh, and there were artist specific games for The Beatles and Green Day in addition to a LEGO-branded game marketed towards kids. There’s a huge misconception that only Activision oversaturated the rhythm party genre, as Harmonix is just as guilty when it comes to killing the very phenomenon that it started.
The magic of good music might last forever, but the same can’t be said for a game franchise. Harmonix peaked far too early with Rock Band 2. By delivering such a quality product that it became a regular party fixture for the rest of the console generation, it wound up cutting the wings off the entire plastic instrument subgenre that it had created. Sometimes your own success can become a permanent failure when you don’t properly plan ahead, and the company is still trying to find a new rhythm niche to pivot towards a decade after releasing their greatest party game.