Harmonix: Decline Of Music Games Not 'Entirely The Fault Of Activision'

Once upon a time music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band ruled the world, but now plastic instruments gather dusts in storage space throughout the western world. What happened? Many people blame Activision and its decision to completely saturate the market with multiple different versions of the same game. According to Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos Activision isn't completely to blame.

In response to a question on a recent Ask Me Anything post on Reddit, Alex discussed the decline of band games like Guitar Hero and his own game, Rock Band.

"I think there's probably some truth to the notion that Activision "over-published" Guitar Hero," he said. "But I wouldn't agree that the decline of the genre was "entirely the fault of Activision". Reality is always more complicated than this. For example, it didn't help that GH and RB were the most expensive video games on the market during a brutal recession. I also don't think that either GH or RB delivered enough (or the right kind of) evolution of the experience in the years that followed the initial releases—something we hope to address at some point in the next outing."

The good (or interesting) news here is that Rigopulos doesn't believe that the band game is dead. He believes a revival is possible and he and Harmonix are looking to possibly revive Rock Band at some point in the future.

"I was sad when Rock Band passed its (first!) peak," he wrote, "but one way or another, it will be back. Also, music games need to evolve just like every aspect of pop culture. The band game boom was followed by a dance game boom, which will be followed by some other manifestation of music games—hopefully some of the new stuff Harmonix is working on! Music is a permanent aspect of the human experience, and so is gameplay."

Harmonix is currently running a Kickstarter in an attempt to revive another game in its back catalogue, Amplitude. With three days left to go, the bid is short $300,000 of its $775,000 goal, so it's looking grim. According to Rigopulos, Amplitude is too hard a sell for publishers considering the previous game wasn't a commercial success. If the Kickstarter fails, most likely Amplitude will not be made.


    So can someone then explain to me the fault of the decline of Call of Duty games?

      Call of Duty games aren't declining in sales, unfortunately. If anything each new iteration sells more than the previous one. Activision have no reason to put the series on hiatus like they did with Guitar Hero.

        Actually, the Call of Duty games have been selling less over the last few years. Ot at least, retaining their population.

    For me personally RB and GH never lived up to Drum Mania / Guitar Freaks, despite GF only having 3 buttons opposed to 5. Original content was the biggest thing I loved about the series and I'm still unsure of why but they were just much more fun to play. I always found the UI and stage art for RB/GH really dull and boring .. but perhaps that's just my bias towards anything Japanese ;)

    I just got sick of spending money on DLC. When I figured out I'd accumulated a hundred or so songs, and how much that cost me, I kinda freaked out and stopped playing.

    There is a common belief that Activision over published Guitar Hero - and maybe they did. But to say that Rock Band didn't do the same thing is a little silly.

    Under Activision, Guitar Hero had:

    GH World Tour
    GH Warriors of Rock
    GH Aerosmith
    GH Metallica
    GH Van Halen
    GH Smash Hits
    Band Hero

    (I don't include DJ Hero as the gameplay in that was distinctly different).

    Harmonix did:

    GH Rocks the 80's
    RB The Beatles
    RB Greenday
    RB Lego
    RB Blitz

    + Also published 7 track packs.

    Both GH and RB had multiple portable and mobile versions too, which I have not listed here.

    Can we put the idea to rest now that it was all Activision's fault for saturating the market?

    Last edited 20/05/14 12:44 pm

      Regardless of who is at fault, do you still agree that the market was over-saturated?

      Because the way this reads, it's a denial of saturation and a partial attribution to more general economic conditions. It sounds more like the early stages of drumming up PR for a revival as their next project.

        Regardless of who is at fault, do you still agree that the market was over-saturated?

        Yes, I do. Sorry I thought I made that clear. All I'm saying is Activision was not the one and only reason for the over saturation, Harmonix had a big part to play in it too.

          I agree to an extent but I feel like Activision had a more active role in making sure Guitar Hero was everywhere. At the time I felt like Rock Band was getting new versions they cared about making, where Guitar Hero was just slapping anything it could on the side of the box to re-release a new game.
          Part of that though could be that I was more into Guitar Hero than Rock Band so I paid more attention to it and noticed the decline more.

      I don't buy the over saturation excuse. The core games were evolution, the addons were just that - addons. If you liked The Beatles you bought the Beatles RB. Same with Green Day. Same with any of the DLC. The simple fact was, for the Rock band franchise, that RB3 was a step backwards in that core evolution. The career was crap compared to RB2. Over far too quickly. And the addition of the keyboard added nothing. The took it in the wrong direction and it died.

      For the "over publishing" argument, it's more to do with releasing many games in a short period rather than total number of games produced over the lifetime of the series. Look at the diagram here:


      That shows 7 games in 2010 (5 if you exclude DJ Hero and the portable "On Tour" game).

        I think you mean 2009, not 2010.

        So yeah I agree that one year was pretty bad for GH, but the rest of the games were pretty spaced out. Guitar Hero put out 7 in 2009, which yes, is a lot in a short space of time.

        Just for balance here's Rock Band for comparison: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_band_game#List_of_games

        8 games released in 2009 (including the track packs, which should be counted as they were standalone games in themselves). Excluding the track packs it's 5, which is still a lot.

        I'm not saying GH didn't oversaturate the market - they most certainly did. All I'm saying is that you shouldn't be blaming Activision as the *only* contributor to that over saturation when it's clear Harmonix was a major player too.

        Last edited 20/05/14 2:38 pm

          You're right about the year: I misread the chart. As far as the games being more spaced out before hand, I don't think anyone is disputing that: the criticism about over-saturating that market are mostly related to 2009.

          I also disagree that the Rock Band track packs should be counted as individual games: they are described as compilations of DLC released on PSN/Xbox Marketplace, and require the base game to play. If you include them, then why not also include the weekly DLC releases both franchises were pumping out?

            and require the base game to play

            They didn't require the base game to play. As I stated they were actually standalone and could be played without the base game.

            But as I said, even if you exclude those, they still put out 5 games that year.

            Last edited 20/05/14 3:07 pm

      I think the biggest problem with these music games was and still is that they were catering to the wrong audience.

      Too often there was outdated, uncool metal, hard rock, and to a lesser extent, classic rock, on these games that were supposed to be for party environments. People who like that music are generally musicians themselves and would rather play those songs on an actual guitar.

      If they wanted it to be sustainable they needed to focus on crowd-pleasing songs, the kind of songs everyone remembers and knows. Not necessary "mainstream" songs, but ones that sort of transcend personal taste. Pretty much every 90's kid loses it when they hear Blink 182, yet most of the time, they were relegated to DLC download over say, another Metallica song.

      When you're having a party or gathering, generally people don't want to play impressive music, they want to play fun music. Usually there's alcohol and microphones involved. People don't want to sing along with Corey Taylor, they want to scream out the words to Mr. Brightside.

      Unfortunately these opinions are met with unrelenting vitriol from the gaming population, of whom a large percentage are metal nerds. And because the video game industry is so risk-averse, they try to cater to the sure things, rather than the what ifs.

      It then results in a tracklist of which 50-60% is worthless to the key demographic these games should be catering to, and nobody wants to lay down the cash for it. Yet the demographic they are aiming for don't want to eject Call Of Duty to play a game that's got a "fun ceiling" when you're playing alone, which is most of the time.

      Over-saturation of the same bands on every game is what did it. Guitar music is more than 3 or 4 interlocking genres that skew heavily towards the male demographic.

      There's a whole world of music out there, and people will always get more satisfaction from the first time they "play" a simple riff they know and love, than from mastering a complicated scale that exists purely to challenge.

    Personally, I can't see me going back to a placebo after six months playing Rocksmith 2014 - it'd end up rebuilding bad habits that I'm just now getting past from spending six years playing those games obsessively. Damn pinky still refuses to contribute to power chords most of the time...

    My plastic instruments still get used on a regular basis when my mates and I are drinking. Have spent more on DLC for RB/GH than the machine I use to play it on.

    I'm not too sure how I feel about that.

    Why would I play guitar hero, when Rocksmith is out now? I can actually learn to play a real instrument with my mates. Much better idea, than playing with plastic toys.

      Maybe the same reason I play GT instead of pursuing a racing career, or play Halo instead of going and getting firearms training. I enjoy the games, I enjoy the feeling they give.
      I can play real guitar, but guitar hero was fun with family or mates, and made you feel like you were playing an arena, just like Halo made you feel like a kick-arse spartan, or GT makes me feel like Nikki Lauda.
      I keep wondering why people who don't like playing with plastic toys are on sites like Kotaku ;^)

      Last edited 20/05/14 2:01 pm

    Can you imagine a world where you can stream any song from your iTunes, or some sort of spotify-like streaming library, and the game engine has a auto-generate buttons that can recognise chord progressions and notes, taking all the programming away from the developers...

    Once the song has been auto-generated once on a users machine it can then upload that into the database, for easier streaming/downloading next time for anyone else around the world that wants to play it.

    Giving people an almost unlimited library of songs to choose from.

    Say for a yearly subscription fee, or one that is already bundled into your existing premium spotify, Xbox music, or iTunes subscriptions... Giving away with the specific DLC-per-song model and go to a more pay artist per-play model. Enabling the user an unmatched library of songs, and also giving record companies the ability get ALL their music out there into video games.

    That my friends is the FUTURE... Yes it would require a 'always online' mentality so that plays can be measured and for song streaming. But throw in the ability to hold 20-30 songs offline at a time between connecting should be enough to keep those internet connection hating gamers that for some reason don't think they'll be connected to the internet while they game quiet for a while.

    There are obviously agreements in place with record companies and streaming services, so I can't see it honestly being that much of a jump to get that sort of pay-per-song-stream into video games.

    Last edited 20/05/14 2:05 pm

    i still play every now and then
    it came out at the time when i had the most money i had ever had so i didn't mind the cost.
    strangely enough i earn more now but have less disposable income due to house and kids so if a game asked me to spend $300-400 on it i would be a hard sell

    Is there a chance of a next-gen comeback possibly utilizing second screen functionality?

    I wish Activision would release another DJ Hero. That and its sequel were the only music games I was able to get behind and thoroughly enjoy.

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