When a game fails, you often see it from a mile off. Tony Hawk: Ride is a great example (also released in 2010). We’d been starved of a numbered Tony Hawk’s release, and we were getting this: a slimline Hawk game with an awkward plastic skateboarding peripheral. We knew it, even if Activision didn’t: we don’t play Tony Hawk to look stupid, we play Tony Hawk to feel cool. Vultures were gathering even before a preview code landed on journalists’ desks.
At the time of Rock Band 3’s launch, no one was predicting the size of the failure, and boy, it was a hell of a failure. Only 7,400 units were sold across all platforms and SKUs, which is crazy, and it landed at 26th in the All Platforms chart. For context, the first Rock Band sold 4 million units, and the first Guitar Hero sold 11.8 million. Considering the game sold in such a miniscule amount, you can only imagine what the countless peripherals notched. This wasn’t just a failure, it was a categorical disaster.
Yet, this was a game that scored a 93 on Metacritic. Virtually every news outlet and magazine was trumpeting it as the second (okay, third) coming. Edge gave it a 10/10. The peripherals that came with the launch, including the MIDI adapter that allowed you to plug in your own instruments, the keytar and the pro guitars with 102 buttons, were all lauded as being a bridge to actual, real music playing. We were all doffing our caps to Harmonix for getting people to learn real instrumentation.
It’s only in hindsight that we can see what went wrong. From Rock Band 2’s launch to Rock Band 3, we had – deep breath – The Beatles Rock Band (best rhythm action game of all time, so say I), Lego Rock Band, Rock Band Unplugged, Rock Band Mobile and Green Day Rock Band. Over in Guitar Hero land, there was Band Hero, DJ Hero, World Tour and umpteen others. Song packs were releasing on the Xbox Store by the week, and the saturation point had been reached. Sales were declining. The accepted wisdom was that a mainline Rock Band and Guitar Hero would reinvigorate it all, but, well, the accepted wisdom was wrong.
During a recession, there was also peripheral fatigue. I felt it, and I’m sure others did too. I bought the keytar for reasons that I can’t fully explain other than novelty, but the drum-kit with extra cymbal, the two pro-controllers… I just couldn’t justify the house space, let alone the price. Peripherals were dropping in from so many other games, platforms and genres, too, as Guitar Hero had kickstarted something of a trend. There’s a reason that Ride got greenlit, as Activision had seen so much success with the peripherals of their own Guitar Hero.
But the real kicker, I think, was that Rock Band 3’s central message was so nerdy, so niche. It said that ‘Rock Band 3 is for the musical enthusiast who wants to bring their skills to video gaming’. It’s the music game that’s going to actually give you real-world improvement. This is where the journalists got it wrong, I think: it’s a noble message, and one that gets you high review scores, but people just don’t want to buy it. At least, the vast majority of people who bought the Rock Band big box, playing 20th Century Boy with mates while drunk, didn’t want that. It felt elitist, like an exclusion. Rock Band 3 was for proper musicians.
It’s so obvious when we look back at it, that Rock Band 3 couldn’t do anything but fail, only to rise five years later and then fail again. But, having been one of the 7,400 people who bought Rock Band 3, I was too blinded by how bloody marvellous the whole thing was. Sure, you could dive into your MIDI adapter, pro guitars and cymbals, but I was just going to play it as a casual game and it was still so effortlessly good at it.
The 83 songs felt more varied, and I always liked that about Rock Band. I fell on the Rock Band side of the divide for that reason – I’m not only interested in classic rock and metal, and Rock Band gave that to me. With the introduction of the keyboard, it meant that the breadth was even more noticeable. I mean, can you beat having Du Hast, Bohemian Rhapsody, Whip It, Space Oddity, Smoke on the Water and Rock Lobster on the same playlist?
The backwards compatibility with older songs just felt so generous (notching 2000 songs at launch), and the slickness of the new Rock Band Network store and integrating songs into playlists was disproportionally brilliant for how long it must have taken to pull off. It didn’t matter that the glamour had gone from Rock Band parties round my house (something else that probably nixed the franchise): I was all about sticking on the headphones and trucking through my library of songs. I now realise that I was a Rock Band whale that must have kept the tracks coming.
The Tour Mode was lightweight and a rehash of what went before, but it was nice to get back on the bus and go hunting for fans and achievements. It was just enough structure to give one-player rockers something to return to.
Hopefully time will be kind to Rock Band 3. It’s the equivalent of a Blade Runner or Van Gogh, unappreciated and undersold in its own time, but something that has undeniable quality. We may never see another Rock Band, no encore to this great series, but in Rock Band 3 and Rock Band 4, we got some pretty awesome final tracks.
Do you have any memories of Rock Band 3? Why not jot them in the comments section below and let us know.