Last week saw an announcement posted to Rockband.com's community forum by developer Aaron Trites, revealing that weekly updates of new tracks will finally end on April 2nd. For fans of Rock Band, the music game that introduced plastic drum kits to millions of homes across the globe, this is a bittersweet end to a five-year run of note highways and power chords. To those who dabbled and moved on, you might not have even realized new songs were still trickling out. Regardless, this once dominant genre unto itself is officially unplugging from that great amp server in the sky.
As countless mock-rockers have sung into their USB mics, mimicking the polygonal frontman of Creedance Clearwater Revival: "We're going up around the bend." Question is, what will we find there?
- - -
The band-in-your-living-room ethos of Rock Band and its ilk came to be known as what a 'music game' is. This subset of the genre dominated the mindshare of so many people that many forget how broad and rich such a game can and should be. Konami's Guitar Freaks begat Guitar Hero, which begat Rock Band, which is now fading away as a thriving, evolving service. In considering where musical games can go, that pre-exisiting definition in the minds of many needs to be expanded. Music Games are much more than a sort of scrolling Simon.
Harmonix themselves, developers of both the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band, have tried forging a new path with their experimental app Vidrhythm. Available on the App Store, it's a quirky little music video creator that combines your own short video clips and recorded sounds over a pre-arranged song template. You choose a visual theme and record your pieces based on instrument types (ex. A snare drum sound might come from a clucked tongue or a burst of Terminator 2 gunfire--you choose what to record).
The app then produces a short video stitching together each component into something unique and, if nothing else, compellingly odd. This kind of user generated content, as filtered through a specific vision, is one path future musical games could take in intriguing directions. (Personally, I often make a Vidrhythm video for friend's and family's birthdays; results vary.)
Whereas previous music/rhythm games released onto home consoles or dedicated gaming platforms, we're seeing a shift toward smartphones or tablets. The transition makes sense, as such games are often geared towards a broader audience. The quirky brilliance of call-and-response cartoon Parappa the Rapper came to Sony's Playstation in 1997; if developed today, it's easy to imagine Masaya Matsuura and street-artist Rodney Greenblatt creating such a character for iOS or Android.
In the wake of Rock Band, most music games will be in the palm of our hands
The touch interfaces are a natural fit for rhythm games, as exemplified with Tapulous Inc.'s variety of Tap Tap games, which basically transmit the note highways of Rock Band into a simpler, more concise form. Taito's Groove Coaster expands on the formula, forcing you along a winding rail with a sequence of on-the-beat actions to perform. An arcade version was just announced and showcased at Japan's JAEPO 2013, an expo for upcoming arcade games. This direction of development is the reverse of the norm, with many music games starting in the arcade, and show how quickly resources have shifted to new and emerging markets.
Given this fact, most music games we might expect to see in the wake of Rock Band will be in the palm of our hands. Last month, Majesco released Flea Symphony onto Apple's App Store. Developed by The Odd Gentlemen, known for their atmospheric and puzzling The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, it's a simple concept layered with slowly unveiled mechanics and a cute, somewhat-disconcerting aesthetic.
You slide a series of drums and instruments around the screen in order to bounce a note from one side of the screen to the other. Though not immediately intuitive, it's the kind of game that could appeal to a wide swath of players: from puzzle addicts to musicians to children to fans of quirky Japanese or European animation.
Flea is far from the established conventions of what many think a 'music game' is. But hopefully it will be soon, as a reliance on pre-recorded music falls away and more musicians conspire with game designers for unique experiences. (See: Dyad, Sound Shapes.) With Rock Band's final encore around the corner, we may have seen the end of music games leaning on licensed, popular tracks as a platform for imitative performance. The future is bright, though, for creative endeavors that combine the best of sound and vision in an interactive way that only videogames can accomplish.