At one point, Rock Band was a powerhouse video game franchise that seemed like it would never end. In addition to its physical games it sported a robust catalog of music players could download from classic rock to pop hits of the day to indie releases. Today, after four years of that downloadable content (DLC) and over 2,000 songs the Rock Band Network has officially ended, according to game developer Harmonix. But how did a game that was the third highest brand, trailing Guitar Hero and the Super Mario series, with $662M in total sales and 5.3 million copies of the game sold in 2008 alone just… fade out? Below, we’ll take a look at the rise and fall of Rock Band and the rhythm game phenomenon.
The origins of the game can be tracked back to two men, Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, MIT students who met in 1995 and who both studied music composition and programming. They formed a small company called Harmonix that developed music games that would use a joystick and put out a number of minor games on the PC and PlayStation 2 but their big chance came in 2004 when they were approached by the company RedOctane. RedOctane had developed a guitar peripheral and were impressed with Harmonix’ software. They asked them to develop a game that would use their simplified guitar instead of a joystick. They wanted to emulate the Japanese game Guitar Freaks which used a guitar-shaped peripheral with buttons that hit arcades in 1998. Harmonix did just that and in 2005 they released Guitar Hero to the Western world, published by RedOctane.
The game was a surprise hit, earning over $45 million, selling 1.3 million units and earning critical rave reviews. RedOctane was purchased by Activision in 2006 for $100 million and interest in Harmonix grew. Viacom purchased Harmonix in October of that year for $175 million and the Guitar Hero series was given to developer Neversoft. Harmonix completed its contractual obligations to RedOctane/Activision with Guitar Hero 2 which earned over $200 million. But the groundwork for the eventual collapse of the brand new game genre was already being laid. Activision pumped out a new game every year, which along with Harmonix’ Rock Band series that debuted at the same time, led to over-saturation of the market. Guitar Hero 3, World Tour and Warriors of Rock (games 3, 4 and 6) were less well-reviewed as well.
Meanwhile, Harmonix was given to Viacom’s MTV Networks and created a new, updated version of their game: Rock Band. Rock Band went from a 2-player mode up to 4-players, adding a drum kit and karoake-style microphone to the guitars allowing people to play as any member either solo or as a team, online or at home. Rock Band debuted in 2007 to fantastic reviews and huge sales. Harmonix continued to support their games through the Rock Band Network, releasing weekly downloadable songs. Viacom paid Harmonix over $150 million in bonuses in 2007 with a similar structure planned for 2008. That year, Harmonix also acquired the rights to develop the Beatles’ library of music. In 2008, Rock Band sold 5.3 million copies of the game, with 3.8 million of those units being the package with all peripherals.
However, by 2009, the game market was already reaching its saturation point for the rhythm-based games, despite great reviews. When Beatles Rock Band, the 3rd game in Rock Band’s franchise, was released in 2009, it underperformed. It sold over 3 million units, which was respectable but not in line with the previous two Rock Band games. 2009 also saw Lego Rock Band, Green Day Rock Band and then Rock Band 3 came out in 2010. Combined with the track packs and DLC, it was too much too fast. Viacom was less than impressed and actually tried to get back the $150 million in bonuses it had paid in 2007.
Harmonix again tried to innovate in 2009 with Rock Band 3. It added a keyboard and a “pro” version of a guitar that was essentially an actual guitar, with buttons for every possible fret, that plugged into the game and helped teach you to play. Still, sales were profitable but not blockbusters and while Viacom continued to support the franchise through 2010, it also announced it was looking to sell Harmonix. It ultimately was sold to a group of investors including Harmonix shareholders, essentially becoming its own boss again. The net liability of the sale was valued at nearly $200 million, including their music license fees and existing inventory but analysts believe that investors paid only $50 million, which Viacom wrote off as a loss. MTV Games closed its doors. In February of 2011, Harmonix laid off 15% of its staff. Activision closed shop on Guitar Hero. But even though there were no new games, Harmonix continued to support the games with its Rock Band Network of new songs.
In 2012, they stopped adding new songs to the Rock Band Network and today its all getting shut down. But at the 2014 Penny Arcade Expo, Rigopulos announced Harmonix planned to bring Rock Band back at some point in the future for the current 8th generation gaming consoles (PS4, XBox One). Surely with the break the rhythm game genre has had and the new gamers out there, the market is again ready for the return of Rock Band. Hopefully this time history doesn’t repeat itself and they take their time with any releases.