On Music Games and Compatibility

Activision has another Guitar Hero game in the works. I’m not going to get into that one. Instead, I’d like to talk about music games, interoperability, and downloadable content.

Guitar Hero reached an oversaturation point in 2009. From the release of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith in the middle of 2008 to the release of Guitar Hero: Van Halen at the end of 2009, there was on average, one new Guitar Hero game every three months.

This milking of the franchise has caused the it to fragment and can lead to confusion among players due to inconsistent downloadable content and on-disc song exportation support. This is a stark contrast to the way Rock Band has become more of a platform upon which almost all songs can be played by almost any other game.

Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero II was the first rhythm game on the current generation of consoles. Even though it was a port of a PS2 game, this was the first game that supported downloadable content. A handful of track packs and individual songs totaling 24 were released for this game. None of these songs were able to be played in later Guitar Hero games.

Guitar Hero 3 also saw downloadable content, totaling 68 tracks, including Metallica’s Death Magnet album. Save for the Metallica album being used later on in Guitar Hero: Metallica, you could only play GH3 DLC in GH3.

Aerosmith, an expansion, didn’t have any DLC.

The next title in the series, Guitar Hero: World Tour, was the first game to directly compete with Rock Band. A total of 158 songs were released for download. World Tour is notable as it was the first game released in the series to allow players to export disc-based songs for use in later games. 35 of the 86 songs were exportable. All of the DLC save the six Jimi Hendrix tracks were forward compatible with later games.

The following expansion, Guitar Hero: Metallica did not continue this trend. None of the songs included on-disc could be exported, and save for being able to use Metallica’s Death Magnet album DLC (from either GH3 or GHWT), no DLC was released, and the rest of World Tour’s DLC could not be played.

Guitar Hero: Smash Hits was a compilation game, using 48 songs ranging from the first Guitar Hero up to Aerosmith, updated to the full-band experience and using master recordings. No DLC could be played in Smash Hits, and only 21 songs could be exported for later games.

Guitar Hero 5, along with Band Hero, was the next generation of Guitar Hero. All of the exportable songs from World Tour and Smash Hits and DLC (except those six Jimi Hendrix tracks) from World Tour would be playable in GH5/Band Hero. These games also featured an export feature. 69 of the 85 songs in Guitar Hero 5 can be exported for use in Band Hero, while 61 of the 65 songs from Band Hero can be exported and played in Guitar Hero 5. In addition, DLC is pooled between the two games in the same way it is in Rock Band 1 & 2. The only real downside is that GH5 DLC is not backwards compatible with World Tour.

Guitar Hero: Van Halen was released after Guitar Hero 5, and could be recieved for free by customers that pre-ordered Guitar Hero 5. Van Halen was a step backward for the series. No downloadable content and no song exporting limited the game.

If you’ve noticed a trend, it’s that expansion titles didn’t have DLC, and most couldn’t be exported for use in other Guitar Hero games, yet most held a very significant price tag of $60, the price for a brand new top-quality game.

I’m curious as to why Activision pushed all of these derivitave games out with a full price tag so quickly, and so close to the releases of the full-featured main series.

On second thought, I know the answer: Activision published these because they continued to sell. With minimal resources being used with the expansions, they don’t have to sell as many to make a profit.

Profit is great, but what happened to making sure your customers were happy so they’d continue coming back? The problem in keeping customers happy is this: Guitar Hero DLC/song exporting as a whole is just too damn confusing. What does that have to do with keeping customers happy? The average person does not want confusing, they just want stuff to work.

Rock Band

Personally, I like the way Harmonix has thought out their games. Rock Band is not just a video game to sell. It’s a platform upon which they sell songs as DLC.

They have two games in the main series with a third recently announced. Then they have DLC that gets released every week that is compatible with this entire “trunk” (like a tree) of games.

The trunk is where the “pure” Rock Band experience seems to be. All DLC (save for The Beatles: Rock Band) works with Rock Band and Rock Band 2. Of Rock Band’s 58 songs, 55 were exportable, allowing them to be played in RB2 and other titles. I assume Rock Band 2 will also have an export feature when Rock Band 3 is released.

It seems there are three branches that interconnect with the main trunk: LEGO Rock Band, Track Pack releases, and band-based games.

LEGO Rock Band, while having different mechanics added in to make it a LEGO game, also uses the same DLC & exported songs as the trunk, though with a family-friendly filter in effect. By going to the in-game music store, you’re browsing the same exact songs that you would find in the main trunk of games. In addition, new copies have a single-use code you can use to export songs for use in other games.

The Track Pack releases are simply discount collections of about 20 tracks selected from the RB Music Store that are self-contained and fully playable without a full game. While they can’t play DLC, the songs can be exported and played in other games as if they were DLC.

The band-based games are in their own tree branch, which also branches out.

The Beatles: Rock Band has its own DLC, and is a self-contained game, unable to play anything but the Beatles, and having no export option. This was due to both technical restrictions (vocal harmonies being introduced in TB:RB, along with the custom visuals for each song) and intentionally keeping the Beatles’ music iconic.

Green Day: Rock Band, while using the same harmony system as The Beatles: Rock Band, allows players to export all of its songs, and allows the use of previous Green Day DLC.

While there’s a small schism with the band-based Rock Band games, overall Harmonix has created an extremely impressive and dependable platform for consumers to buy and play their Rock Band DLC.

I think Neversoft and Activision have come a long way with their games as a brand, but still have a long way to go to catch up with Rock Band in this respect. Whether they’re through milking it, we’ll have to wait and see.

Hopefully we won’t see anymore Aerosmiths or Van Halens in the series, and will instead see something closer to Green Day: Rock Band or track packs, at least in terms of bringing that music back into the main trunk of the series, and potentially offering a reduced price. It took a long time for them to finally change Guitar Hero from a series of games into a platform. Here’s hoping they keep to that with Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock.

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