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Rhythm Game Marketing: All in the Timing

July 2, 2010

Having reviewed both for PopMatters, it’s no secret that I’m neither a fan of Guitar Hero: Van Halen, nor of Green Day: Rock Band.  Still, I find it hard to imagine that either game deserved the fate handed down to it by their respective publishers, miscues of timing that may well have led to the commercial failure of both games.

Guitar Hero: Van Halen got it the worst of the two, a casualty of a time period in which Activision had so flooded the market with Guitar Hero games (not to mention its new DJ Hero property) that it couldn’t possibly justify one more on the market.  Rather than release it when it was ready, then, Activision gave it an initial release as a mail-in bonus to Guitar Hero 5, a tactic whose primary result was to show just how much of an improvement the Guitar Hero 5 engine was over that of World Tour, which Van Halen was based on.

Awkward avatar selection aside (despite the near-unforgivable slight of Michael Anthony), Guitar Hero: Van Halen was actually a decent showcase of guitar charting, complete with some of the hardest solos (“Eruption”, “Spanish Fly”) the genre had yet produced.  Still, alongside Guitar Hero 5, what can you do but notice that a) the multiplayer feels severely limited, b) the bass and vocal parts are almost tacked on, and c) the graphics just look awkward.  Guitar Hero 5, flawed as it was, at least looked like the next iteration of the franchise.  World Tour‘s engine was like a smoothed out version of Guitar Hero III, all blobby and awkward, a trip and tumble down the Uncanny Valley.

Van Halen didn’t get an official release until December 22nd of last year, not even bothering to court Christmas shoppers with a discount game.  Every step of the way, this game was treated as an afterthought, right up to its retail release.  Why in the world should consumers be expected to treat it as anything else?

More recently, Green Day: Rock Band has suffered a similar fate, though in a far more subtle fashion than the travesty surrounding Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Where Van Halen was a casualty of what already was, Green Day was a casualty of that which is to come.

Specifically: Green Day: Rock Band was out for all of two days when Rock Band 3 and all of its ridiculous (known) new instruments and features showed up in a USA Today article.  Keyboards.  A fleshed-out story (as opposed to Green Day‘s utter lack of story).  Dynamic drop-in and drop-out.  A ridiculous new drum kit and an actual freaking guitar that senses where your fingers are for the sake of gameplay.  And Harmonix expects us to keep having fun with the Rock Band 2 engine until then?

In a sense, the timing of the Rock Band 3 reveal couldn’t really be helped — Harmonix wanted to get the information out before E3, for the sake of putting questions and clarifications in the express lane.  This allowed them to concentrate on the jaw-dropping business of demoing the thing at E3 without their audience asking what the hell was going on.  Still, could they have released Green Day sooner?  Could they have waited a bit until the Rock Band 3 hype died down to give newly-excited Rock Band fans a little morsel to chew on until they’re levelled by the hype train that will inevitably surround the third game’s release?  Just about anything would have been better than to undermine Green Day a mere two days after its “hello, world” moment.

Sure, there were too many rhythm games released in the last two years.  Still, especially given that the rate of releases is decreasing as consumers slowly lose interest, one would think better care would be taken in the release of these games — particularly Harmonix, whose entire stake in the industry is rhythm games.  The least they can do is give the games enough respect as to have an opportunity to succeed, rather than bury them right out of the starting gate.

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