With today’s release of Don McLean’s classic American Pie, I have 1,082 songs in my Rock Band collection. I know this because I keep a spreadsheet. Of COURSE I keep a spreadsheet.
I’m glad I don’t have an exact figure of how much I’ve spent on Rock Band; I know that “hundreds” doesn’t begin to cover it and that’s as much as I care to admit. But whatever, we all have our “thing” and despite people occasionally wondering if I was stuck in 2009, Rock Band was one of my things.
But American Pie was specifically chosen to be today’s release because it’s an appropriate fit for the day. After more than five years of weekly releases, Rock Band’s developer, Harmonix, will no longer be adding new songs to the library.
In a sense, this is the end of an entire genre of gaming. First popularized in North America by Guitar Hero, music games were a brief but massive fad. For a while, it seemed like every gamer I knew had at least one of these games and a plastic guitar. I remember going from store to store to store to find a place that hadn’t sold out of Guitar Hero III on its launch day (October 28, 2007), but by the time Rock Band 3 came out in 2010, nobody outside of a handful of diehards seemed to notice or care. If anything, it’s a wonder Harmonix didn’t stop releasing new songs years ago.
And yet, I was taken by surprise by the announcement that Rock Band downloadable content was ending. The number of new songs had clearly slowed over the past while, but I was hopeful that this was a compromise that would keep SOME fresh content coming for the foreseeable future. But between the ever-dwindling player base and the forthcoming next generation of consoles, it just didn’t make sense for Harmonix to continue putting out new songs. It’s disappointing, but I couldn’t expect them to do otherwise.
Over the five years, my collection’s grown to include some great stuff. I’ve got lots of White Stripes, Nirvana, Johnny Cash, Queen, R.E.M., and Foo Fighters. I’m the exact right age to appreciate having Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik album in its entirety. I’ve got Total f’n Eclipse of the f’n Heart. And even in the game’s dying days, Harmonix still managed to throw me Oingo Boingo’s Weird Science, Walk This Way by Aerosmith, and that song by The Flys that I thought was sort of okay a decade ago and promptly forgot about.
Okay, they aren’t all winners. I’ve been known to buy songs solely for the sheer party-killing potential involved, just because I think that sort of thing is hilarious. Who wouldn’t want to have a fun night with friends, flailing away on plastic instruments to the tune of Barenaked Ladies’ Hannukah Blessings? Or the updated version of St. Elmo’s Fire with lyrics about Tim Tebow? Or not one, not two, but THREE songs by SpongeBob Squarepants?
(I’m not sure what category Billy Joel fits into, but I was much more excited to add his songs to my collection than I should probably admit.)
The new songs helped me customize the game to my liking but more importantly, they were great for enticing family and friends to play along. I’m not much of a competitive gamer; I feel bad if I’m better than my opponent, and if I’m worse (basically 100% of the time), I get frustrated. Some of my favourite group gaming memories are really of games where we all took turns, passing the controller around, everyone encouraging the player. And no game that I’ve played has been better at creating that feeling of camaraderie than Rock Band. There’s something great about getting four (or more) players going at once, no-fail mode turned on for the non-gamers, and a song that everyone knows. It’s worked as well for drunken late nights with friends as with Sunday afternoon family gatherings at my mom’s house.
Pro tip: you can never go wrong with The Gambler.
Of course, Rock Band isn’t truly over. I’ve got lots of songs I haven’t even played yet, and with over 4,000 songs available, there are still plenty left for me to pick up. And the Rock Band Network program, which allows bands to add their own songs into the game, is still accessible for now, at least on the Xbox 360. It never has much that interests me but there’s the occasional hidden gem in there. And even once that’s done, I’ll keep playing off and on until my Xbox 360 dies or is sent to live on the farm (big Rubbermaid tub in the office closet). Gotta maximize my 1,082-song investment, after all.
But it’s still a bit sad. There are lots of bands I like that never made it into the game and now never will. There will be no more Friday mornings refreshing Twitter to get the first look at what the next week’s songs will be. And I can see my interest waning over time just like everyone else without new songs to suck me back in. (I’ve already had a brief fling with the Xbox 360’s new Karaoke Channel app. Please don’t judge me.)
Harmonix deserves all the credit in the world for bringing this ridiculous game into existence, and moreover, for going the extra mile for players long after it was likely financially feasible to do so. They hosted Rock Band events, were accessible to fans via social media, were generous with prizes, patched the game to add in features two years after launch, and did an insane amount of complicated licensing work to ensure that players could keep their existing songs when upgrading games. So thank you, Harmonix, for five great years, 4,000 songs, so many fun nights, and (speaking for myself here) inspiring some of the worst singing you’ve ever heard. I got a lot better but I never got good.