Editorial | 2/5/2010 at 11:59 PM

Who's Next? The Future of Band-Centric Music Games

2009 was a huge year for music games.  From Guitar Hero Smash Hits to LEGO Rock Band, and everywhere in between, it seemed every month or two another major music game was released.  2010, however, is a totally different story.  No music games have been released yet this young new year; few games are even on the radar at this point.  It could be that the market for music games has been saturated.  Sales weren't exactly stellar for the most recent releases.  Or, perhaps, Activision and Harmonix are abandoning disc based games in favor of expanded DLC options. 

In any event, there's still plenty of good music out there, waiting to be made available for us to play on our fake plastic instruments.  And of all the great bands in the world, only a handful have been selected to headline their own music game.  Today, we begin a two part series about the future of band-centric video games.  In this first part, we will examine the band games that have already been released (or announced), in order to determine what characteristics they share.  In part two, we'll apply what we have learned to some of the best selling bands of all time , and predict which ones are most likely to be featured in their own video game sometime in the future. 

In order of release, here are the music games featuring a particular band.

Aerosmith has a knack for maintaining popularity over time, with platinum albums in each of the past four decades.  Guitar Hero: Aerosmith was the first band-centric music game.  It's the only game on this list two support only two players, as it is based on the Guitar Hero 3 engine.  This is somewhat unfortunate.  Steven Tyler is the most identifiable member of the band, and yet no vocals are supported.  Had GH:A had been released with four player co-op, it would be a much better game.


With fifteen platinum records, it's no surprise that the veteran rockers of AC/DC were featured as the first band-centric release for the Rock Band platform, the AC/DC Track Pack.  Angus Young's riffs and Brian Johnson's unique raspy voice are a great combination, and all of the band's biggest hits are represented on the disc.  The one drawback to the game is that AC/DC is in essence just a track pack, albeit a stand-alone.  There are no band animations, behind the scenes videos, or much else in the way of special content at all.  Still, the AC/DC Track Pack is lots of fun to play.

Metallica has long been a dominant force in heavy metal, reinventing itself often to stay on the cutting edge.  Iconic songs like "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman" are very well known.  Guitar Hero:Metallica was the first truly great band-centric game.  With four player co-op, digital versions of the band members, and more special content than any previous game, the developers really raised the bar here.  A few odd choices for the non-Metallica songs on the disc were really all one could complain about.

It's been almost forty years since The Beatles broke up.  They are arguably the most influential band in history, with a body of work like none other.  They are the best-selling band of all time, and it's fitting that theirs is the best band-centric game to date.  It is the first stand-alone music game totally devoted to one band, filled with only Beatles content.  Amazing "venues", spot-on character modeling, robust DLC options, special edition intruments: The Beatles Rock Band has it all.  Even non-fans can enjoy this well-crafted title.


Guitar Hero: Van Halen is a study in how not to do a band-centric game.  The omission of any Van Halen songs released in the past quarter century alone would have been enough to doom the game.  Further errors, such as ignoring popular former band members and using the "modern" versions of the band in game, only serve to point out how irrelevant Van Halen has become in music today.  Based on the inferior World Tour engine, Guitar Hero: Van Halen is without a doubt the worst music game to date.


Choosing Green Day as the next Rock Band game was quite unexpected.  By far, Green Day is the most recently formed band with their own game, and has sold fewer records.  However, the band is topping charts right now, which many of these other bands are not.  Still, they break the trends set by previous band-centric games.  The success of Green Day Rock Band remains to be seen, and will have a huge impact on whether or not we see more band-centric games in the future.

Now that we've looked at the bands behind the games, what do they have in common?  What attributes must a band have before it is considered as a candidate for its own game?  It's an inexact science, but there do seem to be a few common threads.  If a band has most, if not all of these qualities, it would be a good choice for a music game.

Big Sales Numbers

A no-brainer?  Probably so.  But if there is one thing all these bands have in common, it's amazing sales figures.  Taking a look at Wikipedia's information (surely not the most reliable source, but sufficient for our needs here), the clear leader here is The Beatles.  With one billion records sold, they are the best selling band of all time.  AC/DC's 200 million comes next, followed by Aerosmith at 150 million and Metallica at 100 million.  Van Halen and Green Day have sold only (if such a term is appropriate when considering such number) 80 and 65 million records, respectively.  One might think there are few bands to have reached this level, but there are literally dozens of bands with sales in these ranges.  This is a good thing for fans of music games.

Sustained Popularity

With one exception, each of these bands has remained popular over time.  For decades, Aerosmith and AC/DC have had hit songs.  Metallica, while less mainstream than the others due to being in the heavy metal genre, had a chart topping album just four years ago.  Green Day was first popular in the mid 90s, but has won several Grammy awards recently, due to the success of their last two albums.  And then there's the Beatles; even though they broke up years ago, their 2000 hits compilation "1" sold 31 million copies.  It's clear that long-term appeal is an important factor in the equation.  The one exception on the list is Van Halen.  Repeated comebacks by the band have largely fallen flat, and are another factor in the game's failure. 


Genre Matters

Of all the criteria, this one is probably the most flexible, and at the same time, hardest to define.  In the original Guitar Hero, the focus was on hard rock and heavy metal.  More recently, other genres have found their way into music games, notably country and pop music.  For the most part, though, the bands with their own games would be considered rock.  Metallica is the heaviest, but the rest are certainly hard rock, and would have fit right into early GH games.  The Beatles are harder to nail down to one genre; most of their music is a bit more pop, but not all.  I would hardly be surprised to see a band-centric game featuring a country act, or a pop group (Band Hero was practically Guitar Hero: Taylor Swift, after all).  But as we look into the crystal ball to speculate on future band games, we'll focus on the most common genre for band-centric games: hard rock.

Few Previous Songs In Games

As with the previous category, there is quite a bit of wiggle room here.  Metallica had an entire album available as DLC before their game was released, for example.  But for the most part, the biggest hits of each of these bands were not available to play in music game form.  Several great bands who might be able to pull off a band-centric game already have quite a bit of content out there.  Queen has sold an estimated 300 million albums, but they are well represented in music games already, especially on the Rock Band platform.  A more recent band, with three Grammy Awards under their belt, the Foo Fighters, have many songs already available as well.  Selling a game composed of music that is already available in video game form would be very difficult, indeed.

Of these four traits, big sales and recent popularity are probably the most important.  In part two of this editorial series, we'll take a magnifying glass to bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bon Jovi, and The Rolling Stones, and see how they stack up to our criteria.  In the meantime, why not tell us which band you think deserves a music game all of their own?