Rock Band's Controllers Represent Gaming's Complex Perception

PHOTO CREDIT: © Harmonix Music Systems

PHOTO CREDIT: © Harmonix Music Systems

Harmonix, the developers of the upcoming Rock Band 4, stated recently that some of the old instrument controllers for previous Rock Band titles and even music game rival Guitar Hero titles would work on the new platforms. If your old music game controllers are on the same console family and you are buying the next version of the game (ie, PS3 to PS4), they will work without issue. The Xbox 360 instruments will need a “legacy wireless controller adapter” to work on the Xbox One version of the game, which is being helpfully sold as a package with RB4.

There are currently 5 different ways to buy RB4:

  • Digitally for $60 (no instruments; not at the game’s launch either)
  • Just the disc for $60 (again, no instruments)
  • The disc with the legacy adapter for $80 on the Xbox One
  • The game with a new guitar controller for $130
  • The game with drums, a microphone, and one guitar for $250

Harmonix and instrument controller maker Mad Catz have said the legacy controller adapter will be sold separately and that additional instruments will only sell in early 2016 (remember that Mad Catz is banking on RB4  selling a lot of copies to survive). This convoluted explanation is better explained in greater detail on their website

Unfortunately, there is no good way to get an all-inclusive package, even if you buy the big “band-in-a-box” package. One of the main draws of Rock Band is playing in a party setting, with 4 instruments (drums, microphone, and 2 guitars), which you won’t be able to do from the game’s launch date unless you want to spend a lot of money buying the game in 2 of the 5 ways or unless you already have the legacy controllers.

In some ways, Harmonix asked for this confusion: old instrument compatibility was high on the list of features people wanted if Rock Band was to return. A lot of people (myself included) collected instrument controllers that sat in closets for close to a decade awaiting music games that never came. Now these controllers are impossible to find in retail stores and, on the Internet, their prices have skyrocketed. On top of it, since RB4 is coming to players who may have not played Rock Band on the older consoles, Harmonix now has to seed the market with instruments for new consoles.

Thrift stores like Goodwill were loaded with both Rock Band & Guitar Hero instruments over the past several years. now they're in high demand. PHOTO CREDIT: © /r/Gaming

Thrift stores like Goodwill were loaded with both Rock Band & Guitar Hero instruments over the past several years. now they're in high demand. PHOTO CREDIT: © /r/Gaming

Imagine being interested in RB4, but not knowing all this background information, the theoretical situation many will be in if RB4 reaches a large audience. Explaining how to get everything working for the game requires a spreadsheet and a blog post from the developers. We’re not even talking about retailer-specific pre-order songs, which Harmonix has said will be available in other ways; we’re talking about the game and its controller(s). RB4 has massive mainstream potential being a karaoke band game, but distributing the instruments and explaining how they work with the software is a Herculean feat.

It’s not the only game this confusing purchasing/pre-ordering matrix exists for, either; over the years, a number of people have asked me about some well-marketed game from a big gaming franchise (eg, Call of Duty, Destiny, Fallout) and wondered which platform they can or should buy it from (“Can I get that on my iPhone?”). The most famous example of purchasing charts run amok was cross-platform launch title Watch Dogs , a game that you could buy in so many different ways that the ensuing spreadsheet looked like the periodic table of elements.

It really speaks to how poorly game companies, press outlets, and players have communicated this medium to the wider public. We want other people to like and buy games as much as we do, but have made it impossible to keep up with or difficult to buy. This is why the maligned Time cover featuring Oculus Rift inventor Palmer Luckey was so devastating to VR's public image: getting a wider audience to understand and embrace virtual reality is much harder if we can’t explain or portray how different the Oculus is than other VR headsets.

The recent speculation that Nintendo’s NX platform won’t have physical media attached to it is similarly worrying; this is the same company that put out the Wii, a console with a controller that looked like a TV remote, a common object most people know how to use. Shigeru Miyamoto recently explained to NPR that selling this audience on the Wii U’s complicated control scheme hurt the platform. Jimmy Kimmel just this past week quipped that watching YouTube clips of other people playing video games was a layer too deep, and that the arcade days of games were better because they were simpler.

THE WIIU'S COMPLEX CONTROLLER MAY BE PARTIALLY TO BLAME FOR WHY IT HAS NOT SOLD AS WELL AS THE WII.  PHOTO CREDIT: © Nintendo

THE WIIU'S COMPLEX CONTROLLER MAY BE PARTIALLY TO BLAME FOR WHY IT HAS NOT SOLD AS WELL AS THE WII.  PHOTO CREDIT: © Nintendo

It’s easy to brush off the idea that video games are not worth paying attention to anymore, but making the case that they ARE worth paying attention to is harder when the games and business models surrounding them are complicated. You don’t need quarters to play Asteroids anymore, but you do need to know how many quarters you’ll need to buy the next Street Fighter game (Capcom's unclear distinction between fight money, zenny, and how much content you're getting on the disc is not helpful).  

In the comparatively milder case of trying to sell the public on RB4, it’s hard to distinguish that game from Guitar Hero Live, coming out a mere 2 weeks afterwards. Think about it: both games feature guitar controllers, note highways, and feature songs that have been or are the same as the rival game franchise. The Guitar Hero Live guitar won’t work for RB4, and vice-versa, despite both controllers being based on the same real world item. Of course there are differences and nuance between these 2 products, but if I’m a lightly informed member of the game-buying audience looking for a music game, how do I know what those differences are?

Getting the band together to play video games shouldn't be this hard. Making games more accessible or better explained for public consumption can only strengthen the medium.