A few years ago, many believed the music genre to be a fad – a digital Tickle Me Elmo that would be forgotten a season later. With the success of Rock Band: The Beatles, and the continued support from consumers for both Rock Band and Guitar Hero’s downloadable content, the music genre has shown it has staying power. Rock Band’s upcoming network, which allows unsigned bands to upload and sell their music, could give this genre another big push.

For some people, the fascination with this genre is reignited whenever a new track from one of their favorite bands is released. For others, the allure is as solely to get together with friends for a night of jamming. For me, and I’m sure many others, the attraction has been about the gameplay, skill, and sense of accomplishment tied to playing on Expert or getting five stars on a song.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the music – I end up rocking out plenty hard to the tracks that fit my tastes. These games also discharge a strange power that makes me play songs I dislike, songs that would normally make me change the radio station in my car. For me, Bon Jovi is the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Their music is torture, yet I’ve likely played their Rock Band songs over 100 times.

My eagerness to play a music game has waned significantly since the release of Rock Band 2. Some of my favorite bands are just now being explored in the games, yet I have no interest in playing their songs. Moreover, the Beatles, a band I worship almost daily through my car stereo, didn’t do much for me in their video game debut.

Music games are servicing music fans, musicians, and the music industry – not gamers. The experience hasn’t moved past square one – which I consider Rock Band and Guitar Hero’s city-to-city tours. Neversoft can be applauded for implementing new ideas like the boss battles and multiplayer attacks, but I fear the failed execution of both ideas may have scared both Neversoft and Harmonix away from making serious changes to the tried-and-true formula again.

I’m not saying that both developers should seek out new ways for players to interact with the music. As a guitarist who has played in bands for 15 years, I can vouch for the gameplay being close to the real deal. Moreover, both developers are making great note charts for the songs.
What I am looking for is added depth on top of the traditional gameplay. Both games desperately need new ways to immerse the player in the experience.

Roughly a year ago, in a magazine feature called “What If?”, I challenged Insomniac Games’ president Ted Price to create a design document for a game he never thought he’d have the chance to work on, yet loved. He chose Rock Band. His pitch mostly explored the idea of immersing the player in new ways.

“While the world tour and developing your band is well done, it’d be even cooler to flesh out the solo character development more,” says Price. “I think it would be a blast to have a single-player campaign where you’re following your singer, drummer, or guitarist through the ups and downs of the music world. Yeah, I know everyone wants to get right to the songs, but I’d like to see my character experiencing more real-life moments as he heads toward stardom. I’d like to have some playable segments where I can interact with other characters and make some choices that will affect my music career.”

“For example, I get a groupie pregnant. What do I do? Do I marry her or do I let my manager pay her off since I’m worried about my sex appeal decreasing? Or I hear a rumor that my manager is using hired muscle to pressure venue owners into letting my band play – but at the same time he’s been setting up amazing gigs. Do I confront him or let it ride, hoping that his actions don’t reflect on me down the road? Or I find myself in a five-star suite. Should I trash it? I’ll pay a hefty fine but at the same time I’ll earn excellent bad boy PR. And so on. No decision would ever be the “right” one but each decision would have obvious consequences in terms of the opportunities that pop up. Some football games have started heading this route where you’re spending as much time managing your players’ careers as you are playing the games.”