It is hard to imagine an article drawing parallels on two such disparate topics; a virtual reality video game and Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 ballad — but I assure you, there is a rather interesting connection.
In February 1995, Bruce Springsteen released a Greatest Hits album that featured a song called Secret Garden. Initially, this song peaked at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100 meaning it certainly didn’t set the world on fire. It was re-issued in April of 1997 and managed to jump to #19 on the same chart (and is The Boss’ last Top 20 hit in the United States to date).
Since songs tend to initially hit the charts and then progress downward, how is it that this song (after a couple of years later) managed to hit the Top 20?
Many might attribute the fact that the song was featured in the hit motion picture Jerry Maguire — and yes, the song was featured on the soundtrack so it was easy enough to get. Yet, Sony chose to release the song again just four months later as a two-track single — and it hit the Top 20.
It doesn’t add up until you factor in a rather interesting tale about this song.
Ken Benson, a program director in Portland, Oregon took Secret Garden and mixed it with famous lines from the Jerry Maguire film that the station had received as a Oscar screener. They played this song on a Tuesday and by Wednesday, it was the most requesting song on the station. So amazed by the reaction, he sent copies to a few radio friends at other stations. Copies of copies of copies were made and the song — not the original song, but the “Jerry Maguire Mix” version — was tearing up the airwaves — catapulting the song all the way to #19.
This mix was not available for purchase. It didn’t appear on any album. Unless you were a D.J. for a radio station, you couldn’t even get a copy of this song. Yet every week the song was played — the original version — on Casey Casem’s countdown and other “top chart” radio shows. There was no Spotify or YouTube to get bootleg songs on. If you were hooked into the Inter Relay Chat (IRC) underground and knew where to go and how to do it — you may have been able to get a low quality MP3 of one of the tenth generation copies.
But if you were just a regular listener of music that wanted to purchase the song? You were out of luck.
In the end, the version that made that song the smash hit it was had very little to do with Bruce Springsteen (his version only made it to #63, after all) but more to do with what the grassroots community could do with it and how they were able to make that music resonate with people. Sony sold a lot of copies of that song in re-release (suddenly makes sense now, right?); but it wasn’t what the people wanted.
The people couldn’t get what they wanted; because it was an unauthorized, unsanctioned and unreleased edition that made it popular.
Let’s fast forward to today — where virtual reality is the hot ticket for the 2019 holiday season with Oculus Quest (a self-powered, tetherless VR headset) being sold out all the way to late-February.
Beat Saber is easily the most recognized and most popular virtual reality video game out there. Many would call it a “system seller” and it won Best VR Game of the Year 2019. It is available on three major platforms; Steam, Oculus and Playstation VR.
For those unfamiliar with the title, Beat Saber has the player slicing colored blocks flying at them in time with music. A fairly simple premise, right? Plenty of “chopping” games before it such as the venerable Fruit Ninja. There have also been numerous rhythm games before it as well — also set to a specific genre of music — such as Dance Dance Revolution.
As with other similar small indie games, Beat Saber features a collection of original music — roughly 30 songs included for free — that would fall into the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) genre. A large selection of these were written by Jaroslav Beck, a Czech music composer and co-founder of Beat Games, Beat Saber’s development studio. If the name sounds familiar you might also recognize his work on Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch short movies.
As the game progressed in popularity (and arguably started being profitable) additional downloadable content (DLC) was made available from more mainstream artists like Monstercat, Imagine Dragons, Panic! At the Disco and Greenday.
So what does this have to do with Secret Garden?
The original Springsteen song, like Beat Saber, has some loyal fans out there (it did hit #63 on the charts, right?) But without that Jerry Maguire mix, it arguably wouldn’t have gone any higher and obtained the level of visibility it ultimately achieved.
Secret Garden had Z100’s Ken Benson as a godfather — Beat Saber has a “grassroots godfather” too; actually hundreds of godfathers in the way of custom song mappers.
Custom mappers use community-created tools to create additional song “maps” for use within the game. As with Benson’s altering of Secret Garden — custom map makers are using unauthorized copies of music to make this new content which is distributed for free on various locations on the internet.
Like Benson’s Jerry Maguire mix, these maps cannot be legally distributed in any way. While the PC version of Beat Saber features support for “custom maps” right out of the box, Oculus Quest users must use a patch tool to modify Beat Saber to including support for these maps (which may or may not violate the Terms of Service for said Oculus users).
Playstation VR users have no recourse whatsoever; they cannot modify Beat Saber or use these songs in any way.
Beat Saber was released in Early Access for PC on May 1, 2018. It was the highest rated Steam game within a week — and the custom map editor didn’t happen until a year later; meanwhile by March 2019, the game had sold over a million copies.
So, Beat Saber was a big hit before custom song support? Afraid not.
Sources close to the scene say that custom song support was available about three days after the game was released.
An Internic whois of the popular song repository BeatSaver.com domain shows a creation date of May 7th, 2018 — just a week after the game was released on Steam.
I think it is safe to say that custom song support for Beat Saber has been around arguably as long as the game itself has been available.
Let’s get back to our Secret Garden comparison, shall we?
What made Secret Garden a smash hit was an unauthorized modification and distribution of that version by a D.J. in Oregon. Sony greatly benefited from this — despite not being able to give the people what they wanted; the Jerry Maguire mix of the Bruce Springsteen song breathed new life into that song.
Beat Saber’s popularity is undoubtedly due to the fact that unauthorized music and maps can be consumed by players. EDM is a niche music market — and while Panic! at the Disco and Greenday have a good number of fans out there, niche music packs like these aren’t driving the real magic behind Beat Saber; dedicated custom mappers wielding unlicensed music files are.
Now, before the hate starts pouring in — I’m not disparaging Beat Saber as a product (I might disparage Secret Garden though … that really isn’t a good song without Renée Zellweger and Tom Cruise talking through it). I still play Beat Saber every day — but I don’t play the built-in music nor have I purchased the DLC (sorry, I’m not a fan of ANY of those artists).
But, my love of the product lead me to consider what the game would be like without access to the thousands of custom songs and maps (and the ability to make my own maps of music that nobody else seems to care about) … of music important to me and others like me. Some of us got a taste of that possibility when we “lost” access to them for a period of time on the Oculus Quest.
I realized at that moment that Beat Saber and Secret Garden had a lot in common.
In 1997, I — like so many others — desperately wanted a copy of that Jerry Maguire mix of Secret Garden. In those days, you recorded the radio for hours on end, hoping to get a non-talked over copy because we found out that the Top 40 shows weren’t going to play that version of that song. Like so many others, I went to the record store trying to find a copy to own.
Like so many others (I imagine Playstation VR Beat Saber players feel like this) — I was disappointed to find out that I couldn’t have bought it.
Other than a rather esoteric connection between a 25 year old song and a video game, what point am I trying to make in this article?
Well, I’m glad I asked that.
This is a plea to the now Facebook-owned Beat Games asking them to fulfill the promise of custom song support in Oculus Quest made prior to the acquisition on May 28, 2019 — allowing us to play these custom maps without violating ToS conditions (Facebook also owns Oculus) and in fact ensuring continued access to them.
I have to assume Facebook bought Beat Games because Beat Saber is a phenomenal success that is nearly synonymous with the popularity of virtual reality gaming.
I challenge Facebook that Beat Saber’s popularity is largely due to the fact custom songs offer up EVERY type of music aficionado a means to play maps with music that they can relate to and actually enjoy. Sony was okay exploiting that fact when it re-released Secret Garden.
I submit that keeping custom songs difficult to get working on Oculus Quest (because of the lack of official support) is negatively impacting the value of the product. Playstation VR too, for that matter — but Sony owns a lot of music; and offering a hole for unauthorized music to be had on a Sony gaming platform could be problematic.
Secret Garden wasn’t as great an experience as it could have been— but that lemon was made into lemonade by the grassroots talents of a creative mind at a radio station.
Beat Saber is a great foundation for a great experience in virtual reality — but perhaps a bit limited in scope. Music is the driving force in making it great and everyone has different tastes — and not everyone likes EDM or Imagine Dragons (or anime music … you listening, custom mappers?)
The people never got what they wanted with Secret Garden — but Beat Saber doesn’t have to be a similar casualty; embrace custom music support on Quest and continue to allow it on platforms that currently support it.