Is Guitar Hero Really Singing a New Tune?

Is Guitar Hero Really Singing a New Tune?

When pundits talk about the factors that propelled gaming into the mainstream over the past five years, they always mention Nintendo’s success with the Wii. But Harmonix’s Guitar Hero franchise deserves a big nod as well. Even as the series changed hands to Neversoft and garnered the publishing power of Activsion behind it, whole families and drunken frat boys alike bonded over little plastic guitars and lip-synching muppets.

Granted, any publisher will milk a franchise a bit when it stumbles on a successful formula. But some allege that Activision has come distressingly close to bleeding Guitar Hero dry, especially with the glut of sequels and spin-offs that clogged release schedules in 2008 and 2009. Brian Bright, the project manager behind 2008’s Guitar Hero World Tour admitted that the company lost a bit of its heart in its mad rush to beat out its direct competitor at the time, Rock Band 2.

“With Guitar Hero World Tour, we kind of lost our souls a bit,” Bright told Develop in an August 2010 interview. “We lost that spark by trying to cater to everyone. We were in this arms race with our competitor, and in the end I felt like we sold a bit of our souls.”

Activision is likewise aware that it has come close to greatly overtaxing one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, and earlier this year it admitted that it would be easing up on its “Hero” franchise. Of course, it probably helps that Band Hero sold considerably less than expected, and the game’s band set wasn’t cheap to package and ship. But there’s another financial lesson at hand here: It’s better to work with the plastic crap you’ve already foisted on families versus expecting them to pony up the dosh for a lot more plastic crap.

In fact, it will admittedly be interesting to see how eager people are to adopt Rock Band 3′s new MIDI keyboard. But Harmonix has garnered a reputation for pacing itself–certainly when held up next to the Guitar Hero franchise, at any rate. But that reputation may gradually be eroding thanks to the rapid release of The Beatles Rock Band (which was certainly an exciting title, given the novel idea and the infrequency with which the Beatles’ music is made digitally available), Green Day Rock Band and LEGO Rock Band. But generally, the Rock Band franchise has touted itself as a “platform,” thereby encouraging song distribution primarily through downloads. By comparison, expanding Guitar Hero’s music library usually involved buying a new disc with minimal features aside from some new songs. Activision has since become more pro-active about digital downloads, but is it too late? Are yesterday’s dedicated fans of the rhythm genre completely partied out?

The lukewarm reviews following the release of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock indicate that Activisoin has left a pretty skeptical audience bobbing behind its push to market, market, market. Despite Activision’s promise to release fewer Hero titles, it might do well to simply leave the franchise alone for a time–at least until the company finds a way to re-captivate its audience.

Warriors of Rock, for instance, features a “Quest mode” that’s full of the campy text and art that’s made the Guitar Hero series into an icon. Quest mode even centers around the lyrics of the song “2112” by prog rock favorite, Rush. It’s all very silly and lighthearted, but the question is, who wants it? Who plays Guitar Hero to go on rock-oriented quests through the Underworld? Quest mode is certainly not a bad distraction, but is it really a selling point?

If Activision is serious about the longevity of Guitar Hero, it should start by scaling down its retail presence. New games aren’t necessary; market what’s there, and augment it with lots of downloadable content. Concentrate on making songs fun to play again instead of doling out song after song that requires spamming the same fret button a dozen times in a row. If people feel like they’re getting ripped off over downloadable songs, it doesn’t matter how hot a certain number is. They’ll simply grab the song for their iPod for a tenth of the cost.

Brian Bright admitted that Neversoft erred somewhat in the race to get Guitar Hero in as many living rooms as possible. It sounds like Activision might benefit from its own Quest to free itself from its demons. We wish it all the luck in the (Under)world.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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