09 February 2011

Guitar Hero, 2005-2011

Guitar Hero debuted on the Wii with
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
Activision announced today that they are disbanding their Guitar Hero business unit, citing declining interest in the rhythm game.  The game series launched in 2005 and quickly grew into a pop cultural phenomenon worthy of its own South Park parody.  Along the way there were several spin-offs of the main series, including games devoted to Aerosmith, Van Halen and Metallica.

The biggest problem with Guitar Hero was that Activision did not embrace downloadable content (DLC) the way that Rock Band did.  Also, neither game has made itself completely available on the Wii the way it is on PS3 or X-Box 360.  Given that the Wii has become Nintendo's best-selling console to date and that it has outsold its competitors, it seems quite the business folly for any video game producer to tell Wii owners that they will only get an incomplete version of a game.  I understand there are performance limitations to what the Wii will  do, but there's simply no apparent reason that DLC should not be as openly supported on the Wii as it is for the other consoles.

Why wouldn't you make an effort to make your
content available on the best-selling console?
Harmonix originated Guitar Hero and when Activision took over ownership, they aligned with MTV Games to create Rock Band.  That series has only had a few actual games (Rock Band 1-3 and The Beatles: Rock Band), plus several Track Pack releases that collected DLC (some of the songs were first released on these Track Pack discs and then subsequently made available for download).  As of Rock Band 3, though, Harmonix was no longer producing hardware for their games, opting instead to license the rights to third party manufacturers as they felt there was no money to be had with the guitars and other accessories.  Now that Activision is shutting down Guitar Hero, one wonders what this bodes for Rock Band.  They've had some garbled communications of their own lately, suggestive to some that perhaps things are not well there, either.

Investors and game designers alike will wonder for some time yet whether the public's limited attention span wandered, or whether a gluttony of game releases devalued the Guitar Hero brand.  We know that CD and digital sales were both abysmal last year, and concert ticket sales were even worse.  Perhaps this is just part of a larger statement from the public that we're desperate for something in the world of music to actually engage us.  Guitar Hero was built around classic rock; not a bad place to start, but once the novelty of playing to the songs wore off, players were left with music thirty and forty years old. There seemed to be a reluctance--either on the part of Activision or the artists--to put new music into the game.  Also, while it may not have marketing sex appeal, country music has been the best-selling genre of the last decade but has scarcely warranted much inclusion throughout the series.  Lastly, both series have had some questionable song choices.  Guitar Hero ignored Dwight Yoakam entirely; Rock Band: Country Track Pack 2 game includes his "Intentional Heartache."  Really?  Over "Fast as You," "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Honky Tonk Man" they thought we wanted to play a song that only dedicated Yoakam fans have even heard of (because radio ignored it entirely)?  And Shania Twain is represented not by "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" but by the mediocre "Party for Two."  Why?

I can't help but recall reading just two years ago a statement from someone at Warner Bros. Records, indicating that they felt they should be charging higher licensing fees because without their music, these games wouldn't have anything substantive to offer.  I remember thinking even at the time that that line of reasoning smacked of the short-sighted greed that has gotten the music industry into its current miserable state.  There's still, I think, a role for these kinds of video games to play in the music world.  Activision never seemed to know quite what to do with the Guitar Hero brand once they acquired it.  Hopefully, Harmonix is taking a lot of notes and will discover the wherewithal to infuse their Rock Band series with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.

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