No More (Guitar) Heroes Anymore


Written by Chris Price
14 Monday 14th February 2011

Guitar Hero in action

The Guitar Hero franchise has been going for six years, with the same number of primary releases, has become a cultural phenomenon and has impacted both the video game and the modern music industry. Any film about overweight metal-loving ogres (i.e. Jack Black) wouldn’t be complete without a five key plastic guitar strapped to their man-tits. The premise was simple – hit coloured buttons corresponding to the ones on the screen, in time to the music. The emotional investment, incredible. The potential, massive. Hell, I even started to use my little finger to play ‘proper’ guitar because of Guitar Hero (Ed - Bastard orange notes...).

The first game in the series was considered by several journalists to be one of the most influential video games of the first decade of the 21st century. Activision Publishing Chief Executive Eric Hirshberg said: "We simply cannot make these games profitable based on current economics". The evils of big business aside, what happened to the game that three years ago was raking in $1 billion in the US alone, and threatening to revolutionize the way music was being distributed? Who’s to blame??

Quality has never been in question, with each subsequent release scoring high on Metacritic at an average enviable percentage in the high 80’s. The popular knee jerk response would place fault at the publishers door. But cutting a loss maker is a sensible business decision, regardless of heritage.

The main argument has been of oversaturation – no less than 71 retail packages in 5 years - and that it was losing its relevance in the marketplace. Or rather people stopped feeling special, and got sick of the sight of it. Even if the franchise could pull $200 million annually, with the extraneous cost of licensing from the record labels for official tracks, it had more issues than most to overcome before looking sensible on the balance sheets. What an irony, as the first Guitar Hero tracklist was made up of covers rather than originals. And not to mention the compulsion to release each new edition with another guitar controller: you need a professional guitar rack just to hold all the suckers.

Guitar Hero collection

But still, if people want to buy, give them stuff to buy. So where have all these people gone? Many feel that the music game genre as a whole was on a steep decline. Guitar Hero, was no longer unique or fresh. On its arrival, the Wii was very much in its infancy, and tenable peripheral motion control hadn’t yet established a foothold. Guitar Hero was a phenomenon, which rapidly became a commodity. A commodity which had to be pushed to meet margins and which quite never evolved out of the niche it had carved, thus being quickly superseded by other technologies such as the Wii, Kinect and Move.

As far as its support content, it struck gold early on, with Metallica’s Guitar Hero pack – an add-on disc releasing new tracks at the same time as the album, packed with exclusive band content, mannerisms digitised from the actual band, and a back catalogue of all the tracks any moshrat could ever need. Sans hyperbole, it did succeed in bringing you closer to the artists than any medium had before. Unfortunately, this level of content was never equalled, rounding off with last year's Guitar Hero Greatest Hits – rehashes of old songs redeveloped for Guitar Hero World Tour (AKA adding drum & vocal tracks).

World Tour was an effort to replicate the full band experience – drums, vocals and bass. Again delivered with style and aplomb, but to the same audience. Not helped by a prohibitive price point and competition from Rock Band’s far more immersing structure (ironically created by the original developers of Guitar Hero, Harmonix). Its over-reliance on a vibrant social network of its own also looked a little optimistic from the start (something which the recent Def Jam Rapstar still hasn’t quite overcome).

LEGO Guitar Hero

The ship had already sailed by this point. Guitars piling up in stockrooms were being punted out with 75% reductions in HMV’s, and the lustre had dissipated. Guitar Hero was the figurehead of a fad – one that caught fire, burnt  brightly, and fizzled out. Subjective in its content from the off, it had no real way of diversifying to capitalise on a larger audience, in the same way Nintendo could with the Wii.

Ultimately, no one reason killed Guitar Hero – it was a combination of many. It was a revolutionary, high quality series of rhythm action games, that reinvigorated a tired genre and introduced people to bands they never knew existed. It that was hindered by many mitigating circumstances. I guess it’s a shame that even quality doesn’t guarantee success.

Perhaps a more important question is how Activision seek to make up the shortfall in their output for the next year. Guitar Hero was an integral part of their financial forecasts, so perhaps prepare for a spot of portfolio fattening from CEO Bobby Kotick. The onus is now on the shoulders of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft – no slouches in revenue stakes, but perhaps not the dynamic portfolio that they would’ve hoped for in 2011.

But in the meantime, lets place a leather jacket over the body of Guitar Hero’s work, put 'Highway to Hell' on the stereo, set light to the plastic funeral pyre and raise collective devil horns to sky as we toast its descent into hell: to sit in the corner of the Devils lounge and gather dust until a boozed-up bunch of mates drop in and spy the fake instruments - “I used to be really good at that. Completed 'Through Fire and Flames' on expert.”

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