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My Life as a Guitar Hero & The Death of a Genre

GHcustombody.jpgWhen I first heard that Guitar Hero was going on indefinite hiatus, my first reaction was a sad surprise at how surprised I wasn't. Activision got their hands on a good thing and ran it into the ground faster than anyone thought possible? Say it ain't so!

But more and more, lately, I'm finding myself reminiscing over the long hours poured into those first peripheral-based music games. What at first blush looked like an arcade ripoff became something more--late nights with friends, watching simplified sound scores on a TV, feeling like rockstars in an upstairs bedroom. I've also caught myself wondering if the death of Harmonix' first big hit means the end of an era, or if Activision will have learned not to blow their load just a few years after getting a hold of a franchise.

So, I invite you to travel back with me, to go behind the scenes on one gamer's journey into plastic stardom. It's bigger on the inside, so wail on the jump below!

My love affair with Harmonix started before they were courting a guitar maker - all the way back to their PS2 hits, Frequency and Amplitude. Both games built on a simple concept: hit the buttons as the particular note pattern comes down the track, then switch tracks to keep the music going. Nailing a few bars of drums or vocals kept them alive automatically for a while, and switching perfectly would net a combo bonus. The first game had the more demanding timing, but arguably a better structure - the tracks making up each individual song were arranged around a tunnel. This meant that playing a song was a matter of gliding spirals inside a rainbow tunnel, while wireframe art and music-related images floated past. It was, to my mind, glorious.

amplitudePS2.jpgWhen I began playing Amplitude with my best friend, we were entranced by its melding of music and games - two things of which we were already huge fans. We had played games before from the wide BeMaNi range, even PaRappa the Rapper--but there hadn't been a game yet that so directly mapped the music in front of us to the controllers in our hands. Even better, it wasn't just the same anime soundtracks and the direct-to-PS2 J-rock such as filled each iteration of DDR. We were mixing tracks from Paul Oakenfold, BT, Pink, and Garbage. This was music we already wanted to be a part of, and that desire led us to challenge ourselves to improve our skills well into the night. It was also, amusingly enough, the only game that had me coming back to the PS2's online functions - often resetting our 56K modem so I could plug in my console.

Online gaming had gotten bigger by the time Guitar Hero rolled into stores, but the experience for me was all local. The oversized box with the PlayStation 2 header and ESRB rating was a novelty at the time, as well as a bit of a rarity - despite being one of the 'hot items' during the 2005 holiday, I managed to get one under the tree, and the very next day I was an up-and-coming Fisher-Price star.

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I don't know what your first time was like, but for me, being in the same room as someone as they wailed on those colored buttons kept the rest of us glued to the screen, waiting for our turn so we could show each other up - or just play on Easy and enjoy belting out our favorite song. It was the first time we could get folks who'd never touched a DualShock to step up and jam, which made Guitar Hero a favorite any time company was over. There's a special feeling when you get the guitar in the hands of a skeptic and see them start bobbing their heads, letting down the barriers between fan and performer.

Harmonix had pulled out the stops when it came to blending controller and game, partnering with pro accessory-makers RedOctane, whose line of dance mats was legendary among hardcore DDR players. They knew they were taking a risk by introducing a game that required a special controller, but it certainly paid off once the sales numbers started coming back. Apparently, people didn't mind just one or two strange peripherals lying about. After all, how bad could it possibly get?

Guitar Hero II was just as highly anticipated (and the first HD experience once it hit Xbox 360), but after that, Harmonix was ready for something bigger. One has to imagine that a disagreement occurred in a back office, something undocumented that led Harmonix to walk away from the rights to their first huge seller. Did Activision not share the faith that the rock-rhythm genre could extend beyond just a guitar? Were they unwilling to front the costs on drumsets, as well as the extra shipping and shelving space the bundle would require? Or did Harmonix already have a sense that their innovations would go to waste under a company whose devotion wasn't to gamers but to the quarterly statement?

The direction of the two companies was never more clear than in 2007, when Harmonix developed Rock Band and Neversoft put out Guitar Hero III. One was a game-changer, while the other's claim to fame was making the premade rockers look different and including boss battles.

As someone savvy to the gaming scene, and for whom those long memories of tapping colored gems brought as much joy as any RPG or shooter experience, I was incorrigible in the months before Rock Band came out. I was dragging my partner at the time to department stores, banging out Weezer on a demo unit that had already been banged too hard by the general public. I was poring over videos and song lists, imagining how it would feel to have a full, four-person band to multiply the experience of making music together - extending the bare co-op experience of guitar & bass to include drums and vocals.

The launch itself wasn't without hiccups: after two weeks, it became clear that our guitar wasn't registering every strum, nor the drum every hit. An eager wait followed, but EA's support team took care of complaints from eager gamers on every forum that I visited in my search for commiseration. It's hard to imagine that all the replacements didn't cost them dearly, but as far as I know the company bit the bullet it order to keep gamers happy with our in-house instruments.

It wasn't long before our band was getting together almost every night to recreate the rock experience, until one of us lost our voice or cramped up. Rock Band became a part of our routine and, within mere months, had solidified itself in my consciousness as the true expression of music gaming. It's been enough to shake me out of the most unreal situations: I still think fondly of the time when I picked out the strands of menu music at a small convention in Atlanta and strode, heels and fishnets and boyfriend in tow, to take my turn playing Rock Band at an impromptu stage gig.

GHtimeline.pngA year after their rival's success, Activision sought to recreate the band experience by unveiling Guitar Hero: World Tour. Their later title of Band Hero might've communicated the nature of the game a bit better, but at this point the GH brand was strong enough to sell on name alone. Activision's entry was competing with the new-and-improved Rock Band 2, which included better instruments. It's worth noting that this was the last time Harmonix put out a numbered sequel to their franchise in a short twelve months. From there, the two business models flew off in wildly different directions.

While Rock Band become a sort of platform upon which the developer kept layering content, Activision's marketing muscle demanded a retail box nearly every few weeks around which they could beat the drums of flashy commercials and celebrity appearances. In 2009, Activision published 25 SKUs for Guitar Hero, spreading the "Hero" message onto consoles, handhelds, mobile phones. If you were a Guitar Hero fan, getting the songs you wanted almost always involved shelling out another $50+ for a disc.

In the house of Rock Band, the options were far more lenient and à la carte - DLC on regular schedule, nearly every week into the foreseeable future. What stared as 58 songs on a disc had expanded to over 1500 by last year. While most weeks fly by without anything that that's a must-purchase for me, Rock Band 3 has learned the clever trick of suggesting songs based on what my roommates have played the most, which leads to a bonding experience where we can share each others' tastes in music - feeling even more like trained musicians hanging out between sets.

Standing now in 2011 and looking at the rise and fall of the music-game genre, it's difficult to see where the blame should fall. Activision took a risk on a little plastic guitar so long ago, but with their usual raze-and-burn business model, they also saturated the market over the next three years so that even the biggest music fans had become sick of seeing the parade of peripherals on shelves year after year. Now even the manufacturer of those original guitars is baffled: the former CEO of RedOctane came out today in the not-uncommon belief that Activision "abused" the franchise, trying to squeeze too much out of it too quickly. Harmonix also released a polite statement about their former IP, saying "we respect and appreciate all of the hard work and innovation of our peers."

The dichotomy between EA and Activision is hardly more clear than in this race: whereas Rock Band brought drumkits and keyboards to the common gamer, Guitar Hero has played catch-up each year in terms of features. While Harmonix worked to create a publishing venue - Rock Band Network - for even the smallest artists to get their work out there; Activision's idea of success is paying for ever-bigger stars to appear in game and promotional venues. If you believe their making-of videos, nearly everyone at Harmonix is into music just as much as programming, art, or design, and it shows in every part of their work. Who else but musicians would put in a cutscene where your band decides its name on a paper napkin at 3AM, or can barely afford a pizza with their profits from a small bar gig?

So while the future doesn't look as bright as it could for Harmonix after the closing of their rival franchise and even some layoffs at the studios, they still see a promising future in DLC for the dedicated music fans who hold their instruments aloft week after week. Their statement also notes that the Squire Stratocaster - the six-string stud that can be played with Rock Band 3's Pro mode - is nearly out, so that longtime fans can finally start translating those chart-reading skills into fret-fired callouses, just a step away from making an electric guitar sing offline.

As for me, I'm still convinced I'm going to build my callouses on an acoustic before I consider investing in a Stratocaster--just to be oldschool. I have the rock-rhythm genre to thank for my interest in learning the intricacies of guitar, and for introducing me to some seriously awesome music. In the meantime, I plan to share the feeling of rocking out as a band with my roommates, just as I did so many holidays ago, when my best friend and I had just the one guitar.

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(A much-abused and -loved GH1 guitar, painted by my friend Jamie)

2 Comments

Shin Gallon said:

I had played Guitar Hero a time or two before Rock Band came out, but never enough to progress beyond playing on Easy. Then Rock Band hit, and I was immediately enthralled. The better guitar controller, sleeker visuals, addition of vocals and drums, and the outstanding track list all ganged up on me and I finally took the plunge, buying the full band set. For close to two years, every Friday night consisted of me and my friends getting together at my place, cooking dinner, and playing Rock Band (and later, 2) for hours.
Now I play most songs on Hard, and more than a few on Expert. I'm learning the keyboard for some of my favorite tracks. They've added several "must have" songs (including more than a few previously GH-exclusives that I'd envied), and even though it's rarely a full band these days, I still regularly rock out with my John Lennon Rickenbacker on either Rock Band 3, or Beatles Rock Band (the only RB game I don't own is Green Day, because, well...it's Green Day). I have 347 songs on my Rock Band 3 setlist between all the DLC and importing the other titles' songs, and about once a month or so I'll grab another song or two that I simply HAVE to play (the most recent being "Paradise by the Dashboard Light").
I was a couple years late getting into the genre, but when I did I went whole hog, and I still think it has some life left, even if it's not the mammoth juggernaut it once was. And I still have fun playing, which is the most important thing of all, right?

Scudder said:

Interesting article. It is sad how the GH brand over-saturated the market and caused burnout so quickly. I hope Harmonix will continue with Rock Band indefinitely - especially with new DLC. However, I'm scared because some of the newer songs I've bought I see my score being in the top 50% of the stats and see that I'm also ranked #45. So does that mean only 100 people are buying a given song? Guessing they can't sustain at those numbers which would be a crime. I still love playing RB almost every week and am about to have my second RB party (first one 5 months ago was a smash). And I agree with above poster that "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" was a must have!

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Scudder on My Life as a Guitar Hero & The Death of a Genre: Interesting article. It is sad how the GH brand over-saturated the market and caused burnout so quickly. I hope Harmonix...

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