Guitar Hero 5 gets ready to rock

The latest iteration of the immensely popular franchise launches on September 1. But can it withstand the tremendous publicity that Beatles Rock Band will get?

In the newest version of the Guitar Hero franchise, Guitar Hero 5, as many as four players can all play guitar at the same time, instead of just two. Further, any combination of instruments is now possible. Activision Blizzard

SAN FRANCISCO--The first couple of weeks of September are going to be a banner time for music video games. On September 9 (09/09/09), the much-anticipated The Beatles: Rock Band will hit store shelves, just eight days after Guitar Hero 5 gets its chance to rock living rooms everywhere.

With the Beatles game, it's easy to imagine long lines and huge sales figures. After all, this will be the first time that any of the recent slew of music-oriented video games will feature any Beatles songs, let alone dozens of them.

But with Guitar Hero 5 (see video below)--has so much time gone by already that there could even be five Guitar Hero releases?--one has to work just a little bit harder to envision the big bucks that its publisher, Activision Blizzard, surely is hoping to bring in.

Still, the guys at Neversoft, the game's developer, have proven time and again that they know what they're doing. The Guitar Hero franchise has produced hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and created a dynamic in which people everywhere are now comfortable picking up and jamming away on a guitar, albeit a plastic one with buttons instead of strings.

And with that in mind, one has to give the Neversoft team the benefit of the doubt for their new game, which will be released for all the major video game platforms.

On Thursday, I stopped in at a Guitar Hero press event here and had the chance to speak with two of the executives most responsible for the new game: Brian Bright, the project director at Neversoft for Guitar Hero 5, and Tim Riley, who oversees the Guitar Hero franchise's music licensing.

Among the big-name rock stars who appear in Guitar Hero 5 as characters is Carlos Santana. Activision Blizzard

One of the things I was most interested in was the rationale for a new Guitar Hero game. To be sure, game companies like Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Take-Two have a mandate to generate massive revenues, and so franchises like Guitar Hero are tried and true in that regard. But in spite of that, each new edition of a franchise game has to have something significant to offer to entice enough customers to earn its keep.

To hear Bright tell it, the best rationale for Guitar Hero--besides its 85 new songs by 83 artists--is its "Party Play" mode in which players can jump in or out of songs any time they please, all with the click of a single button.

What that means, Bright added, is that Guitar Hero 5 will offer a potentially broad new audience an entirely new level of "accessibility," in particular because in the previous versions, many people playing for the first time would have found themselves needing a little hand-holding to get started. Now, he said, that's no longer the case, and players new and old will be able to easily and quickly go right into rocking out.

Another important Guitar Hero 5 innovation, Bright said, is an "any instrument" selection that will, for the first time, allow more than two people to play guitar at the same time rather than someone in a foursome having to play drums and someone having to sing. And even if there isn't a mad rush to grab a guitar, this features means that any combination of instruments is, for the first time, possible, whether a group is playing cooperatively or competitively.

Downloadable content
Given that many players of the game's previous iteration--Guitar Hero: World Tour--likely paid to download songs, Activision is making it possible to port most of those songs to Guitar Hero 5. The company said 152 of the 158 downloadable songs from the earlier game will be compatible with the new one, though users will have to pay a "nominal re-licensing fee," the amount of which the company hasn't publicly spelled out yet.

Among the innovations in Guitar Hero 5 is the ability for Xbox players to use their Xbox Live avatars. Activision Blizzard

And that means that with the 85 songs Guitar Hero 5 comes with, plus new downloadable songs, the new game's players can have set lists of potentially hundreds of songs, Bright said.

I wanted to know a little bit more about how Activision persuades musicians to allow their songs to be included in Guitar Hero, especially after learning how the Beatles were won over for the forthcoming Rock Band game.

Riley, the publisher's music licensing specialist, said that as the Guitar Hero franchise becomes better-known, he and his team have an easier time of it. In part, that's because "the larger the game gets, the more known it gets within the (music) industry (and) with the artists themselves."

And that means that Riley and his team have now had the chance to get musicians like Arctic Monkeys and Elliott Smith--whom they've never worked with before--to contribute songs to the game. Indeed, he said Guitar Hero 5 features songs from nearly 20 artists who have never allowed their music to be in a video game before.

Of course, it doesn't happen overnight. In the case of Arctic Monkeys, Riley explained, it took multiple visits with the band to show them demos and explain what the Guitar Hero franchise is all about to get permission.

One big factor, Riley added, was being able to assure artists that their music is "safe" in Guitar Hero, meaning that users won't be able to easily pirate the songs from the game.

At the same time, he explained that for a lot of musicians, games like this are now seen as an attractive way to get their music in front of large audiences, particularly because the record industry is becoming more and more notorious for doing a poor job of helping distribute new music.

"Just by having a song in the game," Riley said, "kids become familiar with the song, or the artist, and will go out and buy (it) or go out and purchase more music from that artist."

 

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