In the '90s, there was no Spotify. There was no Vevo. Traditional music-based channels were a cultural norm, with live shows and music-video rotations alike. But with the advent of the Internet, all of that changed. Listeners can now subscribe to a library of countless songs, and music videos are only ever one search away. Our content is no longer curated by the provider, but by us, and the days of thinking "what song will I hear next" are slowly fading away.
At least, for the most part.
Guitar Hero TV is less of a singular game than an entire platform. In October, it will release as part of Guitar Hero Live, Freestyle Games' reboot of the seminal plastic instrument series that began 10 years ago. While the latter's live-action sets, reactive crowds and new control scheme are doing their own part to set the reboot apart from its predecessors, Guitar Hero TV is the separate, online aspect with progression elements of its own. And it could be the thing to keep players coming back again, and again, and again.
"With Guitar Hero TV, we want to bring back that feeling," an Activision representative tells me, while strumming a chord progression perfectly during one song's chorus. "That idea that the next music video is completely up in the air. You might know it's going to be punk rock, or metal, but outside of that, no one knows."
From what Activision showed, Guitar Hero TV is easily accessible. One press of a button on the new guitar brings up what looks like a TV guide, complete with separate channels, each based around a certain genre. Songs rotate on each channel, and there's a schedule with a week's worth of programming: Saturday at 7 p.m. could be pop hits, followed by a midnight shift to dirty punk music. Essentially, Guitar Hero TV is a collection of music-video channels. But these are ones we can all play along with.
A bar on the left-hand side of the iconic Guitar Hero highway shows a list of names. This is the leaderboard for the current song. Whoever hits the most notes, gains longer streaks, and uses their score multiplier at the best times will rise to the top. Subsequent rewards are based on player scores, and can be turned in for certain items -- these include new note highway aesthetics, and also, of course, songs.
And that's the thing -- this mode can be completely free. If you come across a song you love, you can use in-game rewards (called "plays") to save it to your Quick Play library, ensuring you have it on-hand for the next time you want to play it. You can use real money to buy the songs as well. But refraining from doing so won't hinder your experience at all, like many free-to-play models might. Guitar Hero TV doesn't bar you from any content -- all the songs are available from the outset. It's just a matter of when you'll see them.
This model borrows heavily from MTV nostalgia, but also from something more recent: Destiny. Similar to Bungie's flow of scheduled content, Freestyle wants to find ways to keep players returning. And as it turns out, rotating content on a weekly basis might be a good way to do that.
"Keeping a player base can be hard," the Activision representative says, nailing a series of hammer-ons during a particularly hard solo. "And we needed a way to differentiate Guitar Hero Live from the older games, because people played those ones to death. This is our way of doing something different, and we think it will keep people hooked."
Much like Bungie reels players back in with daily story missions, weekly cooperative strikes, and weekend events, Freestyle will swap out programming every week. While Destiny players return for the promise of new loot and experience, Guitar Hero Live players will, ideally, return for the music.
And then there are premium shows. These weekly challenges will unlock specific rewards for players skilled enough to beat them. The rewards also scale with the difficulty of the tasks. For instance: completing a certain song with a three-star rating could increase the rate of in-game currency accumulation, while a five-star rating on the expert difficulty could give access to live concert footage.
"It's not just a question of how we can get the content to players. It's a matter of, 'How do we keep giving players worthwhile content, and how do we keep people interested in Guitar Hero past that first release week? That's why designing TV was more like designing an entire platform," according to Activision.
This school of thought is very much like Bungie's shooter as well. Although Destiny released almost a year ago, its player base is still alive and well. Freestyle is aiming to maintain a similar crowd with Guitar Hero TV.
It's also worth mentioning another way Guitar Hero TV could be similar to Destiny: the game doesn't have to be perfect at launch. Aside from its rotation of missions and rewards each week, Bungie has also implemented technical and mechanical changes to Destiny in an effort to continually tweak an already-released product. So while Freestyle can add songs to its roster throughout Guitar Hero TV's lifespan, it may also apply changes that weren't ready for its initial release.
Much like many other teams in modern years, Activision and Freestyle Games may not be considering this product just a game in the traditional sense, but as a platform that can continuously evolve, regardless of its initial status at release. It still feels like a quality game at the moment, and I think Freestyle has done enough to set it apart from the halcyon days of rhythm-based music games. But I'm interested to see just how Guitar Hero TV evolves over time, as this kind of content model becomes even more prevalent in the video game industry.
From what I've seen so far, Guitar Hero TV may very well be Activision's newest version of the platform model. The curated channels, weekly rotations and a plethora of content is a beast of its own, separate from Guitar Hero Live, and on the game's October 20 release, Freestyle can see whether they perfected the platform they've been working on.