Guitar Hero lives on, now with live performances

Activision Blizzard revives the iconic music game franchise in a bid to make living room rock stars the hot new thing -- again.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Nick Statt
Ian Sherr
5 min read

It's Guitar Hero, but it's also different. Activision hopes "live" performances will make the difference. Activision

Remember when the video game industry sold plastic guitar-shaped controllers and a game that helped you live out your fantasies of playing Guns N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" atop a stage of adoring fans?

Well, Guitar Hero wants to rock your world -- again.

Game maker Activision Blizzard is reintroducing its play-along music game after a four-year hiatus with a new spin that it hopes will get music fans interested again. So what's new?

Guitar Hero will still have a plastic instrument-controller and ask you to learn twitchy finger-moves that made living room gamers feel like rock stars back in 2007. But what's changed is what happens on the screen behind the game.

The company wants to make you feel like an up and coming rock legend, and the way it will do that has to do with everything else that's not the game's music or controls. In the past, the background of the game featured cartoon musicians and crowds, re-creating the atmosphere of music venues large and small.

Part of FreeStyleGames' motion-capture and live recording rig that allowed the developer to create its interactive performances. Joe Brady / Activision

This time, Activision has taped live performances with real musicians forming invented bands to play real music. The screen shows the stage from the eyes of the band's lead guitarist. When the player hits all his notes, the crowd of hundreds or thousands of extras goes wild. When he screws up, the crowd gives him nasty looks. Keep playing the wrong notes and even the band starts scowling.

Jamie Jackson, creative director from FreeStyleGames, which made Guitar Hero for Activision, believes this will give players a visceral, realistic experience. Or at least as much as can be done in a living room.

"Instead of third person camera looking at the stage," Jackson said of his team's mindset, "let's make it first person camera." To take it even further, he added, the team began blending mediums too: "Let's make a movie."

This idea mirrors the broader technology industry. Making videos signals an acknowledgement of a revival in music videos, thanks in part to websites like YouTube. Musicians are also beginning to strap GoPro sports cameras to their bodies to give fans a sense of what it's like to rock out on stage. And for Guitar Hero, it's a recognition that children who played the game nearly a decade ago have grown up.

"They'll play it," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. It may not be the multibillion-dollar megahit it was back then, he added, but it will sell well.

Tough act to follow

Rhythm music games didn't start with Guitar Hero. But the introduction of the first game in the series for Sony's PlayStation 2 game console 10 years ago -- equipped with a plastic controller shaped like an electric guitar -- sparked a cultural phenomenon, one that ultimately rose as fast as it fell.

Like the Japanese monster-capturing franchise Pokemon and the smartphone era's first viral sensation game Angry Birds, Guitar Hero became such a cultural phenomenon that music teachers were suddenly having to bone up on their '70s and '80s rock songs to teach eager young students. "Even my mom knew what Guitar Hero was," Jackson said.

Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock, a high-point for the franchise when it was released in 2007, was the first multi-platform game in history to hit $1 billion in worldwide sales. Activision
Lifetime sales for the series topped 35 million units and $2 billion, putting Guitar Hero alongside Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. and Electronic Arts' Madden football series one of the best-selling franchises in gaming history.

Yet unlike Super Mario and Madden, Guitar Hero couldn't keep player's attention. There were nearly two dozen sequels in the five years the series was on the market, including special promotion games featuring classic rock acts like Aerosmith and Van Halen, and attempts at titles for handheld devices and smartphones. Music game sales began to plummet around 2009.

At its peak, Activision sold 1.5 million copies of Guitar Hero III in its first month of sales in 2007. Three years later, the company sold 86,000 copies of the Guitar Hero's last installment, Warriors of Rock. Activision shut down its music-game division and put Guitar Hero on ice soon after.

Some companies have kept Guitar Hero-like games going. Ubisoft in particular has offered a game called Rocksmith, which encourages players to learn how to play a real guitar and helps them learn to play classic rock hits. Other game music companies moved on, though, creating titles that used cameras like the Xbox Kinect controller to watch players as they mimicked dancers on the screen gyrating to chart-topping hits.

But that hasn't stopped fans from playing guitar-games. Last year, IDC surveyed 2,100 people and was surprised to find 12 percent of respondents said they had bought a guitar-controller accessory for a Guitar Hero-like game in the past year.

"It was higher than I would have thought," said Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC. It suggested to him people are still playing these games, even though new installments haven't been released in years.

"It may be a genre with really long legs," he said.

If they can pull it off, Activision will be accomplishing a rare feat in the game industry: bringing back a popular series after years of neglect.

The franchise's biggest competition was a full-band music game called Rock Band, developed by Harmonix, which created the first two Guitar Hero titles before being sold off to MTV's game division. That franchise too suffered from high licensing costs and a constant development grind. Viacom, MTV's parent company, eventually sold off Harmonix, which regrouped and is bringing Rock Band back this year.

Keeping it fresh

One of the key ways Activision says it will avoid its past mistakes is how it releases the game: The company isn't planning to release a new sequel next year, for example.

Instead, Activision hopes to keep people coming back to Guitar Hero with a new feature called "Guitar Hero TV." It works almost like a television, where players can see various "channels" and, when they click on one, they're presented with a music video.

The magic will be what's shown on top of the video: Guitar Hero controls, so gamers can play along with their guitar. They can even play along with and compete over the Internet with people across the globe.

Guitar Hero TV is relying on the resurgence of music videos in the YouTube era to boost popularity for its online multiplayer game mode. Activision

Activision declined to discuss how the service will make money, but the company said the channels will be free to anyone who buys the new Guitar Hero game.

Another way Guitar Hero will be different is with its game for mobile devices. Activision said the full Guitar Hero game will be available for smartphones and tablets, and that the guitar controller it created will work with them too, in addition to a video game console like a Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation.

"Plug phone into TV and you have the full game," said Tyler Michaud, a senior director of product management at Activision.

Will this all strike the right chord with consumers? Activision certainly hopes so.

"Guitar hero created a pop culture phenomenon, even my mom knew what Guitar Hero was,"Michaud said.

"We always wanted to bring Guitar Hero back, but we always said we wouldn't do that until we had the right innovation," he added. Now, the company thinks it does.