On February 9th at 9:30pm Activision announced its Guitar Hero series was going on indefinite hiatus.
The news came as a shock, but was it really a surprise? Sales of Guitar Hero had collapsed. No longer the darling of UK retail, the series had become a nuisance, eating up precious in-store space with its oversized boxes that no-one wanted.
Its fall from grace was swift. Only two years ago the little title born in Boston, Massachusetts USA was a multi-billion dollar superstar.
It wasn’t the first of its kind – in fact it was inspired by an already existing arcade game. Yet it arrived at the right time, catching the mass market’s imagination. In just two years it became the popular kid at all the celebrity parties.
It enjoyed prime-time cameos on the likes of South Park and Gossip Girl, teamed up with rock legends such as Metallica and featured at the world’s biggest rock festivals.
It was so successful it even spawned its own rival, Rock Band – a game developed by the franchise’s original developers Harmonix.
“It was brilliant,” says Kelly Sumner, the former CEO of Guitar Hero’s original publisher RedOctane and the man who oversaw Activision’s acquisition of the series.
“Everybody wants to be a rock star and there was nothing like this on the market at the time. Best of all it involved everybody in the room. It was a great party experience.”
But then, as suddenly as it all began, the dream was over.
So what went wrong?
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
“They tried to get too much out of the franchise too quickly. They abused it,” suggests Sumner. “There’s no reason why Guitar Hero cannot continue. It’s a great product.
“My gut tells me there is still a significant market for Guitar Hero. Not every game can be a billion dollar franchise, but maybe that’s what Activision wants. I’d be surprised if they sold the brand as it’d prove to the world there is still a market for this product and show them up.
“Look at how Take-Two has handled GTA. They haven’t thrown products out there. They’ve nurtured it for over ten years and it is still a strong franchise.”
Sumner has a point. In just five years there have been over 30 Rock Band and Guitar Hero games released, and that’s not including all the various SKUs and accessories.
It was a problem that Activision seemed to recognise. After releasing eight Hero games in 2009, the publisher reduced that to just two in 2010. But it wasn’t enough.
And it wasn’t just the number of SKUs that had gone up. Price was steadily increasing, too.
“When Guitar Hero became a full band game the whole kit cost over £100,” explains Paulina Bozek, who spent six years working on Sony’s SingStar franchise. “To me that is a hardcore gamer price tag and isn’t attractive to the wide audience that music games had amassed.”
This rising prices were typical of guitar games. The Beatles: Rock Band set was £180 in 2009, while the new ‘Pro’ guitars for Rock Band 3 have an RRP of £124.99. These are hardly mass-market price points.
In contrast, Ubisoft’s Just Dance retails for just £20 and is the most successful music game in the UK.
“Nothing lasts forever,” adds Bozek. “The Guitar Hero platform was ubiquitous; perhaps it was time for some radical thinking. Basically, move towards something online that takes the formula forwards.”
One popular reason cited for Guitar Hero’s fall from the top is the series’ lack of innovation. Over its short six-year history the franchises’ core gameplay remained largely the same. Even the new ideas found in Rock Band 3 and DJ Hero couldn’t set the Top 40 alight.
Consumers had simply moved on. They are more interested in dancing than playing guitar. It was something that Rock Band studio Harmonix spotted, who went on to build Dance Central for Kinect. Why did Activision not make a dance game?
“Guitar Hero’s performance has the hallmarks of a craze,” says Codemasters CEO Rod Cousens, who has regularly blamed the decline in music games for the industry’s overall drop in retail performance. “There’s been an ecological clean-up operation at retail where the price and package size has left the stores running scared of the category. The consumer wallet has moved on and found other areas of interest.”
He adds: “However, there are still opportunities which tie music and games and which can still broaden the demographic.”
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
But if consumers have moved on, what’s next for those companies still working on instrument-based music games?
“The discontinuation of Guitar Hero is discouraging news for the band game genre,” admits Harmonix community manager John Drake.
“As sales of Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles have slowed, we’ve been focused on building a robust digital platform for music gaming.”
Harmonix says it has enjoyed big success from its Rock Band Network, selling millions of downloadable songs worldwide. Yet what appears to have worked for Harmonix hasn’t worked for Activision. MCV understands that after the development and licensing costs, the publisher saw very little return from its downloadable content.
So is this it? After making billions of dollars is it all over for Guitar Hero?
The music game genre has gone through many changes down the years. Today, music games on smartphones – such as Tap Tap Revenge – are proving successful.
But at the same time fads have a habit of coming round again. Music games have moved from Dance Dance Revolution, to SingStar, to Guitar Hero and now back to dance.
So perhaps the time will come again for plastic instruments.
And we all know the music industry loves a comeback.