In 2005, a child was born to the videogame world. Its father? The music industry. The little bundle of joy would go on to be christened Guitar Hero. The inspiration of this would-be giant came from peripheral maker RedOctane, who had recently developed a guitar-shaped controller for Konami’s arcade game Guitar Freaks. It would go on to have an unbelievably large effect upon both of its parent industries.
The release of Guitar Hero is one of those events in videogame history that everyone remembers to some degree or another. “Cultural phenomenon” became the phrase to describe it; some journalists even went a step further to call it “one of the most influential products of the first decade of the 21st century.” Sound like a little much? It did to me at first, too – until I took a step back and realized what it had accomplished. Not only had GH single-handedly spawned an entire genre that raked in, literally, billions of dollars worldwide, it had also boosted sales of music globally – and not just new artists, but old ones, as well. As if that weren’t enough, here’s a piece of trivia that may surprise you: researchers at Johns Hopkins University have used Guitar Hero as treatment for amputee patients and those needing new prosthetic limbs. Additionally, the music and dexterity-based controllers are credited for helping stroke patients regain coordination.
And then there’s the franchise’s offspring. RedOctane had teamed with Harmonix Music Systems to make the first GH (which was then distributed by Activision), but RedOctane would go on to be purchased by Activision, and Harmonix – which was acquired by Viacom through its MTV Networks division – would strike out on their own to create Rock Band, a game which took the Guitar Hero concept by the hand and guided it a step further, adding more instruments, such as drums, vocals, and even (later on) keyboard. In this way, the two games are cousins… or step-brothers… or something like that.
The next six years would see Guitar Hero become an incredible success – such a success, in fact, that, by 2008, the market for the newly-dubbed rhythm genre was worth $1.4 billion. Activision would go on to pump out more then 15 different versions, expansions, and spin-offs (such as Band Hero and DJ Hero). All the while, its relative, Rock Band, was doing the same to a lesser degree. Some of the expansions were specific to certain bands, such as The Beatles and Metallica. Other sequels offered new graphics, modes, and other goodies. But things weren’t destined to stay so bright and sunny. In 2009, a new word was being used to describe the games that everyone had clamored to buy four years earlier: over-saturation.
So what did it? Was it Activision in the lounge with the lead pipe? Or perhaps it was recession in the library with the revolver? It’s no secret that Activision had received some criticism for making all the GH games virtually the same; several prominent journalists and analysts in the videogame community pointed out that it would have behooved the publisher to continue to innovate and find new ways to mix gaming and music. Instead, they flooded the market with the same game over and over again. Like any good fad, people continued to purchase the living daylights out of GH – until they caught on to what was happening, and then many turned their focus to Rock Band, which had at least innovated in the form of new instruments. Despite all the indications of impending doom, Activation continued with its blind strategy of pumping out more of the same.
But perhaps the company isn’t all to blame. They had a great concept with Guitar Hero. There’s the old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – and the series wasn’t broken, per se. And goodness knows that the recession that hit our country in the latter half of the 2000s did its fair share of damage; there were virtually no industries anywhere in the United States that weren’t affected in some way by the sudden tightening of purse strings. There is, in fact, the going theory that, perhaps, if the recession hadn’t happened, Activision would have had more cash to pour into making something more out of GH then just the same old, same old. This is all speculation, of course, but well worth pondering.
Finally – and most sadly of all – maybe people were just over rhythm games. It’s a fact that Rock Band’s sales have also been down, so much so that 15% of Harmonix’s 250-person workforce has been laid off and MTV Games has been completely shut down for good. Not enough bad indicators? Then how about this: Viacom, who was so quick to buy Harmonix at the peak of their popularity for millions of dollars, just recently turned around and sold the company – back to their shareholders, which was the best deal they could find. (On the plus side, though, this transaction effectively makes Harmonix an independent developer again. And since they still hold the intellectual rights to both Rock Band and newly-released Dance Central, there just may be a silver lining in this gloomy cloud.)
With the fad of rhythm games coming to an end, we are left with those few, but faithful, fans that actually loved the genre for what it was, not just for the moment of glory that it had. The only problem here is that these fans aren’t enough to keep the genre going at the pace it was – but, to some of these diehards, that’s actually a good thing. Many people were upset by the previously mentioned lack of innovation, and more then one fan has commented to me, since starting this editorial, that they hope the demise of Guitar Hero would allow Harmonix to step back, reevaluate the situation, and come up with the Next Big Thing. It’s just sad to this writer that the catalyst of this possible change is the death of the entire original series, as well as that of RedOctane, the original brainchild, who was axed one year ago by parent company Activision (yes, they bought the peripheral manufacturer hand-in-hand with GH) when the market started to sour. They were 12-years-old.
So I leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself who killed this once-dominating giant. For one to climb so high and to fall so far is a sad thing to behold, but, more than anything, it should serve as an important lesson to the entire industry that innovation and change are key. One would like to think that Activision will, indeed, take this to heart, but, then again, I’ve often been accused of giving people too much credit. Or perhaps the morale of the story is that fads come and go with the tides. Or maybe – just maybe – the fault lies with the conservatives for causing the Great Recession. Just kidding! (Or am I?)
Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, however, I hope that you’ll give a moment of silence to our fallen comrade, Guitar Hero.