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Guitar Hero - The Future New Coke

by February 18, 2011

It seems like only yesterday we were hearing about the newest phenomena in video gaming, the meteoric rise of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Activision - Blizzard, the group behind blockbusters like World of Warcraft and the Call of Duty series, announced it will end the Guitar Hero franchise on February 9 and shut down the division that produced it. The decision follows closely behind Viacom Inc’s sale of Harmonix, the developers of Rock Band after one too many money losing fiscal quarters.  But does this spell the end of music games or even the Guitar Hero franchise? Not likely!

Who can forget the games of the mid-2000s, some might call it the decade of the casual gamer. The popularity of pro-active video-game participation was most visible soon after the release of the Nintendo Wii game console. It was the console that took the competition by surprise as it crushed Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 in sales.

Guitar Hero was first released for the PS2 back in 2005 and went on to be one of the most influential games of the decade. The game brought the guitar-oriented music of yesteryear to a new generation that had been raised on computers, hip-hop and club-dance numbers with singers whose vocals routinely degenerate into synthetic voice effects. Who can blame anyone for looking to the rough edges and soul of real music created with wood, steel and a tube amplifier. Guitar Hero had a clear niche.

One can only wonder how many bands were started when a group of video gaming kids wanted to give the real thing a try. Much to my neighbours dismay the kid next door formed a garage band several years ago. Although the racket they produced needed discipline, I was giving them the thumbs up for effort. Where would music be without the invention of the garage? It looked liked Guitar Hero could possibly save us from a future of mediocre techno-R&B, more focused on outlandish costumes and sexuality than vocal talent and musicianship. But if Superbowl XLV was any indication of the state of music today - I lament the loss of Guitar Hero’s influence.

Reminiscing the Lost Guitar Hero

In its prime you saw Guitar Hero pop up at parties, some of you invested hours nailing simulations of the intricate riffs of the real-life Guitar Heroes behind bands like White Zombie, Judas Priest and ZZ Top. It wasn’t as easy as it looked but it was great musical fun.

In the end, it wasn’t Guitar Hero’s merits as a musical or gaming influence that lead to its demise - it was a mishandled business. Guitar Hero was once a billion-dollar earner but plummeted in sales and started losing money for its publisher. But as we’ll see it was a predicable outcome.

The economy has hurt many industries and not even video gaming was spared. Cutting Guitar Hero was just part of the painful restructuring of Activision Publishing which will see some 500 jobs disappear in a company that employs 7,000.

As for Guitar Hero’s descent into unprofitability, many believe the music game genre might have just exploded too quickly. Soon after Guitar Hero, imitators began crowding store shelves. Rock Band, DJ Hero, Rock Revolution and the sub-genre of the music game – the dance game. These games aren’t cheap! The true fan isn’t just buying a video game, they’re also buying up peripherals that give the game its participatory action.

Guitar Hero’s fortunes weren’t helped by Activision releasing no less than six iterations of Guitar Hero in 2009 alone. That doesn’t even count the mobile versions and its many imitators. Activision was sure to cash in before the inevitable fall.

Was it greed or a good business decision to milk a dying franchise for all it’s worth – even if you’re knowingly hastening that franchises demise?  Either way, Activision asphyxiated Guitar Hero’s popularity.

New Guitar Hero

But don’t believe for a minute that this is the end for the Guitar Hero franchise. The game is only five years old, even by video game standards it’s just a pup. Call of Duty began two years before the first iteration of Guitar Hero. Call of Duty and its measured annual releases show no sign of abating in popularity or annual earnings. You just have to give it up to the old timer in the video game circuit – Mario. The most stereotypical Italian not from Jersey Shore has been hopping barrels for over 25 years and will probably be going another 25 with ease.

Therein lay the ray of hope for Guitar Hero. The iconic plastic guitar will probably stay relevant in the gaming world making a comeback likely after a brief cooling-off period. The Guitar Hero controllers are still compatible with Rock Band, and although Activision isn’t making any more additions to the franchise it will still offer fans new downloadable content so you can always mix it up with new tunes.

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick hasn’t ruled out a rebirth of the musical franchise. He even suggested that they would consider tweaking the Guitar Hero gaming formula in the future, but that it’s just not a priority for Activision at this time.

Absence will make the heart (and profit potential) for Guitar Hero grow fonder and soon, New Guitar Hero will emerge. Yes, it will even keep the old name and that is how Guitar Hero will be the future New Coke. Hopefully for the sake of the game’s many devoted fans they won’t flood the market with sequels and devalue its own brand. But Guitar Hero is a familiar brand with tremendous intrinsic value in the name alone, it will not die.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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