New Guitar Hero Game Announced: The Return of the King, or a Sad Attempt at a Cash Grab?

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Some of you may have heard, but recently a new Guitar Hero game was announced: Guitar Hero Live. Kinda Funny Games took a look at the game, playing (and humorously near failing) a couple songs to demo the game and show the world what the new Guitar Hero is about. First, let’s address the positive things I have to say, since I’m going to go on a rant here in a bit and I do want to identify the cooler new parts of the game that deserve praise.

Guitar Hero Live isn’t joking when they say it’s live. When you start up a new song, you don’t start on a stage with your chosen cartoon rock stereotype. The song opens with you in a real backstage room with real band and crew members preparing to go on stage. The crew leads you to the stage, you and your band members pump each other up, a crew member hangs your guitar around your neck for you, then you and the band run out on the stage to a live audience. What is impressive is the huge amount of live audience members you run on stage in front of. I can already hear you saying “But Randall Thor, anyone can hire a bunch of extras and put them in front of a camera! That’s easy!” Here is where the live audience comes into play and makes the game truly impressive. If you start to fail, as the guys in the video did at first, the audience reacts to how well or how poorly you play the song. Seamlessly the audience transitions from wild applause and cheering to booing you, giving you thumbs down and making quite visceral their disapproval of your shoddy playing. As the camera follows your musician around, your bandmates look at you confused, mouthing “come on man” among other things, also making their disapproval of your failures quite clear. As soon as you get into the groove, seamlessly the game transitions the audience and band members from disapproval, to nodding, to wild applause and rocking out again.  Very cool!

Another change from the previous entries into the series is a new layered fretboard. Instead of having have adjacent buttons to use, you now have two rows of three, which are represented by white and black guitar picks in the on screen fretboard. This is a bit closer to playing real guitar than ever before, and a welcome improvement. Open strumming is still a part of the game, represented by a bar going across the on screen fretboard. Gameplay seems to be as tight as ever, which is extremely important in a rhythm based music game.

So the game is definitely an upgrade for the Guitar Hero franchise, with its new impressive features like the live audience and the improved fretboard. There are bound to be a couple more surprises for us in the coming months. Here is the important question: Who actually wants a new Guitar Hero game?

I have quite a bit of history with the Guitar Hero games. I was in love with them. I spent countless hours perfecting my playing, and was able to play every song on expert. I beat the Buckethead song Jordan on expert on Guitar Hero 2, as well as all the Satriani and Dragonforce songs on Guitar Hero 3. I was a legend among my friends, and never played against someone better than me in person. Online play in Guitar Hero 3 was, of course, a different story, and much more entertaining and challenging for me (I once was beaten when I got 100% on a song and the other player got 99%, due to star power usage). I jumped to Rock Band for the drums, and although I didn’t spend as much time with it, I thoroughly enjoyed and destroyed those games on all the instruments. I used my skill in the games as a social crutch during my early months at college, since people wanted to see “the guy who can beat Jordan on expert on Guitar Hero.” I still have a ton of love and respect for the games’ places in the history of music and gaming.

So why am I so jaded about the idea of a new Guitar Hero game? Shouldn’t I be thrilled about the return of one of my high school and college joy rides? I’m not. I’m sad because I believe this will flop. I don’t want to see the franchise marred by an ill-fated attempt to return to public attention after already reaching its potential and riding its popularity into the ground.

Even before the arrival of Rocksmith, Guitar Hero and Rock Band were both losing traction. Their popularity was fading simply because the idea was no longer new and exciting. When Guitar Hero 2 came out, the original Guitar Hero had already paved the way with a unique and interesting idea, and they were able to smooth out the issues the original game had to provide a compelling and fun experience for players. Guitar Hero 3 improved on this, giving players more challenging and more rewarding songs to play. No one had ever done anything like this before, and the games gave both casual and hardcore players alike something to have fun with and play together. I could sit there on Dragonforce on Expert and play with my novice friends on easy and we could both have a great time without having to switch controllers, switch off between each song, or the other player being embarrassed by the vast differences in ability. Guitar Hero let us play together regardless of skill level, something games do not often provide. We had our fun with the Guitar Hero games until Rock Band came onto the market.

Rock Band upped the ante by giving us essentially a full band karaoke machine. Vocals, guitars, bass, drums; all of them were now playable. Before we could lose interest in the music rhythm game, Rock Band gave us what we wanted next, and it was even more fun. Now four of your friends could play together on a song, no matter you level of skill, and continue having fun while making fun of how bad whoever the unlucky singer was. But even by the release of Rock Band 2, the magic was beginning to fade. Though it was an improvement – with more songs and more features – none of it was new anymore. The discovery of a new, wonderful form of entertainment had passed, and we were no longer interested in pretending to be musicians. By the release of Rock Band 3, most had moved on, leaving only the most die hard fans to enjoy it.

The problem with a game based on pretending to be a musician is players will realize that they either a) want to become a real musician, or b) don’t want to be a musician. Once they realize that the only way to get better is hours of practice, players have to choose whether that’s worth their time. Dedicated players will eventually realize the time they spent putting into Rock Band or Guitar Hero could have better utilized learning to play real guitar or real drums (although the transition from Rock Band to real drums was far closer than guitar). At this point, the only way to really garner new fans is to somehow bring players closer than ever to the true experience of playing a real instrument. Enter Rocksmith.

Although Rocksmith never achieved the insane levels of popularity Guitar Hero or Rock Band had, dedicated fans of the music rhythm genre instantly saw great value in the game. Rocksmith is played with a real guitar or a real bass guitar. There’s no plastic controller, and you can use any instrument you own via a USB cable. The game is constantly updated with new DLC packs of new songs with varying difficulties. The difficulty is automatically adjusted based on how well you are doing, increasing or decreasing the difficulty as you play along. The game gives recommendations based on your performances on what you should practice or play next, and comes packed with lessons, tutorials, technique guides, and fun drills to hone your skills on a real guitar that can be played outside the game. Since you are playing a real, and therefore, much more difficult instrument, it never became a party game like Guitar Hero, and was destined to a smaller cult following. I can attest that playing with other musicians is incredibly fun, especially the trash talk, but I wouldn’t invite my non-musician friends over to play, since they would fail miserably. Simply put, Rocksmith is the end of the path for the music rhythm game genre, successfully marrying real learning and playing of a musical instrument with a video game.

So what? I’ve already demonstrated that casual players are much more open to an “easy” experience with games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, why do I think Guitar Hero will flop with their newest endeavor? As I stated earlier, the magic is gone. The games are old, the discovery is gone, and players who are interested can buy the old games and guitars for much cheaper and get the exact same experience. Music rhythm games do not rely upon gameplay and graphical improvements like other games do, so even a technically “dated” experience is the same today as it was in 2007. Many players who enjoyed the old five adjacent button guitars will have to learn an entirely new toy guitar, which goes back to my point about non-musician players not being willing to put in the effort of learning to master the game or the instrument. There’s a chance the music selection may be able to pull in quite a few casual players to try out the game, but considering the incredible classics on the old games and how much fun they were to play for fans of all genres of music, I have my doubts.

I do believe if Activision had waited a few more years, they could put together a much more exciting revival. Right now, there isn’t enough nostalgia or demand for a new Guitar Hero game, since most of its players are still tired of it. Another five, even ten years, and a completely different generation of young gamers could be introduced to the series in an exciting new way with songs that relate to them. The combination of poor timing, over saturation of the market, and the existence of Rocksmith spells disaster for the new Guitar Hero game.

 

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