Guitar Hero, the multimillion-selling music game series that brought air guitar into the digital age, is back – and this time it’s aiming for the Spotify-listening Coachella crowd.
Guitar Hero Live, announced on Tuesday, is the first big revamp in five years of the phenomenally popular game. Publisher Activision said the new game took account of the rise of digital music and growth of music festivals that has taken place in the interim.
“Guitar Hero created this whole music game phenomenon; it’s one of the first titles to really transcend video games as a category,” said Tyler Michaud, senior director of product management at Activision. “However, our last release was in 2010 – just think about all that’s changed in that time. We’ve had a new console cycle and people are much more connected now.
“Music has changed a lot too. In 2010, I was walking around with an MP3 player in my pocket, which held a lot of music, but it was still a contained selection. Now if you want a particular track you just get it – from the cloud, from digital services, form wherever. The festival scene has blown up too, the sheer numbers of people who are going out and experiencing music – the breadth of the bands playing at big events. It has really widened now and we’re reflecting that. This is the reinvention of Guitar Hero.”
Guitar Hero Live will use a brand new controller with a refreshed interface, designed to more closely resemble real guitar playing. The game will ship with a wide array of licensed tracks, and will also allow players to access extra songs – and to indulge in online multiplayer competitions – through a new Guitar Hero TV service, billed by publisher Activision as “the world’s first playable live music video network”.
Developed by UK-based studio Freestyle Games, previously responsible for the DJ Hero series, the game will also abandon the visuals of previous titles, which showed cartoon-like performers on stage. The new game instead adopts a first-person view from a guitarist’s onstage perspective, and players will see real-life video footage of the other band members and the crowd. Freestyle has used an innovative digital video technology, previously employed by film-makers like James Cameron, to allow crowd members to display apparently real-time reactions to the players’ performance.
Instead of a series of five-coloured buttons on the fret board of the guitar controller, which previous titles used, the new version has six buttons arranged into two rows of three. “The new configuration came from the desire to give the fret hand something to do that’s closer to what a real guitarist does,” said Freestyle founder and creative director Jamie Jackson. “With two rows of buttons, the player’s fingers are now making chord shapes. The challenge is to get your fingers into the correct position rather than just running them up and down the neck as fast as you can.”
The controller does, however, retain the familiar strum bar to play notes and a whammy bar to add effects.
Midway through the presentation at Times Square’s Best Buy Theater, Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy took the stage next to Freestyle’s Jackson to play My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark, a song Wentz wrote.
Jackson showed him the ropes: “If you screw it up, the drummer gets really pissed,” said Jackson.
“Just like in real life,” Wentz replied.
Wentz played a 90-odd-note streak and then missed a button. “My own song!” he moaned.
For the multiplayer component, Jackson brought up Gerard Way to play Na Na Na, by Way’s band My Chemical Romance. “People who are good at playing guitar generally suck at Guitar Hero,” Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg warned. (Way, who said he’d been practicing, won.)
Activision has not specified how many tracks will be available from launch, although the press release says “hundreds”. Freestyle is aiming for a diverse selection of genres, moving away from rock staples to encompass indie, punk and even EDM. The Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, Green Day, Ed Sheeran, The War on Drugs, The Killers and Skrillex are among the first artists to be supported.
With the Guitar Hero TV mode, players will have access to a range of constantly updated digital channels each dedicated to a different genre of music. Designed to resemble both music video channels and digital distribution services like Spotify, players simply surf the channels, find a tune they like and start playing along while the music video plays. They can compete against other guitarists, either via local multiplayers with friends in the same room or online connection.
It is not clear yet whether extra tracks or some form of premium GH TV subscription will be available at an extra cost.
First launched in 2005, Guitar Hero was originally developed by music game specialist Harmonix. Activision bought the brand in 2006, and Harmonix went on to create the rival Rock Band series for Electronic Arts. The Guitar Hero series continued to sell well, however, selling more than 30m units worldwide. After the release of Guitar Heroes: Warriors of Rock in 2010, sales were falling due to a saturation of competing games, as well as an onslaught of music add-on packs and DLC offerings.
Hirshberg began the presentation by addressing the age of the franchise, noting that the five years since the most recent Guitar Hero had seen a major transition to a new generation of consoles, along with other changes. “Most of the ways we listen to music today, like streaming services, were barely a blip on the radar,” Hirshberg said.
But he was adamant that the series has stayed popular. “We have 10 million Facebook fans,” he said. “You know that little music festival going on right now, Coachella? They have 2 million Facebook fans. Guitar Hero has five times that and we haven’t had a game in five years.”
The executive enthused about the changes made in the new game, especially the incorporation of live actors and video. The question Activision wanted to answer, according to Hirshberg, was: “Could a Guitar Hero game actually give you stage fright?” – a fear, he said, that was for some people stronger than the fear of death.
Guitar Hero Live is set to launch on PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U. There will also be smartphone and tablet versions, which can utilise the same guitar controllers. Activision has said that it will provide more details on those versions at a later date.
In March, Electronic Arts revealed that Harmonix is working on Rock Band 4, which is also set to launch this autumn. Five years after the music genre looked to have retired, the battle of the bands continues.
This article was written by Keith Stuart and Sam Thielman in New York, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 14th April 2015 16.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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