Can Guitar Hero and Rock Band Actually Take Center Stage Again?

Article by Bobby Miller | 1,936 words

After about five years on hiatus, the once-popular video game franchises Guitar Hero and Rock Band will be hitting store shelves once again in late 2015. Although the games used to be incredibly popular, appearing in family rooms and at parties across the country, both of the series suffered from lukewarm sales for their most recent iterations. But the companies behind these rival franchises believe they can rise from the ashes and set the world on fire once again.

The Historic Rise of Guitar Hero and Rock Band

Before we speculate about the uncertain futures of these video game series, let’s take a look at how they fared in the past.

It all began with the PlayStation 2 game Guitar Hero, released in 2005. The rhythm game was packaged with a guitar-like controller featuring five fret buttons, each a different color, and a bar to flick much like a guitar string. Players had to strum along with various songs by holding down the correct frets and flicking the bar with proper timing, as indicated by colored gems scrolling down the screen. Each gem was colored based on which fret the player had to hold down. The songs in the game span many decades and come from numerous artists, including Sum 41, Pantera, Ozzy Osbourne, the Ramones and Queen.

 

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith

A screenshot of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, as released in 2008. Credit: ShackNews.com

According to VGChartz.com, the original game sold over 2 million copies. Guitar Hero II, released on both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, surpassed it with over 7 million copies sold. The series peaked with the third entry, which sold over 16 million copies across a wide variety of consoles.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that the original developer behind Guitar Hero, a company called Harmonix, was acquired by MTV Games and started a series of its own called Rock Band in 2007. It expanded on the gameplay of the original Guitar Hero series by allowing three people to play a guitar, bass guitar and drums as another person used a microphone to sing. Its first entry sold over 5 million copies across the consoles it was released on. The Guitar Hero series soon adopted the use of multiple instruments as well.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band Fade into Obscurity

However, both of the franchises deteriorated around 2009. A flurry of spin-offs such as Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and The Beatles: Rock Band may have oversaturated the market. Or perhaps the series weren’t introducing enough new gameplay elements to keep them interesting. Or perhaps they were fads doomed to die off eventually. Whatever the case, the sales numbers reveal just how much both series declined in popularity.

The fourth main game in the Guitar Hero series, World Tour, sold nearly 10 million copies in 2008. The fifth game, simply called Guitar Hero 5, did not even reach half of those sales in 2009. And in 2010, the sixth main game in the series, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, barely pushed out 2 million units, as VGChartz.com reports. Even though it was released on the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, its sales were only on par with the original, which was released only for the PlayStation 2.

Rock Band saw a similar decline. The first entry of its main series sold over 5 million in 2007, and its second iteration fared roughly as well in 2008. But in 2010, the third game sold only about 2 million units, as VGChartz.com notes.

While selling a few million copies might be impressive for many games, it’s important to note that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games tended to have big budgets to cover. After all, those songs and big controllers didn’t pay for themselves. Gaming site Kotaku.com explains that the original Rock Band cost $20 million to develop.

Rebooting Guitar Hero with a New Controller and a Live Audience

The companies behind each of the series do not believe their time on stage is finished, however. Later this year, FreeStyleGames is unleashing Guitar Hero Live and Harmonix is releasing Rock Band 4. Although the latest Guitar Hero game will release on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U, the next Rock Band game will be coming only to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as video game website Polygon.com reports. Each of the games is taking a different approach to the revival.

Guitar Hero Live will use a brand-new guitar controller. Although this means all the old controllers won’t be compatible with the new entry, FreeStyleGames believes this is a necessary step forward for the franchise. “There was a lot of head-scratching and prototyping and different variations that went into [the new controller],” FreeStyleGames creative director and studio head Jamie Jackson told Eurogamer.net. “It had to be new fun. We didn’t want to just come out with the same stuff.”

Controller Comparison

Credit: GuitarHero.com and Commons.Wikimedia.org, with my own notes added.

The new controller will feature two rows of three buttons on the guitar’s neck, one labeled white and the other black. The notes scrolling down the screen will be either black or white depending on which row you need to hold down, and each note’s location will signify how far up or down the guitar neck you need to be.

To me, this seems like a wise change. The guitar controllers of the past only had you going up and down the guitar neck, which only simulates holding down one string. Plus, some people had trouble using their pinky fingers as needed. However, by having your fingers move across the neck as well as up and down it, the controller will better simulate playing different strings. In higher difficulties, players can expect to play many different chords. FreeStyleGames told the magazine Game Informer that the controller should be easier for newcomers to use while posing new challenges for veteran players.

The new controller also means, though, that all the songs players downloaded to the previous Guitar Hero games will not work here. You’ll have to start over with a new set of songs. However, FreeStyleGames promises that there will be a steady stream of new songs released after the game’s initial debut, so gamers don’t have to worry about plunking down money for a brand new game in 2016. The online mode Guitar Hero TV will also allow people to play along with streamed music videos while competing against other individuals if they so choose.

True to the name Guitar Hero Live, you’ll be playing in front of what looks like a live audience, though it’s obviously pre-recorded. Play well, and your fans will cheer you on. Screw up, and they’ll boo at you—not exactly encouraging for beginners. While this is meant to give a greater sense of immersion, it’s a minor change given how you’re supposed to be focusing on the notes scrolling down the screen, not the audience. Plus, as Eurogamer.net points out, it’s odd how “fickle” the fans are: they can go from hyped to pissed off and back again numerous times throughout just one song.

Guitar Hero Crowd

Credit: LoudWire.com

 

Oh, and the game will only use the guitar controller: no more drums and microphones like in Rock Band. While some purists may argue that this will allow FreeStyleGames to pick better songs since each one only needs interesting use of the guitar, not drums, bass and vocals as well, other fans could see the exclusion of other instruments as a major step backward. It may also harm the game’s ability to appeal to the party scene, even if multiple players can bring over their guitars to face-off against one another.

There is also an iOS spin-off in development, but little is known about it. That will obviously have no social aspect to it whatsoever since other people can’t even watch you play, so I wouldn’t expect much from it.

Rock Band’s Cautious Approach to Revival

The next entry in the Rock Band series, simply called Rock Band 4, isn’t trying to revolutionize the series so much as polish it up. In strong contrast to Guitar Hero Live, Rock Band 4 will support any song players downloaded to the old games and will work with all the old controllers—though new ones will also be available.

Harmonix confessed to gaming site Polygon.com that there are still some bumps in the road it needs to address to make all this backwards compatibility a reality, but the developer is doing everything it can to make the transition from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 smooth. So if you’ve held on to your equipment for the last five or so years, you can jump into this next entry without any trouble.

Much like Guitar Hero Live, you can expect Rock Band 4 to last for the rest of this console generation. “There will be no more ongoing sequels, no yearly releases,” Polygon.com explains. “Rock Band 4 will launch Rock Band as a platform, and [Harmonix co-founder and chief creative officer Alex] Rigopulos told us to expect continual updates, some of which will be paid and some of which will be free.”

Harmonix has claimed that it wants to get back to the core of what made the original Rock Band games fun, particularly at parties. So, it’s ditching the ability to use a “Pro Guitar” or a real keyboard like you could in Rock Band 3 as a means of learning how to play actual instruments. The focus will be solely on arcade-style fun. The Pro Drum setup will still be available, however.

Rock Band Test

The developers have played the past games thoroughly to examine the roots of Rock Band. Credit: Polygon.com

Although the company promises to focus on the core of the series while delivering substantial improvements, we still have no clue what those improvements are going to be. So while the backwards compatibility of the songs and instruments might make this the safer and more affordable option for still-devout fans, I don’t see how it will appeal to the burned out masses. But the developers claim they’ll be able to speak about new features more in months to come. I’m curious how substantial those new features will be considering they’re still working with the previous decade’s controllers, which form the foundation of the game.

Can FreeStyleGames and Harmonix Rise from the Ashes?

Ultimately, I’m skeptical of the revivals that are supposed to take place later this year. Aside from the concerns I have about each individual game, I can’t help but notice how problematic it is that these two rival series are trying to come back during the same holiday season. If you want to buy them with new instruments, you need to make quite an investment. Guitar Hero Live will cost $100 when purchased with the new (and required) guitar. While we don’t have a price for Rock Band 4 yet, it’s worth noting that the original game in the series cost $170 when bundled with all its instruments. That’s nearly the cost of three console games today.

So many fans are only going to jump onboard with one or the other, which is bad news for a music game industry that already has the cards stacked against it. While this problem could be alleviated if one company delayed its game to stagger the releases, I’m sure both would like to get their series rolling again as soon as possible.

Even though the Guitar Hero and Rock Band craze was an interesting cultural phenomenon that appealed to gamers of all skill levels, I don’t think their developers will be able to relive that past glory. These series had their times in the limelight, but I think the party’s over. But later this year, you can decide for yourself whether you’ll stick around or head out the door.

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