If you’re a console gamer, or hang out with someone who is, you’ve probably noticed that the little plastic guitar in the corner of the room has been collecting dust, and with the recent death of the Guitar Hero franchise, it’s apparent that publisher Activision has also noticed. Some are calling this the beginning of the end for rhythm games, while others are scolding Activision for slowly killing the genre by oversaturating the market with titles, and I’m sure there are some who are happy to see the franchise go. As a longtime fan of rhythm games, I wonder what’s going to happen next. Will the rhythm game genre continue to decline into oblivion, and if it does, what will that mean for other music games like Rock Band?
Little Plastic Guitars
When the original Guitar Hero released back in 2005, I didn’t think much of it; I think I fiddled with a display guitar at Wal-Mart, thinking “wow, I can kind of play ‘Smoke on the Water’…neat.” Two years later, I finally took an interest, bought Guitar Hero 2, and spent the next year pushing that plastic guitar to its breaking point. I was consumed (admittedly) with high scores, star rankings, and playing the “Sweet Child of Mine” opening perfectly. I loved the game, but at the same time, it was something I avoided in conversation. I did this because:
1. Explaining how the game works and how cool it is to get a perfect score to people who don’t have any experience with the genre only serves to make me look like a nerd.
2. After explaining the game, people’s response always seemed to be the same – “why don’t you just play a real guitar?”
Unfortunately, there is no good way to respond to that question; even thinking about it makes me wonder how much time I COULD have devoted to learning a real instrument. Despite this, I realize now that I got something much more out of Guitar Hero. Besides introducing /reintroducing me to a slew of bands that I still listen to today, the game taught me to appreciate the skill and dedication those bands brought to the art of music. In short, Guitar Hero made me want to become a connoisseur of rock.
To think that future gamers wouldn’t be inspired to discover music in the same way I was because the rhythm genre is in a fatal decline is pretty depressing, but I don’t think that is what’s happening. A quick look at Guitar Hero’s Wikipedia page and it’s evident that Activision released far too many titles in a small time span (averaging 3 title releases per year). With that kind of output, developer Neversoft only had time to slap a new coat of paint on an old title, apply a new soundtrack, and maybe add a new gimmick to the gameplay; no real advancements or significant improvements were ever made. Among these releases were band specific titles that featured music from specific artists like Aerosmith and Metallica. I’ve always regarded theses title as a bad direction for the genre for two reasons:
1. It was an obvious move by the game publisher to cash in on a band’s popularity (not to mention the artist cashing in on the game’s popularity).
2. The notion of releasing a rhythm game with only one flavor of music goes against the social nature of the game. Guitar Hero is a party game, and became popular in part because it offered a variety of music that everybody could enjoy.
This isn’t the first franchise Activision has done this to either, the Tony Hawk game series has been releasing a title per year for nearly a decade. During this time, the series has followed the familiar model of inserting a new gimmick into the gameplay, changing around a few things, maybe making a few improvements, and calling it a new game, and a steady decline in sales have been the result.
Enough about Activision though, the Guitar Hero series is gone from the near future and nothing is going to change that. What fans of the genre should focus on now is what the future holds for rhythm games. The fans should focus on Rock Band.
I may have lied a little earlier, the rhythm game genre is in a state of decline, but it’s nothing terminal. More or less, the genre’s market is simply shrinking back from its wildly popular days to something more in line with other video game genres. For the Rock Band series, this means that when the market finally levels off they will be without a competitor, and free to grow because of that.
In some ways, the emergence of Rock Band contributed to Guitar Hero’s death; namely, the introduction of new instruments and the creation of the Rock Band Music Store. Most importantly, the game has always been about choice. Don’t like to play guitar? Try the drums or the vocals. Want to craft your own library of music? Go on the RB Store and choose from thousands of songs. It is also important to note that Harmonix recognizes that the market is changing; that people aren’t satisfied with fake instruments any more. That’s why in the franchise’s latest installment the support for real instruments has been added, make it more of an instrument trainer than an actual game for those who choose (I’m learning drums).
Guitar Hero was fun while it lasted, but maybe its demise was for the best. Perhaps now the artists and bands who were holding out for their own exclusive game will recognize that those days are coming to an end and put their music on the RB Store instead. Maybe too the developers and die-hard fans of Guitar hero will try Rock Band, discover what it has to offer, and in turn contribute to its growth and success.