Hard Project: Guitar Hero
In 2004, nobody would have predicted that one of the most popular video games would involve standing in front of your television with a fake plastic guitar and pretending to play music. In 2011, the idea seems pretty ridiculous. And yet the Guitar Hero franchise exploded in 2005, enjoyed huge popularity, then violently collapsed and can now be found littering bargain trade-in bins sans guitar. Not that it’s alone in this; the Rock Band franchise dropped in the same timeframe, which for those who don’t remember was the spiritual successor by the same team as the original Guitar Hero.
Fads in gaming are nothing new, but the sheer popularity and the sudden drop-off is worth exploring. It’s an astonishingly quick rise and fall, and it’s not as if the core idea – “pretend to play music” – suddenly became forbidden like whatever the plot was in that Aerosmith video game. But when you think about it, it’s less a matter of surprise that the games didn’t last forever and more a surprise that they were ever a thing at all, because they’re the definition of a hard project.
There are only so many worthwhile songs…
Let’s face it – in gameplay terms, these games are pretty basic rhythm fare. Hold a button and press another button in time. It’s functionally Dance Dance Revolution for your hands. The reason this made such a splash in the first place is that the first game let you do so to songs like Killer Queen. Sure, it’s a cover and not the original, but still, rocking out to something that’s 50% of the way to Queen is categorically better than anything without Queen involved.
Therein lies the problem, though. There are not an endless number of songs that are both worth listening to and have a good enough guitar line to justify the song. You need a song that’s both iconic enough for people to want to play it (as much as I want to play Cautionary Warning I think I’m one of the only ones) and has a solid instrumental component that can be played on the right instrument (all but a minority of Nine Inch Nails songs will not really work on the traditional setup). The entire premise rests on the idea that you finally get to play a certain song, and once you’ve covered that ground it’s less appealing to do so again.
I’m not saying that there’s a small number of songs that fit the bill, just that it is a finite number. And that’s ignoring the fact that even with covers, you run into a related issue as you exploit the further fringes of what works in this particular format.
…and they’re all minefields to negotiate for…
My feelings about Nirvana could probably fill an entire article, but it’s impossible to deny that Smells Like Teen Spirit fits the outlined criteria perfectly. You can probably hum out the guitar line right now if you’re so inclined. But it didn’t get included on a Guitar Hero set list until the fifth game in the franchise, because – and this will come as absolutely no surprise – getting the rights to the song were kind of expensive.
The recording industry is a topic that has been written about by people with far more knowledge than I, so I’ll just mention that the matter of who owns the rights to songs is complicated and leave it at that. The point is that even though it’s a huge part of our cultural landscape, there’s a reason that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas didn’t include a lot of music that would be incredibly representative of its time period, chiefly the fact that the developers either could not get the rights at all or simply couldn’t get them at a price that made sense for something that wasn’t a main feature of the game.
And that’s for a game where the music isn’t the whole damn point.
Lots of things can cause a game’s development costs to balloon over time, but any game that wants to include Sweet Child O’ Mine or Baba O’Riley is incurring a significant cost out of pocket. That’s assuming that the holders of the rights are even willing to come out and play in the first place, that the band wants to be involved and is on board, and so on. I’m pretty sure the odds of being ever able to put a Prince song in a game are pretty much nil at this point; it’s left as an exercise for the reader whether this is a good thing or not.
…and it’s not a format that encourages sequels
So in order to play Guitar Hero, you need your fake plastic guitar. Theoretically, you could handle it with a controller, but if you’re attracted to the thought of playing Sultans of Swing on a Dualshock you’re kind of missing the point. That means that the game is going to be more expensive, because it requires a peripheral right in the bundle. Of course, you can just buy the game straight for the sequel… but that means both versions need to be out there, and if a new instrument gets added or the instrument gets tweaked you need another new set of peripherals. That’s assuming that your fake plastic guitar didn’t get damaged, of course, and leaving aside the obvious question that you should be able to just add the old tracks into the new version or vice versa…
It’s not that I don’t want to play Don’t Fear the Reaper, it’s that I can’t justify $100 for what is functionally the same game as last year with a new track list. Sports games have a hard enough time selling on this basis, and most of them make some major update to how plays are handled or the like. Guitar Hero and Rock Band both had enough peripherals to make any major innovations problematic while at the same time trying to justify big new purchases every year.
So the concept is still solid. But it’s hard to make a good game in these franchises, and after a while people are just going to clock out. Perhaps in another seven years we’ll see it get picked up again. Or we’ll get a twist on the basic concept, another way for us to pretend we’re playing music on an imaginary stage for a couple hours a night.
Of course, I can also do that with YouTube and an overactive imagination, so maybe not.