Tag Archives | Music Games

Guitar Hero Will Make a Comeback

Back in February, Activision announced that it was stepping away from the Guitar Hero franchise. The publisher dissolved its Guitar Hero business unit and cancelled development on a game that was supposed to launch this year.

Now, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick says that a comeback is in the making.

The publisher has formed a new studio to reinvent the Guitar Hero franchise, Kotick told Forbes. There’s no word on when the next Guitar Hero will launch, but it seems like the project is in its very early stages, with the new studio exploring “a variety of different prototypes,” Kotick said.

The general consensus on Guitar Hero games — and games where you wield fake plastic musical instruments in general — is that they saturated the market to the point that people stopped caring. Kotick’s take is slightly different, but it touches on a similar theme: Activision failed to innovate with the Guitar Hero franchise. And although the spin-off series DJ Hero was innovative and critically praised, Activision overestimated how many people really wanted to act out a video game DJ fantasy.

Activision tends to be a polarizing company, and Kotick a polarizing figure. But from the Forbes interview it’s clear that he has a strong grasp on what people want, and why Activision eventually failed to deliver with Guitar Hero. The publisher gets a lot of well-deserved flack for milking its franchises dry, but I have a feeling that whenever Guitar Hero returns, it’ll be something to watch.


Rock On: Guitar Hero Not Dead Yet

Activision gave the wrong impression when it announced in February that it would disband the Guitar Hero development team and stop working on a Guitar Hero game for 2011.

Most of the press (myself included) assumed that this meant Guitar Hero was finished, but now Activision is clearing the air. In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Activision’s Dan Winters clarified that the series is on “hiatus.”

“We’re releasing products out of the vault – we’ll continue to sustain the channel, the brand won’t go away. We’re just not making a new one for next year, that’s all,” Winters said.

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Activision Gives Guitar Hero the Hook

Having milked the music game genre with endless iterations on Guitar Hero, Activision is bailing out.

Activision announced that it has dissolved its Guitar Hero business unit and cancelled development on a Guitar Hero game that was supposed to launch this year. The publisher blamed declining sales in the music genre as a whole.

DJ Hero may also be in jeopardy, with Eurogamer reporting severe layoffs at the franchise’s developer, Freestyle Games. DJ Hero 2, which launched in October 2010, was considered a flop.

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Instant Jam Goes Where Other Music Games Won't

Although I sometimes say nice things about music games such as Guitar Hero, I don’t host enough parties to justify spending money on them, but I might consider buying a fake plastic guitar for Instant Jam, a music game that launches in closed beta on Facebook today.

At a glance, Instant Jam looks like Guitar Hero for the PC. Colored notes scroll down the screen, prompting you to press keyboard buttons in step with the guitar track. You can also use guitar controllers from other games, as long as they have USB output.

Here’s the big twist: Instant Jam uses music you already own, reading songs off your hard drive and matching them with a database of note charts. If a note chart exists for your favorite tune, you can play it in Instant Jam for free, and if a chart exists for a song you don’t own, the game provides links to iTunes and Amazon. Furthermore, there’s no music licensing involved, so even artists that have refused to appear in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, such as Led Zeppelin, are represented among the initial 2,000 songs.

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Music Games Get Real With Fully-Functioning Guitars

The race to successfully fuse a guitar video game controller with a genuine musical instrument is over, with two publishers showing off peripherals at E3 that double as real guitars — strings, frets and all.

For Rock Band 3, guitar maker Fender will sell a version of its Squier ax that can also play the game. A video from Engadget shows how the player can easily switch back and forth when the guitar is plugged into an amplifier. Lesser known, but also prominently featured on the show floor, is the guitar for PowerGig: Rise of the Six String. No need for a special edition here; even the default PowerGig guitar is a fully-functioning musical instrument.

I haven’t tried Fender’s Rock Band guitar, but I did play around with PowerGig’s peripheral at a pre-E3 event in Los Angeles. It is not a MIDI controller, like the YouRock and Gambridge guitars I played with at CES. The PowerGig guitar has six strings that run the length of the fretboard, complete with a sound pickup on the bridge and tuning pegs on the headstock. It’s smaller than a real guitar — a special full-size version is in the works — but it felt comfortable for playing the blues and noodling out solos high on the fretboard.

As for gaming, it’s just more fun when real strings are involved. When you want to play games with the controller, a small panel pops up on the bridge and mutes the strings. You’ll still hold down strings on the fret board as you would with Guitar Hero’s fat plastic buttons, and strum with your other hand, but any unwanted noise is silenced by the pop-up panel.

Best of all, both PowerGig and Rock Band 3 are using their software as music trainers. In PowerGig, advanced players can strum power chords, which require you to place a second finger on a different fret and string. Rock Band, according to IGN, replaces the game’s five lines of big colored button prompts with six strings and indicators of which fret you should hold down. Essentially, it’ll teach you how to play the songs you’re acting out.

Now, I could get on my high horse about how a music game won’t teach you concepts like groove or improvisation — or music theory — but whatever. This is some cool technology that finally bridges the gap between imitation and the real thing. PowerGig: Rise of the Six String is coming to Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in October, and Rock Band 3 arrives this holiday season.


Rock of the Dead: More of This, Please!

If Activision or Harmonix never released another Guitar Hero or Rock Band, I’d be satisfied with the existing plastic instruments and gobs of downloadable songs. But there’s still potential in music games, as shown by the upcoming Rock of the Dead.

IGN ran a preview of the Wii game, a cross between the zombie shooter House of the Dead, the keyboard skill-builder Typing of the Dead and Guitar Hero. Each zombie gets its own sequence of notes to play on your guitar controller, and you must enter the sequences correctly to destroy your foes.

As a concept, Rock of the Dead rules, but I’m not as enthused after watching a video of the action. This would be so much better if each note produced a crunchy guitar riff, instead of a dull thwacking sound against a bland backing soundtrack. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of potential in using music game instruments for games that aren’t explicitly about karaoke.

Rock of the Dead isn’t the first one to try. A new game called Fret Nice mimics the platforming style of Super Mario Bros., but with the option to use a guitar controller. Sadly, critics said the experiment didn’t work, and the game is better off with a standard controller. The problem is that Fret Nice tried to map a new control scheme onto a genre that’s already too familiar. In a sense, Rock of the Dead is doing the same thing, even though on-rail shooting games aren’t as universal of a genre.

Still, imagine if a music-themed adventure game like Brutal Legend incorporated the guitar controller, or maybe there are ways to experiment with music games that don’t involve popular songs or straight-up performance (for instance, Rez). There’s fertile ground here, and I’m glad Rock of the Dead developer Epicenter is playing with it, because the music game genre, left alone, is stagnant.


Electronic Guitars Battle for Music Game Supremacy

You know how musicians like to moan about how music games don’t inspire people to play real instruments? I wonder how they’d feel about Inspired Instruments’ You Rock guitar and Gambridge’s Z-1 Hybrid guitar.

Both axes, on display at CES’s gaming showcase, are MIDI guitars that also work as controllers in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They’ve got actual, strummable strings for your picking hand and plastic frets that respond to the touch. Along several frets, there are also color-coded bars, marking them as buttons for music gaming.

I’m a guitarist and a gamer, so I couldn’t wait to give You Rock’s capable hired musician a rest and to try both guitars on my own. One thing’s for sure: Playing Guitar Hero on these instruments was considerably more fun than using the actual game’s paddle-and-buttons guitar controller. Being able to jam on strings brings the experience closer to real life (but still pretty far off, of course).

Playing the guitar wasn’t half-bad either. You definitely lose some important abilities, like bending strings and full control over muting, and it takes a little getting used to, but I was able to kick out some blues without too many problems. I actually preferred Gambridge’s guitar as a musical instrument, as it felt more responsive to muting and sliding, and its frets have a little give, making them feel more like real strings. But it’s heavier and its design isn’t as sleek.

It’s probably a good thing that there are two companies pursuing this, because it increases the chances that the product will get to market. The $179 You Rock guitar is available for pre-order online with ship date unknown (you’ll also need a $25 Bluetooth dongle for your game console of choice, available in Q1 for Playstation 3 and Wii and Q2 for Xbox 360), and the company is hoping to land retail deals at CES. Gambridge is shooting for a September launch with the $199 Z-1, whose prototype works with the Playstation 3 only (Gambridge eventually wants to support all consoles) via wired USB.

Would I buy one? Maybe, as the ability to use these guitars as instruments in Garage Band sweetens the deal if you’re an actual musician, but if I was looking to teach a Guitar Hero enthusiast how to play, I’d probably opt for a cheap starter electric guitar instead.

Update: I’ve clarified that the You Rock guitar can mute and slide strings, but it felt a little more natural on the Z-1 in my brief time with both.


The End of Music Games As We Know It?

Reuters dipped into the well of knowledge that is Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter and came up with a conclusion: Music games, such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero, aren’t the cash cows they used to be.

Pachter says that music games, which earned $1.4 billion last year, will only earn half that amount in 2009. And that’s not for lack of trying, as this year saw the release of Beatles: Rock Band, Lego Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, Band Hero, Rock Band Unplugged, Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits, Guitar Hero: Metallica and finally Guitar Hero: Van Halen, which comes out tomorrow.

But it’s important to note that Pachter’s not predicting the demise of music games. He’s merely saying that the boom is over, a bust is happening, and music games are coming back down from super stardom. His theory is that music game makers gave players too much in each release, so they don’t have to keep buying. I also like a theory posed in October by two marketing researchers from Northeastern University: There are just too many darned music games, and game makers didn’t realize they were riding a bubble.

It’s mildly amusing to me that marketing gurus and analysts are sticking with that conclusion now. Take a look at some reader comments at various gaming Web sites when Activision announced three “Hero” games at once and five different companies announced Lego Rock Band. The backlash was obvious, and that was in the spring, before the industry realized a recession was really happening.

Enthusiast gamers aren’t always great bellwethers — these are the folks who turn their noses up at the Wii — but I’m glad they were right this time. It’s insulting to see publishers churn out handfuls of music games in a single year, expecting players to lap them up. Maybe next year we’ll get a chance to forget the overplayed music genre, so we can some day remember how good it sounded the first time.


The Problem With Musicians and Music Games

kurt-cobainWith The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 released earlier this month, several musicians have spoken their minds about music games. And I wish they hadn’t.

To recap: Last week, singer Courtney Love decided to sue Activision when she realized how her late husband, ex-Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, was being used in Guitar Hero 5. When letting Activision use Cobain’s likeness, Love didn’t realize that in-game characters can perform in any song, resulting in a rather troubling video of Cobain rapping and singing 80s metal. The rest of Nirvana then added their disapproval, and so did, of all people, Bon Jovi.

Earlier, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason expressed their disdain for music games, based on the tired belief that these games kill the motivation to learn a real instrument (Mason said he was open to a game based on Pink Floyd, simply to make money).

Topping it all off, Paul McCartney admitted that he hadn’t yet played The Beatles: Rock Band. His rationale? The former Beatle can play an actual concert any time he wants.

McCartney’s dismissal, however justified, is disheartening, and I’m saying that as a fellow musician. Having played guitar and drums since childhood, I initially pooh-poohed Guitar Hero as well. But then I tried it, with people who aren’t musicians, and everything clicked.

What Guitar Hero offers musicians is the ability to enjoy music with everyone, not just for the words and beat, but for the musicality and the intricacies that become most apparent when you’re performing. It’s too bad McCartney, Mason and Wyman can’t see that.

Courtney Love’s case is a bit different, but the underlying issue, that she obviously hasn’t spent time with the game, is the same. Instead of experiencing why Guitar Hero and Rock Band are special, these musicians only see two potential rewards: relevance and money. Ideally, music should be about neither.


Acclaim’s Music Game Approach Could Please Labels

rockfreeThe massive multiplayer music game RockFree has been in public beta for a while now, and will launch for real in a few weeks. When that happens, players will get a taste of the revenue model that’s built to please record labels more than that of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, VentureBeat’s Evan Van Zelfden reports.

In those console hits, the publishers paid a flat fee to license each song, with Activision paying $20,000 per track. Naturally, the troubled music industry gets irritated when the game franchises then rake in millions of dollars, or billions in the case of Guitar Hero.

Acclaim won’t pay any licensing fees at all. Instead, CEO Howard Marks said his company will hand over 20 percent of the revenue from microtransactions to a song’s master holder and publisher.

The otherwise free-to-play game includes three playlist “slots” that can be filled with selections from an online library or uploaded by users. Players can purchase more slots at $1 a pop, and Marks expects that the average user who chooses to pay will fork over $14 per month for this privilege. Warner Music — whose CEO, Edgar Bronfman Jr., called the flat fees for Guitar and Rock Band “paltry” — is in the database for RockFree.

I’m a little skeptical that RockFree will be more lucrative for record labels. At 20 cents for every new track, 100,000 transactions per song are needed to equal what Activision was paying for its Guitar Hero tracks. And the problem with that is, RockFree kind of stinks. Massive multiplayer perks aside, banging out guitar tracks on a computer keyboard doesn’t compare to wielding a fake plastic instrument — which isn’t as cool as playing a real instrument, but that’s another story.

This arrangement will probably work out nicely for the companies involved because it’s happening on a smaller scale. I don’t expect it to shake up how the bigger console franchises are doing business.

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