Anyone who's even absently been keeping an eye on the state of things will probably have found the news that Activision have shelved their Guitar Hero franchise for the time being as nothing particularly surprising. Of course, it's not just Guitar Hero, DJ Hero - the latest instalment of which we scored pretty highly - is canned for the moment too, in fact Activision are shutting down their whole music division, with around 500 job cuts expected across divisions as a bit of reshuffling gets done.
Developer Manveer Heir tweeted on Wednesday night, 'Ugh sorry to hear about the Vicarious Visions layoffs today after Guitar Hero canceled [...] Sounds like Freestyle (DJ Hero) got hit too.'
It would seem that one of the most popular, and lucrative (though not so much these days), video game franchises just burnt out.
It's important, before everybody gets all misty-eyed, to note that that this was always on the cards. Guitar Hero had been in something of an unhappy state for some time now, struggling to push boundaries where had previously been a leading light, overtaken perhaps by its own flesh and blood in Harmonix and Rock Band. It was on the rocks, it had already sold out and released a 'Best Of' album. Whereas before it had led the way, World Tour seemed reactionary, the playlist functions and library imports concession to a crowd that had found a new virtual music simulator to love. With the last release, as Rock Band sought to scour new heights with new technology, Guitar Hero stubbornly attempted to go back in time and rediscover its roots.
But it had gone too far, and an overdose was never far away.
Activision's Eric Hirschberg, during a call to investors, had suggested
Given the considerable licensing and manufacturing costs associated with this genre, we simply cannot make these games profitably, based on current economics and demand. Instead, what we’ll do is focus our time and energies on marketing and supporting our strong catalog of titles and downloadable content, especially to new consumers as the install base for hardware continues to grow.
But sources categorically state that there'll be no more DLC for either franchise aside from the February mix packs already touted. Much like the artists it attempted to help us emulate, we'd always wished that when the time came, Guitar Hero would go out all guns blazing but, curled up like a fading old rocker, it's a case of a few too many sleeping tablets.
Frankly, it was fairly inevitable. The environment of saturation, perpetuated in large part by Activision's decision to milk the music market for all it was worth, meant that a slump was always coming and the sales figures tell their own story.For a franchise that has sold over 25 million units and made Activision around $2 billion in profit, the fourth quarter loss of $233 million for Activision last year pointed to a calamitous holiday season. EA had already sold Harmonix - with Riccitiello's infamous 'falling knife' analogy proving prophetic indeed - and MTV Games had been dissolved.
Rock Band 3 took the saturation to new levels by adding in some amazing technology - the Pro instruments were excellent indeed - but who could afford them? There was no incentive to really go out and buy yet another instrument pack if you already had one, and even if you didn't the pre-owned market hardly helped Activision's figures, with consumers driven to explore alternative options to soaring price points.
The first game was a pioneering experience. It was much better than the arcade-only Guitar Freaks, you could rock out in your own living room with something vaguely resembling a Gibson SG and you could kick ass to some of the best hard rock and metal tunes ever made. We'd seen tapping, rhythm games before, but nothing so accessible, addictive, downright fun and...let's not forget...pretty cool. 'Why don't you just play a real guitar?' sneered haters who'd never played the game, while we all had the time of our lives.
Guitar Hero 2 gave me a couple of the best summers ever. The second game a brilliant step up from the first, with more forgiving timing windows, and a setlist to die for. It was still exciting, still relevant, still fresh. Now, however, Guitar Hero is the suggestion you inwardly groan at when someone suggests it at the party, and there's always one. Nobody likes that guy. The novelty of jumping around with a plastic guitar was always going to wear off eventually (even if we said things to the exact opposite effect back in 2006) and there are only so many widely-regarded rock and metal anthems you can find. As the production line expanded, the setlists - which are the real draw after you've bought your first game in the franchise - arguably deteriorated.
Part of this is definitely down to the loss of Harmonix, who seemed to display far greater expertise when it came to tracklist selection, though Neversoft are still responsible for my, and many others', favourite in the series: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. For me, it was the first game really made you feel like an absolute rock god. The rhythm timing were far more forgiving, but the swathes of notes and complex rhythms upped the difficulty level. Still, with a bit of practice, it was by far the easiest game to get into, with a massive haul of extra features.
Things went downhill after this, with some highly questionable decision from Activision, particularly when you compare the m to those of EA. In terms of band-related games, Aerosmith vs. The Beatles was always going to be a no-brainer, particularly when Harmonix added vocal harmony into the mix too. Then there was the battle for the younger gamers among us, there again Activision losing out with the insipid Band Hero, whilst Rock Band leaped into bed with Traveller's Tales for some LEGO-related fun, and one of the finest setlists the two franchises ever saw.
Guitar Hero: Metallica finally showed some real adoration for the subject material, and is probably the game Neversoft can be most proud of, but it came at the wrong time, amongst a flood of material as the drowning pool began to swell. The less said about Guitar Hero: Van Halen the better.
Whilst the last couple of years of relative ignominy spelled doom for the music genre as a whole, Guitar Hero is far from dead. Cultural benchmarks like this don't just die, and make no mistake about it - Guitar Hero has proven to be of great significance even if some of the lustre has faded in recent memory. It'll be back again in some form, though the break might well be a long one. True it was surpassed, and yes, it consumed itself, but just for letting us channel our inner rock gods rather than shooting yet another person in the face, we should give thanks for the good times, and there have been many...fire up Free Bird, and throw up the horns.