Activision to rock ’n’ roll again with ‘Guitar Hero’

April 14, 2015 | 7:10 a.m.
(FreeStyleGames / Activision)

“Guitar Hero Live” will seek to re-create a concert experience. (FreeStyleGames / Activision)

Classic rock bands rarely stay broken up and once-dominant video game franchises aren’t likely to lie dormant forever. Activision is resurrecting its famed “Guitar Hero” brand, relaunching the franchise later this year with new gear and an updated look.

Gone are digital avatars and rainbow-colored animations that marked the rhythm-based series’ rise to prominence in the mid-to-late 2000s. Instead, the upcoming “Guitar Hero Live” will seek to re-create the concert experience, giving players a first-person point of view and filmed concert sequences.

A release date has not yet been set, but the FreeStyleGames-developed title will be available this fall for all major current generation consoles as well as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The title will sell for $99.99, a price that includes a revamped guitar and access to an ever-evolving online mode dubbed “GHTV.”

Activision’s reveal follows closely that of its chief competitor in the instrument game genre, Harmonix, which announced in March that its once-defunct “Rock Band” series would return later this year. “Guitar Hero” was essentially left for dead in early 2011, when Activision said it would scrap a planned “Guitar Hero” title for that year.

The dueling “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” franchises were once blockbuster hits, generating more than $1.6 billion in North American sales in 2008. Yet an abundance of sequels, including “Guitar Hero” titles that were themed to individual acts such as Metallica and Aerosmith, coupled with pricey plastic gear amid a declining economy, all contributed to a waning popularity for the games.

Activision product manager Tyler Michaud says the company has learned its lessons. In bringing the franchise back to life after essentially a five-year hiatus, Michaud promises that the company is not planning multiple iterations and said that “GHTV” content will not require an additional purchase. The latter allows fans to essentially play along to music videos, which will be streaming live across multiple channels.

“To be candid, there is no plan to release a new disc in 2016,” he said. “We believe this has legs and with ‘GHTV’ we can bring you new content and keep you engaged using this same guitar and the disc you purchased.”

Activision is staying mum on how many songs will be included with the game, but participating artists include the Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Gary Clark Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, the War on Drugs, the Killers, Skrillex and the Rolling Stones, among others.

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“Guitar Hero Live” creators wanted the player to feel a sense of “stage fright.” (FreeStyleGames / Activision)

With fictional, live-action in-game acts, the player will essentially slip into the role of a guitarist for an all-star cover band. Crowds will react to a player’s mistakes, with audience members seen throwing their arms up in disgust at mis-hits. FreeStyeGames’ creative director Jamie Jackson said the goal was to give the player a sense of “stage fright.”

With no digital avatars, Jackson said players will not choose between a male or female character at the start. A recent preview at Activision’s Santa Monica offices showed a scene in which a woman backstage flirted to the camera, but Jackson said sequences will vary depending on the act and setting.

“The whole first-person thing is about you putting yourself in those shows,” he said. “We’ve got all-girl bands. We’ve got a really wide variety. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl playing. It’s you. Yeah, the crowd responds differently and different things happen, but it was about trying to craft a beautiful world that made you the player believe where you are.”

As part of the revamp, Activision has given its guitars a new look. While that means whatever plastic guitar you have collecting dust in your closet will not work with the new title, Jackson said FreeStyleGames wanted a controller that would more closely mimic playing a real guitar.

Instead of color-coded buttons located down the fret of the guitar, the “Guitar Hero Live” instruments have six buttons stacked three-by-three at the top of the neck. The inspiration for the bundled placement, said Jackson, came from watching people air guitar.

“It also gives us things like chord shapes,” Jackson said, “and many more different combinations than we had previously.”

"Guitar Hero Live's" online component will have users playing along with music popular videos. (FreeStyleGames / Activision)

“Guitar Hero Live’s” online component will have users playing along with music popular videos. (FreeStyleGames / Activision)

Though Harmonix has pledged to find a way to make its upcoming “Rock Band” compatible with old instruments, Jackson said FreeStyleGames approached “Guitar Hero” as if the company was developing a brand new game and therefore wanted to tweak the gameplay. Activision’s Michaud even theorized that the games partly went out of favor for not regularly altering how they played.

Said Jackson, “We tried to treat it as a fresh start. ‘Guitar Hero’ is a much-loved brand and it still has a lot of active fans, and it was definitely a consideration. Do we stick with the same gameplay? What I heard was that our fan base wanted a new experience. They wanted something different.”

Different is “GHTV.” Think of “Guitar Hero Live’s” online component as sort of an interactive MTV, as players will be playing along to an artist’s filmed music video. “GHTV” is where the game gets competitive.  Since it shifts from a first-person perspective, players can now challenge each other locally or face off with others around the globe.

“It’s kind of like turning your television on at home,” Jackson said. “You turn it on, and whatever channel you had on last will come on and whatever program is then playing will be on. It’s 24-hours, seven days per week, and as soon as you turn it on you’ll be in whatever show and music video is on at that point.”

So, are fans ready to once again embrace rhythm-based games with plastic instruments? Michaud brushed off the notion that a new “Guitar Hero” would be a hard sell.

“You had a pretty gnarly recession going on,” he said when asked why the genre went south.

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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