Rock Band Blitz: How Harmonix Defeated Activision

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When Guitar Hero 3 was released, a brilliant South Park episode coincided with it, parodying the concept and execution of the music genre in a brilliant way that could only come from the minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I remember watching this episode when it premiered, laughing my ass off and subsequently turning on Guitar Hero 3 to play some more.

Since then, times have changed. Activision acquired the Guitar Hero brand with their purchase of publisher RedOctane while Harmonix, Guitar Hero’s original developer, expanded on the idea with Rock Band. The height of the music genre’s popularity saw Guitar Hero and Rock Band replacing karaoke machines in bars and arcade cabinets being developed. Of course, the bubble burst, and one franchise lies in a pile of ashes waiting to be resurrected while another thrives thanks to continued fan appreciation.

What happened? Let’s discuss.

The first Guitar Hero was, quite simply and in every sense of the phrase, a labor of love. With a one million dollar budget and a brand new concept that had never been attempted in North America, Harmonix sought to create the same feel as Konami’s GuitarFreaks arcade game. There were no sales expectations and no projections to meet; RedOctane and Harmonix were independently owned and operated at the time.

The idea of playing a plastic guitar to act out music tracks sounds ridiculous to anyone but gamers, who were just the sort of people to buy into this idea. Dance Dance Revolution had seen its popularity soar, but players who preferred rock and metal to dance were left out in the cold. Harmonix created a best of the best soundtrack, licensing 30 songs from the likes of Black Sabbath, The Ramones, Joan Jett, White Zombie, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Pantera. When I first turned on the game, I don’t think I stopped playing until my hands hurt and my eyes were suffering from serious tunnel vision. This was also before the days of achievements, ranked online multiplayer and a full band setup. It was myself, the toy guitar and however high I could get my score on each song…the way a game should be played.

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Guitar Hero sold about a million and a half copies, an astounding feat considering it was a brand new idea with a brand new controller that could only be used with one game and cost $70. There was no way this wouldn’t draw bigger companies’ attention, and soon enough Activision came calling, purchasing RedOctane and releasing Guitar Hero 2 on the PS2 as well as the Xbox 360. Maybe it was the fact that a big publisher now oversaw production, but I could never get past the feeling that the sequel felt…different. Not worse, but changed. It was the same feeling a lot of people get when an underground favorite band of theirs suddenly becomes more exposed and is no longer “their” band anymore. The first Guitar Hero had no press that I can remember; it was a word of mouth phenomenon, and a selfish part of me wanted it to stay that way. The sequel put an end to that immediately, and thanks to contractual obligations, Harmonix had to pump out one more GH game before their purchase by Viacom could be complete. Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s was the same game, same price with a new coat of paint and a ton of songs that would be later celebrated in the musical Rock of Ages.

This is when Activision began to show their true colors.

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Guitar Hero 3 was accompanied by a total media assault. Not only did it have commercials, it was touted as including the likenesses of real guitarists including Tom Morello and Slash. Every single system available saw a release, and the blatant advertisements inside the gameplay screamed “we sold out.” This, of course, was not Harmonix’s fault in any way – they were busy with their own new project.

The company Harmonix is composed almost entirely of musicians, and despite the fact that they were now backed by MTV money, there is an air of authenticity to Rock Band that was lost in Guitar Hero 3. Furthermore, Harmonix introduced the one thing fans had been asking for since they strapped on a guitar for the first time: other instruments. Not only could you now freely play bass on the guitar controllers, Harmonix utilized their karaoke development skills to let you sing. The newest (and most musically accurate) technology came in the form of the drums, which mapped a snare drum, three cymbals and a bass pedal to the notes flying at you on the screen. Harmonix was once again reinventing the music game with Rock Band, and Activision would never be able to catch up…but damn if they didn’t try.

Guitar Hero 3 was released on all major consoles on October 28, 2007. By the time 2009 was over, thirteen games in the series had been released. Yeah. Thirteen games across all systems. “Milking a franchise” is a phrase thrown around a lot, but it has never been better demonstrated by what Activision did to Guitar Hero, something you could see coming even before the ink on their purchase of RedOctane had dried. Not content to let the core games sell, they released band-specific Guitar Hero entries for Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen. They branched out with a new concept in DJ Hero, asking people to pony up even more money for a new turntable accessory. They even churned out three games on the Nintendo DS, with a strange fret-button contraption to plug into the Game Boy Advance slot. This resulted in a lot of cramped hands and even more wasted dollars as Nintendo moved away from the DS Lite design and ditched the GBA slot. The most recent entry, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, had some convoluted story mode involving the lyrics to Rush’s “2112” and narration by Gene Simmons.

Jesus Christ, enough already.

Harmonix, on the other hand, knew how to go about this the right way. Rock Band’s entire track list minus three songs could be exported to the sequel that came out one year later, along with every single song purchased from their massive library of tracks available from their store. In 2009, Harmonix pulled off the big one, scoring access to The Beatles’ master recordings before iTunes could even do the same. The resulting Beatles Rock Band game was not just a great music game, but the most faithful recreation of Beatles music you could find outside of going to see the Love show performed in Las Vegas. Green Day also got their own game, as well as a Lego version of Rock Band and two portable entries, one on the PSP and one on the DS, which play just like Harmonix’s oft-forgotten rhythm games Frequency and Amplitude. Rock Band 3 not only introduced us to keyboards as the next instrument, but a Pro mode that goes even farther to blur the line between game and music. Thanks to backward and cross compatibility, there are literally thousands of songs to play…and that’s not even including the Rock Band Network, where indie bands get to upload their own songs to have everyone around the world experience.

You didn’t see that kind of interactivity in Guitar Hero: Van Halen.

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Today, the landscape of the music genre is drastically reduced. Guitar Hero is, for all intents and purposes, no more. RedOctane has been shut down by Activision and there have been no plans at this point to bring back the series. Harmonix has been sold off by Viacom and had to lay off about 15 percent of its staff in early 2011, although when you consider how bad the economy is, 15 percent isn’t a huge loss for a niche developer of music games. Guitar Hero is dead, but the Rock Band series thrives, thanks to the continued support of downloadable songs through the store. The latest entry will be released at the end of this month in the form of Rock Band Blitz, which takes the gameplay of Harmonix’s PS2 games and brings it into the world of today’s consoles. I haven’t purchased a game by them since Rock Band 2, but the fact that I can re-download every single song I ever purchased for all the games and use them with Blitz makes this a guaranteed purchase for me.

There are plenty of gaming companies who prey on customers, and Activision-Blizzard is one of the most notorious for this practice. Harmonix is not, and thanks to this, it isn’t a Guitar Hero game I will be buying on August 29.

– Anystrom0

Image Sources
GH vs. RB:
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