Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A clear case of fatigue.

The long time music game series Guitar Hero is getting the ax. Should I have said 'axe'? I guess it's no surprise. It's the same reason that we're not buying Tony Hawk Skateboarding games like it was 2001. It's game fatigue.

Colored dots come streaming down a screen, and you play the dots as notes in time with the music that your are listening to via a guitar-like plastic controller, and it's basically the same from Guitar Hero 1 on. From Guitar Hero 1 to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, not counting DJ Hero or handheld releases, that was 12 games in the span of almost five years - from November 2005 to September 2010. What makes that even more ridiculous is that Guitar Hero (2005) and Guitar Hero II (2006) were the only releases of their respective years, which means the last ten games were crammed into the last three years of that. By comparison, the last ten Mario games stretch all the way back to 1988 - although that's only Mario platforming games and doesn't count all the sports titles, Super Smash Brothers, or Mario Party games.

Of course, it's no coincidence that Activision took over the series from the original developer in 2007. Harmonix had been purchased by MTV Networks/Viacom right after Activision acquired RedOctane. RedOctane was the other half of the original Guitar Hero/Guitar Hero 2 dream team, the half involved with the plastic guitar controllers. Harmonix went right to work on a conceptually identical competing game, Rock Band which added drums, bass, and vocals to the existing guitar paradigm. Guitar Hero was quick to add the other instruments in an effort to keep up.

In an eerie parallel to the previous Tony Hawk situation, Activision brought in developer Neversoft to work on Guitar Hero once they took it over . Also, similar to the Tony Hawk scenario, they dedicated themselves to cranking out sequel after sequel. I'm not sure about Tony Hawk in this respect, but a real problem with Guitar Hero is that playing it against an opponent doesn't do anything for its replay value. Once you really learn the song in Guitar Hero, that's pretty much it. The competitive aspect shoehorned into Guitar Hero 3's so-called 'guitar battles' helped put me off of Guitar Hero for good. Well, some of you would say - but Guitar Hero is so much fun at parties when there's a group playing! That's correct - but that's cooperative, not competitive. So probably there are a bunch of agreed-on songs that everybody likes, and you play those, and that's about it. If you do it again, the experience is largely the same. Even in a platform game, it's harder to replicate the experience exactly and additional playthroughs may yield some new area you didn't find the first time, and it's not like there would be a hidden alternate ending of a song if you changed one chord at a certain point to something that wasn't on the screen. Well, there could be, but since a musician thought of it instead of a game designer, it can't be in the game. There aren't new special moves to learn, or an added-in character in the new version that forces everyone to re-learn all their strategies, or a game-changing new weapon to try. If you want a new song, that might be something genuinely new, but it's a lot of work for something that only a few will purchase as a download, and many will resent as a standalone release.

At a certain point, I would guess that fans of the music game genre were starting to wonder if they should run down to their local Guitar Center and pick up some guitar stands. If you had the original PlayStation 2 Guitar Hero guitars, they didn't work on PlayStation 3, so you might have been better off buying new guitars with the sequels. If you switched to Rock Band at some point, you had to buy new guitars for that, also. Then, the newest Guitar Hero games included super Expert Plus modes for even more plastic button pushing, and Rock Band fights back with MIDI-compatible instruments with more realism and little 25-key keytar. Did I mention that there were drumsets? Do you even have enough room to set up a fake plastic drumset where your game console is without moving a couch or a bed? I wonder how many people opted to set up their Guitar Hero rig in a garage so that they could get the full garage band experience. Also, did these new little faux-garage bands take advantage of the newer features of the Guitar Hero games? Are these the sort of people that would get extra mileage out of the game by creating their own music? At a certain point, playing Guitar Hero makes me just want to practice real guitar more instead of playing to the canned tracks - perhaps they could have garnered my favor with a substantial version of "21st Century Schizoid Man" in Guitar Hero 3 instead of waiting until Guitar Hero 5.

At a certain point, I think the audience was sick of paying over and over again for ostensibly the same experience every time. There's a sweet spot - games like Perfect Dark (that Rare made right after GoldenEye) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 have it - where all the things that you wished that you could have put in the first game end up in the second game. It was the same experience, but better, richer. Once you get past that sweet spot, it seems like some publishers just crack the whip on the developers for frequent sequels to get the short-term cash in lieu of building a long-term brand.

So, dear readers - what game genre or brand will get ruined next?

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