Out of context, it’s one of the strangest viral videos going right now: a digital avatar of Kurt Cobain not only singing tracks from Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, Rammstein and Public Enemy, but outright performing them with gangster poses, joyous twirls and microphone-stand moves. It’s a video that doesn’t just trip and fall into the uncanny valley – it dives in head-first.
The video comes from the newly-released game Guitar Hero 5, which boasts among its many features the ability to unlock not only Cobain but Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana, Matthew Bellamy (Muse) and Shirley Manson (Garbage) as “fully-playable characters.” That means unlike in previous Guitar Hero games – where guests would only perform on their own songs – any one of these famous musicians can be used to play any instrument on any one of the game’s 85 tracks. You could, for example have a band of four Johnny Cashes playing a rock remix of a Public Enemy song as if they were Chuck D and Flava Flav themselves.
Most of the outrage, though, has been over Cobain’s avatar (I guess Cash’s devotees are less likely to be gamers). The sight of seeing one of the last truly iconic rock stars performing songs he likely hated set off a firestorm of criticism across the Internet, much of it targeting Courtney Love for allowing it to happen. She responded as most rational people do: unleashing a barrage of barely-intelligible Twitter updates that basically amounted to “this isn’t what I signed off on and I’m angry.” Activision, the gaming company responsible for Guitar Hero 5, responded with a statement saying, basically, that’s exactly what she signed off on. The truth, as is usually the case, probably lies somewhere in between.
But legality and contracts aside, a bigger question remains: who in their right mind thought that this was a good idea to begin with?
The timing of this fiasco couldn’t be more fitting. Last week saw the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, an astonishingly reverent tribute to the most iconic band of all time made by Harmonix, Activision’s chief rival in the musical video game business. Contrasting the two games serves to illustrate not only the growing ideological gap between the competing companies, but the awkward growing pains that occur when games and music collide.
A quick backstory note for the non-gamers. Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band were conceived by the same developer, Harmonix Music Systems. In 2004, having worked on a couple of cult hits, they were approached by Red Octane, a gaming accessories company who were looking for someone to build a game for a guitar-shaped controller. It wasn’t an original idea – Konami’s similar Guitar Freaks was a Japanese arcade hit – but it had never really been done in North America. Full of cover versions of some of rock music’s biggest classic hits, Guitar Hero became a huge word-of-mouth sensation and its sequel was an instant smash. Then Activision came calling. The world’s biggest video game company apparently valued the Guitar Hero brand and manufacturing model more than its developer and purchased Red Octane, leaving Harmonix free to sign a new deal with MTV and Electronic Arts to develop the first Rock Band. The rest, they say, is history.
And big business. The Guitar Hero franchise has sold nearly 29 million units in the U.S. alone; when a copy of the game with accessory can cost well over $100, you do the math. Rock Band’s only sold 7.7 million in comparison, but not terrible considering they’ve got two fewer years in the marketplace and it’s a more expensive product. And these numbers just take into account retail sales: for both games but particularly Rock Band there’s a huge secondary market in downloadable songs that add to a player’s library of available tracks. As of March, Harmonix reported that they had sold over 40 million additional songs.
The appeal of these games is obvious to most who’ve played them but rarely explained well in the gaming press. Most video games have traditionally about an abstraction of experience – you press buttons and your on-screen representation responds to your command as you work towards achieving your goal. In more recent years, many games have taken on more cinematic and narrative elements. But either way, they physical experience of the game is mostly separate from the emotional one.
In music gaming, however, the physical experience is essential to the package. With controllers shaped like guitars and drums, and soundtracks featuring iconic and beloved songs, the goal is not to abstract the experience of creating music but to recreate it as accurately as possible while still keeping the gameplay simple and accessible. There’s still an element of goal-seeking to these games – playing for a good score, not failing the song – but increasingly it’s secondary to the thrill that comes from simulating the performance (Rock Band can even be played with a “no fail” mode, and games in both series now come with their main setlist entirely unlocked for play from the start). Most of us don’t play Guitar Hero or Rock Band to “win”; we play for the thrill of playing.
Harmonix understands this. Read any interview with the company’s founders and you’ll see a complete self-awareness on why people enjoy their games and what they’re trying to achieve as a developer (I suggest starting with this awesome New York Times Magazine feature). This is probably because Harmonix are huge music fans themselves. From their full name (“Harmonix Music Systems”) downwards, everything they do bleeds with a genuine love for material that they’re working on. This fall, for example, they’re launching a new developer’s network that will make it easier for record labels to get their songs into Rock Band’s digital library, a move which seems likely to dramatically raise the already-impressive number of songs available to fans.
But nothing demonstrates Harmonix’s love of music quite like The Beatles: Rock Band. The Fab Four are not the first band to have a music game devoted to them (Aerosmith, Metallica and Van Halen also share the honour) but they are certainly the biggest, and the resulting game the most brilliant by a mile. Far more than just a collection of songs, the game – made with the full support and surprisingly thorough involvement from Paul and Ringo along with Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison – plays like an interactive archive, a journey through the band’s career with songs re-engineered for the game. In between tracks, you get never-before-heard studio banter and clip montages. While you’re playing, you see avatars of the band perform some of their biggest shows and – for the later-year songs – frolicking in beautiful “dreamscapes” each matching the music. And when you’re done, you get to explore rare photographs and videos that you unlocked by playing. It’s an astonishing act of mythology making. It skews reality, sure – there’s almost nothing here about the band’s breakup drama and charming liberties are taken with history and locales – but these games are all about mythical experiences to begin with.
The Beatles’ estate was reportedly in talks with both Harmonix and Activision for a Beatles music game and another video making the rounds this past week spoofs the idea of what might have happened had Activision won that battle. Guitar Hero: The Beatles presents an alternate universe where a Beatles video game is flashy and loud, one of nine Guitar Hero games coming out, contains only 15 of Beatles songs alongside 60 tracks by other bands, and – most significantly – where the developers really aren’t fans at all. In fact, the fake spokesperson jokes that he had never heard of the band before a clerk in their mailroom mentioned them.
It’s a comic exaggeration, sure, and I have no doubt that many of the developers working on the Guitar Hero games are music fans (or at the very least, know who the Beatles are). But there’s something that rings distressingly true about the video. Neversoft, the developer Activision tasks with doing the dirty work on the Guitar Hero series, was best known for their work on the Tony Hawk series when they were handed the franchise and had little experience in music gaming. And while they have been able to coast by on the brand goodwill established by their predecessor’s first two games, they now find themselves stuck in a trial of diminishing returns and may well be coming to a cold realization: they might not actually know what they’re doing.
The irony of all this is that, on the surface, the differences between Guitar Hero and Rock Band appear less and less significant with each incarnation. Both are now full-band games with guitar, bass, drums and vocals (you can even use the same instruments for either game). Both offer career modes, online play and downloadable content. Hell, even their track listings are getting more and more similar each time (many bands and labels, uninterested in picking sides, are offering up the same songs to both products). To a casual observer, they seem like an interchangeable Coke and Pepsi.
But as any soda pop connoisseur knows, Coke and Pepsi DO taste different. With music games, the reason why Guitar Hero is leaving a bad aftertaste with some gamers and music fans is partly Activision’s business strategy and partly their game development philosophy. With the former, it’s the not-unwarranted perception that Activision wants to wring money out of the franchise at the expense of quality. Their single-band editions like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica both feature songs by other bands and really add little to the game model other than the new tracks. Their downloadable content model is far smaller in scope and ambition than Harmonix and they seem to vastly prefer milking money at retail (which explains re-releasing older songs in Guitar Hero: Smash Hits instead of as paid downloads). Harmonix isn’t absolved in this game – I seriously question the need for Lego Rock Band this fall, for example – but at their acquiescence to the retail game seems more like a reluctant afterthought; for Activison, it’s their bread and butter.
But what intrigues me most are the design decisions Neversoft and Activision has made. Aside from co-opting Rock Band’s full-band play, here are a few of the bigger changes that have been made to Guitar Hero:
- A battle mode where players not only compete for a higher score, but can throw “attacks” at one another that impede their opponents’ ability to play.
- A music creation tool that allows the most committed of players to build their own tracks.
- The previously-mentioned inclusion of “fully-playable” famous characters that can be used on any song.
- The ability to play in any band arrangement. You want two guitars? Four bassists? Three drummers? Go right ahead.
Two things come to mind: one, that none of these ideas help make the Guitar Hero gameplay feel you’re actually performing these classic songs on-stage – if anything, they further abstract the experience. And two, they’re all ideas taken straight from the world of traditional videogames. Combat and competition? Cool alternate characters? Flexible user options? A “level creator”? All of these are classic tools that developers add to games to enhance replay and entertainment value.
Activision are treating Guitar Hero like a video game. Harmonix treats Rock Band like a music product. And that makes all the difference.
There have been several “doom and gloom” articles written over the past few months about the future of music video games. Year-to-date sales are down by 46 per cent this year over last. And while Guitar Hero III and Rock Band were regular guests on the video games sales charts, their follow-ups spent most of their time out of the top 10.
Is the great boom going bust? Possibly. A few qualifiers: first, obviously sales are going to decrease a bit as most interested gamers now have, if not a full set of instruments, then at least the guitars they need to play the games. Second, downloadable content isn’t taken into account in these numbers, and it’s reasonable to expect that some people will be content adding a few songs to their library and not purchasing new retail titles.
But anecdotally, there is cause for concern. With the core experience largely solidified, there really isn’t a lot of incentive for gamers to continue to pick up new copies each year, and the market for the games’ equipment – a big money-maker traditionally – disappears when everyone’s already got a set of plastic instruments. But the bigger issue is that a large portion of the audience for these games may be growing tired of them. Their core appeal was never a great match with hardcore, competitive-focused gamers to begin with, and casual gamers are probably struggling to find a reason to buy new editions. If after their initial rush, these games are only coming out at the occasional party, do players really need any more than the basic 50-60 songs?
Who does that leave? Music fans.
Which is why Harmonix’s strategy is the more sustainable one. Not only is it aimed at an audience of music lovers who aren’t going anywhere, but their support from the music industry itself is only going to increase, especially when the love and care of The Beatles: Rock Band is paired up against the twisted disrespect of creepy Kurt Cobain in Guitar Hero 5. Long after the music video game’s peak popularity has come and gone, Harmonix will still be successful because they’ve built a business around appeasing those of us who value the “music” above the “video game.”