Our Heroes Have Fallen

Surprise, sur-bloody-prise, the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero series are dead, at least for a while anyway. I say surprise, but was I really the only one that saw it coming? I mean REALLY..? Although mainstream media whipped up a frenzy, proclaiming Activision’s decision to axe both the series as “shocking” and “totally out of the blue”, in reality the death of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero is about as surprising as the ending to Halo: Reach.

And it’s hard not to agree with Activision’s decision. Whilst the games developer/publisher giant showed utter lunacy by canning True Crime: Hong Kong, a game which was practically finished with advertising and promotion for the game well under way, their decision put the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero series to the sword was merely the inevitable.

It’s no secret that the latest incarnations of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero suffered poor sales, with Activision’s last Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock managing to sell just 86,000 units in it’s first week, compared to Guitar Hero 5’s 500,000 first week sales. Despite raving reviews, both DJ Hero 1 & 2 never reached the dizzy height that was predicted either; analysts predicted the first DJ Hero would sell 1.6 million units in its first fiscal quarter, did it manage it? Did it bollocks! It creeped in with a measly 600,000, not even half of what was expected.

Even their biggest rival got in on the act. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the recent job cuts over at Rock Band developer, Harmonix, might have had something to do with the fact that their latest version of the Rock Band series, Rock Band 3, massively undersold. The game sold only 7,400 copies in the UK alone, within it’s first two days of release, a disappointing number for any game, let alone a game that’s part of a globally successful franchise.

But whilst analysts can predict this and that, I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted just how rapid the decline of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero would turn out to be, within a blink of an eye it all seemed to go from best seller to the bottom of the bargain bin. Sure, the signs were all there, the poor sales, but the question really is, why was such a money making, cash cow, series allowed to fall from grace in such a way? After all, this is franchise owned by Activision, the masters of making money and keeping series going, you’ve only got to look at World of Warcraft or the Call of Duty series to see that.

There is of course no definite, pin-point reason for the decline in sales, and ultimately the death of the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero series. However, after looking at the games and the sub genre as a whole, a few glaring things come into the fold that provide a little bit of insight.

Since 2005, when Guitar Hero was first released, there have been a total of 24 games released by Activision under the “Hero” moniker, including DJ Hero, Band Hero, and the dozens of spin-off titles and band-centric releases. 24 games in the last 6 years, that’s 4 games a year. Factor in the releases from rival series Rock Band (17, including Rock Band 1, 2 & 3, the copious amounts of spin-offs and portable titles, and the hard copy releases of 7 track packs), and weekly releases of DLC, and you’ve got yourself a sub genre that’s extremely overcrowded.

I was once a fan of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and I dread to think how much money I’d personally spent on the games, the DLC and the instruments, but there came a point when the cost got too much, even for me. The DLC and games stopped getting bought, and the instruments got put up in the attic. But surely the insurmountable costs can only be part of the problem, after all, if the games are good, innovative and full of new ideas that warrant a purchase, people will buy them no matter the cost, which is where the likes of Activision and Harmonix really made matters worse.

From game to game, the Rock Band, Guitar Hero and DJ Hero games didn’t stray from their tried and tested formulas, which is ironic considering the series were all music games, one of the most creative and artistic forms of expression. The songs changed, the graphics got slightly better and the instruments became more and more sophisticated which impacted the gameplay somewhat, but there was nothing really drastically different, there was nothing that said “buy me because the old version of me doesn’t have this and that, and I do”, and thus gamers didn’t feel compelled to buy the latest and newest version of the franchise (as shown by poor sales), they simply stuck with their old versions and stocked up on DLC instead (shown by the huge DLC sales for all the series).

To be fair to Harmonix and Activision, the effort was there and some changes were made, but they were so weak and misdirected that they were neglected completely. The Rock Band Store was a stroke of genius on Harmonix’s part and extremely profitable as it’s $107,000 in Rock Band Network sales in 2010 have shown. But additions like making your own tracks in Guitar Hero, or playing a controller which was also real guitar in an attempt to help people actual learn to play the guitar, which is what Harmonix introduced in Rock Band 3, they all seem totally off the mark, totally missing the point and the magic of what made the series so famous in the first place.

The magic and wonder of Rock Band, DJ Hero and Guitar Hero was that the games could take any average Joe and turn them into a superstar. You could fire up the game, play your favourite songs and just have fun, that was it. The additions of teaching you how to actually play guitar, or create your own tracks was the polar of opposite of what made the games so brilliant. Speaking as a gamer, as a musician and a one time fan of the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band I can say that the point of playing the games was to play your favourite songs, not ones you’ve created yourself, and you would play the games to indulge in a tiny bit of escapism, to feel like you were rock stars, but you didn’t actually want to take the time out to learn how to be one.

But although I sit here and seemingly “bash” the recently deceased rhythm action games, I am still very sad to see them go. In their inception, these games were ground breaking, unique and opened up so many doors to the music and games industries that it was nothing short of revolutionary. DLC as we know it probably wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the weekly releases of music and the births of so many living room superstars wouldn’t have happened either.

And now we move on, the games are dead but we still have the best aspect of the games to keep us going, the DLC, but for now, our heroes have fallen.