Guitar Hero Live: a music video game for the Spotify generation
The first job of the Guitar Hero revival was to find out why the music died. Or at least, why the music video game died. After Guitar Hero’s introduction in 2005, a plastic instrument craze swept the world, players leaping around their living room wielding a toylike ax, tapping coloured buttons in time to rock anthems. There were full band expansions, karaoke, DJ turntables, keytars… even The Beatles got involved. But then, since 2010, silence.
“We wanted to find out why people stopped playing,” says Freestyle Games head Jamie Jackson, tasked with reviving the genre after its five year hiatus. So his team trawled message boards and analytics, coming to the conclusion that –after the glut of games that eventually burned the genre out-- players were simply bored of the familiar setup. Any comeback, then, would mean changing the gameplay to feel fresh, but remaining familiar enough to fire the rock-god synapses in the same way.
The thrill of music games comes from input, your fingers dancing across the buttons lined up on the frets of the guitar. So the instrument was the obvious place to start. Freestyle began by tearing the trunking from the office walls and smashing up regular controllers, cobbling together prototype guitars from bric-a-brac. The studio has previous with this BJ Baracas mentality, constructing prototype turntables for the superb DJ Hero in Jackson’s garage, and went through a host of ideas –cameras, social games, no proprietary controller at all-- before settling on a subtle but significant tweak to the guitar’s design. The traditional setup is five coloured buttons in a single row on the neck of the guitar. Guitar Hero Live switches to two rows of three.
This six-button setup has the dual purpose of adding a layer of new complexity for veterans, but not overwhelming newcomers. Many casual plastic instrument players will tell you the trickiest transition to higher levels is the introduction of the fifth button, as you have to start moving your hand along the neck. In Guitar Hero Live, your hand can remain in the same position but the challenge comes from wrapping your noodle around the two different rows. Once you start moving up the levels, tricky bar chords and open strums mean you will need as fancy finger-work as ever.
For my part, I had a fairly strong obsession with the genre in the late noughties, chasing high scores on Expert before lapsing into occasional party play with a preference for karaoke. The muscle memory remains though, and it is a surprise how natural the switch to the new setup feels. The top row is represented by black plectrums pointing upwards flying towards you on the screen’s highway, while the bottom row are white ones pointing down. A neat case of double-reinforcement as you settle into the zone. Is it better than the traditional setup? Only more prolonged play will suss that out, with rival Rock Band 4 choosing to stick to the more established model.
One of the most interesting aspects of this music game revival, in fact, is the different approaches that each game is taking. Rock Band is partying like it’s 2010, with a full band experience and the same gameplay. Guitar Hero Live, meanwhile, is focussing on guitar (with a little bit of karaoke on the side, warbling fans), subtly shifting the gameplay and altering how the music is delivered. It makes for the sexier preview copy, certainly, but it is perhaps riskier.
This is best illustrated by Guitar Hero TV, a Spotify-esque streaming service that will serve up 100s of songs for release and beyond, but also asks players to give up the idea of ‘owning’ tracks. You are given two channels that will stream music videos 24/7, with you able to jump in and play along to your heart’s content at no extra charge. Different genre shows will take up half-hour slots, and you can switch between each at the press of a button. Want to settle in for half-hour of death metal? Tune in at 7. Prefer to noodle along to One Direction and Echosmith on the pop programme, switch over. Freestyle promise these channels will be updated constantly depending on community feedback, meaning you will always have a constant flow of new songs to play.
Just not necessarily when you want, unless you dip into your fund of Guitar Hero ‘tokens’. Each song on the Guitar Hero TV service is available to play when you want at the cost of one of these tokens, which can be earned in game from prolonged playing and good performance, or bought with real cash. One token equals one play of any song, but you cannot buy a song outright. For veterans of music games, it’s a concept that might take some getting used to, if not treated with outright suspicion. Jackson understands the concerns, but insists that not only is this how we consume media these days but it actually offers better value. Some people would play certain songs they bought constantly, but most players only dipped in once or twice, if at all. This way, in theory, you are only paying for when you play. There will also be a ‘party pack’ deal, which will give you unlimited access to all songs for a set amount of time. Much will depend on how the balance between earning tokens in play and the price of using real cash is addressed once Guitar Hero Live is in homes, but the theory seems sound.
There will be plenty of songs packaged in with the main game, however, and even in its campaign mode, Guitar Hero Live is doing things a little differently. Gone are the cartoon caricatures of previous games, replaced by live-action bands and crowds. You view the action in first-person, as if you were the guitarist standing on stage, exchanging satisfied nods and energetic bounces with bandmates and sucking up the crowd’s adulation. When you’re doing well anyway. Start to miss notes and the mood shifts, the singer might give you a patronising quizzical look that makes you want to elbow him in the face, while the fans will start to boo.
The idea of fan reactions as feedback is an interesting one. For me, I couldn’t take the shame, any time those fans in the front row gave me their sad face, I wanted to knuckle down and get the song back on track. Others may find the notion a little too distracting, or even annoying. But Freestyle clearly believe in the concept, putting an enormous amount of work into creating the live-action video that accompanies each song. Auditions were held for band members, with the best sorted into fictional bands that cover different genres. Each band has its own backstory and flavour, with Jackson saying the creation of each band made him feel like ‘Simon Cowell on acid’.
Then came the filming, framing both the positive and negative reactions to each track with almost identical cues, with a giant robotic camera rig known as ‘Penelope’ whisking around the stage representing the player character. Crowds were drafted in to bounce along to songs, while FrameStore, the London-based company that played a key role in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, helped to composite the live-action film with computer-generated assets to build both intimate gigs and sprawling rock concerts.
The result is lavish and convincing, making it clear that a lot of time, money and effort was poured into making these sections. But more than that is the verve and belief that flows through them and the rest of the game. Many questions remain over Guitar Hero Live –and indeed the plastic instrument comeback-- but Freestyle are convinced they have the answers.