Encore in your liv­ing room

‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Rock Band’ are ready for a come­back tour of store shelves.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Todd Martens

Like rock ’n’ rollers get­ting the band back to­gether, Ac­tivi­sion and Har­monix are res­ur­rect­ing their mu­sicbased fran­chises “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” ti­tles that in 2008 at their peak gen­er­ated more than $1.6 bil­lion in North Amer­i­can sales.

The two games, “Guitar Hero Live” and “Rock Band 4,” are hop­ing to make some noise at this year’s Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo (E3), North Amer­ica’s largest video game trade show, which be­gins Tues­day at the Los An­ge­les Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. The two games ar­rive in stores this fall, bring­ing with them an army of plas­tic gui­tars and a more mod­ern­ized fea­ture set.

They come to E3 as some­thing of un­der­dogs. Es­sen­tially ab­sent from the mar­ket­place for the last five years, the ti­tles were once giants of the in­dus­try and her­alded as a way to bring non-gamers into the gamer fold.

“They were very clearly fads, both of them,” says Michael Pachter, an an­a­lyst at Wed­bush Se­cu­ri­ties.

“Clearly they kind of grew be­cause of some frenzy,” he con­tin­ues. “Ev­ery­one was talk­ing about them all at

once. Other than per­haps, ‘An­gry Birds’ or ‘Candy Crush,’ I’ve never seen any game fran­chise that at­tracted more women than ‘Guitar Hero.’ They res­onated with con­sumers and grew way be­yond what any­body ever ex­pected.”

This time around, “Rock Band” will em­pha­size player cre­ativ­ity, even al­low­ing am­a­teur rock stars to more or less re­write guitar so­los. “Guitar Hero,” for its part, taps into our 24/7, on-de­mand mu­sic cul­ture.

Nei­ther is a sure thing a sec­ond time around.

“The de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers kind of need to treat this genre as if it’s a new op­por­tu­nity,” says Lewis Ward, an in­dus­try an­a­lyst with IDC. “They can’t take any­thing for granted and need to walk be­fore they try to run.”

They’ll also have to bank on con­sumers for­get­ting that both se­ries, once in­stahits, crashed and burned. “Guitar Hero” was es­sen­tially left for dead in early 2011 when Ac­tivi­sion said it would scrap a planned “Guitar Hero” ti­tle for that year. “Rock Band 4” will be the first ti­tle in the core se­ries since 2010’s “Rock Band 3.”

What led to the de­cline of the du­el­ing “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” fran­chises that once led the head­lines? Most an­a­lysts blame too many se­quels, in­clud­ing “Guitar Hero” ti­tles that were themed to in­di­vid­ual acts such as Me­tal­lica and Aero­smith, cou­pled with pricey plas­tic gear amid a de­clin­ing econ­omy.

Pachter ar­gues that con­sumers had no rea­son to buy more than one ti­tle, not­ing most only played their fa­vorite songs and weren’t in­ter­ested in shelling out the cash for another game. Still, he’s op­ti­mistic about what he has seen — and is hear­ing — from de­vel­op­ers re­gard­ing the new­est re­leases.

“A $2-bil­lion fad that has been kind of shelved for five years can grow to a $200- or $400-mil­lion fad now,” he says. “I think both de­vel­op­ers are con­scious that they prob­a­bly over­sat­u­rated last

time, and they can be a bit more de­lib­er­ate this time and not de­stroy the mar­ket by over­sat­u­rat­ing.”

De­vel­op­ers say they have learned from past mis­takes. “Rock Band 3,” for in­stance, tried to add com­plex­ity by al­low­ing for use of real in­stru­ments. With “Rock Band 4,” Har­monix is go­ing out of its way to en­sure play­ers can use their old plas­tic in­stru­ments.

“We went in a di­rec­tion for ‘Rock Band 3’ that’s been de­scribed as a bit of a sprawl,” says Greg Lopic­colo, cre­ative lead on “Rock Band 4.” “It had new in­stru­ments. It tried to teach you how to play real in­stru­ments. I’m proud of that, but we learned that’s not what most peo­ple wanted out of ‘Rock Band.’ Peo­ple wanted to party with their friends, and that’s our mis­sion in life.”

Like­wise, Ac­tivi­sion says it won’t re­peat past mis­takes. For one, the com­pany has pledged to not re­lease an up­dated ti­tle in 2016. Much of the fo­cus this time around will be not on down­load­able con­tent but, in­stead, on 24/7 stream­ing mu­sic video chan­nels, al­low­ing play­ers to dive into a heavy me­tal show on one sta­tion or f lip chan­nels and play along to pop videos on another.

“It’s an al­ways-on, 24hour playable mu­sic net­work,” says Jamie Jack­son, cre­ative di­rec­tor of Freestyle Games, which is de­vel­op­ing “Guitar Hero Live” game for Ac­tivi­sion.

Videos will be avail­able for pur­chase (prices have not been set), but that’s not the core of the game, as play­ers will have the free­dom to pick and play songs at will by com­pet­ing with oth­ers among the so-called GHTV sta­tions. New songs can be added daily, and “Guitar Hero Live” hopes to work with artists and la­bels to un­veil ex­clu­sive live clips, playable af­ter un­lock­ing a se­ries of chal­lenges.

In turn, Ac­tivi­sion has, es­sen­tially, re­vamped “Guitar Hero” from the ground up, so much so that the dig­i­tal avatars and rain­bow-col­ored an­i­ma­tions that marked the rhythm-based se­ries’ rise to promi­nence in the mid- to late 2000s are wiped from mem­ory.

The game will in­clude new gui­tars, mean­ing if you have any old ones col­lect­ing dust they’re not playable. In solo play, the game will rely heav­ily on filmed se­quences that are shown from a first­per­son per­spec­tive.

That awk­ward “Guitar Hero” mo­ment when a band’s dig­i­tal avatar was seen shak­ing and singing along to songs from a dif­fer­ent genre? That won’t hap­pen this time around. In­stead, play­ers will join live­ac­tion fic­tional bands, with au­di­ence mem­bers cheer­ing or boo­ing based on a player’s skill.

“The whole first-per­son thing is about you putting your­self in those shows,” Jack­son says. “We’ve got all- girl bands. We’ve got a re­ally wide va­ri­ety. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re a boy or girl play­ing. It’s you.”

Har­monix said it learned from last year’s “Fan­ta­sia,” an Xbox One ex­clu­sive that al­lowed play­ers to, es­sen­tially, remix songs, strik­ing the vo­cals from one track or adding brass to another. In turn, Har­monix wanted play­ers to have more free­dom in “Rock Band 4,” whether that’s “im­pro­vis­ing har­monies on the fly” or cre­at­ing more ex­pres­sive guitar so­los.

“It’s not one big thing. It’s a whole set of lit­tle things that makes the ex­pe­ri­ence of col­lab­o­rat­ing with your friends ... more im­mer­sive and more em­pow­er­ing,” Lopic­colo says.

Don’t worry, in “Rock Band 4,” you can’t stink. “You can’t ac­tu­ally mess up a guitar solo. It’s not pos­si­ble,” says Steve Ja­niak, CEO of Har­monix.

There’s still one ma­jor hur­dle each ti­tle will face this fall: They’re pricey lit­tle en­deav­ors. “Guitar Hero Live” is listed by re­tail­ers at $99, and a guitar bun­dle of “Rock Band 4” is cur­rently set at $129.99. Then, there’s the cost of a de­vice to play on.

Per­haps each ti­tle’s big­gest ad­van­tage is that it can ap­peal to those who don’t ever re­mem­ber play­ing a “Guitar Hero” or a “Rock Band” in the first place.

“The good news is we have a whole gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who haven’t played it, pretty much any­body who is un­der 15 didn’t play it last cy­cle,” Pachter says. “That’s an op­por­tu­nity.”

Freestyle Games/Ac­tivi­sion

“GUITAR HERO LIVE” will be dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal game in the way it looks and how it is played.

Kim­berly P. Mitchell As­so­ci­ated Press

LUKE DANIELS plays in a 2008 “Guitar Hero” com­pe­ti­tion in Rochester, Mich.

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