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"Why Are We Walking Away from Guitar Hero Instead of Trying to Reinvent it?"

Internal Activision memos provide some insight into the company's decision.

Like last week's Call of Duty story, that headline is ripped from an Activision memo, word-for-word.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock has been the best-selling video game this past generation, topping every Call of Duty game and Nintendo's exercise behemoth, Wii Fit. Yet, back in February, Activision announced the closing of their Guitar Hero Business Unit, a section of the company dedicated solely to operating the Guitar Hero franchise. It's not news that music games have sharply declined after Guitar Hero III and Rock Band, but Activision's decision felt like the end of a chapter in gaming history. 

After the news was made public, Activision distributed two memos to its employees discussing the decision to move on from Guitar Hero, why Call of Duty wouldn't become Guitar Hero (published as part of a story earlier last week) and the reasons driving the cancellation of True Crime: Hong Kong. Those memos were passed onto me, and while Activision doesn't dig as deep into Guitar Hero's newfound dormancy, it's interesting to read Activision's own internal posturing about the franchise.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock proved the series' high point. 
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock proved the series' high point. 
== TEASER == "We are closing the stand-alone Guitar Hero Business Unit," wrote Activision COO Thomas Tippl in one of the memos. "Because of significant declines in the music genre for the second year in a row, we have made the decision to close the stand-alone Guitar Hero Business Unit and discontinue development on the previously announced 2011 game."

Activision was actively developing a new Guitar Hero to be released in 2011, following Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, a more story-oriented take on Guitar Hero that didn't receive the warmest reception. It's unclear what direction the next Guitar Hero would've taken, but one could assume note highways.

"Despite our very high-quality releases last year," added Tippl, "including the 90+ [Metacritic] rated DJ Hero 2, the innovative Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, as well as a 90+ rated release from our competitor [Harmonix's Rock Band 3], demand for peripheral-based music games has continued to decline at a dramatic pace. Given the considerable licensing and manufacturing costs, we simply cannot continue to profitably make these games based on current consumer demand."

That's the larger story of the current state of peripheral-based music games: everyone was suffering. If Rock Band 3 had been a massive success, Activision may have chalked Guitar Hero's decline to being outpaced by the original developers of Guitar Hero. That's not to say Activision would have stayed the course with the next Guitar Hero, but there was evidence the current formula wasn't going anywhere. Gamers and critics still dig the games, hence some of the high scores, but the mainstream audience has drifted.

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"Guitar Hero quickly reached incredible heights, but then began a steady decline," said Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg in a separate memo. "Call of Duty, on the other hand, has steadily grown every single year of its seven-year existence. Guitar Hero, was a new genre which had incredible appeal, but which had not stood the test of time. Call of Duty exists in a genre—first person shooters—that has shown remarkable staying power and wide appeal over a period of decades. "

Most assumed this decision meant Activision was done with Guitar Hero, ready to walk away entirely. 

Hirshberg presented himself with that very question, too. 

"Why are we walking away from Guitar Hero instead of trying to reinvent it?" reads part of the memo.

At first, Hirshberg reiterates what Tippl already said: music games built on the former winning formula aren't selling. More importantly, he argued this shift had nothing to do with the quality of the games.

"The most compelling reason for this decision is the fact that so many high quality games have suffered the same fate in the marketplace. DJ Hero 2 received a remarkable 92 rating," he said. "Guitar Hero, Warriors of Rock was a great game with several innovations for the category. Our key competitor, Rock Band 3, also achieved a 90+ rating and yet none of these games succeeded in finding an audience. This is not a matter of lack of quality or poor execution. This is simply a matter of the market running out of appetite for this genre."

Seems like Activision just complimented Rock Band 3. Well, sort of. 

Some DLC is still being released, but expect that to be phased out.
Some DLC is still being released, but expect that to be phased out.

In any case, while one could assume the end of Guitar Hero, Activision has maintains this is not necessarily the case. What form Guitar Hero will take if it returns is an open question. Critics have argued Guitar Hero's demise was the result of oversaturation. Since Guitar Hero in 2005, there have been 11 different Guitar Hero games. That does not count DJ Hero or the portable and arcade editions.

"The Guitar Hero brand name remains strong," said Hirshberg, "and perhaps after a cooling period we will revisit the franchise with fresh innovation. But innovation will take time and a deep reconsideration. We can’t change the tire while riding the bike. And for now, there is simply no evidence that continuing down the path of making the games currently in production would lead to success."

Brands are incredibly important to publishers. It assures them there's a built-in audience for a product. Take next year's Prey 2, a game very loosely associated with the original, in most respects. Prey was already a thing and that Prey 2 can exist means that Prey 1 had to exist. That's the basis of a brand.

If I were a betting man, I'd say Guitar Hero's coming back. I just don't know what it'll look like. 
Patrick Klepek on Google+