Published Oct 24, 2007Music history is littered with rivalries, from the Beatles and Stones to Kanye and Fiddy. Now a pair of music videogames RedOctanes reigning champion Guitar Hero III and Harmonixs upstart Rock Band are preparing to wage war.
At both Sony and Microsofts recent holiday preview events, the two titles got prime locations across the room from each other. Their presence was marked by blaring metal, lengthy line-ups and massive crowds chattering excitedly about GHIIIs rad Les Paul controller and Rock Bands awesome drum kit while rocking out to "Paint It Black or "Wave of Mutilation. The buzz has been deafening. But the opening act is over and now both companies must capitalize on the unexpected mainstream splash of the first two Guitar Hero games, which they made together. Of course, that success is why their collaboration is no more.
When the first GH game dropped in 2005, nobody thought itd break out of the cult category that housed similar rhythm-based games like Dance, Dance Revolution. At least not in North America that shit has been big in Japan since 1997s PaRappa the Rapper.
But the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master Guitar Hero gameplay and, more importantly, its cool-ass controller, won a fervent fan base. By the time the sequel dropped the following year first on the PS2 and later in inaugural next-gen form for Xbox 360 it had become a full-fledged phenomenon and wound up the years fifth biggest-seller, not bad for a genre that had never gone beyond niche.
"Guitar Hero is such an easy game to just pick up and play, explains RedOctanes Bryan Lam. "Its not as intimidating as a first-person shooter or an RPG. You dont have to punch Y to jump. It started out with the hardcore gamers but word of mouth spread like wildfire. Then the mass market got behind it. Its like the new karaoke.
Once it hit that mainstream tipping point, Guitar Hero was suddenly being played at house parties, tournaments were held at bars and it even became a staple on tour buses. But such growth comes with pains.
The two companies responsible were small ventures. RedOctane made game peripherals until 2005 when they got into the publishing business. Theyd created that now-iconic guitar controller and needed a developer to build a game around it. So they approached Harmonix, then-known for critically acclaimed, commercially-negligible music games like 1999s FreQuency and 2003s Amplitude. The former focused on electronic music (Crystal Method, Roni Size, Orbital) while the latter was rockier (Garbage, Weezer and David Bowie) and they also created Karaoke Revolution, Time magazines 2003 game of the year. Oh, and collectively Harmonix staffers play in 33 different bands.
Clearly the company had a handle on this fledgling genre. But where previous efforts were somewhat abstract, Harmonix John Drake says Guitar Hero, "touched more direct of a nerve by letting you physically feel what its like to play music. But fast forward to 2006 and the corporate sharks were circling. First game giant Activision bought RedOctane for $100 million and a few months later Harmonix was bought by MTV, who saw music games as their perfect entry point into the industry. With different parent companies, the partnership went splitsville. "Both companies were growing, the games were doing really well, and they just went in their separate directions, says Drake, quipping, "two little companies being bought by two huge companies its the American dream.
RedOctane hired NeverSoft, the team behind the Tony Hawk franchise, to take the reigns on the third Guitar Hero while Harmonix and MTV hooked-up with Electronic Arts to publish Rock Band.
Both games share similarly stylized graphics, vertical-scrolling colour-based gameplay and have largely eschewed the notorious "as made famous by cover songs since so many musicians have themselves become fans and the labels have realised its moneymaking potential.
"Its a great source of revenue and great exposure for the bands, says Drake. "And its fun to watch people rock out to your music and play real guitar rather than air guitar. Or, uh, plastic guitar rather than air guitar.
Their original songs range from the obvious (Radiohead, Metallica, Strokes) to the obscure (Montreals Priestess). Sex Pistols even re-recorded "Anarchy in the UK for GHIII while Rock Band plans to release Nirvanas Nevermind as a playable download.
The big difference is that Rock Band is largely based on Guitar Hero IIs big advancement co-op play with lead and rhythm guitar (or bass, if its a Primus track). Rock Band turns co-op gaming up to 11 by including guitar, bass, drums and a microphone. Its full-meal deal karaoke with an equally full price tag (US$169).
"[Rock Band] is closer to what playing music is like, says Drake. "Its not something you traditionally do alone. Its not about competition, its about collaboration and working together. But that means Rock Band is inherently a party game and who knows how well the game holds up online or when you dont have a crew of friends over to virtually jam with. The additional instruments may be an evolution of the series, but one of the beautiful things about Guitar Hero is its stripped down simplicity.
Regardless, the winner of this battle will be gamers. "Theres a lot of room in this genre to grow, says Lam, "[besides] its always good to have a little competition, it spurs creativity. "I think the rivalry is a little silly, agrees Drake. "Nobodys snipping wires. The games are about having fun. At the end of the day youre playing a guitar to your favourite music. Enjoy yourself.