Friday, 11 February 2011

Goodbye Guitar Hero! And Fuck You Activision!

Yesterday brought the sad news that Activision Blizzard have decided to axe their music-game business areas.

What that means is buh-bye to Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, and True Crime: Hong Kong, as well as around 500 Activision Blizzard employees losing their jobs.

First and foremost, it sucks to see people losing their jobs. Sadly there is no shortage of developers out of work at the minute thanks to the ongoing financial fuckup and a significant number of studios going tits up in the past year.

I never played DJ Hero. I didn't aspire to be a DJ when I was young and I reckon I can get the same effect from listening to a single earphone, while saying 'fikka fikka' in a high-pitched voice and pretending to scratch a record.

Also, the one True Crime game I did play was a mess of a game that tried, and failed, to compete with the Grand Theft Auto series in the glory days of the PS2.
In short: I’m not hugely disappointed that we won’t be seeing any further DJ Hero or True Crime titles, though their cancellation is symptomatic of a sickness that has already infected one major studio, and may begin to pop up in others.

The first time I heard about Guitar Hero, my reaction, I’m sure, was the same as many other people’s: Why the fuck would anyone willingly be seen in public with a small plastic guitar strapped to them? It struck me as the kind of thing Lennie Small might do if left unattended in the Early Learning Centre.

But then, one drunken night, I found myself gazing blearily at a friend’s TV screen, trying to mash buttons in time with Sum 41’s Fat Lip and it occurred to me then that ‘HOLY FUCKING SHIT, THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN INVENTED EVER!’

The following Friday, I took a trip into town and returned to my house with a plastic guitar and a copy of Guitar Hero. I tried to coax my flatmate Fil into having a go on it. I explained the principle behind it:

‘Look, it’s simple. Just press the coloured buttons as directed on screen, at the same time as hitting the strum bar and that’s basically it.’
‘Errrr…I dunno, seems a bit…stupid’
‘Oh, go on. Look, it’s got ‘Ziggy Stardust’ on it. You like that.’
‘Oh alright, but just a quick go, I have things to do.’

Next thing I know, it’s Monday morning. I’m drunk, probably sacked, I’ve spent all my money on booze, there aren’t any cigarettes left in the world because we’ve smoked them all, Fil and I haven’t left the house in two days and there are people whom I’ve never met before arguing over who gets the next go and whether the song choice should be ‘Symphony of Destruction’ or ‘Bark At The Moon’.

That was the beauty of Guitar Hero. It could bring people together under the mighty banner of rock and get them fucking smashed in the process. In the weeks that followed, our hand eye co-ordination skills improved while our livers took the beating of their lives. People actually started coming into our fusty, damp living room of their own free will! It was a magical time, and the release of Guitar Hero 2 and the purchase of a second guitar gave us the gift of rock competition. In our heads it was like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen having a shred-off, only WE got to be Eddie Van Halen!

And then what happened? Two things. One, the people behind the development of Guitar Hero, Harmonix, were purchased by MTV Networks to work on a new IP known as Rock Band. The second event was that the manufacturers of the game peripherals, Red Octane, was bought by Activison, who also retained the Guitar Hero brand.

And this is where things went wrong.

                                                           Alternative caption for this pic: 'So be it, Jedi'

Activision Blizzard, under the helm of Bobby Kotick (read: the gamers Antichrist), are a force for pure evil. If there was ever a Galactic Empire of the gaming world, it is Activision Blizzard, and Bobby Kotick is a mixture of Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader and Jar Jar fucking Binks, poured into a lumpen, shareholder-friendly container.

Kotick has talked in his past about the desire to take the fun out of making games, and his aim to exploit Activision franchises for the maximum bottom-line. And from what we’ve seen from Guitar Hero, that second ambition is very true.

Now, as the head of a public company, that Kotick only feels a responsibility to his shareholders is both understandable and nothing new. He only desires to maximize the profit generated by Activision Blizzard’s titles, which keeps the Activision Blizzard stock prices high, and gets him pats on the head from the shareholder. The sad part about this is that, in doing so, he systematically dismantles and destroys his franchises in order to wring as much money out of them as possible before discarding them, and in doing so, devalues the positive memories and experiences that his companies’ games have offered.

Let’s look how this happened with Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero 3, admittedly, wasn’t bad. It was pretty much complete by the point Red Octane was acquired by Activision. It retained the core gameplay from the previous Guitar Hero games, added online multiplayer, introduced a narrative story mode and had a decent track listing. But even then, it had started to feel stale. Bear in mind that Guitar Hero 3 released in the same year (NA, 2007) as Rock Band, a game which allowed you to play guitar, drums or do the vocals on a range of tracks. In short: Rock Band was Guitar Hero, but more.

It was after this point we began to see the Activision conveyor-belt game development system in action. In case you aren’t aware, this means putting out a game from a particular franchise once a year. The problem with doing this is that a) it provides fuck-all time for a studio to make any major innovation between two titles of the same IP, b) gamers get fatigued, as the lines between one game and another blur, and finally c) it pisses gamers off, as it is generally accepted that such a short turn-around time reflects a shitty, churned-out product.

Therefore, the fourth game, Guitar Hero: World Tour, released in North America almost exactly one year later in 2008. And what was new this time round? They had added support for drums and vocals! And only a year after their main competitor Rock Band had done so. La-dee-fucking-da!

What other ‘innovations’ did World Tour offer? The introduction of a Beginner/Retard difficulty level, where the player simply had chew on the end of the guitar controller and say ‘Duuuuuuur’ and the game would say ‘Good job! You rock!’. It removed the need to actually unlock songs, so there wasn’t really a difficulty curve as such, apart from that imposed by the player. And it also had a loveable feature whereby it would require the player to play notes that didn’t actually exist in the song, and to remain silent for notes that did. Maybe this game should have been called Guitar Idiot?

2008 also saw the first Guitar Hero expansion (read: desperate attempt to squeeze as much money from the fans with as little effort as possible) dedicated to a specific band, namely Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Not a bad effort, if you’re a fan of Aerosmith, but it highlighted an issue that would blight subsequent band-focused expansions; a large percentage of the songs in the game weren’t actually by Aerosmith. If you look at the track listing, you’ll see The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult and others. You see, due to licensing, many Aerosmith songs weren’t available, so they had to fill out this release with other guff. To be fair, this wasn’t as pressing an issue with subsequent expansions, but it gives an indication of the level of thought going into the Guitar Hero franchise at this point. 2009 saw the release of Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (a cynical collection of tracks from earlier GH games, not an expansion based on the now-defunct pop magazine). That’s right. Three separate expansions released in a single year, of which one was decent, one was shite in a jewel case, and one was a rehash. 2009 also saw the release of…

Guitar Hero 5 is memorable mainly for the legal wrangling to get Kurt Cobain as a playable character in the game. To this day, I don’t understand why Activision didn’t just take a shit on his grave? As much as I loved Guitar Hero, I’m fairly certain Cobain wouldn’t have endorsed a game produced by a multinational corporation where the player can rock out to ‘In My Place’ by Coldplay, so defecating on his final resting place would have been a much more effective way of giving his memory the finger. But then again, without regular injections of Botox and engine oil, Courtney Love just grinds to a halt, and that shit is expensive, yo. Guitar Hero 5 also saw the reintroduction of unlocked tracks, but by this stage to difficulty curve was so shallow, you could just put the guitar on the ground and stamp on it to proceed.

Finally, in 2010, came Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. When Rock Band 3 released in 2010, it added a new instrument in the form of a keyboard as well as a new feature in the shape of a ‘Pro’ mode, which had the potential to actually teach the player how to play guitar. When Warriors of Rock launched, it added Gene Simmons.

Yes, Gene Simmons, a man built from money and self-importance, voiced the game’s antagonist, the Beast. I say ‘voiced’, but it was more like ‘stumbled over the words like a child learning to read’. The game also devoted a significant section of the ‘Quest’ mode to 2112, Rush’s seven-part prog-rock wankfest. Aside from that, there was nothing new. It was the previous year’s game with new songs and venues and some other cosmetic changes, but that was it.

It was at this point it became clear that Activision had given up on trying to do anything even remotely interesting with the Guitar Hero series and this last shot was just a test to see if fans would continue to vomit money on the latest peripherals. The answer to that question was no. Warriors of Rock performed poorly, both amongst critics and players. The critics didn’t like the lack of innovation, felt that many of the songs didn’t fit the feel of the game and that it was, overall, boring. With poor sales, it would seem that gamers concurred.

For most other studios, if one of their major franchise titles performed so poorly, they would hold back, rework the game, try something new with it and if it didn’t float, bin it/put it on hiatus. Not so with Activision and Guitar Hero. The second that the franchise ceases to be profitable, or requires reworking to become profitable again, they ditch it. Fuck the people who spent years making it, fuck the people who spent their money making it successful, just ditch it and move on to the next thing.

In terms of pure numbers, between Activision acquiring the Guitar Hero series and their announcement yesterday, they released eight (EIGHT!!!!) Guitar Hero titles. That is eight titles in the space of just under four years, and I’m not counting special Wii/DS or mobile releases.

And you can see the same thing happening with Activision’s Call of Duty franchise.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision in 2007 to huge critical acclaim.

Call of Duty: World at War was released in 2008. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 arrived in 2009. Call of Duty: Black Ops was released in 2010, and Modern Warfare 3 is expected to release this year. And yet the best of those games listed is the first, with subsequent releases becoming more derivative, and attracting less favourable criticism, with nothing approaching innovation included.

Such is the level of ‘all eggs in one basket’ currently being employed at Activision, they currently have five separate development teams working on various elements of the Call of Duty franchise. Other than Blizzard’s titles (WoW, Starcraft, Diablo), the only AAA Activision has left is Call of Duty.

And all it will take is for another multi-platform, innovative FPS to take a bite out of CoD’s market share and then maybe we’ll see Activision’s share prices take a nose dive, hopefully with Bobby Kotick removed from the games industry and a message firmly sent that you can’t run a long-term successful videogame company on a minimum investment/maximum profit basis.

Or, more likely, Bobby Kotick will just find another burgeoning franchise to exploit and run into the ground.