By James Brightman
Guitar Hero is perhaps the epitome of a fad. The game blew up in a very short time and just about everyone wanted to rock out with the plastic guitar peripherals. Activision came along and purchased Guitar Hero publisher RedOctane and propelled the franchise to new heights, but ultimately burnt it out. Activision boss Bobby Kotick recently talked about what went wrong in Guitar Hero and the ensuing DJ Hero series.
“We thought our relationships with the music companies would be more valuable than a small start-up company could ever develop on their own. So we bought the company [RedOctane], and after a few iterations of the game it became one of the most successful games of all time. And then we didn’t really take the time that we usually take to understand audience behaviour,” noted Kotick in an interview with Forbes.
“It was one of those things where we were resting on the idea that one of the essential fantasies of video games is to unleash your inner rock star. And it didn’t really matter how you did that, but as long as you were allowing people to unleash their inner rock star fantasies, you’d continue to be successful. So we went off on a passion project that had a point of differentiation – which is called DJ Hero.”
Kotick went on to note how DJ Hero in some ways hurtGuitar Hero because it diverted the company’s attention away from the main Guitar Hero franchise, which they should have continued to innovate with.
“And in hindsight, if you step back –and it really would have been a simple thing to do– we should have said, ‘Well, how many people really want to unleash their inner DJ?’ And then out of the people who do want to unleash their inner DJ, how many want to do it in the context of a game where you earn points, versus just taking a DJ deck or tools on their Macintosh and actually being a DJ? And it turns out it’s a very small market.”
“But we created this critically acclaimed, highly rated game – and these are the hardest failures, when you put your heart and soul into it and you deliver an extraordinarily well received game, and nobody shows up to buy it. So that’s what happened with DJ Hero. At the same time we were so excited about going down this new direction with DJ Hero, I think we abandoned a bit of the innovation that was required in the Guitar Hero franchise,” he acknowledged.
Kotick added that securing the right kind of music for Guitar Hero was also a major challenge for Activision.
“In the case of Guitar Hero, we did the research and it was very clear people didn’t want more 80s heavy metal music. But what they wanted was very difficult for us to get from the music companies,” he said. “I’ll give you an example: The number one thing that our audiences wanted in Guitar Hero was Led Zeppelin. But we couldn’t get Led Zeppelin to consent to give us the rights. And there were a lot of instances of that, a whole host of artists who just didn’t want to give rights to Guitar Hero, and it was hard to get around that. And then there were other things… we put things out there that were not ready for prime time and that today actually would resonate very well with audiences.”
Although Guitar Hero was killed off (at least in its current form), Kotick insists that it’s going to come back one day, and they’ll have new development teams to reinvent the franchise.
“…Guitar Hero became unsuccessful because it didn’t have any nourishment and care. So we made what I think was exactly the right decision last year. We said you know what, we need to regain our audience interest, and we really need to deliver inspired innovation. So we’re going to take the products out of the market, and we’re not going to tell anybody what we’re doing for a while, but we’re going to stop selling Guitar Hero altogether. And then we’re going to go back to the studios and we’re going to use new studios and reinvent Guitar Hero. And so that’s what we’re doing with it now,” he said.