There’s a very typical scene played for comedy in movies and cartoons – the one with the typical party or some other big event, and there’s lots of chattering away. Then someone says something remarkably idiotic and/or absurd, and suddenly the conversation dies. This is sometimes accompanied with a record scratch, a string breaking on a musical instrument, or a glass breaking.
During Activision’s earnings report, we got one of those moments:
Asked how the company felt about impending competition by the end of the year, referring to Harmonix and MTV Games’ Rock Band, company officials took a curious stance in saying that it “wasn’t surprising that [the franchise] has attracted imitators” — seeming to imply that Harmonix was somehow now simply imitating the game it had itself helped build.
For those of you who have better uses of your time than following the ins and outs of the music game world, a brief history lesson. Guitar Hero was created in conjunction with four separate companies:
- Harmonix programmed the game, building on their expertise of coding games like Frequency, Amplitude, and Karaoke Revolution.
- RedOctane came up with the branding designed the guitar controller, building on their expertise of building third-party controllers for various Bemani games.
- MTV added their name to it, building on their expertise of attaching their name to things.
- Activision published it, building on a long history of game publishing that stretched back to the 80′s.
After Guitar Hero 2 was released, there was suddenly an effort to gobble up companies. Reasons remain unclear, but RedOctane was bought out by Activision in May, and a few months later, MTV bought Harmonix. This left Guitar Hero in an odd place – the franchise resided with Activision/RedOctane, the code with Harmonix/MTV.
Back to the present: this split is starting to be felt in substantial ways.
MTV/Harmonix are now working on a game called Rock Band for the PS3 and 360 (at the very least). The game will still have guitars, but also drums, bass, and vocals. There will be “deep online play”. Original masters of songs from multiple labels will be available. And so on. As this side of the equation was lacking a publisher, EA is on board to publish. Rock Band is scheduled for release this holiday season.
On the RedOctane/Activision side of things, there was no coding team. Activision pulled in Neversoft, known best for the Tony Hawk series. Depending on your views on that series, this is either great news, or a horrible warning of what may be in store. Regardless, Guitar Hero 3 is in development for the PS2, PS3, 360, Wii, and is due out this fall. It too will feature original masters and online play. Video of a beta of the game appeared online yesterday, and while it’s mostly the same, purists are already debating the changes to the interface.
To revisit the quote above: Activision reps said it “wasn’t surprising that [Guitar Hero] has attracted imitators”. There are at least three reasons this is hilarious:
To start, not even a year ago, all four of the original companies were still united and working on Guitar Hero II. History is apparently malleable to serve earnings reports.
Next, this is the video game industry – the home of countless ripoffs, copies, and clones. Three words, ladies and gentlemen: bald space marines. To make a remark that you’re not surprised you’ve “attracted imitators” might best be followed up by proclaiming your lack of surprise that candy is delicious.
Finally, speaking of ripoffs, copies, and clones…it may be difficult to remember of a time before Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where there couldn’t possibly have been any music games where you played a guitar, or rocked the drums. Yes, GH certainly carved their own path into the mainstream, but it owes dues to Konami’s work nearly 10 years ago.
(Sadly, Konami seems to have lost interest in doing Bemani titles in the US – they closed their Hawaiian office last year, and are in the process of merging their two California offices. To my knowledge, the only Bemani title that is in development right now is a DDR title for the Wii.)
Where these series go is anyone’s guess at this point – but it is certainly interesting times to be into music games.