Guitar Hero is a series of music video games first published in 2005 by RedOctane and distributed by Activision in which players use a guitar-shaped peripheral to simulate the playing of lead, bass guitar and rhythm guitar across numerous rock music songs. Players match notes that scroll on-screen to colored fret buttons on the controller, strumming the controller in time to the music in order to score points, and keep the virtual audience excited. The games attempt to mimic many features of playing a real guitar, including the use of fast-fingering hammer-ons and pull-offs and the use of the whammy bar to alter the pitch of notes. Most games support single player modes, typically a Career mode to play through all the songs in the game, and both competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. With the introduction of Guitar Hero World Tour in 2008, the game includes support for a four-player band including vocals and drums. The series initially used mostly cover version of songs created by WaveGroup Sound, but most recent titles feature soundtracks that are fully master recordings, and in some cases, special re-recordings, of the songs. Later titles in the series feature support for downloadable content in the form of new songs.
RedOctane, then a company primarily in the manufacture of unique game controllers, was inspired in 2005 to create Guitar Hero based on their experience with creating hardware for Konami’s GuitarFreaks arcade game, and enlisted the help of Harmonix Music Systems, who had previously developed several music video games, for development duties. The first game in the series was made on a budget of $1 million. The series became extremely successful, leading to, in 2007, the acquisition of RedOctane by Activision, while Harmonix was acquired by MTV Games and went on to create the Rock Band series of music games in the same vein as Guitar Hero. Activision brought Neversoft, known for their Tony Hawk series of skateboarding games, onboard for future development duties. Additional companies, such as Vicarious Visions, Budcat Creations, Machineworks Northwest, and Aspyr Media have assisted in the adoption of the games for other systems.
The game currently has four major releases and three expansions on gaming consoles, and with spinoffs for Windows and Macintosh systems, mobile phones, the Nintendo DS, and an arcade game, with several more titles announced for future release. The Guitar Hero franchise has become a cultural phenomenon and learning and development tool for medical purposes, and has revolutionized the modern music industry. The series has sold more than 25 million units worldwide, earning US$2 billion at retail, claimed by Activision to be the 3rd largest game franchise after the Mario and Madden NFL franchises; According to Activision, the third game in the series, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is the first single video game to exceed $1 billion in total sales.
Harmonix era (2005-2007)
The controllers bundled with Guitar Hero releases (from left to right): Gibson SGs for Guitar Hero & Guitar Hero II (PlayStation 2) and Gibson X-Plorer for Guitar Hero II (Xbox 360) & Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PC)
The original Guitar Hero was released on the PlayStation 2 in November 2005 and was developed by Harmonix. Harmonix had been previously known for developing music video games such as Frequency and Amplitude for the PlayStation 2, both of which were praised for enabling players to perform and create music using a DualShock controller as if it were a musical instrument.
Guitar Hero is notable because it comes packaged with a controller peripheral modeled after a black Gibson SG guitar. Rather than a typical gamepad, this guitar controller is the primary input for the game. Playing the game with the guitar controller simulates playing an actual guitar, except it uses five colored “fret buttons” and a “strum bar” instead of frets and strings. The development of Guitar Hero was inspired by Konami’s GuitarFreaks arcade game, which at the time, had not seen much exposure in the North American market; RedOctane, already selling guitar-shaped controllers for imported copies of GuitarFreaks, approached Harmonix about creating a game to use an entirely new Guitar controller. The concept was to have the gameplay of Amplitude with the visuals of Karaoke Revolution, both of which had been developed by Harmonix. The game was met with critical acclaim and received numerous awards for its innovative guitar peripheral and its soundtrack, which comprised 47 playable rock songs (most of which were cover versions of popular songs from artists and bands from the 1960s through modern rock). Guitar Hero has sold nearly 1.5 million copies to date.
The popularity of the series increased dramatically with the release of Guitar Hero II for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Featuring improved multiplayer gameplay, an improved note-recognizing system, and 64 songs, it became the fifth best-selling video game of 2006. The PlayStation 2 version of the game was offered both separately and in a bundle with a cherry red Gibson SG guitar controller. Guitar Hero II was later released for the Xbox 360 in April 2007 with an exclusive Gibson X-Plorer guitar controller and an additional 10 songs, among other features. About 3 million units of Guitar Hero II have sold on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360.
The final game in the Guitar Hero series to be developed by Harmonix was Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s for the PlayStation 2, which was released in July 2007.
Both RedOctane and Harmonix were experiencing changes in 2006. RedOctane was bought by Activision in June—who spent $100 million to acquire the Guitar Hero franchise—while it was announced in September that Harmonix would be purchased by MTV Networks. As a result of the two purchases, Harmonix would no longer develop future games in the Guitar Hero series. Instead, developing would go to Neversoft, a subsidiary of Activision known for developing the Tony Hawk’s series of skateboarding games. Neversoft was chosen to helm the Guitar Hero series after Neversoft founder, Joel Jewett, admitted to the RedOctane founders, Kai and Charles Huang, that his development team for Tony Hawk’s Project 8 went to work on weekends just to play Guitar Hero. In 2007, Harmonix and MTV Games released a new music title through rival publisher Electronic Arts, called Rock Band. It expanded upon the gameplay popularized by the Guitar Hero series by adding drum and microphone instruments, allowing players to simulate playing songs as bands, though this functionality was added to Guitar Hero beginning with Guitar Hero World Tour.
Neversoft era (2007-present)
The Gibson Les Paul guitar controller bundled with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (pictured is the Xbox 360 guitar controller). A similar Gibson Les Paul guitar controller is bundled with the Wii release, but is white, and requires the Wii Remote to be inserted in the back. For in-store demos on the Xbox 360, a wired Les Paul controller is used.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was released in late 2007 for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC, and Mac platforms. The title is the first installment of the series to include wireless guitars bundled with the game and also the first to release a special bundle with two guitars. The game includes Slash and Tom Morello as playable characters in addition to the existing fictional avatars; both guitarists performed motion capture to be used for their characters’ animation in the game.
On September 4, 2007, Billboard announced that the band Aerosmith was “working closely with the makers of Guitar Hero IV, which will be dedicated to the group’s music.”On February 15, 2008, Activision announced that Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, an expansion game to the series, would be released on June 29, 2008. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is developed by Neversoft for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, while the Wii version of the game is developed by Vicarious Visions and the PlayStation 2 version is developed by Budcat Creations. The game features a track selection composed of 60% of Aerosmith songs, with other songs from Joe Perry’s solo work or artists that have inspired or performed with Aerosmith, including Run D.M.C..
Guitar Hero World Tour, previously named Guitar Hero IV, is the fourth full game in the series and was released on October 26, 2008 for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii. Analysts had expected that future Guitar Hero games in 2008 would include additional instrument peripherals to compete against Rock Band; Guitar Hero World Tour was confirmed as in development following the announcement of the merger between Activision and Vivendi Games in December 2007. Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick announced on April 21, 2008 that Guitar Hero World Tour will branch out into other instruments including vocals. Guitar Hero World Tour includes drums and vocals, and can be bought packaged with a new drum set controller, a microphone, and the standard guitar controller. A larger number of real-world musicians appear as playable characters, including Jimi Hendrix, Billy Corgan, Hayley Williams, Zakk Wylde, Ted Nugent, Travis Barker, Sting, and Ozzy Osbourne. Guitar Hero World Tour also features custom song creation that can be shared with others.
Activision’s 2008 SEC filings cited that they plan to release Guitar Hero: Metallica by the first quarter of 2009, according the Wedbush Morgan Securities. Guitar Hero: Metallica is based on the full band experience of World Tour while offering similar features on Metallica’s history and music as found in Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. In addition, Metallica’s album, Death Magnetic, was available as downloadable content for Guitar Hero III simultaneously with the release of the album, with the content being forward-compatible with Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero: Metallica. Since The PlayStation 2 version does not support downloading, three extra songs were included from Death Magnetic and are as follows: “Broken, Beat, and Scarred”, “Cyanide”, and “My Apocolypse”.
Guitar Hero: Smash Hits (titled Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits in Europe) was released in June 2009, and features full-band versions of 48 songs present in earlier Guitar Hero games which only used the guitar controller. Unlike the previous versions, each of the songs is based on a master recording including some live tracks. The game follows a similar model as Guitar Hero: Metallica, and was developed by Beenox Studios for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and Wii.
The “Guitar Grip”, developed by Vicarious Visions for the Nintendo DS series Guitar Hero: On Tour provides four fret buttons for the game, while strumming is done on the DS touchscreen.
Guitar Hero: On Tour was released on the Nintendo DS hand-held system on June 22, 2008. The game includes a peripheral, dubbed the “Guitar Grip”, a rectangular device that fits into the second slot of the Nintendo DS or DS Lite. The peripheral only features the first four fret buttons and a strap so the Nintendo DS can be held sideways comfortably for play. The game also includes a guitar pick shaped stylus for use with strumming in the game, which players move across the touchscreen. Guitar Hero: On Tour was developed by Vicarious Visions, who also ported the Guitar Hero games to Nintendo’s Wii console.
A sequel, Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades, was released in November 2008, featuring music spanning four decades. A third title in the series, Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits, was announced following various rumors of its existence, and was released in June 2009, and features songs recorded since 2000. Both games reuse the “Guitar Grip” controller, and allow two players to compete against each other using any version of the On Tour series, with songs being shared between versions.
Hands On Mobile
Guitar Hero III Mobile was released for mobile phones in 2007 and 2008, and was developed by MachineWorks Northwest LLC. The base version of the game includes 15 songs from both Guitar Hero II and Guitar Hero III, and has released a three-song add-on pack every month since January 2008. The title has been downloaded by users one million times, with both Verizon and Hands-On Mobile claiming that over 250,000 songs are played a day on the platform.
Another mobile phone game, Guitar Hero III: Backstage Pass was developed by Hands-On Mobile and released in July 2008; in addition to the usual Guitar Hero elements, the game adds simulation of the management of the player’s band on its way to success.
Hands-On Mobile also secured worldwide rights for a mobile game based on Guitar Hero World Tour which was released on December 1, 2008.
Activision and RedOctane have also worked with Basic Fun, Inc. to produce Guitar Hero Carabiner, a handheld electronic game that features 30 and 60-second clips of ten of the songs from Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II.
Activision and Konami, who have previously worked together to make sure that the Guitar Hero series meets with Konami’s patents on music games, developed an arcade console version of the game, entitled Guitar Hero Arcade, distributed to arcades in early 2009. The game is primarily based on the Guitar Hero III gameplay, reducing some of the features such as character customization, but keeping the ability to download new songs for the cabinet from the Internet.
Activision and RedOctane have trademarked the titles “Guitar Villain”, “Drum Villain”, “Keyboard Hero” and “Sing Hero”. RedOctane originally trademarked the titles “Drum Hero” and “Band Hero”, but the work performed towards the Drum Hero title was eventually folded into the gameplay for Guitar Hero World Tour. Activision plans to release “multiple new Guitar Hero SKUs” in 2009, according to Activision Publishing CEO Mike Griffith. Industry analysts expect that three expansions to World Tour will be made before the next major title in the series.Activision is expecting to triple the number of games released under the Guitar Hero title by 2010.
Guitar Hero 5, the fifth main entry in the series, was confirmed in December 2008. Activision president of publishing Mike Griffin stated that there will be a “major restage” of the Guitar Hero brand in the second half of 2009. Industry rumors stated that three additional games, Hard Rock Van Halen, Band Hero (a separate title from Guitar Hero 5), and another Nintendo DS game are due to arrive before the end of 2009.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen was confirmed by Activision for release in the second half of 2009. Like the other band-centric games, Guitar Hero: Van Halen will include 25 songs from the band Van Halen, including 3 guitar solos by Eddie Van Halen, in addition to 19 guest acts such as Queen, Weezer, blink-182, Foo Fighters, The Offspring and Queens of the Stone Age.
Slash, in describing the band-specific Guitar Hero titles for Aerosmith and Metallica in an interview with Rolling Stone, stated that “Those are two ones that I think gives [the ”Guitar Hero” series] some credibility. And they’re doing a Hendrix one, which is great”, hinting at the development of Guitar Hero: Hendrix.
In November 2008, Activision acquired Budcat Creations, another development studio that has helped with the PlayStation 2 versions of Guitar Hero III and World Tour, announcing that they will be helping to develop another game in the Guitar Hero series.
DJ Hero was announced by Activision in May 2009. Prior to the announcement, the company had purchased FreeStyleGames, a small developer of music games, to help produce localized downloadable content for Guitar Hero games and, at that time, a yet-to-be announced music game, since revealed to be DJ Hero. DJ Hero will use a special turntable-based controller for players to perform with on various song mixes in the game. The game will incorporate the use of a Guitar Hero controller on ten specially-arranged tracks; Bright has suggested that future Guitar Hero games after Guitar Hero 5 may include the use of the turntable control. Though the game is scheduled for release in October 2009, there currently exists a lawsuit between Genius Products and Numark, developers of another turntable-based music game Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, and Activision and 7 Studios, another studio acquired by Activision to assist in development. Genius and Numark content that 7 Studios, who were working on Scratch, illegally used their assets towards DJ Hero once they were acquired, and are seeking damages.
In that same announcement, Activision confirmed that two new titles, Band Hero and Guitar Hero 5, would be released in the fall of 2009. According to Activision Guitar Hero 5 will bring an “unprecedented level of control over the way they play the game with the ability to drop in and out of songs and change band members, instruments and difficulty levels on the fly”. Band Hero will be rated E10 and feature Top 40 hits aimed at family audiences, and include the full band play style of Guitar Hero World Tour.
Activision has also announced a PlayStation Portable title for the Guitar Hero series that would feature a drum component.
Gameplay of a single player playing a song. The player in Guitar Hero must play the colored notes on the fret board in time to the music as they scroll through the target at the bottom. The score and current score multiplier are shown on the bottom left. The Rock Meter dial and Star Power indicator are shown on the bottom right. The remainder of the screen shows the player’s character and band as they perform to the music.
The core gameplay of the Guitar Hero games is a rhythm game similar to Harmonix’s previous music games such as Frequency and Amplitude. The guitar controller is recommended for play, although a standard console controller can be used instead. The game supports toggling the handedness of the guitar, allowing both left-handed and right-handed players to utilize the guitar controller.
While playing the game, an extended guitar neck is shown vertically on the screen (the frets horizontal), often called the “note highway”, and as the song progresses, colored markers or “gems” indicating notes travel down the screen in time with the music; the note colors and positions match those of the five fret keys on the guitar controller. Once the note(s) reach the bottom, the player must play the indicated note(s) by holding down the correct fret button(s) and hitting the strumming bar in order to score points. Success or failure will cause the on-screen Rock Meter to change, showing how well the player is playing (denoted by red, yellow, and green sections). Should the Rock Meter drop below the red section, the song will automatically end, with the player booed off the stage by the audience. Successful note hits will add to the player’s score, and by hitting a long series of consecutive successful note hits, the player can increase their score multiplier. There is a window of time for hitting each note, similar to other rhythm games such as Dance Dance Revolution, but unlike these games, scoring in Guitar Hero is not affected by accuracy; as long as the note is hit within that window, the player receives the same number of points.
Selected special segments of the song will have glowing notes outlined by stars: successfully hitting all notes in this series will fill the “Star Power Meter”. The Star Power Meter can also be filled by using the whammy bar during sustained notes within these segments. Once the Star Power Meter is at least half full, the player can activate “Star Power” by pressing the select button or momentarily lifting the guitar into a vertical position. When Star Power is activated, the scoring multiplier is doubled until Star Power is depleted. The Rock Meter also increases more dramatically when Star Power is activated, making it easier for the player to make the Rock Meter stay at a high level. Thus, Star Power can be used strategically to play difficult sections of a song that otherwise might cause the player to fail.
Notes can be a single note, or composed of two to four notes that makes a chord. Both single notes and chords can also be sustained, indicated by a colored line following the note marker; the player can hold the sustained note(s) keys down for the entire length for additional points. During a sustained note, a player may use the whammy bar on the guitar to alter the tone of the note. Also, regardless of whether sustains are hit early or late, if the fret is held for the full duration of the hold, the game will always award the same amount of score increase for the note. In addition, the games support virtual implementations of “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs”, guitar-playing techniques that are used to successfully play a fast series of notes by only changing the fingering on the fret buttons without having to strum each note. Sequences where strumming is not required are indicated on-screen by notes with a white outline at the top of the marker instead of the usual black one, with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock adding a white-glowing effect to make these notes clearer. Guitar Hero World Tour features transparent notes that are connected by a purple outline; players may either simply tap the correct fret for these notes without strumming or utilize a touchpad on World Tour’s guitar controller to “slide” along these notes. In addition, notes can now be played while a sustained note is being played. World Tour also adds an open string note for bass players, represented by a line across the fret instead of any note gems, that is played by strumming without holding down any fret buttons.
Gameplay of a whole band in Guitar Hero World Tour playing Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”. On top is vocalist, bottom from left to right: Guitar, Drums, Bass
Guitar Hero World Tour introduces drums and vocal tracks in addition to lead and bass guitar. Drum tracks are played similar to guitar tracks; the player must strike the appropriate drum head or step down on the bass drum pedal on the controller when the note gems pass the indicated line. Certain note gems, when using a drum controller that is velocity-sensitive, are “armored”, requiring the player to hit the indicated drum pad harder to score more points. Vocal tracks are played similar to games such as Karaoke Revolution where the player must match the pitch and the pacing of the lyrics to score points. Guitar Hero 5 will allow for players to create a band of up to four players using any combination of instruments.
While the song is playing, the background visuals feature the players’ chosen avatar, along with the rest of the band performing in one of several real and fictional venues. The reaction of the audience is based on the performance of the player judged by the Rock Meter. Guitar Hero II added special lighting and other stage effects that were synchronized to the music to provide a more complete concert experience. The games developed by Neversoft feature a simple storyline, usually about a band’s quest for fame, which is told through animations played throughout the game. These animations have been created by Chris Prynoski and his studio, Titmouse, Inc., who have also done animations for the animated show Metalocalypse.
In Guitar Hero III’s two-player “Battle Mode”, each player attempts to interfere with their opponent’s performance using special power-ups while avoiding being distracted by those thrown by the opponent.
The main mode of play in the Guitar Hero games is Career Mode, where the player and in-game band travel between various fictional performance arenas and perform sets of four to six songs. It is by completing songs in this mode that the songs are unlocked for play across the rest of the game. Players can choose their on-stage character, their guitar of choice, and the venue they wish to play in. In this mode, the player can earn money from his/her performances that is redeemable at the in-game store, where bonus songs, additional guitars and finishes, and bonus content can be unlocked. Quick Play mode is a quicker method of playing songs, as it allows the player to select a track and difficulty, selecting the character, venue, and guitar and guitar skin for the player based on the song chosen. After successfully completing a song, the player is given a score, a percentage of how many notes they hit and a rating from three to five stars, depending on his/her final score on the song.
The games have also added multiplayer modes. Cooperative modes allow two players to play lead and either bass or rhythm guitar on the same song, working together towards the same score. A competitive Face-Off mode allows two player to play against each other at different difficulty levels, each attempting to earn the best score on a song. Guitar Hero III introduced Boss Battles, in which two players face off against each other, attempt to collect “distractions” to throw at their opponent, trying to make them lose. With Guitar Hero World Tour, up to four players can play cooperatively on lead and bass guitar, drums, and vocals, while a total of eight players can compete in a Battle of the Bands. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii versions of the games support multiplayer modes over their respective network services.
The four difficulty levels for each song afford the player a learning curve in order to help him/her progress in skill. The first difficulty level, Easy, only focuses on the first three fret buttons while displaying a significantly reduced amount of notes for the player to play. Medium introduces the fourth (blue) fret button, and Hard includes the final fret button while adding additional notes. The addition of the orange fret button forces players to move their fingers up and down the neck. Expert does not introduce any other frets to learn, but adds more notes in a manner designed to challenge the player and to simulate the player’s hands to move in a sequence similar to a real guitar. A difficulty added in “World Tour” is Beginner, which only requires the player to strum to the basic rhythm; holding the fret buttons becomes unnecessary. Another new difficulty has been added to “Metallica” known as Expert+, which uses the double bass pedal.
Characters and customization
When playing through Career mode or in other parts of the Guitar Hero games, the player has the option to select one of several pre-created avatar characters, who will be shown performing on stage as the player attempts a song, but otherwise has no effect on the gameplay. A certain number of characters are available at the start of the game, but the player must spend in-game money earned by successful performances to unlock other characters. Many of the characters reappear throughout the series, though some games feature a smaller number of characters. Games that feature caricatures of celebrity artists, such as Guitar Hero III , Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica include the ability to unlock those artists as playable characters. The ability for the players to create their own avatars was added in Guitar Hero World Tour.
In addition to unlocking characters, in-game money can be used to buy alternative outfits for these characters and guitars that they are seen playing with. The guitars can also be customized with special finishes purchasable through the in-game store. Guitar Hero World Tour includes the ability to fully customize any component of the guitar. The in-game store in the series is also used to unlock bonus songs or special videos with interviews about the game or with the artists involved.
Most of the games in the Guitar Hero series feature a selection of songs ranging from the 1960s to present day rock music from both highly successful artists and bands and independent groups. Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s features songs primarily from the 1980s, while both Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Metallica features music from the respective bands and groups that inspired or worked with the bands.
Many of the Guitar Hero games developed for the recent generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii) support downloadable content, allowing players to purchase new songs to play in the respective titles. Songs each cost approximately $2 through the various online stores for the console’s platform. Prior to Guitar Hero 5, downloadable content for earlier games will not work in other games in the series, save for songs from Metallica’s Death Magnetic which were available for Guitar Hero III, World Tour, and Metallica. Existing World Tour downloadable content for World Tour will be forward-compatible with Guitar Hero 5. Activision has also stated that they are considering a monthly subscription service to deliver downloadable content to user for future games. Guitar Hero World Tour introduces a music creation mode that will allow players to create and share songs via the “GHTunes” service.
In the first two games and the 2007 expansion Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, the majority of the songs on the main career mode set lists are covers of the original song; for example, a song may be presented as “Free Bird as made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd”. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock introduces a much larger range of original recordings, and World Tour featured a setlist that contained all master recordings. The covers throughout the games are mostly recreated by WaveGroup Sound who has worked before to create songs for Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution, and Karaoke Revolution, making small changes to the guitar portions to make them more adaptable for gameplay. Almost all of the unlockable bonus songs are songs performed by the original artist for the game (the only exception is the song “She Bangs the Drums” by The Stone Roses, which is featured in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock).
Prior to the release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Activision has worked with the iTunes Store to provide more than 1300 tracks of Guitar Hero-related music across more than 20 compilations, including most of the tracks from the games in the series, called “Guitar Hero Essentials”. These compilations, such as “Killer Guitar Solos” and “Guitar Anthems of the ’80s”, include songs related to but not contained within the Guitar Hero series. Dusty Welch of RedOctane has stated “Where there’s music, there’s Guitar Hero, and with iTunes, we are able to provide fans with a central location for downloading their favorite rock anthems.” Following the merger of Activision and Blizzard, the new company announced that it is planning on creating an alternative to iTunes based on the Guitar Hero brand that would allow for downloading songs and their associated note tracks for the Guitar Hero games.
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