Guitar Hero is back, but almost nothing that made the plastic-guitar rhythm game familiar remains untouched.
The trademark plastic guitar has been overhauled, the campaign now takes place in a responsive, first-person-perspective live-action video, and an always-online music video jukebox powers the game's multiplayer.
Perhaps the biggest shift is that while all modern consoles support Guitar Hero Live, it won't require a console or a television.
While the game is coming to PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, the full experience (including the same guitar) is also coming to tablets and smartphones. The mobile version of the game can either be played on the device or a television.
Guitar Hero Live doesn't have a firm release date, just this fall, but it does have a firm price: $99.99 with one guitar. The game has been in development at FreeStyleGames, the studio behind DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2, for about three years.
"Guitar Hero created this pop-culture phenomenon," said Tyler Michaud, senior director of product management at Activision. "Really, I would argue, it was one of the first titles to transcend our entire category and become this household name."
"But it's been a while. It's been five years since the last release."
That's not, Michaud said, because Activision had given up on the franchise.
"There's so much emotion and passion around the Guitar Hero brand at the company," he said. "It's something we always intended to bring back, when we had that legit innovation that would transform the way you play the game in a fundamental way. It's taken until now to have that. FreeStyle delivered that vision.
"I believe this truly is the reinvention of Guitar Hero."
Reinventing the guitar
While there is a broad collection of changes coming to the game, perhaps the most noticeable is how the plastic guitar controller has been reinvented. That's also how this new Guitar Hero was first given life.
"We always knew, like Tyler said, if we ever brought Guitar Hero back it had to be because we came up with some great innovation and made some big changes," said Jamie Jackson, creative director and studio head at FreeStyleGames. "The way we started it, we took it right to its core, its base. We said, what was it about Guitar Hero that was so cool in the first place? Why did it become the game it became?"
The answer, it turned out, was that plastic guitar and the way it so effortlessly connected you to the game, making you feel like you weren't just a gamer, but a rock star.
"It did that thing that video games do so beautifully when they do it well," Jackson said. "They take us somewhere else. Take us away from our day jobs. The thing that kept coming back around for Guitar Hero, in everyone's stories, was that it made them feel like a rock star."
In examining the game and its plastic controller, they realized they had the opportunity to make mastering the game both a bit easier, but also a deeper, more prolonged experience.
The original Guitar Hero guitar had a whammy bar, a plastic wedge that could be moved up and down to simulate strumming a guitar and five colored buttons lined up in a row down the neck.
The new guitar keeps the whammy bar and strummer, but shifts all of the buttons to the top of the neck, so players don't have to move their hand up and down while they play. Now the controller has six buttons in two rows of three.
"This idea came from quite a few different places," Jackson said. "First off, I guess, we wanted to make this hand do something that most people thought a guitarist does. By taking the buttons and splitting them in two rows, we have lots of different button combinations we can hit. We can hit chord shapes, which are familiar in guitar playing."
It also can make the game much easier to play at the basic levels, something attainable by an audience that was as young as 6 or 7 in the earlier iterations of the game.
"We wanted people to come into this Guitar Hero Live and have something to play that's very simple," he said. "It's totally basic, just those three buttons. It's all you need to worry about, the bottom row."
The redesign is also meant to fix an obstacle that confronted a lot of players. Some people on the original games were able to succeed at the medium level, but as soon as they bumped up the difficulty and were asked to use their pinky or move their hands, things went to "shit," Jackson said.
"I just couldn't get it to work," he said. "If I moved my fingers down the neck I'd lose my position, and by the time I got it back I'd been kicked out. We saw that a lot of people did that as well.
"So we wanted to build a game that would let in that idea of play that everyone's very comfortable with, using the three fingers to play. But we also really cared about the people who are expert players, hardcore players. They want a new challenge as well. They want something different. So going back, at a base level it's very easy to learn, but at the top end it's difficult to master. That was a mantra we had internally. Getting that base level, those three buttons for the medium, and then from there on you start to use the top row, which means that this hand is starting to do things a bit more like a guitarist. Then at veteran level, I have chord shapes and so many different button combinations we didn't have before.
"We wanted to come up with a new game. It had to be a new challenge. We didn't just want to regurgitate the old gameplay. We wanted to give you a new challenge. We wanted you to come back and want to play again, but we wanted you to have depth, almost reset you a little bit and make you go and learn something new."
Ebony and Ivory
The guitar also rids itself of the colorful buttons, using black and white instead. The redesigned user interface is meant to streamline the experience. Black buttons are the top row buttons and white buttons are the bottom row.
"We had these colors, and one day my head of the UI team came to me and said, 'I've come up with this idea I want to show you. I've taken the colors out,'" said Jackson. "I was like, 'Well, you can't take the colors out of Guitar Hero. That's Guitar Hero. Everyone knows the colors.' He says, 'No, check it out.'"
When Jackson and others tried playing the game with a colorless guitar, everyone's ability level instantly stepped up a little bit, he said.
"We were trying to figure out why that happened," he said. "What we came to was, you already know where your fingers are. You're moving them up and down. The idea of having colors to tell you where you are was kind of unnecessary. It was another bit of information that your brain had to process before you went, 'OK, is it up or down?' Stripping that out and saying, your brain already knows where your fingers are, you just need to know if it's up or down, it seemed like you were processing the information a lot quicker.
"It worked really well."
Finally, the team starting thinking about how they wanted the experience of playing the game to look. Beyond needing that highway of musical notes, the team felt they should shake things up a bit.
"If you remember Guitar Hero, the camera is always third-person, looking at the stage," Jackson said. "You have your characters and the band is on stage. You'd have some crowd, an audience somewhere."
The first step was to continue the push to make the player feel more like a rock star by turning the camera around and changing the player's perspective to one from the stage. Once they made that decision, they decided to shift the focus of the music played to live performances because it is so impacted by location and is so dependent on the crowd.
"The crowd brings a level of atmosphere with them," Jackson said. "That was something that we thought was really cool. We wanted to bring that. We wanted to give you that live experience, the experience of stage fright. That was a phrase we had internally for a while. We wanted to give you stage fright. We wanted you to walk out on stage in front of thousands of people and play.
The team worked on creating an experience shown through the eyes of the player, putting performances in a live venue and having the crowd react to how the player performs.
"So we thought, screw it, let's just make a movie," Jackson said. "Let's film real people responding to you. Let's have real crowds cheering along if you're doing really well, singing the lyrics back to you, but also giving you shit if you get it wrong. So that's what we did."
The result is a film that plays from the perspective of a guitarist about to take the stage. After a few seconds in a backstage room, the faceless guitarist makes their way through the roadies and backstage crew, past other band members and finally on stage. As you perform, the audience and bandmates all react to how you're doing.
While it's a clever idea, it felt a bit too binary to me. A flash indicates a change in mood and also seems to hide the shift in video from, say, a happy crowd to an increasingly annoyed crowd.
Jackson said that transition can happen at any point in your music session; there are no gates or specific moments where it checks how you're doing. And if you go from sucking to suddenly improving, it will just as quickly shift back.
The team used "robot cameras" to film all of the video. This allows a camera to shoot a completely perfect second take on the same shot, making it easier to transition between takes during the game. It's the same technology, Jackson said, that was used in The Hobbit to splice together two takes of a scene to make Gandalf tower over the Hobbits.
"It was really cool," Jackson said. "It blew our minds a little bit. We were like, 'OK, these cameras shoot exactly the same frame every single time. We could use that, because we want to switch between a good performance and a bad performance.' The biggest jarring thing you'll get is if you have a few frames out. The frame's never out on this. It's exactly the same. The only difference is, the performance from your band members, the performance from the crowd, that changes to be either positive, and they'll give you some good vibes, or not so positive, and they'll give you bad vibes."
Jackson then used a VR camera that would allow him to look around the stage while inside a studio, and position people in the right place in real time.
Not only did this new system allow the game to have a good track and a bad track, it also made enlarging the size of the concert audience much easier.
"We'd have between 200 and 400 people on these sets," Jackson said. "We built the entire set and it could all be green-screened. Once we'd done the positive and negative parts, we cleared the stage out. We'd take the crowd and just shift them back. However many rows they formed, we'd shift them back that many rows, swap them all around, give them different outfits, and do passes again. Then we'd keep doing it. We layered that in."
The end result was the ability to take a crowd of 200 to 400 people and turn them into 4,000 to 5,000 people, all responding live to the player — and that's without computer graphics.
Then they turned their attention to the audio tracks and audio design.
"We've put as much detail into the audio as we did into the visual impact," Jackson said. "We've designed this 3D sound system. If I'm over playing by the drummer, I'll hear more of the live drums coming through. If I run over into the crowd, I'll get more of the crowd vibe coming through. If it's in a good sense, they'll perhaps be singing the lyrics back to me or cheering me on. If it's in a bad sense, they could be doing anything from hurling abuse to just silence, which is almost as bad as abuse, sometimes, I think.
"We wanted to kind of take you on a journey with each of these songs. Each crowd, each set, has been built to fit that song and feel like it's the right one for the song."
My first moments with the new guitar in the new game were a bit awkward, a bit like riding a bike for the first time in years, maybe decades.
Having to use just three of your fingers is helpful, but it's not nearly as simple as you think once you hit the medium setting and you have to shift between the top and bottom rows of those buttons.
Even that basic level of complexity threw me for a loop, though I'm sure — as with the earlier games — a bit of practice would have had me hitting all of those notes without much difficulty. The notion of having to form what are essentially basic chords while playing convinces me that this is a game that will take much longer to master.
The rest of the controls, from the strumming to that whammy bar, felt like my memories of playing the original game.
A few seconds into my first and only woeful attempt at the game had me asking Jackson what the fail screen looks like.
"One of the things we did in DJ Hero was we took failing out," he said. "We just wanted you to play it all the way through to the end."
No matter how poorly you're doing in Guitar Hero Live, you can't fail; you just have to deal with the jeering crowds and angry drummer.
The live-action video concept is intriguing, but I personally wasn't a big fan of the approach. I can imagine getting bored having to go through that same video walk-up to the stage over and over again, and watching a bunch of actors react to my performance somehow felt less authentic to me than seeing a video game representation of myself up on stage.
Keep in mind, this is an early version of the game, and it was still a blast to play.
And, Jackson said, the game's campaign mode is built around a story.
"At E3 we're going to reveal more about the story," he said. "But there is something to it. It's perhaps not what you might expect. I personally think the rags-to-riches story, we've done that way too many times.
"There are other ways of doing it. Think of it as, we want to take you on these lively little journeys through music."
But wait, there's more
While a bulk of our meeting with Activision and FreeStyle Games seemed centered around the new guitar, new way to play and the campaign's first-person take on the game, it didn't feel like the real core of the experience.
That was something the developers sprung on us as the meeting wrapped up.
"So that's live for us," Jackson said. "That was everything we think we love about live music. Our blood, sweat and tears went into this. The live look of it, the live audio feel of it and then the new gameplay.
"But there's another thing I want to show you today."
That other thing is the thing: Guitar Hero TV, a 24-hour music video network that lets players jump into a song and play along with friends over a song's official music video. Think of it as old-school MTV, but with that musical highway slapped on top of all of those music videos. Players can pop into GHTV with a press of a button on the guitar, no menus needed, and it supports drop-in and drop-out local and online multiplayer.
Guitar Hero TV will feature a number of pre-programmed themed channels that you can flip through, and like regular television, whatever channel you were last playing on will be the one that pops up when you return to GHTV.
"It's our massive multiplayer online part of Guitar Hero," Jackson said. "It'll matchmake you against people immediately and you can just be playing against them immediately. You can stay in that show as long as you want. You can play that song, convert to another song, play that other song. But let's say that music isn't for you. You've jumped into top-10 pop hits and you want to play something different. We can take you to another TV channel. You do that by hitting the same button. You get a TV guide. You can change the channel, jump into a different show. It might be a totally different set of music. Again, it'll matchmake you against other people so you can play competitively. Again, you can stay there and play as long as you want."
Activision's Michaud added that, much like television, GHTV has programming that goes along with each channel. And those channels, Jackson said, will be curated.
"It might be the rock show, the pop show, the top 10 show," he said. "There's all different things it might be. But if you just want to go and play songs that you want to play, you can go to the song select, the song menu, and just pick a song and play it on demand. There's a lot of depth to this.
"I would say, think of GHTV as our arcade mode, our competitive mode. It's where you'll play against people online. But it's also where you can play people locally as well."
GHTV's TV guide doesn't just show you what's playing on each channel. It also breaks down how well you've done on each song and the difficulty of the songs available, and tries to introduce you to songs you may never have heard of before.
"GHTV is about discovering music as much as it is about going and finding music you know you already like," Jackson said.
When you buy Guitar Hero Live, you'll get the new guitar, the campaign mode and access to GHTV 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"No subscription," Jackson said. "Just go and play it."
And GHTV will be continually updated, he added.
"You'll go there and there will just be new music for you to play," he said. "I think that, for me, is a really important thing to give our fans, to allow them to discover that new music. Some of it we will curate and try to introduce you to new music. Some of it, we'll look at what you love and make sure you get more of that new music as well."
While it's a fascinating idea, and a wonderful approach to blending official music videos with gameplay, FreeStyleGames and Activision weren't quite ready to dive into the specifics of how they may or may not monetize this constant stream of new music.
More details about the game, they told us repeatedly, will be shared at E3.
For instance, we couldn't help but notice that a coin tally was shown during a video summary of GHTV.
"Are those things you can spend real money on?" I asked.
"A lot of this stuff has to do with numbers," Michaud said. "We're still trying to figure out things. How that's going to work. They will serve a purpose."
Michaud did say that they don't see Activision annualizing the franchise.
"We think there's so much we can do with updating and continuously adding to GHTV," he said. "With the consoles being connected, we — we don't need to ship a disc every year.
"This is a completely different way of doing things."
Going console-free, TV-free
Where the guitar is Guitar Hero Live's biggest change and Guitar Hero TV is the game's biggest bet, mobile may be its biggest surprise.
"The goal or ambition early on was, can we bring you the full experience, uncompromised, on your phone or your tablet?" said Michaud. "The full Guitar Hero Live mode of play, the full GHTV, all the channels, the multiplayer, from a visual standpoint, from a feature standpoint, not sacrificing anything on mobile.
Activision has already proven it can take an ambitious game and bring it over to mobile without losing a step. When Skylanders Trap Team shipped last year, it also came to mobile — the full game, complete with a portal and a controller.
Michaud calls that a good reference point for what Activision is going to do with Guitar Hero Live.
"There you have a 90-rated game that you can play on your tablet screen, where everything you're seeing and experiencing gameplay-wise is absolutely on par with what you'd get on console," he said.
Bringing the full experience to mobile opens up some interesting, exciting ideas.
The game can be played on tablet or mobile using the full plastic guitar.
"If somebody's using the TV in your house, you can take it in another room," Michaud said. "You can take it on the go. You'll be that guy on the train or the airplane doing your thing. You can use that guitar and play it on your phone or tablet screen."
Activision also plans on enabling players to connect their mobile device to the television to play the game.
"You can have that home experience with the same guitar, playing on the same television, even if you don't own a console," Michaud said. "That's exciting, because if you're not of the tens of millions of people who own a console, but you are one of the hundreds of millions with a phone or tablet, no problem. You can experience this full game in an uncompromised way if you want to."
Michaud declined to say how the mobile device will connect to the TV — another thing that will be talked about at E3.
Since the game's campaign is built around the premise of a massive music festival, it allows the game to include a wide variety of music.
Guitar Hero Live will feature hundreds of playable songs from a diverse array of artists, including The Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Gary Clark Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, The War on Drugs, The Killers, Skrillex, The Rolling Stones, The Lumineers, Pierce the Veil and Blitz Kids, with many more bands to be announced in the coming months, Activision said.
"We don't go in for one type of genre," Jackson said. "We really love music at FreeStyle. We're not just into rock or pop or punk or hip-hop or anything. We just like music. You're going to see that reflected in Guitar Hero Live. There's going to be quite a broad range. There'll be some surprises in there."
The times, they are a-changing
The last Guitar Hero was published in September 2010. That's a long time, even longer in the world of video games.
"You think about what five, six, seven years means in video game terms," Michaud said. "In our industry it's an eternity. In that time, we have a whole new cycle of consoles that have come through. People, in their gaming, are so much more connected than they were back then. The stuff people are playing on phones and tablets now is worlds different than it was in those days. Gaming has changed a lot. Music has changed a lot. When I think back to Guitar Hero 2 or 3, in those days, I'm walking around with an MP3 player. I have a great library of music there, but it's this finite, contained experience. Now if I want to listen to music, I just get it. It's there. You access it digitally through the web or the cloud, whether you're on your computer, walking around with your phone, in the car, you name it. That's changed a lot about music. Even live music has changed a lot. If you look at what's going on in the festival scene now, the incredible numbers of people going out to these shows and the wide variety of genres playing, it's awesome to see what people are into now versus how things used to be."
"It certainly has been a while."
And Guitar Hero Live, with its push to festival music, its embrace of on-demand streaming songs and its willingness to shed the console and even the TV, seems to be a game aimed at not just our current take on media consumption, but where we are headed.