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Guitar Hero Live wants to immerse you in music with always-on Guitar Hero TV

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

To hear Activision and FreeStyleGames tell it, everything in Guitar Hero Live — which launches Oct. 20 on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, as well as unspecified mobile devices — is designed with an eye toward the present and the future.

Guitar Hero Live is built to take advantage of modern internet-connected gaming hardware; built to capitalize on new monetization methods; built for the way people consume music in 2015, as opposed to when the series debuted a decade ago. During a pre-E3 demo of the game in New York earlier this month, it became clear that that's a double-edged sword.

This demo focused on Guitar Hero TV, the half of Guitar Hero Live that isn't the standard campaign. GHTV is a live service with a full schedule of music "programming," and developer FreeStyleGames will continually update it with additional songs after launch. It's the place players will visit to enjoy their full catalog of songs, to discover new music, to play with other people locally and online, and to experience exclusive content from a variety of artists.

"It's our always-on, 24-hour music network," said Jamie Jackson, co-studio head at FreeStyleGames and creative director on Guitar Hero Live.

Of course, "always-on" also means "always-online."

A Guitar Hero TV tour

Guitar Hero TV's interface is designed to connect you to your existing Guitar Hero Live library and to other players online, and guide you to new music that you may like. The game learns from your activity and preferences, analyzing that data so it can surface items that are relevant to you through ever-changing tiles.

If you've completed a particular song but haven't mastered it, Guitar Hero Live may suggest you try it on a higher difficulty. After FreeStyleGames adds some new tunes, the menu may surface certain additions to the song catalog, recommending that you check out songs in genres that you've leaned toward.

It's easy to go into the full library and see every available song. For the competitive set, this screen lists your high score and difficulty setting for each track, along with goals like maintaining a 50-note streak.

Next up is the centerpiece of Guitar Hero TV: the programming guide, where various "shows" air on two different "channels." From here, you can jump right into whatever's on at the moment: "Rock vs. Metal," "Summer Hits," "Top 20 Hits" and more.

"It's about trying to kind of build shows that people understand — think of, like, radio and things like that," said Jackson. "What we want this to be is as close to your TV guide that you're used to as possible."

Indeed, the interface looks just like your cable box's programming guide. A bar at the top shows how far along the current show is, and you can see what's coming in the next few hours or even check out a seven-day view to plan ahead.

"If you have a certain genre that you like to play, you kind of know when to tune in," said James Friscia, director of product management for Guitar Hero at Activision.

Jackson started playing a song partway through, because a GHTV show had already begun. The track was already playing in the background, and once Jackson jumped in, the note highway appeared within seconds in the middle of the song. The game immediately matched him against other people who were playing that show at that moment, and the left side of the screen showed the other players' scores.

Friscia added that the programming schedule "really aids discovery of new music." That's partly because the shows tend to be organized by genre, and partly because FreeStyleGames will integrate new songs into the programs as it adds tracks after launch.

"We can update these and change these [shows] really rapidly — you don't have to download anything; you don't have to get an update," said Jackson. "This week, that might have that playlist. Next week's 'Rock vs. Metal' will have a different playlist."

Activision won't charge a subscription fee for Guitar Hero TV; anybody who buys Guitar Hero Live will be able to play new songs as they're added to the game's library. The company is essentially making GHTV free-to-play with microtransactions.

Guitar Hero Live - E3 screenshots

Behind the music

Like many free-to-play games, Guitar Hero Live includes two different currencies: one that you earn as you play the game, and another that you can purchase with real money. (The former was called "Coins" and the latter was called "HC" in our demo, although Activision stressed that it hasn't yet finalized the names of the currencies or the conversion rate from dollars to in-game money.)

You get Coins for doing just about anything in Guitar Hero Live, including signing into the game. The more you play, the more you level up your profile in the game, known as Status. As you reach new Status levels, you unlock content such as player cards (profile banners à la emblems in Destiny) and unique note highways (the best was a rainbow-colored one with pandas). Sometimes you'll earn those items by playing; other times you can spend Coins on them. Guitar Hero Live also lets you modify your in-game guitar to improve your game. You can buy those mods with Coins to do things like increase your score per note or raise your streak multiplier more quickly.

You may have noticed that we haven't been referring to additional post-launch tracks as "DLC songs." That's because they're technically not downloads at all — unlike in the Rock Band franchise or the previous Guitar Hero titles, all the extra tracks in Guitar Hero Live exist in the cloud.

Guitar Hero Live - E3 screenshots

There are three ways to play those new songs. First, you can wait for them to come up in a GHTV show; think back to the '90s, when you hoped MTV would air the music video for your favorite song. You can also spend Coins for a single play, like putting a dollar into a jukebox to spin up a track.

And if you really love a song, you can pay — with real money, in the form of HC — to have it permanently added to your catalog for on-demand access. DLC songs went for $2 a pop in the previous games, and Jackson said pricing here will be "within that same ballpark."

The advantage of this system is that extra songs won't take up space on your hard drive. Instead, the data is streamed to your system, and during our demo, there was no perceptible delay in this process versus loading up a track that ships with the game. Of course, the drawback is that you must be online to access these songs. So even if you've spent, say, $50 on 25 post-launch tracks, you won't be able to play them if your console isn't connected to the internet. Only the songs that ship with the game can be played offline.

you must be online to access these songs

Activision and FreeStyleGames don't see a problem with doing it this way in 2015, because the gaming landscape is so different from the situation even five years ago, when the last Guitar Hero game launched.

Jackson said that in FreeStyleGames' experience with the DJ Hero franchise, players always wanted more music. DLC tracks satisfied that desire, but Jackson explained that in those days, only about 40 percent of consoles were hooked up to the internet.

"It made that model very difficult — for us to do DLC that was worthwhile, because it was so few people getting it," said Jackson. "And it meant [that] to kind of hit our masses, to get out to our audience, we had to put a disc together."

This time around, said Jackson, "We don't want it to just be like, 'Oh, you have to buy this DLC to play this new music.' We want to give you new content as much as we can."

Can't Buy Me Love

That new content includes exclusives that will be available only in GHTV. All the songs in GHTV have music videos that play behind them — in fact, the interface will eventually fade in GHTV programming, so you can just use the game as a music video jukebox. Activision demonstrated an example of the special items that will be available: live concert footage for a particular track. Another instance of an exclusive might be an artist debuting a new song exclusively in Guitar Hero Live.

This content will be available in GHTV's "Premium Shows." These are limited-time challenges, and you'll need to complete different prerequisites for each one in order to enter. Potential tasks shown during our demo included achieving a three-star rating on a song. If you don't feel like fulfilling those requirements, you can buy your way into a Premium Show with HC.

"We want to give you new content as much as we can"

Completing a Premium Show may also award special content like player cards. But the term "challenge" does apply: You won't be able to change the difficulty in a Premium Show once you begin, so if you fail to meet the goal, you'll have to re-enter by paying with HC again or satisfying a new set of requirements. Either way, you'll get bonuses like earning Status at an increased rate while playing Premium Shows.

For parties and other situations, Activision will offer limited-time all-access passes. So if you want to bring a bunch of friends over and have on-demand access to every song available for Guitar Hero Live, you can pay for it.

This is Activision's approach to Guitar Hero Live, as they would put it: taking advantage of the current gaming climate and the latest technology to give people options on how to experience everything in the game.

"The way people consume, experience and discover new music has really changed," said Friscia. "Last time around, Spotify, Pandora, even really YouTube didn't really exist as platforms for listening to music. And this is kind of really in that model. You can play what you want; you can build playlists; you can also tune in and find something that you may not have heard of or may not have seen before."

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