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Guitar Hero: What went wrong?

"Glee's" Harry Shum Jr. and Mark Salling play "Guitar Hero" at an event.
"Glee's" Harry Shum Jr. and Mark Salling play "Guitar Hero" at an event.
  • It's an ignominious exit for a title that was touted as the first great franchise of the 21st century
  • The series felt like it was running out of great rock anthems for users to emulate
  • "Guitar Hero" was created in 2005 by indie studio RedOctane

(Mashable) -- The premiere plastic guitar game just flamed out. Activision, beset by falling sales, has decided to shutter the division that created "Guitar Hero" and its sequels.

It's an ignominious exit for a title that was once touted as the first great game franchise of the 21st century. "Guitar Hero" was created in 2005 by indie studio RedOctane, in collaboration with Harmonix, which had previously found success with the "Karaoke Revolution" franchise.

"Karaoke Revolution," where players plugged microphones into their consoles and were scored on the accuracy of their singing, was the first game to show a significant number of videogamers were interested in making "music." RedOctane's "Guitar Hero" proved they were equally interested in shredding a plastic guitar.

Activision purchased the franchise in 2006 for $100 million; to date it has shipped more than 25 million units for a roughly $2 billion ROI. "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" made $1 billion on its own. Harmonix went on to publish the highly successful "Rock Band" franchise, which added drums, microphones and keyboards to the plastic guitar mix.

How the mighty have fallen. The holiday season was a disastrous one for the music game genre. First Harmonix was sold by Viacom to a consortium of shareholders; the terms were undisclosed, but it was reported to be a fire sale. MTV Games, which collaborated with Harmonix on "Rock Band," was shut down. "Guitar Heroes: Warriors of Rock," the sixth title in the series, received lackluster reviews and even more lackluster sales.

Activision posted a $233 million net loss for the fourth quarter. Its decision to lay off the 500-person "Guitar Hero" division was, Activision said in a press release today, "due to continued declines in the music genre."

So what stopped the music? The first culprit: oversaturation. There are just too many games competing in the genre ("Band Hero" and "DJ Hero," anyone?), with too many pricey controllers. A "Warriors of Rock" guitar bundle will set you back $80. Considering many of the controllers do not play nice with similar games, that's a lot of dough to drop on pretend jamming.

Secondly, there's the novelty factor. The dynamics of the game changed little from one title to the next, despite the introduction of innovations such as a touch-sensitive slide bar on later guitar controllers. At a certain stage, users are going to be more interested in picking up a real guitar. The series also felt like it was running out of great rock anthems for users to emulate. Reviews of "Warriors of Rock" complained that the set list seemed dull and full of synth-heavy tunes.

Finally, of course, Activision isn't going to stop actually selling "Guitar Hero" titles any time soon. If you're interested in becoming a maestro of the pretend Gibson, you can still pick up the "Guitar Hero" back catalog and buy extra songs online. "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" may one day be seen as a classic party game, pulled out of the closet at holidays and special gatherings, the way we play Monopoly or Scrabble today. Maybe it's time you introduced Grandma to the plastic guitar.

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