A few years ago, the video game world lost its damned mind when Activision, the company responsible for shrewd money-printing annual franchises like Call of Duty, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, and Skylanders, merged with Blizzard, the beloved publisher of three of the most financially successful and critically adored game franchises of all time, Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. The popular assumption was Activision would insert its greedy tendrils through the senior echelons of Blizzard, turning the good company evil, like a parasite draining its host of life.
That worst did not come to pass. Nor did the theoretical best-case scenario, in which Activision, under the influence of Blizzard, becomes some altruistic trust fund for gaming’s most creative and financially flightless minds. Instead, the Activision and Blizzard merger has proved to be just that, a merging of two forces. In many ways, the result is the best of both worlds, game design that merges the best cynical moneymaking minds with A-list design talent, producing the rare video game that’s as wonderful for the customer as it is the company.
We’ve seen these results in the free-to-play model buoying Blizzard’s Hearthstone card game, the team behind Destiny learning from the growing pains of Diablo’s developers, and now we have Guitar Hero Live, a reboot of Activision’s most flagrant money grab, a series once used to sell the same plastic instruments year after year. Guitar Hero Live still has that whiff of corporate involvement, but, and it’s strange to say this, the business model on which its built isn’t just sound, it’s innovative.
First, understand what Guitar Hero Live isn’t. The original glut of Guitar Hero and Rock Band games rapidly constructed a model of ownership, in which players bought new songs to play via regularly released discs — sometimes multiple a year — along with access to buyable à la carte music from an online storefront. Rock Band 4, also released this fall, leans into the idea of ownership as access, planting its marketing flag in the players' ability to migrate most songs purchased for previous Rock Bands on older consoles to modern hardware. One imagines this took incredible technical expertise and serious negotiation with the rights holders of that huge library of music.
Guitar Hero Live shrewdly forgoes all of this legwork. Your old Guitar Hero songs, they're stuck in your closet, attic, or whatever Goodwill you gave the old discs to. In Guitar Hero Live, you don't own your music.
There’s a story mode, and you can read about it at Polygon— it’s lovely — but for me, Guitar Hero TV is Live's raison-d'être. The mode functions as the online multiplayer component, a music video streaming service, a traditional catalog of playable songs, and the pipeline funneling money from players back to Activision. What sounds overwhelmingly complex is communicated by a few short blurbs of guidance and minimal options. Everyone who purchases the game has access to at least two TV channels which stream music videos — overlaid with playable tablature. Music is segmented into programming blocks, focusing on genre or era, running 24/7. Think an hour of pop rock followed by a half-hour of '80s metal.
Select a channel, and you are competing against other players in real time (their scores displayed in the upper-lefthand corner) and a leaderboard set prior by friends, but what I love about all of this data being communicated cleanly and concisely is that you and everyone in your room are encouraged to ignore it, because the modern update on MTV running behind the highway of notes is interesting in and of itself. Between videos, little interstitials introduce the music videos, but also inject the channels and programming blocks with character.
If you want to play an individual song on-demand, though, it can’t be purchased for infinite use. Plays are purchased with an in-game currency awarded for strumming through songs in the campaign or on the channels, and if you run out of in-game currency, you can buy more with real-world dollars. You can also buy a 24-hour pass for unlimited pays at $6. This is bad news, I suspect, for hardcore players who want to devote hours to individual songs, but I’m not sure Guitar Hero Live intends to attract that player base. Its competitiveness is lighter and sillier than previous entries, which gave new meaning to the words "Through Fire and Flames." This is Guitar Hero as a streamlined, casual party game, and though that 24-hour gorge option is called the party pass, the rest of the game feels built for loose, relaxed party environments.
Players who will play it the most obsessively and competitively, the people who will dedicate the most time to its intricacies and library, are also likely to pay the most for the service. And for everyone else, there are a couple constant streams of music built into a brilliant reboot of music video networks and accompanied by a free massive catalog of songs that, according to Activision, will expand by another 70 songs or so before year’s end.
Activision has deployed what, at face value, scans as a money-first strategy — remove song ownership, charge per play, abandon the back catalog. But with the help of smart design — the franchise has been entrusted with FreeStyle games, who created the critically adored, financially disappointing DJ Hero games — it has created something new and better. Guitar Hero Live’s structure is, for me and for most people who play these games for fun and not sport, better. It looks better, it plays better, and it provides more. I prefer it.
Years ago we witnessed a partnership of art and commerce in the joining of Blizzard and Activision, and the result is like good pop music. It’s a little fluffy, a lot corporate, and damn is it hard to resist.
Available now on mobile devices, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360.