Surprise! The reboot of popular plastic instrument franchise Guitar Hero looks like a full-motion video game from the 1990s. FMV blurs the line between movie and game and is best known for B-grade cult hits like Sewer Shark, Corpse Killer, and Night Trap. The format looks both awkward and outdated, and the decision to bring it back is as brilliant as it is prescient.
To make a future proof game, Activision learned from the past.
Throughout a recent demonstration of Guitar Hero Live, the developers weaved in PR speak about creating a game that caters to the modern way we consume media. With a tap of a button at any time, the player will be sent to an online music video stream, connecting them to their friends and other players across the world. That kind of sounds like a "modern media experience," whatever such a thing actually is. But the team members only briefly nodded at the real place the vast majority of young people get their music: a web browser or a discrete app.
Here's a bold prediction: the future of Guitar Hero will be, in some capacity, on your laptop. And that will be possible by streaming or even locally running Guitar Hero Live, a game without fancy current generation graphics. This isn't the next Halo or Crysis; Guitar Hero Live is a graphical overlay on pre-recorded footage.
The low-impact game is already proving advantageous. Activision has announced that the mobile version of Guitar Hero Live will be the same game available on consoles. How the guitar and tablet will connect to televisions is something they plan to clarify at E3. Whatever the case, if I can run Guitar Hero on my iPad Mini, I could assuredly run it on my laptop — and so could millions of other people.
In his recent analysis of the video game industry in 2015, Wired's Chris Kohler eloquently enumerated the problems facing triple-A game publishers. As expectations for big-budget games demand bigger worlds with better graphics, publishers have become risk averse to the point of absurdity. With frightened companies releasing fewer blockbusters, the vacuum is filling with indie, mobile, and small-scale games.
Read next: What you need to know about Guitar Hero Live
"Consoles are slowly finding their entire raison d'être not eliminated," says Kohler, "but being squished down through a funnel."
Activision is well-known for its shrewd business acumen. Its shooter franchises Call of Duty and Destiny have enticed players to spend considerable amounts of money after the initial purchase on sizable expansion packs, while Skylanders led the way for NFC-compatible copycats like Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, and Nintendo's Amiibo toys. In fact, the most recent version of Skylanders was also available, full-featured, for tablets. For all the flack Activision receives from video games' most dedicated fans, the company is taking bigger risks than its competitors, and so far, it's paying off. Call of Duty is the biggest shooter on the planet, and its likely usurper is Destiny; Skylanders is worth $3 billion.
There's a considerable chance consoles will one day cease to be the place we play video games, and Activison is already hedging. Maybe Guitar Hero Live won't run on browsers this year, and the game will be limited to consoles and tablets. But one thing's clear: Activision plans to make its games available to the largest audience possible. Guitar Hero Live's full-motion video might look like a throwback, but it's a carefully conceived play for what's next.