Can Music Videogames Make a Successful Comeback?

E3 Guitar Hero Live
Courtesy of Microsoft

It was just four years ago that music games were declared dead. And the person making the pronouncement was the one who had benefited most from it.

“It’s just not a category that’s getting consumers enthusiastic right now,” Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said on CNBC. “I think you need to focus your resources on the things that get consumers really excited.”

Activision’s “Guitar Hero” franchise had sold $3 billion during its initial five-year lifespan, but the last installment in the series — “Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock” — sold fewer than 261,000 copies, with nine different SKUs on the market.

Around the same time, the competing “Rock Band” franchise seemed to fade away as developer Harmonix focused on other parts of the music genre with games like “Dance Central.”

Now both are back and receiving plenty of attention at E3.

“We brought it back because our fans really wanted it to come back, they just wanted something new,” says Jaime Jackson, studio head in charge of the “Guitar Hero” franchise.

At Harmonix, makers of the new (and original) “Rock Band,” the story is similar.

“We have a bunch of ideas for where we want to take the franchise,” says Harmonix CEO Steve Janiak. “The [older] consoles weren’t powerful enough. The new engine we’ve made for this generation will offer new functionality and allow personal expression.”

Both games will offer fans a large collection of new music to play on the games’ instruments — some classic tunes and some of the big hits since the original versions of the franchise were available.

Developers always have new directions they want to take a franchise, though. For publishers, the return of these games is a timing decision. As consoles enter their third holiday season this year, the push for a wider mainstream audience begins, and family-friendly entertainment (particularly with brands that are already known and don’t require an awareness-building campaign) is becoming more important.

“There is a huge opportunity for the publisher that can come up with entertainment experience that will attract casual audiences to a new set of platforms,” says John Taylor, managing director of Arcadia Investment Corp.

Whether the world is ready for a new round of plastic instruments, though, is another matter.

“We knew our fans wanted new gameplay, which is why we changed our guitar,” says Jackson. “It doesn’t look like a toy anymore. We want a really robust product that’s not going to break. It looks like an aspirational piece of equipment.”

Harmonix, meanwhile, is attempting to make as many existing instruments (from the last round of music playing games) compatible with “Rock Band 4” as possible, so people can buy just the $60 software.

While the instruments might be recyclable, Janiak says the game is brand new. And from a publisher and developer standpoint, that only underscores the risk.

“It’s a pretty big investment,” he says. “The tech involved in this is quite complicated.”

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