“We thought, there is no way this game is going to be successful.”
Prophetic words from Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix, recalling the early days of Guitar Hero. And when you look back far enough – past the millions of copies sold, past the weekend parties, before the game became a pop-culture milestone – his skepticism is actually very understandable.
At that point in history – 2005 — Harmonix had created several high-quality games, but none that were megahits. Frequency and Amplitude brought innovative music gameplay on PlayStation 2, following the trail blazed by Parappa the Rapper, Um Jammer Lammy, and Konami’s Japan-only Guitar Freaks. Harmonix had also worked with Konami on Karaoke Revolution with success, but even Rigopulos says “they weren’t blockbuster hits, they were base hits.”
When a small publisher named RedOctane approached Harmonix with a request, it was backwards. RedOctane wanted to make a guitar controller, but they didn’t have a game to go with it. Would Harmonix be interested in making that game? “In the beginning, we were kind of reluctant,” says Rigopulos. “They were this tiny company – they were like half the size we were. They had no money or marketing resources. They had no experience in publishing.” It was a destiny moment: Do you focus on staying afloat with base hits, or do you go for that blockbuster? “This was the game we had been dreaming of making for years,” admits Rigopulos. “We had complete creative freedom. We decided to do it – and of course, Guitar Hero happened.”
And oh, how it happened. Word of mouth propelled the original PS2 game to better and better sales throughout the 2005 holiday season, and well beyond. “Basically, as fast as RedOctane could make the guitars, the games were selling to retail and selling out,” recalls Rigopulos. Among the game’s biggest fans: Activision, which acquired RedOctane and the Guitar Hero name, then worked with Harmonix to bring Guitar Hero II to market the next year.
However, by the second sequel, Harmonix had been acquired by MTV Games, and the third GH installment would be handled by Neversoft — themselves enormous fans of the series. “We put it on a projector in the back room,” recalls Alan Flores, GHIII’s Lead Designer, “and then suddenly every week, we were having a big Guitar Hero party.” Rigopulos and company went on to create Rock Band, even if it was hard to let go of their creation. “Obviously, Guitar Hero is dear to our hearts,” he says. “It was our breakthrough game and we are very proud of having created it.”
Neversoft had its own mountain to climb, starting from scratch with none of Harmonix’s programming code to build upon. “Just being fans of the franchise, we didn’t want to f*** it up,” says Flores. “That was the first thing that came to our mind: we wanted to do a pure Guitar Hero experience. People loving the game as much as they do made us nervous – they’re going to be skeptical.” But with additions like Battle Mode, celebrity guitarists like Slash and Tom Morello, an epic good-vs-evil storyline, and a wireless controller for maximum living room rocking, fans embraced it, and several new ones got on board. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock wound up being the first video game to top $1 billion in sales.
Every GH game kept the innovation coming – full band play and a music creation studio in Guitar Hero World Tour, a free-flowing Party Play mode in GH5, and a detailed challenge system in Warriors of Rock that let you call out any friend on any song, on any instrument. And of course, there are full explorations of the catalogs of legendary bands like Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Metallica.
With the release of April’s downloadable Track Packs, Guitar Hero as a franchise goes on vacation until further notice. Some are sad to see it go, others happy — but of course, the music lives on. Those games and guitars are in your collection, and it’s easy enough to fire them up whenever you want to feel like a guitar hero. Long live rock.
In honor of Guitar Hero’s remarkable run on PlayStation consoles, I’m giving away a Guitar Hero “time capsule” – multiple games from the series, lots of DLC, and other collectible swag for superfans. Check oneofswords.com for how to enter, and good luck!