15 Years Ago: ‘Guitar Hero’ Rocks the Gaming World
On Nov. 8, 2005, the Guitar Hero video game was released to the masses, dramatically changing the way fans interacted with their favorite music.
The game was preceded by Dance Dance Revolution, a hugely successful title in the late '90s and early '00s that allowed gamers to bust a move to some of their favorite popular songs. The franchise was especially profitable for RedOctane, a company which specialized in video game controllers and accessories, developing the signature DDR dance pads.
The company sought similar success with a game centered around a distinctive guitar controller. To their surprise, most software companies weren’t interested.
"We approached investors but couldn't get any — they thought it was too weird," Charles Huang, RedOctane’s cofounder, explained during a conversation with Cleveland.com. "So we had to take out second mortgages and borrow money."
“Guitar Hero was passed around to everybody,” Greg Fischbach, former CEO of Acclaim Entertainment recalled years later. “And we all looked at it and said, ‘Who's going to buy a peripheral like that?’"
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Eventually, RedOctane approached Harmonix, a small software company based out of Boston. At the time, Harmonix had established itself within the rhythmic video game niche — games that responded onscreen to players pushing buttons in time with the accompanying soundtrack. The company’s early releases Frequency (2001) and Amplitude (2003) — which featured music from popular artists like David Bowie, Blink 182, Weezer and No Doubt —earned positive reviews but lackluster sales. Harmonix would take things a step further with Karaoke Revolution, an interactive singing game released in 2003.
RedOctane and Harmonix were both familiar with a Japanese release called Guitar Freaks. Created by software giant Konami, the game featured players utilizing a specialized controller to play along with rock and J-pop songs. Despite being popular in Japanese arcades, Guitar Freaks never made it to North America due to patent problems.
Believing that a similar title could appeal to American audiences, RedOctane and Harmonix agreed to collaborate on Guitar Hero.
The game would be played with a distinctively designed guitar controller, with color-coded buttons on the fretboard corresponding to different notes onscreen. Gamers would earn points by playing the correct notes at the right time within a song, while also scoring bonuses by incorporating elements such as the controller’s whammy bar.
“Relatively speaking, it was a pretty low-budget game — about a million dollars, which is pretty tiny as a game budget,” recalled Harmonix designer Rob Kay in the book Inside Game Design. “Everyone here was really psyched to work on a rock guitar game; it really fitted in with people’s interests here. No one had any notions about it being a massive success; we just thought it would be fun to do.”
"Early on we were wondering, does anyone still like guitars?” Harmonix developer Greg LoPiccolo later revealed to MTV News. “It seems like everyone wants turntables and microphones."
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Together, teams from both companies spent about nine months crafting Guitar Hero, from its gameplay and design to the tracks' difficulty. While things moved quickly, the most tedious aspect was getting artists to approve their songs for the game.
“As we started designing the game, we didn’t know what the tracks were going to be. We had a wish list, but little control over it,” Kay admitted. “The music licensing process takes a long time, so we had to overshoot. We wanted 30 to 40 songs for the game and put a hundred on our wish list. As songs arrived, we needed to adapt the list according to what we could get — which were the easy songs, which were harder, which were popular, which were more niche. We had to constantly adapt the track list to balance those concerns as the licenses flowed in.”
A total of 47 songs would be featured in Guitar Hero, spanning five decades of music. The songs — which were cover versions and not the original recordings — included Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” Queen’s “Killer Queen,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the David Bowie classic “Ziggy Stardust.”
However, one song that didn’t make the release was imperative to the game’s creation.
“We had a prototype of ‘Back in Black,’ the AC/DC track, so that was the first song,” Kay confessed. “It’s really disappointing, as we never got the license for it to be in the game.”
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Though it was released to little fanfare, Guitar Hero became a huge success. The title took in more than $45 million in sales in 2005, spawning a franchise that eventually would earn over $1 billion.
From a cultural standpoint, Guitar Hero also helped bring classic rock artists back into the mainstream spotlight. For many young players, the game served as an introduction to some of the genre’s defining acts.
Guitar Hero’s creators were well aware of this potential influence as they were finalizing the game. “Lots of 10- and 12-year-old kids are going to buy this game,” LoPiccolo noted. “It's our mission to make sure they learn about music they might not otherwise hear about.”
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Artists saw their digital downloads and album sales increase substantially as a result of their involvement in Guitar Hero. Competitive tournaments were created where rock-minded gamers battled each other in live Guitar Hero events. The video game’s popularity even inspired an episode of South Park, the show’s young characters finding themselves signing a record contract and getting sucked into a cliche life of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll all because of their affinity for playing the game.
The Guitar Hero franchise’s popularity would wane in later years, due partly to an oversaturation in the marketplace. In addition to releasing seven of their own core Guitar Hero titles, band specific releases for Metallica, Aerosmith and Van Halen were created, as well as an expansion game designed specifically on ‘80s rock. In 2006, MTV Networks purchased Harmonix for $175 million. The company was then enlisted to create Rock Band, a rival franchise to Guitar Hero, which debuted in 2007.
Despite declining sales that ultimately saw the end of the franchise — there hasn't been a new installment of the game since 2015 — Guitar Hero holds a place among the most influential video games of its era.