Sunday, November 12, 2006

Guitar Hero and Myspace

If anyone reading this knows me personally, you know my wife is not a fan of videogames. That was, of course, until she played the original Guitar Hero. For several months after I bought it every guest we had over was an opportunity for my wife to convert them to Heroes. She batted 1000 and sold the wonders of Harmonix's masterpiece better then I ever could have. Partially due to her passion for the game, but mostly due to the fact that Guitar Hero is a masterpiece, I happily place this title amongst my all-time favorites. It was a no-brainer then that I would buy Guitar Hero II as soon as it came out and spend all weekend playing it (which I just did).

Most people reading this blog probably know at least a bit about Guitar Hero by nature of our common interests, but if you haven't played you probably assume that the only songs available are the popular licensed tracks that were so instrumental in making it the success that it is. GH2, in fact, ships with some 20+ additional 'bonus tracks' that are indeed still licensed, but from much less well known bands. The facts that these bands are 'indie', though, makes the songs no less fun to play. You aren't really a geek unless you have rocked out to Trogdor The Burninator.

All weekend while playing I couldn't get out of my head something I read on gamespot two weeks ago -- an article on using games to launch the careers of new bands and artists -- Games as the new MTV (some would probably argue that the current trend of featuring new artists in serial-dramas on TV has partially replaced MTV, but I digress).

GH2 is effectively doing this in some small fashion by giving smaller relevant (read: guitar rock) bands an opportunity to showcase their talent with a level of stickyness I don't think exists in any other medium. I _promise_ you that a song will never stick in your head as aggressively as if you've struggled through it several times on Guitar Hero. I fell asleep last night desperately trying to get FTK by Vagiant out of my head (you can hear the song at their myspace page here. warning NSFW lyrics.). If it weren't for GH2 I would never have come across Vagiant. Now I might even join their myspace...

So, of course, this got me to thinking -- wasn't myspace originally created as a way for 'small' bands to attract a web audience? Not everyone is as lucky as FTK and can take their song and turn it into a truly interactive sticky ear-worm 'phenomenon', but why not? Why not allow anyone and everyone (in true long tail fashion) to attach Guitar Hero gameplay on to any song they wish and then share it with their friends (and on their myspace)?

The question is obviously rhetorical. First of all there is no system in place to distribute new songs to guitar hero owners other then forcing them to purchase a new DVD full of tracks (at least in the current form on the PS2, but that will all certainly change if/when GH hits the 360). Secondly, there are certainly very significant technical recording challenges that the fine folks at Harmonix had to face in order to make the songs they feature work as well as they do with the GH experience. Third, and certainly not least of all, the legal issue -- a service like this would invite people to distribute non-licensed music with GH gameplay possibly competing with the fully licensed tracks RedOctane is working on for future iterations.

To address the first point -- lack of proper distribution channels. I would love to see RedOctane simply move to the PC for this service. It would facilitate distribution and probably be a requirement to run whatever tool was used by consumers to create their own GH tracks (quick tangent on the tool element, though: just as Wii developers can soon create the control systems for their games by playing with the wiimote, so too should wannabe guitar heroes be able to lay down their own GH tracks using the guitar hero controller directly. Turn the creation of a custom GH track into a game in itself). Perhaps less of a 'party game' sensation standing around your desktop with a guitar in hand then crowded around your TV, but I don't see that as a showstopper. In the best case the tool would be PC based but distribution would be through a networked console.

The second point is important to maintain the full quality of the experience -- something RedOctane and Harmonix obviously take very seriously. Songs can play at several speeds and are certainly recorded in tracks to separate the vocals, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar and the rest of the band. This gives a lot of power to the game to alter the audio experience according to the player's actions. Miss a note and the guitar line is audibly impacted. In practice mode (new to GH2) you can slow the song down to a crawl and filter out all of the distracting band elements. I'm sure none of these features would be possible if someone were not to record the song according to very specific technical constraints. However I don't think that would matter, at least not for the masses. Any MP3 could have a GH 'track' created by a consumer and layered over it -- simply a synchronised playback of the GH notes lined up to the beat of the song. If the player misses a note, the engine wouldn't necessarily be able to silence the guitar track, but it could easily play a 'squelch' note to reinforce the failure.

Thirdly -- license issues. True some commercial bands might take issue and RedOctane (or Harmonix or Activition or MTV or any of the other companies with vested interest in the financial success of GH53) might balk for fear it would reduce future sales. Given that these songs would be much less feature rich then the officially licensed songs, though, they would likely be free to download (buyer beware -- no guarantees on the quality). To avoid the distribution of MP3 issues the actual content being distributed could only be the GH track, too. It would be the consumer's responsibility to get their hands on the appropriate song to synch up with said track.

But despite all of these issues (PC based tool, perhaps even player; weaker total experience when compared to the console songs; responsibility on the part of the consumer to own the song in question) the bands who would most benefit from this would go out of their way to make sure the experience would be the best they could possibly making it (spending hours tweaking the difficulty curve of the GH tracks, I'm sure) because they have the greatest vested interest in the content they are providing being high quality. A truly great GH track could quickly become viral and generate incredible press and buzz.

The bands needing attention would love it. Fans would an incredible long tail database of song content to extend the value of their purchase. The suits would get incredible press for being so forward thinking and embracing participatory culture. In general, I think it would 'rock'.

...And really, isn't that what being a guitar hero is all about?


Anonymous mister slim said...

Some random points: Red Octane has been bought by Activision, with a 360 port announced. Harmonix has been bought by MTV (who've partnered with them regularly in the past, without ruining any of their games), for $175 million, apparently to take Harmonix's gameplay and patents across a variety of platforms.

One thing I'd like to see is promotional downloads on Live Arcade, and the inevitable Wii and PS3 ports. If say Audioslave has a new single coming out, it makes sense for the label to pay the cost of Harmonix's development to put it on Live for free, so players will listen to the song. I doubt any player is going to turn down a free new song, no matter what they think of it, or even if they've never heard of it. An advantage of doing this is that they can then still sell the single/album, because the potential customer has sampled it but doesn't own it, a downside with promotional mp3s.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Ben Mattes said...

Mister Slim,

The promotional downloads on XBL is a great idea and one I'd bet we'll see in action when GHx ships on the 360.

In general the idea of promotional/user-created GH songs basically ask the same question: will bands or labels see guitar hero as an opprotunity to increase visibility of new songs/artists (games as the new MTV) or simply as a way to further generate revenue for already existing and popular properties.


11:15 AM  
Anonymous Hellion said...

Hey there! Sorry for getting our song stuck in your head! My drummer Lauren complains about that after practice sometimes. Thanks for listening! Your ideas are smart.

10:12 PM  

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