'Guitar Hero Live': Activision Updates Classic Franchise for New Generation

Publisher Resurrects the Music Game With Fresh Innovations

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Today, Activision has taken a classic videogame franchise out of hibernation mode with the announcement of "Guitar Hero Live."

The brand and agency 72andSunny unveiled a three-minute trailer introducing the upcoming installment to the long-dormant "Guitar Hero" series, due out this fall. As has become convention in videogame ads, it features what appears to be a "live action" reenactment of the game play. Shot from the first person POV of the player, a member of the fictitious band "Broken Tide," the film captures the player's emotional experience -- from the backstage jitters, to the pre-performance adrenaline rush, to the disappointment felt after a wrong chord is struck and the crowd starts to hiss.

It turns out, however, that this isn't a cinematic recreation of the game -- it's the game itself.

"Guitar Hero Live" aims to turn the music game genre on its head by putting the player in the middle of the action, in front of a real, non-CG crowd, and his or her performance will determine whether the crowd jeers, or goes wild. As the player progresses, the real people venues will get bigger and more challenging, going from an intimate bar setting to a massive venue where the player performs in front of an audience of a hundred thousand.

According to Activision, the "Guitar Hero" franchise has surpassed $3 billion in sales. We saw the last game release in 2010, with "Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock," which did poorly sales-wise compared to its predecessors. According to VentureBeat, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick had shelved the development on further "Guitar Hero" games in 2011 because the game failed to innovate and lure audiences. Only after a serious update would the company consider releasing a new version.

Guitar Hero Live band Broken Tide, minus you, the player
Guitar Hero Live band Broken Tide, minus you, the player

At the heart of that update is the notion of "stage fright," explained Activision Publishing CEO Hirshberg at a launch event in New York City this morning. The company surveyed consumers and found that a fear of being on a stage ranked higher than fear of death -- and of zombies. Putting the player on a real stage, in front of a real audience --and creating this sense of stage fright was the "meaningful, breakthrough reinvention" that made a new game launch worthwhile, he said.

The 2015 game's key innovation posed one of the most interesting challenges in terms of the marketing, according to Activision Executive VP-Chief Marketing Officer Tim Ellis. "It's very common for videogames to use live action in their trailers. Activision has used the live action trailer to convey the emotional promise of a videogame, but here, we have real live action as the key innovation."

Activision and 72 ultimately addressed the challenge by simply stating it how it is. In the film, as the player launches into a successful a set and the crowd goes wild, copy appears: "This isn't what it 'feels like' to play the new "Guitar Hero." This is the new 'Guitar Hero.'" The agency worked closely with Activision and the game's developer, Freestyle, to ensure that certain scenes of the game were shot appropriately to fit the trailer.

"This is the first 'hello,'" said Mr. Ellis. "It's surprising and fun -- the product in itself is the marketing. For us, it was the simple, but brave way to go to announce this game."

The "Live" aspect isn't the only new offering of the new "Guitar Hero." Activision is also debuting GHTV, billed as "the world's first playable music video network." While "Live" is what Mr. Ellis described as "the emotional hook that grabs people and brings them in," GHTV is what will keep them coming back for me. It will be a 24-hour "channel," where gamers can play along to official artist music videos, but won't feature the real-world aspect of "Live." GHTV gives players ability to compete with friends at home or others around the world and will be continually updated with new content.

Guitar Hero Live Controller
Guitar Hero Live Controller

Another of the most interesting innovations of the updated title is the new guitar controller, which ditches the five colored buttons of its predecessor for a two-row, no-color interface -- designed to make game play easy to learn for beginners, but difficult to master for the pros.

After today, Mr. Ellis said the brand will continue to release "steady beats" of marketing from now until the E3 gaming conference in June. He added that the push will also tap a mix of influencers to help promote the game. "We're not launching to a vertical gamer segment," he said. "It's a mass play and from the outset, we'll have a mix of musical artists, actors, athletes, bloggers. Everyone who loves this game will play a role."