It's been five years since Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) hung up its stringless six-string, but it's never too late to start strumming again. Guitar Hero Live hits stores on Tuesday, and with that comes the hope that musical-timing games rock back into fashion.
Activision Blizzard had a hit on its hands a decade ago. It was the publisher for the original Guitar Hero, developed by RedOctane and Harmonix in 2005. It liked what it saw, snapping up RedOctane two years later. Harmonix would go on to be acquired by MTV Games, turning to Activision Blizzard rival Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) to distribute its competing Rock Band franchise.
Gamers ate up the niche, for a few years at least. Players took to guitars, microphones, and faux drum kits as controllers. Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts were the toast of the town. The genre breathed new life into the gaming market at a time when the Wii was already getting gamers to stand up and move. Small-box specialty retailers may have resisted at first. They had to give up shelf and storage space that was once dedicated to new and secondhand games to make room for bulky plastic guitars and drum kits. However, once the games started selling and crowds started to gather to watch folks play air guitar, it helped spark a retail revolution.
By the time Activision Blizzard seemed to have milked the last bit of amp juice out of the franchise, it had spawned six generations of the game, as well as the short-lived DJ Hero and Band Hero spinoffs. Sales peaked in 2008, and by the time that the final entry rolled out in 2010 it was a fair bet that we would never be collecting guitar controllers again.
Well, that can all change on Tuesday. Guitar Hero Live is an evolutionary upgrade, offering an enhanced live concert experience. There are dozens of songs to cycle through, and folks can go online for roughly 200 more freely available tracks to play. If you're eyeing an opportunity to reconnect with all of the old Guitar Hero controllers collecting dust in your closet, you're out of luck. Guitar Hero Live features a totally new six-button fret interface.
If this is a hit, we're talking about a lot of money spent on new hardware, and Activision Blizzard can certainly use that. Its revenue peaked in 2012. With once iconic franchises including Skylanders, World of Warcraft, and Guitar Hero sliding in popularity, it would be a real game changer if it's able to give its guitar-pecking series a second act.
It's throwing plenty of marketing muscle behind the move. It's taking a page out of the Electronic Arts playbook by bringing in celebrities to pump up excitement. The promotional trailer stars Lenny Kravitz and James Franco in an amusing exchange. It's not the massive mini-movie effort that Electronic Arts used two months ago in trying to generate buzz for Madden 16, but it's a smart approach.
The game's coming. Now it's time to see if the encore is worthy of a standing ovation.