Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Guitar zero

Courtesy of Activision

When I was a sophomore in high school, the original Guitar Hero changed my life. Like many other Stanford undergrads I’ve seen at drunken rock sessions, I felt like a god as I raced through expert mode with that plastic, click-clacky guitar in my hands. Sure, it was simple and it was silly, but it was something totally new, and it opened the floodgates for a whole generation of would-be losers to joyously kid themselves into feeling musically competent. Forgive me for saying so, but it was really a beautiful moment for gaming.

Things have changed since then. Just last week, mega-publisher Activision — which immediately got on board with the small-time Red Octane after the first game sold over 1.5 million copies — announced the unceremonious death of the “Hero” franchise in a corporate earnings statement.

So what happened?

The truth is, Activision had it coming. When you release a staggering 19 “hero” games in half a decade, fail to provide a solid online solution for updating and importing songs, gouge prices on sets of minimally upgraded peripherals, saturate the market with garbage like last year’s Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock (Metacritic 72) and drag five entire studios into working on one property, your brand name’s reputation will go to hell, and so will your sales. People get laid off, gamers get shoddy products and whole segments of the industry crumble to pieces. It’s not a pretty picture, but with big-name publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, it’s becoming all too common.

I don’t want to see that happen to intellectual property that I care about, and I don’t want the industry to thrive on iteration more than innovation. So in the interest of thought experiments and, well, venting my frustration, I have some advice to offer for a couple of franchises that have seen better days.

Let’s start with the Microsoft exclusive, Fable — a series that often finds itself in the company spotlight. It’s always suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, but with its third installment, Fable has backed itself into a painfully paradoxical rut. Lionhead tried to make an epic, sprawling RPG accessible to everyone and their mother, and in “streamlining” the genre they managed to remove the HUD, menus, meaningful character growth and virtually any gameplay innovations.

Lead designer Peter Molyneux made his name by jumping from idea to idea with every game he made, like the PC classics Populous and Black & White. The downloadable market has made this business model more appealing than ever, and Lionhead would do well to work on smaller projects. It’s worked out fantastically for the like-minded innovators over at Double Fine Productions, which spreads small design teams over multiple, bite-sized projects at once.

How about this one? Final Fantasy. It needs no introduction, but it does need a serious makeover. Last year’s 13th entry in the vaunted Japanese role-playing franchise looked beautiful and sold fairly well, but it disappointed series veterans with its painful linearity. That game just had a direct sequel announced, while the series’ foray into the online space continues to puzzle gamers with the abysmal Final Fantasy XIV (Metacritic 49).

When series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was still at Square Enix, Final Fantasy games were less about visual splendor, featuring open and epic worlds while walking a delicate line between exploration and deep storytelling. We can’t expect this formula to work perfectly in the HD era, but Square Enix would please a lot of gamers by taking a few pages from its own history books and from the open-ended, western RPGs that are dominating this generation.

It’s not impossible to keep a franchise healthy over a long period of time. Just look at The Legend of Zelda, a hallowed franchise that celebrated its 25th anniversary just last Monday. Nintendo doesn’t fool around with outsourced development studios; they only release a game when they’re good and ready, and they’ve kept the same core of talent — producer Shigeru Miyamoto, director Eiji Aonuma and composer Koji Kondo — for almost 20 years. With only a few missteps (see: Link’s Crossbow Training and those awful interactive cartoons on the Phillips CD-i), the franchise has consistently showcased new hardware and added gameplay innovations while staying true to a simple formula and maintaining its loyal fan base.

Not every franchise can be like Zelda. But even so, Activision’s rough handling of Guitar Hero should stand as a reminder for other publishers that quantity can never replace quality.