The Ode: Guitar Hero (2005 - 2011)

It vaulted to success by allowing users to channel their inner rock star. But stale product and market saturation caused the game to suddenly flame out.

Guitar Hero was born in 2005, the brainchild of independent gaming parts manufacturer RedOctane and video-game development company Harmonix. Inspired by the Japanese video game GuitarFreaks, the brothers who founded California-based RedOctane wanted to create something similar for the western market. Their version, in which players use a guitar-shaped game controller to simulate playing along to 30 rock songs, hit an unexpected high note. The game sold 1.5 million copies and brought in US$45 million in revenue.

The next year’s release, Guitar Hero II, doubled the song selection and added stage effects such as special lighting to better mimic a concert experience. On a roll, the sequel made US$200 million in profit. Its genius was allowing anyone to access their inner rock star, and it quickly inspired a cult following, with people making YouTube videos showcasing their skills, and bars holding Guitar Hero nights.

The big cats took notice, and in 2006, American video-game developer and publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. ( World of Warcraft) bought RedOctane for $100 million, while MTV took over Harmonix for $175 million. Both got working on new games: Harmonix developed Rock Band (a game that included more instruments) while Activision paired with game developer Neversoft to create Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which added a multiplayer function and sold 9.1 million copies in the U.S. its first year. Then came their rock-star moment: Activision announced the Guitar Hero enterprise was the first video game to reach US$1 billion in sales.

Trying to keep the good times rolling, in 2008 Activision released Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, the first in a series of band-centric games. They also released Guitar Hero World Tour, which included new controllers for drums and vocals and sold 3.4 million copies domestically in 2008. Though the numbers were still high, first week U.S. sales of World Tour were less than half those of Guitar Hero III. The decline reflected a general dip in the “rhythm game” genre, which was down 6% in 2008.

The following year Activision pulled out all the stops, releasing Guitar Hero 5 (85 songs), two band-centric titles ( Guitar Hero: Metallica, Van Halen), and two spinoff games. Though the game had reached its peak in cultural significance, with bands releasing new material over the platform and South Park dedicating a whole episode to its impact on youth, Guitar Hero 5 sold only one million copies in the U.S. The American rhythm-game genre had pulled in US$1.66 billion in 2008, but dropped to US$876 million in 2009, something experts attribute to product oversaturation and to the recession. The CEO of Activision’s Guitar Hero unit stepped down, and the company released only one new title in their main series for 2010, Guitar Hero: Warrior of Rock.

The glory days were over, and the sixth instalment sold only a fifth as many games as Guitar Hero 5 in its first week, and Activision shut down Guitar Hero operations in February, laying off 500 people and saying the move was “due to continued declines in the music genre.” The game recognized people’s desire to rock but not its own limits, and users complained that subsequent versions got stale. The company can rest on its laurels: it sold more than 25 million copies of the seven core Guitar Hero versions and its spinoffs, amounting to a profit of roughly US$2 billion. Like many of the legends on which Guitar Hero was based, the game lived fast, died young, and left a huge legacy.