Wow, Activision. You guys really know how to run a brand into the ground. Take one of my favorite franchises: Guitar Hero. It started off strong enough on the PS2 with Guitar Hero and became an overnight success in November of '05. That "instant-classic" status warranted a sequel just over a year later, Guitar Hero 2, which was released on the PS2 and Xbox 360 in November '06. These two games were published by RedOctane and developed by Harmonix.
But after that, things got ugly. Activision bought out RedOctane, and Harmonix moved on. The franchise was overtaken by Neversoft, the same people who brought you the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. And they proceeded to cannibalize the series. About six months after Guitar Hero 2 hit the shelves, Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80's was a PS2-exclusive expansion pack to GH2 that included about 30 songs, all from the 80's, and virtually no unlockable content. However, Guitar Hero Encore improved one aspect of the series. While GH2 included only two master recordings ("John the Fisherman" and "Stop!"), but Encore brought five.
Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock is where Activision goes crazy. Released on the PS2, Wii, 360, and PS3 in October '07, the game includes online play, an enormous setlist of over 70 songs and, on the 360 and PS3, downloadable songs. Additionally, avatars of Tom Morello and Slash appear in the game. By all accounts, Legends is a superior game to GH2 in every way--although the last track set is insanely hard. The game was an overwhelming sales success, and Activision quickly pushed Guitar Hero: Aerosmith out the door in June '08. While it's difficult to call the game anything but a sidenote to the main series, Aerosmith did some important things. First, the entire band took part in facial rendering and mo-cap. Also, Aerosmith's Wii version was developed independantly of the PS2 version, which resulted in a better experience for Wii owners, who had previously been treated to a port of the PS2 version of Legends of Rock.
So then Activision asked, "Why not the DS?" Guitar Hero: On Tour hit stores also in June of '08. It featured an amalgamation of new content and songs from Legends packed onto a DS card and retrofitted with an ergonomically unsound "Guitar Grip" peripheral that is unkind to all but those with the thinnest of hands and fingers. Of course, just a few months later (November), Guitar Hero On Tour: Decades was released with a new setlist (several songs from World Tour). Meanwhile, back on the console front, Activision needed to catch up with Harmonix, who had gone on to found the insanely popular Rock Band franchise. Activision needed a full-band game, and quick, so Guitar Hero: World Tour was launched in October of '08 for the PS2, Wii, 360, and PS3. The game is compatible with two guitars, a microphone, and a drum kit. Many, many of Neversoft's drum kits didn't work properly (or at all) out of the gate, and Activision's replacement strategy made the problem much, much worse.
And more games are coming.
The DS is getting a threequel called Modern Hits, which will have an incredibly short lifespan because the DSi, an upgrade to the DS Lite which does away with the GBA slot, comes out in April and will not be compatible with the DS Guitar Hero games. Activision is also planning two sidequests for the consoles: Guitar Hero: Metallica is set to release in March of '09 and will, like the Aerosmith game before it, focus mainly on a single band. Unlike Aerosmith, however, Metallica will not be bundled with a guitar controller. Finally, Activision just announced Guitar Hero: Greatest Hits, which will compile songs from Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2 for the full band treatment.
When you include every version of every game, the Guitar Hero franchise has racked up eighteen games since November of '05, and at least eight more games will come out in the next year. It didn't take Neversoft long to wring all the money they could out of the Tony Hawk brand, and I fear they'll take the same road with Guitar Hero.