Guitar Hero vs Rock Band - The Surprising Story of Two Billion Dollar Rivals
It feels like video games are a medium that lend themselves to practically every genre out there: horror, sports, action, adventure, and yes, even music. When it comes to living your musician fantasy there are two games that stand head and shoulders above the rest – Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
These games are undeniably rivals, and while both are played by millions of people, every fan will have a preference for one or the other. What a lot of people don’t realise however is that these two series are actually very closely connected, with an intertwined backstory.
Now before we get into the history lesson, if you have never played either game I’ll give you a quick briefing on what they’re about. Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band are known as “rhythm games” where the object is to emulate famous musicians as you play along with their tracks in time to the music.
Guitar Hero is notable for its guitar-shaped controller. By using the buttons on the device, the aim is to push them in sync with the rhythm of the song. Over time both these games expanded their controllers, including simplified drum pads too.
If you have never played either game before then you could consider them to be musician simulations or role-playing games. Many games in both series offer single-player experiences including their own “career” modes where you take on the role of a musician and progress through a series of increasingly difficult challenges.
Both games were also heavily focused on both co-operative and competitive play as well. Some games in the series were specially designed to accommodate four players which each taking on a distinctive role in the band like the lead guitar, vocals, or drums.
So, that’s your short introduction to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Let’s now explore the history between the two a little more and see how these mega franchises are connected to each other.
History of Guitar Hero
Guitar Hero was the result of a partnership between Harmonix and RedOctane who specialised in creating video game controllers. Harmonix was a music video game development company that had already produced a number of music-themed video games.
Guitar Hero was based around a popular Japanese game called Guitar Freaks. RedOctane approached Harmonix to help develop the game together with Guitar Hero being the end result of their collaboration. The success of Guitar Hero meant a sequel was quickly pushed into development with it being released only a year later in 2006.
This looked like it would be a long-running successful partnership however RedOctane and Harmonic were soon to be sold, causing things to change very rapidly. In 2006, the gaming giant Activision bought RedOctane and spent a further $100m to acquire to the Guitar Hero license.
The formation of Rock Band
With the Guitar Hero licence sold to Activision, Harmonix who was now owned by MTV Games worked with Electronic Arts to release a rival rhythm game called Rock Band. Rock Band, while taking inspiration from Guitar Hero, was designed to expand on the gameplay ideas with the addition of drums and a microphone for vocalists.
This put a much stronger emphasis on the band style experience for players. Interestingly Guitar Hero took a similar approach with its next game, Guitar Hero World Tour, which was released just one year after Rock Band in 2008.
Looking back, it’s quite remarkable that Rock Band were able to create this new brand from scratch so quickly after Guitar Hero was sold to Activision. We can only imagine how annoyed the new owners of Guitar Hero were when Rock Band was released!
While Guitar Hero started out as a mainly rock-focused rhythm game, over time it began to slowly expand its music selection to include more genres.
Rock Band also had a rock-focus but over time it also expanded the available music to appeal to multiple different tastes. While this may have made commercial sense, it could also be a contributing factor that caused both series to lose their core appeal.
Guitar Hero overtime also took away the focus of the guitar which may seem strange given its name. The guitar was always an important instrument, but Guitar Hero like Rock Band wanted to build a more co-operative multiplayer experience.
This, in turn, meant that with every new release the guitar playing felt like more of just another option rather than the main focus of the gameplay. During their early years, both Guitar Hero and Rock Band were incredibly successful series and at their height, they were both just behind Nintendo’s giant Mario series when it came to profits.
Guitar Hero was the more successful of the two, but Rock Band was still seeing impressive sales figures and there was certainly a healthy competition between the two series. Both series also made use of downloadable content (DLC) to release new songs to players as well.
This proved to be very successful especially for Rock Band who made it one of the main focuses of their business plans for the game. All was going well for both series for quite some time but eventually, the rhythm-game bubble was going to burst.
The early 2010s saw a noticeable decline for rhythm-based games and neither Rock Band nor Guitar Hero was immune. One of the biggest issues with this is believed to be oversaturation. Both Guitar Hero and Rock Band released a lot of games in a short space of time and this wasn’t helped by the number of spin-off titles. All this meant a very crowded marketplace.
The abundance of DLC was also believed to be a problem with many customers seeing no need to buy new games in the franchise when they could simply purchase the songs they wanted via DLC instead. Both games also introduced a number of accessories that not all players would see the need to buy.
This led to increasing development costs that weren’t being turned into a profit. There is also the argument that neither Guitar Hero nor Rock Band did enough to differentiate themselves from one another. So eventually they both sort of swallowed each other and consumers couldn’t really tell the difference. The main differences, in the end, were the unique graphic styles of each game. Some would also argue that Guitar Hero was much harder than Rock Band.
Licensing issues were also an issue for both series with developers explaining that despite impressive sales they sometimes only saw very limited profits due to the licensing costs involved with getting songs.
During their height, both Guitar Hero and Rock Band managed to share the spotlight to some degree. Guitar Hero was always bigger but Rock Band held its own and both series enjoyed a friendly rivalry. The influence of the band-focus of Rock Band is easy to see in the newer Guitar Hero series games which over time turned away from guitar-only playing.
Both games also slowly expanded their music to cater to more genres, but rhythm-based games popularity did wane over the years, and while both series are fondly remembered by many they aren’t as popular as they once were. So what is the future for rhythm games, and how else can music lovers experience being a rock star?
WeJam is the next step for Guitar Hero and Rock Band lovers
While many players will have fond memories of both Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and likely still play them from time to time, it can’t be denied that both series and the whole rhythm-game genre has been seeing a decline for a while now. Guitar Hero is officially on its second hiatus after its most recent game Guitar Hero Live didn’t sell as well as expected.
Rockband’s latest main entry Rockband 4 was released in October 2015 and while it does continue to see support in the form of DLC, its sales were also reported to be underwhelming. However, there was also a VR spin-off released in 2017 for the Oculus VR headset.
Both Rockband 4 and Guitar Hero Live received positive reviews from critics but the heyday of rhythm games looks to be over. However, for fans of both series who are looking for the next evolution, perhaps WeJam is the answer?
If you loved rocking out on Guitar Hero or Rock Band then you’ll definitely love WeJam. Rocking out at home on screen is fun, but it won’t match the adrenaline and joy of rocking out in a music studio for real! At WeJam, participants get to play their favourite songs on real instruments and don’t need existing musical skills to take part. Our technology means that everybody can sound great in their first sixty-minute session, and because you’ll be playing real instruments WeJam offers an authentic experience that no computer game can recreate.
This article is part of a longer feature titled Be a Real-Life Guitar Hero. How and Why to Start a Band! which you can check out here.