Activision built a multibillion-dollar business with Guitar Hero earlier this decade — and then saw it all collapse as gamers tired of fake guitars. Now, like an aging rock star, it’s trying for a comeback.

This time, the company is banking on a combination of innovation, social networking, and a fresh take that turns the camera around, pointing your attention not at the rest of your band but at the audience that’s watching you. This is a modern Guitar Hero, with a new guitar and a new way of visualizing the world and feeling the audience react to your performance. If it works, it could revive the music games genre that generated more than $2 billion for Activision.

And it can access music in the cloud and deliver a massively multiplayer online experience in competitive play. You’ll be able to play it on consoles, as it’s a multiplatform game. And you’ll also be able to play it on mobile devices — no PlayStation 4 or Xbox One needed.

“Guitar Hero created a cultural phenomenon,” said Jamie Jackson, the creative director and studio head of the developer FreeStyleGames, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It transcended our category of video games.

“When we started about reinventing it, we asked what made it really it cool the first time. We sat down and shared anecdotes. I took mine to my dad. I told him it had The Who in it, and he was a massive fan of the band. He hit a note and his face lit up. We couldn’t get him off it. He was in his 50s and doesn’t play games.”

Original Guitar Hero on PS2

Above: Original Guitar Hero on PS2

Image Credit: Activision

The first Guitar Hero was a collaboration between RedOctane and Harmonix, and it was published by Activision. Activision acquired RedOctane in 2007, but it parted ways with Harmonix, which was then acquired by MTV Games and went on to create the rival Rock Band series, published by Electronic Arts. Activision turned the franchise over to in-house developer Neversoft.

But Activision and rivals at Electronic Arts and Harmonix messed up big time. They oversaturated the market. People got sick of it. A recession squelched some of the market. And Activision shelved the franchise. Guitar Hero was like a flash-in-the-pan band, trying for hit after hit even though it only had one or two songs that audiences really liked.

So much has changed since then, Jackson  said. When Guitar Hero first debuted, MySpace was big. As Guitar Hero exploded, Activision added more development talent beyond Red Octane and Harmonix. In 2008, Activision acquired British game studio FreeStyleGames and set it to work on a new title. DJ Hero debuted in the fall of 2009 as an attempt to spread the music genre in new directions. But Guitar Hero itself was put on the shelf in early 2011.

“We had a passion, energy, and emotion around the Guitar Hero brand,” said Tyler Michaud, senior director of development at Activision, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We said we would bring it back when the innovation was there.”

It’s been a long time since the last Guitar Hero debuted in 2010. The company said it would only revive the franchise if it figured out how to innovate. And now it’s ready to try again with FreeStyleGames, which worked on DJ Hero, a spinoff title, but hasn’t tried its hand at the main franchise until now.

I tried it out the new Guitar Hero at a preview session recently. And I’m just as bad as ever. But I enjoyed myself. It reminded me of the days in 2005 when Guitar Hero first burst onto the gaming scene with a toy guitar instead of a game controller.

“It made you feel like a rock star,” Jackson said.

The new experience starts with a new guitar

The new Guitar Hero controller has six buttons you can easily reach with your three middle fingers.

Above: The new Guitar Hero controller has six buttons you can easily reach with the fingers between your thumb and pinkie.

Image Credit: Activision

Jackson said the team paid a lot of attention to the new game’s fake guitar. In the past, novice players messed up whenever they used the pinkie. So this time, it has just three buttons that are easily accessible via your three middle fingers. Novices can use these. But another set of three buttons is stacked right next to the initial trio for the experts to access.

“We wanted to make it easy to play and difficult to master,” Jackson said. “In the past, that fell apart when people had to use the pinky. Medium players were uncomfortable moving up and down the neck. So now your hand stays in one position on the neck. The second set of buttons gives you depth.”

The guitar also looks great. Instead of an embarrassing little toy, it has an authentic look and glossy exterior. It is now something that you won’t feel embarrassed to have in your living room.

When you hold it and play with it, the gameplay is familiar. Like the other Guitar Hero games, the color-coded musical notes move down a stick to a horizontal line. You have to press the right button in a row as a note crosses the horizontal line. It’s a matter of timing, and if you’ve got rhythm, you’ll be a natural at it.

Guitar Hero Live scene

Above: A scene from Guitar Hero Live.

Image Credit: Activision

A new point of view

But that’s where the similarity to the old Guitar Hero ends. Before, you used to look at the TV and see other members of your band. They were animated characters who performed alongside you. Now, the camera shows the audience.

In the snippet I saw, you are a member of the fictional band Broken Tide. You start out backstage in a video where you can see the members of the band walking ahead of you. The drummer is confident, tapping his sticks on everything he passes. The motion is constant. You see members of the entourage backstage, all wishing you luck.

Then you pick up a guitar and move out on stage with the rest of the members of Broken Tide. Glaring lights hits your eyes, and you hear a roar of noise. You can see the huge audience before you. The excitement of a live music performance is upon you. You can view the sea of humanity in the crowd, or you can zero in on the faces in the crowd in the pit, up close.

“We thought, ‘Let’s turn the camera around,'” Jackson said. “Make it first person and have you stand on stage looking at the audience. They will all be looking at you. It could be 100 people, or 10,000, or 100,000.”

As you start to play, you can hear the crowd come to life. These are real people, shot with a video camera. They can sound their approval with a good roar, or they can turn on you. If you start to mess up, the band members look at you and shake their heads. And the faces in the pit become angry. The camera pulls you to look at them whenever their expressions start to change. And their expressions change as they listen to the quality of your play.

“What struck us was the idea of stage fright,” Jackson said. “You see an artist on stage and they may look comfortable. But behind the stage, they may be a bit nervous. We wanted to give you that feeling of stage fright. And you can see how people react to you by the second.”

You can play in different real venues in the game and feel how it is to be on stage in the middle of a place.

Guitar Hero's fictional band: Broken Tide.

Above: Guitar Hero’s fictional band: Broken Tide.

Image Credit: Activision

How it plays

For those who never tried Guitar Hero, the reboot should be easier to get into. I found it quite easy to play at the beginning. I started on a relatively easy song. It wasn’t that hard at the start, but then the notes started coming down the stick. I missed a couple, and that threw me off. I was keenly aware that there were a bunch of people watching me in the room, and even the crowd was starting to jeer at me.

I decided to focus solely on the stick and try to hit the notes. Then I found the rhythm and got a little better. The band members stopped shooting looks at me, and the people in the pit were smiling and cheering again. I started screwing up some more and the song mercifully came to an end.

On my second try, I found it easier to play. It got challenging in the middle of the song as notes started coming down fast. I tried to hold each button longer in the hopes of getting the timing right as the notes passed the line.

Jackson mentioned that the crowd technology was cool. The developers could film a few hundred people and capture all of their movements and faces. Then they took those people and multiplied them so that they looked like 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 people.

Guitar Hero video

Above: Guitar Hero video

Image Credit: Activision

The Guitar Hero TV social networking hub

The choice of music is also going to be different. No longer are you constrained to playing maybe 50 songs on a disc before you have to start downloading your favorite tracks.

The new Guitar Hero links to an online social hub, dubbed Guitar Hero TV. You can go online from directly within the game and see leaderboards for the best players. You can see who is available to challenge and you can jump into a head-to-head match with them. Whoever hits the right notes the most wins.

You can check out the music from well-known bands or indies. And the selection should be huge, because it’s all stored and accessible in the cloud infrastructure. You just pick a song and play.

“We have a playable music video network,” Jackson said. “There’s a library in the cloud.”

You can press a button on the guitar and it throws you into a channel, like the same channel that you were previously playing. You can hit a music video and play against someone. The game matches you with someone else. But it’s like an always-on massively multiplayer online experience. Your performance record sticks with you.

“You can pick a song and play on demand,” Jackson said. “You get a score and others can benchmark against you. You can play socially online with loads of other people and discover new music.”

And once you buy the first game, you won’t have to keep buying a new disk just to access new songs. That problem of years past was one of the things that killed the old Guitar Hero.

“In this game, you will experience a shit-ton of different types of music,” Jackson said.

Backstage with Broken Tide in Guitar Hero

Above: Backstage with Broken Tide in Guitar Hero

Image Credit: Activision

And a mobile experience, too

Michaud noted that you will be able to experience the game on mobile as well. You can tune into the Guitar Hero TV network on a tablet or smartphone. And you don’t even have to own a game console. You can connect the tablet or smartphone to the television, and you can play songs on the big screen.

“You can get the full uncompromised experience,” he said. “You can take the guitar with you. The kids can play on a tablet without a console, using the guitar. And you can play it on the TV without a console.”

It is the same kind of experience that Activision created last fall with its Skylanders on mobile devices.

“We know that it’s a living platform,” Michaud said. “We never have to ship another disk.”

Guitar Hero teaser

Above: Guitar Hero teaser

Image Credit: Activision

Keeping it secret and unveiling it, one veil at a time

Surprisingly, the details didn’t leak.

“It’s been fun to sit back and watch the rumor and speculation,” said Michaud.

At the start, Jackson was clean-shaven. During the development, he didn’t shave. His “developer beard” (a riff on the hockey tradition where players avoid shaving during the playoffs) is quite long, after a couple of years in the wilderness of production.

Activision teased the unveiling yesterday with the release of a trailer. Fans had to figure out what was coming. And the publisher has much more to share as the marketing cycle ramps up. We’ll learn more at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles in June, and the game will come out in the fall. Jackson hopes that it will be a hit, of course, and that it will lead to the discovery of new bands, much like how past Guitar Heros unearthed talents such as the Australian hard rock band Wolfmother.

The single-player campaign is about the Broken Tide band. But that’s about all the company is saying for now.

“We film it with interesting techniques,” Jackson said.

He said the team never considered using a real guitar, such as Ubisoft did with Rocksmith, a rival game.

“It’s not a simulator,” Jackson said. “It is about having fun. That is what it did so beautifully for so many years.”