The day the music died

On February 3, 1959, a plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.

On February 9, 2011, Activision officially ends the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero franchises.

It may seem a little crass comparing a plane crash to a game franchise collapse, after all, the plane crash killed four people, including three popular musicians, which was heartbreaking to their families and their adoring fans.  However, the loss of Guitar Hero, means several hundred developers are out of work, and millions of distraught Guitar Hero fans with no more releases in their favorite franchise.  While your personal opinion may tell you which one is worse, they were both disasters.

Guitar Hero was a very successful franchise, selling millions of copies at its peak; but recent titles saw a huge drop in sales, so it’s no wonder that Activision was doing something wrong.  More numbers suggest what: in six years (2005-2010), there were 24 Hero games.

There’s a term for this: franchise fatigue, using a franchise too often in a short space of time, burns out the fan base.  There’s only so much of the same content you can foist on consumers before they just can’t take it anymore; but this seems beyond franchise fatigue, this is more like franchise-digging-its-own-grave.

But don’t tell Activision that.

It was at last year’s E3 that Activision COO Thomas Tippl said he doesn’t believe in “franchise fatigue”, that it was something developers made up to excuse low game sales that he attributed to lack of innovation.  I’m sure the original Guitar Hero was very innovative, but the other 23 probably lacked in that area.

The main aspect of franchise fatigue, is that it occurs because the developers make too many games in too short a time; i.e. they visit the well until it runs dry.  The key to avoiding franchise fatigue is to know when to take a break, stop releasing games, and wait until demand for a new game in the franchise builds up, then cash in; or better yet, tap the well at the rate it replenishes, so it never runs out to begin with.  But Activision doesn’t believe in franchise fatigue, so they just kept lowering that bucket, taking every drop of water that was there like there was no tomorrow; and that’s the right way to go.

If Activision is right, and there is no such thing as “franchise fatigue”, then the correct course of action is to go to the well as much and as often as possible.  In this situation, either the well has an unlimited supply, or a fixed supply; it will never run dry and you can keep dipping into the well until you wear out your bucket, or it will run dry no matter what, so you might as well get all you can, and move on.  That is what Tippl was saying about innovation; innovating makes a slightly (or very) different game, so you’re not going to the same well, you’re going to a different well, that is tapping into the same water table, trying to get the water that doesn’t reach the first well.

Competition makes it much worse, when Rock Band appeared, you had another blossoming franchise dipping their buckets into the same wells the Hero games were tapping into; which meant less for Activision.  Their response was the obvious, more Guitar Hero, and a new spin-off, DJ Hero; and MTV/Harmonix cranked out more Rock Band games to keep up.  In its four years, there have been 16 Rock Band titles, with more on the way, that makes 40 music games from just two companies in six years.  Actually, Guitar Hero started off pretty modestly, so it’s more like 38 games released in four years (2007-2010).

Now we’ve reached the well run dry phase; Activision has gotten all the money out of the music genre it can (totally not them running it into the ground), so it’s time to dump Guitar Hero and focus on something else.  Who needs Guitar Hero when you have Call of Duty?

The future of the music gaming industry is now in the hands of MTV and Harmonix with the Rock Band franchise.  If Activision is right in that there is no franchise fatigue, then all they can do it pick the bones of the music genre’s corpse, and close up shop when it’s all gone.  But if franchise fatigue is real, and they believe it, then they’ll slow down the release schedule to let gamers take a break; then once we’ve had a chance to recuperate, bring out the next big Rock Band title, without competition from Activision.

If franchise fatigue is real, then Rock Band will take full control of a billion dollar industry that Activision just pissed away.

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