The party ended for the once-mighty Guitar Hero series in 2011, when Activision finally decided that the world had played enough guitar video games.
The last Guitar Hero we got was 2010's Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. But a source familiar with the series' development says that a Guitar Hero 7 was in development at Activision's Vicarious Visions studio until early 2011 when it was cancelled in mid-development.
Guitar Hero 7 was going to be a bit different and, due to a rocky development cycle, potentially very bad.
The new console game was going to be solely guitar-based, according to my source, who was thoroughly unimpressed with the development of the game. GH7 would have no drumming. No singing. Both of those elements had been added to the series after the series' original developers, Harmonix, began creating their own Rock Band games for MTV. But a troubled development cycle would see GH7 pare back to the series' roots: playing along to music with a video game controller shaped like a guitar.
My source shared a lot of information about the making of the game, a game which I'd never heard of nor seen. Other industry sources were able to verify the basics of its existence and cancellation, but nothing official, as cancelled games tend not to get discussed much publicly with the press.
An Activision rep was unable to comment about the game or the state of the Guitar Hero series as of the publication of this piece (I'll update it if/when they have anything to share).
My source described development of the game as a "disaster." They did not attempt to disguise their disgust for the scuttled Vicarious Vision project, casting GH7's woes as emblematic of the upstate New York's studio tendency to overreach with its console games.
My own exposure to Vicarious Visions has mainly been to the studio's handheld games which have tended to be technologically exceptional, so well-made, in fact, that the studio was known to have received special, positive attention from Nintendo when the Kyoto giant was looking to show off what their DS or 3DS units could do. (The studio was also working on a Vita version of Call of Duty: Black Ops II before that project, which my source said was flawed, was moved to another studio.)
Guitar Hero 7's guitar would be its most obvious deviation from its predecessors. It was going to change the gameplay of the series. "This amazing thing was a six stringed guitar," the source told me, sarcastically. "Not a real guitar, or even full six-stringed. It had the classic Guitar Hero buttons on the neck with one extra new button, and six strings where the strum bar used to be. YAY! Now they have an extra button and five more strum bars!"
Some early samples of the new GH7 guitar were even made, the source said, but they weren't up to snuff. "The strings were unresponsive and loose, and the guitars cost a fortune to make. No one could figure out a way to make it so your average Joe could buy one."
Development of the game had actually started well. My source said Vicarious Visions had begun making the game after Neversoft, which had been involved in some of the earlier games, passed. VV were Guitar Hero vets, too, and created a demo the source said was extraordinary. The demo's "[venue] had camera cuts that were unique to the song being played. The venue was amazing and animated, and each time something in the song changed the venue would also. I didn't even like the song, but the demo gave me goosebumps." The malleability of the venue would be a core idea for Guitar Hero 7. Gamers could play songs in different venues, as they could before, and playing a song successfully in a venue would cause the venue to begin changing in ways specific to that song. "They all had very big ambitions," my source said of Vicarious' team.
Problems plagued the creation of the game almost immediately. The team had decided to create the game from scratch, scrapping legacy characters and making a whole new art style. That left no time to allow for character customisation and some questionable aesthetic choices resulted in "characters [whose] necks were over a foot long… They all looked like they were punched in the face."
The morphing venue concept was too unwieldy and the game began to collapse under the weight of the developers' "big ambitions". "They started designing locations," my source said. "A tomb, the back of a moving truck. The locations were going to match the songs. Each song would have it's own music video. It was a nice idea, and some of the concepts looked great. Then they realised they didn't have any songs. Everything was being built around 'Turn The Page - Metallica,' and 'A Thing Called Love - The Darkness.' They'd change the venues and animations as the songs came in.
"When the songs started coming in, a great sense of dread came about everyone with an active brain," the source continued. "The game had all of the worst hits from the 1990's. They realised that, with our lack of budget and time, they couldn't get quality music so they bought bargain basement music like 'Closing time' and 'Sex and Candy.' There were some songs in there that had been used at least three times in the GH franchises before.
"They realised that with a setlist of over 80 songs, a music video unique to each song was out of scope as well. So pretty much every song was in the tomb or the back of the moving truck, with different lighting and camera cuts, and maybe a little graffiti. So they had a game that looked bad, had bad music, had very limited venues, and more was getting cut as time went on."
The game was supposed to have a two-year development cycle. That cycle was cut short about halfway through when Activision president Eric Hirshberg visited the studio. He checked out the game and was apparently not moved to keep things going. Development was stopped shortly after Hirshberg's visit and members of the team were let go.
Guitar Hero 7 may have had problems, but many, many games have problems while in development. A game can't be fairly be judged for history while it's in the middle of development. The game might have improved. But in early 2011, it seemed, Vicarious Visions had over-reached. Guitar Hero had flamed out and Guitar Hero 7 was no more.
There have been no Guitar Hero games since, an absence that can be credited to or blamed not solely on Vicarious Visions but more on the collapse of the guitar-game genre, a collapse brought down by the weight of too many Guitar Hero and Rock Band sequels and spin-offs.
It stands to reason there will be another Guitar Hero some day. Maybe they'll even call it Guitar Hero 7. Next time, things will hopefully go better.