Don't Fret the Technique

'Guitar Hero' goes mobile

<i>Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile</i>
Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile

It's a common enough story: A nongamer goes to a friend's house or visits relatives with kids and spends the majority of the next day talking about this revolutionary new game Guitar Hero (or its competition, Rock Band) that he spent the better part of an evening mastering, as if he's suddenly on the cutting edge of video-game technology. And maybe he is.

The original Guitar Hero was unleashed on the public in November 2005. Increased cost to the consumer aside (due to its replacement of the standard controller with a modified-guitar interface), the game achieved such staggering success as to make it a pop-culture reference on par with Grand Theft Auto. Despite a changing of the guard from developer Harmonix to Activision stalwart Neversoft, nary a laurel was used for resting. Nearly every avenue for revenue was traveled until the next logical step arrived, and the shredding and riffing were directed to the mobile world.

It was a mobile world completely foreign to Activision, which called upon Hands-on Mobile to create a handset-friendly version of the video-game-console behemoth. Stepping to the line to tackle the challenge was a team of developers that included senior project manager J.J. Lechleiter and music licensing manager Lara Norris. They identified the problems of the endeavor and solved them to the best of their abilities (and current technology's). As their South by Southwest panel approaches, Lechleiter and Norris shared with us how these solutions could be expanded into the future models of mobile technology and music dissemination.

Going A-SKU

The original console version of Guitar Hero was made for PlayStation2 with future iterations spanning the game-system map that included the Xbox 360, Wii, and a few smaller platforms. Each console is a separate product, or SKU in industry speak (short for stock-keeping unit). Single gaming titles require unique programming in order for them to be compatible with different SKUs. Simply put, a game's programming will not be the same for the Wii and the Xbox. The console version of Guitar Hero usually meant programming for four SKUs. On the other hand, for a game to be available to the majority of the mobile-loving public, it requires programming for hundreds of SKUs from iPhones to standard flip phones.

Cutting out certain platforms wasn't possible. "Completely different platforms hold substantial market share," claims Lechleiter in his best businessman voice. The only solution was to allow enough time to program for all the SKUs. That means the game-making process started a year prior to Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile's release.

Does the future hold a unification of platforms similar to the end result of the VHS/Beta or HD-DVD/Blu-ray wars? Lechleiter doesn't think so, especially after buying a $400 Blu-ray player recently. "I'm locked in to my Blu-ray player for the next 10 years now," he says. "I think mobile phones have a shorter life cycle. People are not really dedicated to the media they buy on that." And so the sea of SKUs remains for the foreseeable future.

Licensing for Dummies

The music tracks themselves were acquired from Activision, but having the tracks doesn't give you permission to use them. A new game required a whole new set of licensing for Norris and her eight years of experience to handle. "You have the copyright of the song itself – the melody and the lyrics – and then you have the copyright of the sound recording," she explains. Add to that numerous writers within the band, each with his or her own publisher, and you have the not-uncommon problem of dealing with five companies that all need to agree to let you use that one song.

Not to mention that the companies would have to give permission to use a track approximating the original for high-end phones and midi versions (which sound like karaoke instrumental tracks) for low-end handsets. Some companies had specifications for the high-end, MP3-quality mixes, and others didn't want midi versions of their songs to be used at all.

Luckily for Norris, by the time she came knocking on the labels' doors, Guitar Hero was a household name with cachet in the industry. Additionally, the soaring popularity of the iPhone and other state-of-the-art handsets made midi-users a considerably smaller minority by the time Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile was released in November 2008. It didn't hurt that record companies are clamoring for new sources of revenue.

Follow the Money

Aside from the licensing fee, what's really in it for the copyright holders? After almost four years of being in the public eye, Guitar Hero can influence record sales dramatically. All those snot-nosed gamers who didn't know that Keith Richards' skin was once taut are now searching out "Paint It Black," because they felt the rush of nailing his solos. Sorry, SXSWers: Not everyone scours the music blogs for eight hours a day searching for the next sensation.

On top of that, mobile devices remain untainted by the rampant file sharing found on home computers. Whether or not that will change as cell phones become more like computers remains to be seen, but for now it's a rare money-maker for a struggling industry. "The customer might be used to getting their music free, but they'll pay to take their music mobile," says a confident Norris. And from where she's sitting, the music industry has an ace up its sleeve. "The material is copyrighted," she explains. "Somebody will pay for that whether it's the customer or the company that wants to provide a service to the customer."

Outgrowing the Garage

Despite even high-end phones' computerlike leanings, the main problem with content-heavy programs like mobile versions of Guitar Hero is storage space. "Because of file-size constraints on 90 percent of mobile phones, you couldn't download a game that has all these MP3s in it," says Lechleiter. "There just isn't enough space." This platform limitation kept Tetris and Bejeweled on the top of the mobile charts for years until Guitar Hero III Mobile ended their reign. The solution was not to include the music when downloading the game to your phone. But where are all those bulky music files kept?

The music remains on a server from which a Guitar Hero can download his or her chosen track and, after a short delay, rock. Unlike streaming, which can stall if the wireless signal is weak, Hands-on lets customers download their tracks temporarily until they want to try their riffing hand at another jam. An estimated 250,000 songs rotate on and off the server daily. That means more space for photos of your dog or an exhaustive list of top scores on Bookworm.

Continued increases in wireless speeds for handsets could make this technology applicable to most anything. Why not put all your files on a server and pull them off as you need them, in effect shrinking the cumbersome hard drive to a fraction of its original size? Then use that space to improve camera-phone technology to something that doesn't make everything look like a screen shot from the Paris Hilton sex tape. Just a thought.

What this goes to show is that capitalism breeds ingenuity. What was at best a speed-bump-littered road from console to mobile will feel smoother to the next developer who tries to put other popular gaming titles in the palm of your hand. Norris takes the trend even further: "Take every experience that the customer has right now, and you take it mobile. I might be a little bit biased, though."

Related Panels

Guitar Hero: From Console to Mobile

Tuesday, March 17, 3:30-4:30pm, Room Hilton C

Are Music Games the New iTunes?

Tuesday, March 17, 10-11am, Room Hilton C

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Guitar Hero, Rock Band, mobile technology, J.J. Lechleiter, Lara Norris

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