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How much ‘Guitar Hero’ is too much?

Will 2009 be the year of the “Guitar Hero” glut?
Image: Guitar Hero and Rock Band 2 video game bundles are seen on display at a GameStop store in Redwood City, Calif.
The "Guitar Hero" franchise has been one of the most popular in video games, and a main engine driving the success of the industry as a whole. But will Activision Blizzard's new variations on that theme resonate with consumers?Paul Sakuma / AP file

Will 2009 be the year of the “Guitar Hero” glut?

Sure seems like it. Activision Blizzard recently promised no fewer than five new games from its “Hero” family of games. There’s “Band Hero,” a top-40 version of “Guitar Hero.” There’s “DJ Hero,” complete with a new turntable controller, and “Guitar Hero 5,” the next full version of the game that started it all.

Also on tap: “Guitar Hero: Smash Hits,” offering full-band versions of earlier “Guitar Hero” songs, and “Guitar Hero: Van Halen,” a version of the game totally devoted to the super-awesome 80’s rock band. (Here’s hoping the game ignores the band’s unfortunate Gary Cherone era.)

Holy smokes, that’s a lot of “Guitar Hero.” Is it too much? Or are all these new titles a smart business move from a company looking to expand its audience?

It’s a bit of both, says Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets. “At this stage in the lifecycle of ‘Guitar Hero,’ they need to be innovative and create new experiences for ‘Guitar Hero’ fans.”

The franchise is undoubtedly one of the most valuable and recognizable brands of all video games. It’s generated $2 billion in revenue for Activision. And the music-game genre, which “Guitar Hero” kick-started in 2005, is one of the main engines driving the success of the whole industry.

But it’s also true that Activision can’t count on selling 5 million plastic guitars year after year. The massive growth in the sector is bound to slow down as consumers stop buying spendy instruments and focus more on buying $5 song packs. That’s one reason Sebastian predicts that music-game revenues will dip 20 percent in 2009.

Another reason? Genre fatigue. “Madden” can get away with churning out a new football game every year. New seasons bring new players and new stats. And 5 million football fans will buy the game every year, says Sebastian.

But while last winter’s “Guitar Hero: World Tour” sold well, it hasn’t been the monster, 20-million-unit-selling hit that “Guitar Hero III” has been. “World Tour” added a new guitar controller, a wireless six-piece drum kit and a microphone to the mix — but “Rock Band” had already done that a year earlier. “It wasn’t as innovative as going in a new direction, like a turntable,” says Sebastian.

Enter “DJ Hero,” Activision’s offering for the club kids. Not much is known about this game, or its pop-music cousin, “Band Hero.” Activision has said that the music will be more contemporary, and that they expect the audience will skew younger than the “Guitar Hero” games do.

As for gameplay, “DJ Hero” will come equipped with a turntable peripheral, and players will synch their movements to a spinning record onscreen. No word yet on which artists will participate, or which tracks to expect. Nor is there any indication on price — a touchy subject during these miserable economic times.

And then there’s “Band Hero.” Details are sparse on this game, but it will be a full-band experience, like “Word Tour,” and feature pop music rather than straight-up rock. It’s a kinder, gentler “Guitar Hero,” more Top 40 than ZZ Top.

Will these games resonate? Activision says it has the focus-group data to back up its new offerings.

“We think and we believe very strongly that there are a tremendous (number) of consumers who want to be a part of this, who want to engage with their music in a new and different way,” says Eric Hollreiser, spokesperson for the “Guitar Hero” games. “Perhaps we just haven’t brought them their preferred genre, their preferred band, their preferred songs, or perhaps their preferred controller.”

This is a tough year to try new experiments — particularly ones that require an investment in gimmicky new hardware. But if you cast a few hooks in the water, a few fish are sure to bite. Music games aren’t like role-playing games, or even shooters. Everyone likes music. And Activision’s betting that there’s a whole world of people out there who like to play along, too.