Harmonix Loses Guitar Hero to Tony Hawk Developers

Plastic axe

Guitar Hero fans, time to clench your plastic axe tight and fret. After creating the revolutionary, incredibly successful rhythym-and-music franchise, it looks like the New England-based Harmonix won’t be developing the next sequel. As first spotted by Game Daily, that task has been taken over by Neversoft, the Activision-owned California studio most known for the Tony Hawk skateboard games— once an innovative franchise in its own right, though after sixteen variations of the same gameplay, you have to wonder when they’re going to stop milking it. (Hat tip: veteran developer Raph Koster, who muses, “I suppose this might be a side effect of Harmonix getting acquired by MTV while [original Guitar Hero publisher] Red Octane got bought by Activision. And Neversoft is a talented shop. But either way, it’s still dismaying…”)

Raph’s concerns are warranted, for Harmonix is easily one of the most innovative studios in the game industry’s history, founded by mad geniuses fresh out of MIT Media Lab, then joined by several members of Looking Glass Studios, another legendary Massachusetts developer which came to a tragic end in 2000. Among the ex-Looking Glass staff who jumped to Harmonix were Greg LoPiccolo and Eric Brosius, former members of a popular Boston prog rock band, who revolutionized the use of ambient music and sound effects in gaming with the cult hit PC game Thief: The Dark Project. (Full disclosure: Thief was so awesome, it got me into the industry.) Both LoPiccolo and Brosius were instrumental to Guitar Hero’s development, and you have to think their experience as genuine rockstars imbued the first two games with a certain magic which made it so popular with gamers— and actual rockers.

Can Neversoft shift away from churning out Tony Hawk spin-offs to meet Harmonix’s high standard, or will their GHIII be a tired retread? At the same time, one wonders how tight MTV’s purse strings will be, and how much innovation they’ll allow Harmonix for their next music-oriented title.

I worry, but take a wait-and-listen attitude.

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