“Alan, you are a Guitar Hero / Now with Doritos you’re no longer a zero …”

The latest British TV commercial for Doritos chips is a stroke of genius. The story of a depressed shelf-stacker who almost gives up on his metal fantasies until he discovers the snack brand’s new promotion, it’s not only hilarious, it perfectly encapsulates the Guitar Hero effect (when a lesser known band sees its music sales spike after being featured in a Guitar Hero title).

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Guitar Hero is everywhere – from TV to the high street, potato chips to pubs. Some bars now offer Guitar Hero nights as a way for patrons to hang out and unwind. But the Guitar Hero effect is about more than just next-gen karaoke. As a gamer working in the heavier side of the music industry, the potential fascinates me. With the number of bands putting out Guitar Hero bundles every month, it’s almost like the fourth format for music releases.

But to limit this phenomenon to Guitar Hero ignores the cumulative influence of a ton of great game soundtracks over the years, from Grand Theft Auto‘s in-game radio stations to the success of another Neversoft series, the Tony Hawk games. Festivals like Fuse 07 have similarly done much to draw attention to the relationship between videogaming and metal in particular. In many ways, Guitar Hero is the culmination of a relationship that goes back years, but one that still needs some work if it’s to reach its full potential.

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Back in 2007, as Guitar Hero was starting to really find its groove, London hosted the Fuse 07 music and gaming festival. The brainchild of Senior Brand Manager Phil Brannelly at Ubisoft, the event was poised to capitalize on the soundtracks of recent games in the Tom Clancy series by reaching out beyond the normal gaming audience.

To this end, Brannelly brought on board Julie Weir, head of British metal label Visible Noise (home to Lostprophets and Bring Me The Horizon), and the two conceived of a format where a Battle Of The Clans would be “soundtracked” by a Battle Of The Bands. As a gamer herself, Weir was extremely passionate about the idea of bringing together fans from both sides, and over two years later she still raves about her involvement. “It was almost building a little community for Ubisoft and its gamers,” she says. “I thought it was very clever and I still stand by the fact that I wish it’d gone further.”

As head of Visible Noise, Weir has had dealings with the game industry for a number of years. “We manage a band called Evile who have gotten 200,000 downloads of a song of theirs called ‘Thrasher’ on Rock Band. 200,000, I mean that’s crazy! I know a lot of people who got introduced to the band through that specific game.”

But what really appeals to Weir more than the sales figures are the opportunities for gamers to really interact with the music. “Xbox Live has a lot of music videos up on their social network, and PlayStation now is also doing the SingStar social network, where people upload their own videos and everything, too,” she says. “So it’s crossing over into everything – not just music, not just videogames. It’s a community.”

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As a gamer, Weir admits that games like Guitar Hero have changed the way she listens to music. But as a label head, she debates whether Guitar Hero has had as much of an impact as many claim it has on how labels view working with the games industry.

“Everyone always thinks it’s cool to be involved in computer games,” Weir says. “Bands always do. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a band who’d say ‘no’ to being put on a computer game. It’s almost like a pat on the back.”

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The best game soundtracks are more than just mood music – they actually tap into the culture that the games attempt to depict. Most of the people I talked to while researching this article cited either Grand Theft Auto or the Tony Hawk series as being among the first games where a guitar-based soundtrack really stood out for them, particularly the Tony Hawk games, where the soundtracks have mined first the punk and now the full alternative music culture that surrounds skating.

Similarly, games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band tap into metal culture, but in the most direct way possible: You don’t just get to pretend to play a rockstar, you virtually get to be one. “Rock Band is basically karaoke for metallers,” says Weir. “Not everybody wants to get up there and sing ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ or ‘Beat It’ when they’ve had a drink. But lads will quite happily get up and noodle around, whether they’re good or bad or terrible.”

The karaoke metaphor is a double-edged sword. As industry pundit Bob Lefsetz famously pointed out in 2009 when commenting on The Beatles Rock Band, a lot of hardcore gamers will simply play the game to completion and move on. At the end of the day, metal fans, gamers and casual players all enjoy music-based games on different levels. And while song downloads from these games now count towards the singles download charts in the U.K., the extent to which they lead to long-term success is debatable.

“It’s a social gaming experience; it’s no more than that,” opines Matt Davies-Kreye from post-hardcore band Funeral For A Friend. “It’s a next-step karaoke. It’s fun to do, it’s not serious, but if people want to learn to play these things, pick up a guitar and get a chord book and spend the hours that guitar playing demands of you. It doesn’t really get creative for bands because the song’s already been written.”

In many ways, what makes the Guitar Hero format so lucrative for the music industry is the very thing that makes its usefulness so transient from song to song: the need for a constant supply of new material. For many bands, providing that material isn’t a problem, but most of the time, Guitar Hero is just another place to put a well-used track. The current thirst in both industries for developing a sense of community requires a higher level of involvement. Likewise, to really develop the relationship between the music and games industries requires more than just labels passively licensing music to developers – it requires some real creative thinking.

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Enter God Of War III. At the time of writing, plans are underway to bundle the Ultimate Edition of the upcoming PS3 release with an EP of original music inspired by the game. Titled God of War: Blood & Metal, the EP will feature tracks from Killswitch Engage, Dream Theater, Opeth, Taking Dawn and Trivium. It’s by no means the first game metal musicians have created original music for (Korn recently wrote and performed the title track for Haze, for example), but certainly it’s the first to do it to such an extent.

Like Davies-Kreye, Trivium frontman Matt Heafy relished the opportunity to be more creative with the project as opposed to the usual off-hand contribution his band makes to soundtracks. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to be involved with,” he says. “Some bands act like they can only write so many songs a year or so many songs per album or so many extra songs. For us, it’s like we already have 30-plus songs written for our next record, and if something asks us to make a new original song, I’m sure we will.”

Yet it’s worth noting that despite all this optimism, not all sides of the industry are quite as prepared to take the same leap. In the end, the reason why Fuse 07 never led to Fuse 08 was a quirk of the industry: The Tom Clancy series the festival was created to promote took a two-year breather. Likewise, a lot of labels still need to open up to truly collaborating with the gaming industry.

“We work with other publishers like EMI and Sony, but we found them quite protective,” says Fuse mastermind Phil Brannelly. “It’s not just the music industry, but I think the games industry is still perceived a little bit as games for kids in bedrooms. I think there’s a bit of work for us to do in the games industry to educate people. People that work with Guitar Hero through Activision and Rock Band through EA have seen this, so we’re slowly changing that perception.”

For any lasting impact, the future of the relationship between videogames and music will ultimately be about more than just these games. “I think revenue streams are becoming a lot more homogenized,” concludes Weir. “Any crossover that can help a brand and help bands expand is brilliant. The videogames industry needs music industry; the music industry needs the videogames industry.”

Ruth Booth is a freelance music culture journalist and editor at www.rockmidgets.com. She likes nothing more than ganking noobs with a glass of whisky and Raging Speedhorn’s “The Gush” on full blast.

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