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Guitar Hero's Michael Sportouch

The franchise boss talks innovation in the music game genre, plus what constitutes value for money

The Guitar Hero franchise has become a household name in the past few years, and can be credited with taking a fledgling genre and giving it mass market appeal.

But with luxury price points, thanks to new peripherals, and a tough consumer spending environment it's crucial to bring something new to the audience. Here the boss of the franchise at Activision, Michael Sportouch, explains the importance of innovation, and discusses the franchise's value for money.

Q: Guitar Hero's been something of a revolution in terms of popularising a genre of gaming - we're a few iterations in now, so how do you evaluate the franchise?

Michael Sportouch: I think, as you said, Guitar Hero has really transformed the games industry - but also the music industry. I think the challenge for us, because we have always been the leader - and we're still the clear leader in the category across the world, especially in Europe.

We're a solid leader and it's a challenge for us to continue to lead the category, and we want to continue to innovate both in hardware and software, because the beauty, but also the complexity, of the Guitar Hero business is to find the right mix of software innovation - we need to have great games, and what makes a success in our industry is a great gameplay experience that's fun for the consumer - and combining that with new hardware.

So if we continue to find the right mix between hardware and software innovation, and also getting new consumers into our brand and our franchises, then we'll continue to develop the music category in the US and Europe.

Q: What do you see as being the key innovations that have happened since the original game was released?

Michael Sportouch: I think that original innovation was the foundation of the franchise, but this year we've got a new innovation that's the DJ Hero game, with a new peripheral and a new gameplay experience.

So there are what I would call major innovations, or foundation innovations - what we have this year with DJ Hero, what we had a couple of years ago with the first guitar - but it's also permanent innovation.

That's not always perceived as being as big as creating a new peripheral - it's more subtle, like when we created the Music Studio in Guitar Hero: World Tour. On Guitar Hero 5 now, the accessible gameplay, the Party Mode, the jump-in-jump-out - it's constant innovation, and what makes any big franchise successful is the combination of many different details.

I think what we're trying to achieve is to continue to make progress on the gameplay experience with the consumer, with let's say smaller innovation - but when you combine all of these things together... like on GH5 we're very proud of the game... it will probably be reviewed as the best Guitar Hero ever, and we'll get 91-92 per cent reviews.

But a lot of people, a lot of reviewers who are asking "What's new, what's next?" are saying that the set list is incredible, we have the best selection of artists, the largest selection of music, and great gameplay innovation - which is probably not as big as having new hardware, but it's a big step forward for the gameplay experience.

So the way we see innovation going forward is that we continue to improve the gameplay experience, the music experience. Because our game, we're a mix between a videogame and a music game, so we're on the frontier of the music industry, hardware and software.

It makes the whole mix extremely exciting, but also extremely challenging. I think this year we have a lot of software innovation in GH5 and Band Hero which will satisfy our current players, but also the new entrants to the genre.

Meanwhile we hope that the hardware innovation in DJ Hero will bring people who have never played Guitar Hero before into the franchise. We have electronic music, we have hip-hop, and a new very exciting piece of hardware - we set ourselves very high ambitions with DJ Hero, which again is a big challenge, but also very exciting.

If you look at what happened at E3, we won a lot of awards - not only for the game itself, but also for the hardware. We were nominated in the Best Hardware and Best Music Rhythm Game categories, which was very exciting - because it's a big change from what we're used to doing, and when we went into E3 we didn't know what the press and retail reactions would be.

But everyone was so excited about it, so now the next step is that we'll make the consumers excited - and we've already got a lot of buzz on the game.

Q: There's been some controversy around the price points of some peripherals for music games, particularly when they're translated to European prices - how do you decide those, and how the perception of the US Dollar price works?

Michael Sportouch: We don't work in US Dollar equivalents - I don't want to go into the details, but there are many reasons for that. Our P&L (profit and loss) is not always aligned with what the US is doing - even though there is communication, it's a decision that's made here.

On the question of price, we do a lot of research on Guitar Hero - we've sold 35 million games and we have a very active fanbase. With Guitar Hero: World Tour's music studio we've had 250,000 created songs uploaded to our servers, which subsequently generated 17 million downloads.

So we have active communication with our fanbase and consumers. What's the motivation behind buying Guitar Hero? Firstly it's the music selection, and secondly that it's an easy, social and fun gameplay experience.

When we think about the pricing of our products it's about value for money for the consumer - we think today we didn't have a negative reaction from the consumer on our price, and our value for money.

So it's not just about what the consumer price is, it's about what represents value for money - how many hours of entertainment are we delivering? And so far our audience has reacted very well.

If you take Band Hero, with the microphone, drums, guitar and the disc, yes - there is a price to pay. But the number of hours of fun and entertainment... we think - and not only us, but our consumers thing - it's great value for money.

If I take GH5, and I don't want to compare with some other releases that we have in front of us, but we're presenting the largest variety of music ever, with 85 tracks from 83 different artists. It's good value for money.

If I take DJ Hero we've got 90 unique mixes that you'll never find elsewhere, but they're coming from different artists that are exclusive to DJ Hero - so even if you were buying the song individually on iTunes, for example, even without the peripheral it would cost you USD 90, or Euro equivalent.

When you add the peripheral to that, we're delivering an interactive experience. It's not only about listening to the music, you play with it - you create with it. We feel that we're giving the right value for money, but please be sure that we're always challenging ourselves on whether it's the right pricing, the right value for money, and are we delivering enough content?

All the research that we've done for DJ Hero... when we presented the turntable, people were impressed. It's not just like a piece of plastic - it looks really high quality, like a professional turntable.

And when we told them what the price would be with the disc, some people said they were happy to pay that amount of money.

But we'll always be extremely careful on the value for money.

Michael Sportouch is the head of the Guitar Hero franchise at Activision. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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