The new Guitar Hero game, Guitar Hero Live, will launch with a library of hundreds of songs on 23rd October, and hundreds more will be added as time goes on. But playing them works differently from how it did 5 or 10 years ago, in that you can't actually buy them permanently any more.
The new system is tied in with Guitar Hero TV, a new mode that gives you a couple of channels of rotating songs to drop in and out of at any time. Load up Guitar Hero TV and you can jump straight in and play along with whatever's on. It's organised by genre, roughly, so you can switch over to a different channel if music you hate comes on. In single-player, you play songs in front of a live crowd; in Guitar Hero TV, it's music videos. It's like playing along with MTV.
So, say you want to play a particular song that you love, but that isn't on the disc. (Activision has not yet clarified exactly which songs will be on the disc, but there will be plenty.) Here's what you do: you log into Guitar Hero TV, pull up the tracklist, and spend a "play" token on it - which you can earn by playing and doing well on GHTV, or – yes – by paying for it with money.
That lets you play the song one time. If you want to play it again, you can spend another play coin. Or you can play any of the songs on-disc whenever you want, or play along with whatever's streaming on Guitar Hero TV for free.
Say you've got a bunch of friends coming over and want all the hundreds of songs unlocked: you can buy a karaoke-style "party pass" and get a few hours' access to absolutely everything. That can only be bought with money.
Developer FreeStyle Games is essentially asking people to let go of the idea of "owning" the music, in my opinion, in the same way as people have let go of that concept with services like Spotify. I spoke to Jamie Jackson, Guitar Hero Live's creative director, about why that is, and whether he thinks people might need some convincing.
"I think you might find a small minority who may feel that way to start off with," he said, "but the vast majority who didn't really buy DLC in the first place are going to like it because it suits their style of play. We looked at how people used to play DLC, and found that when someone downloaded a song, some people would play it shit-tonnes, but that wasn't a huge number of people. So we looked at it and said, do we design the game for an edge case, or do we design it for everybody? It was a pretty easy decision. We needed to design it for everybody."
Jamie was keen to emphasise that even if you do choose to spend money on play tokens, playing songs this way in Guitar Hero Live won't necessarily cost any more money than it did the old way, where you paid a few quid for a song and could play it as much as you wanted.
"We've kept the boxed product the same price as it was five years ago, so we are in this to give value to people," he added. "We're launching with more than any Guitar Hero has ever launched with. But this will definitely take some explaining."
I've played hours of Guitar Hero Live now, incidentally, and had a great deal of fun with it. It's doing some very cool things with the basic mechanic of pretend guitar-playing, and the live-music aspect of it is refreshingly novel. We'll have more on the game before its release later this month.