Heroic sacrifices: The companies behind Guitar Hero

The Guitar Hero series touched many people, and not just by strapping plastic guitars to them. As the series reached its absurd heights of success, it caused more game developers to enter into the service of note charts and extreme rocker-dude 3D models.

And now that Activision has stopped production on the Guitar Hero series and closed that business unit, we can look back at how it affected the people who made it -- the companies who either moved on or were chewed up and spat out by the Guitar Hero monster.

Harmonix Music Systems

Before Guitar Hero: The small Massachusetts-based company, started by two MIT grads who met while experimenting with musical toys at MIT's Media Lab, created two music games for Sony, FreQuency and Amplitude, along with Karaoke Revolution and the non-musical EyeToy: Antigrav. In 2005, Harmonix partnered with RedOctane to release the peripheral-based music game, Guitar Hero.

After Guitar Hero: Harmonix broke with the Guitar Hero series in 2007, having made three games in the series. Activision had acquired RedOctane, and Viacom bought Harmonix, who then went on to create the Rock Band series, to be published by Viacom's MTV Games and distributed by EA Partners. Rock Band is based on the same concept as Guitar Hero, with instruments simulating a full rock band. This year, Viacom sold Harmonix to investment firm Columbus Nova, who then formed the new "Harmonix SBE Holdings Inc."


Before Guitar Hero: RedOctane operated a game rental and sale website, and manufactured unlicensed peripherals including dance pads and arcade sticks. It moved into game publishing in 2005 with In the Groove, and followed up with Guitar Hero. In 2006, following the success of Guitar Hero, RedOctane was acquired by Activision.

After Guitar Hero: RedOctane was shuttered in February 2010, with only staff related to instrument development and founders Kai and Charles Huang remaining at Activision in an unknown capacity.


Before Guitar Hero: Neversoft, developer of a licensed Skeleton Warriors game for Sega Saturn and the Bruce Willis-fronted Apocalypse, hit it big with the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series it created with Activision, and the Spider-Man games made in the same engine. Following the departure of Harmonix from the Guitar Hero series, the Activision-owned Neversoft stepped in and went on to develop nine games in the series.

After Guitar Hero: After suffering layoffs in early 2010, Neversoft remains at Activision, though its current activity is unknown. A job listing from last year suggested that the studio was working on an "action shooter." Activision ended Neversoft's long-running Tony Hawk franchise at the same time it ended Guitar Hero.

Vicarious Visions

Before Guitar Hero: After winning IGF awards for its game Terminus, the company spent its time porting games like Tony Hawk and Spider-Man to other platforms, in addition to developing Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro for PlayStation and several licensed portable games. It was acquired by Activision in 2005, and brought onto the Guitar Hero franchise in 2007. Vicarious Visions ported Guitar Hero III, World Tour, Aerosmith, Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero, and Warriors of Rock to Wii, and is the creator of the Guitar Hero: On Tour games for DS, which use a four-button "Guitar Grip" peripheral also designed by VV. The company's handheld legacy continued with DJ Hero 3D, a 3DS game shown at E3 2010.

After Guitar Hero: VV reportedly lost around 50 employees to layoffs in this month's Guitar Hero business shutdown. However, with new Transformers games announced, it's likely VV will work on the Wii and DS versions, as it did for Transformers: War for Cybertron.


Before Guitar Hero: The Quebecois company worked primarily porting licensed games from consoles to Windows and Mac OS, before being acquired by Activision in 2005 and taking on the similarly-named Bee Movie Game. Beenox developed one Guitar Hero game for Activision, the multiplatform Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, which was a collection of past Guitar Hero songs remade for a full band setup.

After Guitar Hero: Beenox is perhaps the best off compared to any of the companies involved with Guitar Hero (aside from Activision, of course). In addition to Smash Hits, Beenox developed Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (based on the Spider-Man tie-in franchise originated by Neversoft and Vicarious Visions); Activision announced in early 2011 that Beenox would be in charge of the Spider-Man franchise for the foreseeable future. Its next Spidey game is due this year.

Underground Development

Before Guitar Hero: Underground Development was originally known as Z-Axis, a name under which it received some acclaim for creating the Dave Mirra BMX series, and some ridicule for creating BMX XXX. Activision purchased the studio in 2004, and the name changed in 2008 -- presumably to reflect the change from developing original games to the studio's new role assisting with Guitar Hero games and ports. UD was in charge of the development of Guitar Hero: Van Halen, released in December 2009 (and a couple of months earlier as a freebie with Guitar Hero 5).

After Guitar Hero: UD's last game was Guitar Hero: Van Halen; in February 2010, when Activision announced its intention to release fewer Guitar Hero games, it closed the studio.

Budcat Creations

Before Guitar Hero: The Iowa City-based Budcat was a company formed in 2000 by two EA Tiburon vets, which started off working on NFL and NASCAR titles for EA. It handled the PS2 port of Psychonauts for Majesco, and also built the mostly original Blast Works for Wii, which took elements of ABA Games' TUMIKI Fighters and expanded it into a much larger game, with a full level editor and online sharing. After working on the PS2 version of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Budcat was purchased by Activision and set to work porting Guitar Hero games to PS2 (and, in the case of Guitar Hero: Metallica, Wii).

After Guitar Hero: Two years after Activision purchased Budcat, it shut down Budcat as part of an effort to "streamline [its] music development resources."


Before Guitar Hero: The developer of the PSP break-dancing game B-Boy was formed in England in 2002. In addition to that dancing game, it made two Buzz Jr. titles. Activision purchased FreeStyleGames in 2008 to assist with Guitar Hero DLC, and also to create the spinoff spinning game DJ Hero, which was released in fall 2009.

After Guitar Hero: FreeStyleGames made a second DJ Hero game, released in fall 2010. A 3DS game based on the DJ Hero franchise originated by FSG was shown at E3 2010, with Vicarious Visions in charge.

7 Studios

Before Guitar Hero: 7 Studios developed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow, published by Bethesda, Napoleon Dynamite, published by Crave, and other licensed games. 7 Studios had signed on to develop a turntable-based music game, Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, for Genius Products and Numark. Activision bought 7 in 2009, which started a protracted legal battle in which Genius accused Activision and 7 of conspiring to delay the completion of Scratch for the benefit of DJ Hero.

After Guitar Hero: A reported 30 staffers were laid off in 2009. This year, 7 Studios, who ended up supporting the development of the DJ Hero games, was shut down along with the rest of the Guitar Hero business.

Machineworks Northwest LLC

Before Guitar Hero: This mobile developer created several cell-phone Duke Nukem games before creating the mobile games Guitar Hero 3 Mobile, Guitar Hero 3 Backstage Pass, and Guitar Hero World Tour Mobile, distributed by Hands-On Mobile.

After Guitar Hero: The company is still active, recently putting out a call for partnerships with iOS, Windows Mobile, and Android developers.

Glu Mobile

Before Guitar Hero: Glu Mobile was a large mobile game developer and publisher, releasing dozens of games on multiple mobile platforms since 2005. It created Guitar Hero 5 Mobile and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Mobile.

After Guitar Hero: The mobile companies are somewhat lucky in that Activision showed no interest in acquiring them after their Guitar Hero releases. As such, Glu has continued releasing a great many games on many mobile platforms -- including a Call of Duty game.

Update: Vicarious Visions is the developer of DJ Hero 3D. Corrected those references.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.