Gaming Ghetto

Megahit video game Guitar Hero raises the question: Is the high-tech creative class actually high tech's new underclass?


If archaeologists excavate our society a thousand years from now, one wonders what they’ll make of a guitar-shaped device with push buttons instead of strings. Their bafflement will no doubt increase if the episode of South Park survives that compares playing the device to shooting heroin. They will wonder how and why a big chunk of society seemed to have, momentarily at least, lost its mind over a plastic toy tied to something with computer chips inside.

Ask most anyone who has played the video game phenomenon Guitar Hero even a few times, and be prepared for gushing praise. Everyone from nongaming twenty-somethings to preteen girls to middle-aged men speak of it in terms not normally associated with a mere game. Bryan Cole, a forty-something consultant for the product-quality support firm SigmaQuest, describes the transcendent enjoyment so many apparently get playing the game.

“Oh, it’s just ridiculously fun,” he says before going on excitedly about the game for another minute. His previously mild-mannered demeanor morphs into arms-waving enthusiasm. He actually uses the adjective “visceral” at one point to describe it.

“There’s nothing like it,” he says. “It really feels like you’re playing all this great music. It’s totally addicting.”

Fourteen-year-old Cheyton Whiskey got turned on to the game at a friend’s house and “fell in love” as he puts it. Cheyton wasn’t a novice to video games, but he puts Guitar Hero in a category all its own. “I definitely enjoy Guitar Hero a lot more than anything else I’ve ever played,” he says. The viral nature of the game’s astonishing growth in popularity over the last year comes out when I ask the teen how many of his friends are into it. “A good majority of my friends have played it. It’s their favorite game now, too.”

Whiskey has a particular fondness for the music. “My dad turned me on to bands like the Doors and Creedence when I was younger, so I like the classic rock music in the game.”

Those sentiments, particularly the latter, make video-game music producer Will Littlejohn smile with satisfaction.

“I feel really fortunate to be part of Guitar Hero, because it allows people to enjoy some of the greatest songs around in a whole new way,” Littlejohn says. While you might expect that from the guy who pays the rent doing music for Guitar Hero and other music-related games, Littlejohn is a true evangelist for an entertainment he believes has an almost soulful value.

Of course, Littlejohn—along with Wave Group Sound, the production company he founded—has little choice but to primarily rejoice in the more ethereal rewards returned by Guitar Hero. By the standards of the entertainment business outside the game industry, his company, plus all the singers and musicians contracted by Wave Group, supplied the major portion of what makes the game series so enjoyable.

Financially, they got left in the dust.

So did many other little-known musicians and singers who contributed to Guitar Hero and its follow-up versions at the same time that other contributors were receiving ceiling-high stacks of cash. How high does that ceiling reach? According to, various incarnations of Guitar Hero III occupy all but fourth place in the top five rankings of American video game sales for 2007. That success mirrors the monster footprints left by the first two versions of the game. Total sales approach 9 million units; that’s almost $1 billion.

Creative Class War

The film and software industries of Southern and Northern California are both places where it’s way better to be on top, and the very idea of “abused workers” seems almost absurd in areas much of the world views as two of the wealthiest and most talent-friendly spots on earth.

The seemingly endless success stories coming from both regions produce a gold-rush mentality. In L.A., it’s the waiter with a screenplay; in Silicon Valley, the receptionist with stock options. Marketable talent is the coin of the realm down south, while getting hired by the right tech company at the right time can be the key to the early, wealthy retirement of which no Hollywood receptionist would ever dare dream.

But there’s always been a dark side to the dream. Down south, entertainment industry workers famously nicknamed Disney “Mousewitz” for that company’s stance on wages and working conditions. Rock bands seeking attention in Los Angeles get reduced to paying clubs for “stage space” and having to sell tickets to their own shows.

In Silicon Valley, stories about janitors getting the shaft from hugely successful tech firms have littered the business pages for years. In many cases, those same subcontracted janitors were cleaning up the gourmet cafeteria meal remnants left by the kind of information workers over whom companies still intensely compete. An alleged shortage of such workers even necessitates importing highly educated folks with technical skills from India, Asia and other regions. The bottom line: play a front-line role creating electronic stuff that makes big money and nobody screws with you.

But the ugly story behind the creation of the Guitar Hero video game series may be the harbinger of a new kind of tech industry. Could the creative environs of Northern California become a place where making millions off of grossly underpaid local creative talent causes even the brass-knuckled accountants at Disney to go green with envy?

Hurtin’ for Certain

Sound melodramatic? Meet “Alan,” a veteran session singer. Like all the people interviewed for this story who lent their musical talents to the producers and publishers of the most successful video game in recent history, he’s afraid to use his real name. Just like a New York or Hong Kong sweatshop worker, he fears a replacement will step in the instant he complains about making only $300 per song on Guitar Hero I and II.

He’s afraid for his friends, too.

“I’m not going to complain, because that could jeopardize other people’s jobs,” he says. Alan looks at his contribution to Guitar Hero philosophically, like an intern who landed a summer gig with a big company might. “I got a great demo out of it and hopefully that will turn into something.” Pretty game attitude for a musician with over 20 years of experience.

How hard was the work?

“Those sessions kicked my ass, and it took a toll for a couple days afterwards,” Alan says, recalling the effect the recordings had on his voice. “Wave Group has extremely high standards for all their game work, so every syllable, every trill, gets microscopically scrutinized. We’re talking countless takes over two or three hours for each finished song. By the end of the session, your voice is hurtin’ for certain.”

Wave Group’s Will Littlejohn is proud of the results and especially the degree to which the finished product sounds as good as the original classic rock tracks. Fans of the game seem to agree. Alan confirms that assessment with an anecdote about listening to the radio one morning. “KFOX played one of the Guitar Hero tracks I sang on over the phone for one of the members of the band who recorded the original version. The guy said he thought it was their version. He thought KFOX was playing a joke on him.”

Outside the walls of Wave Group, Alan enjoys an exceptional distinction as a “one take” vocalist in recording sessions. Two to three hours per song is an aberration of exponential proportions for him.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I feel like I earned every penny of that session fee.”

Mailbox Money

Intellectual property in Los Angeles is often protected by union contracts, royalties or back-end deals. That Alan’s performances aren’t compensated with even a fraction of a penny every time a Guitar Hero game prominently bearing his voice is sold is undoubtedly sweet music to the management at Activision, the nearly $1.5 billion game software developer now headquartered in Santa Monica. It’s a lovely beach town filled with people receiving “mailbox money” from acting, singing, writing and other things that generate more customers and more income over time. According to L.A.-based songwriter, composer and film orchestrator Tom Mgrdichian (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), “Residuals keep creative people from falling into poverty between gigs.”

Who is getting rich off the tech industry’s new sweatshop economy? Certainly not Littlejohn’s company, which might best be compared to those janitorial contracting companies hired by big tech firms looking to avoid paying decent wages and benefits to the people cleaning their buildings. Both businesses provide services for flat fees and, while their owners do better than their employees, nobody is getting rich. Littlejohn points out he drives a 2003 Ford Escape and that the musicians he hires are well paid compared to the area norm.

Other contributors to Guitar Hero did better. Figures weren’t released, but when Activision bought out the owners of original publisher Red Octane a few months ago for about $100 million, founders Kai and Charles Huang, who played a big role in inventing the game and its guitar shaped controller, undoubtedly got a nice payday.

Could the Huangs and Red Octane/Activision afford to be more generous with the talent that made them so much dinero? Let’s put it this way: if Alan received one-thousandth of 1 percent of Guitar Hero’s gross revenue, it would provide a $6,000 down payment on a car to replace his limping 15-year-old vehicle. One-tenth of 1 percent would enable Alan to move out of his 600-square-foot rental into a condo without a mortgage. Virtually any decent level of residuals would help him pay for the college tuition his daughter will shortly need.

But unless Activision experiences a sudden attack of conscience, neither Alan nor any of his fellow musicians will see another penny for their hugely successful work regardless of how many more units are sold. Why is that?

In short, Alan and his fellow musicians made the mistake of wanting to live and make money off their entertainment skills in the tech industry. In Los Angeles, it’s nearly impossible to be employed on a TV or major movie set without the protection of a labor union that is enormously powerful. Even writers, who are about as far from the front line as one can get, enjoy union protection, as the writers strike has underscored. This makes Southern California an expensive place to produce entertainment, and many a low- and medium-budget production company has exited to Canada or to more affordable, less unionized parts of the United States.

For the overwhelming percentage of mainstream entertainment projects, front-line talent is compensated more when a particular show or movie earns more. This is even true in some corners of L.A.’s video game industry. Voiceover talent (provided in many cases by well-known Hollywood actors) receives big flat fees and often get residuals for work on video games.

Not so in the so-called digital entertainment capital of the world. Unless you own stock in the company for which you toil, or receive overtime pay, tips or sales commissions, you’re working for a flat, monthly fee.

So when Guitar Hero publisher Red Octane came to Littlejohn’s production company requesting a quote for producing the music for the first two of an eventual three versions of Guitar Hero, such usual L.A. niceties as residual payments for the musicians and singers never entered the picture. Nobody even thought about getting any grief from the union.

Creative Crumbs

What lessons should other members of the creative class draw from Activision-Red Octane’s treatment of musicians and singers? Is a gleaming two-story office building concealing a creative sweatshop headed your way?

One answer comes from noted New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman. In his seminal book about globalization, The World Is Flat, Freidman observes, “If I can buy five brilliant researchers in China and/or India for the price of one in Europe or America, I will buy the five; and if, in the long run, that means my own society loses part of its skills base, so be it.” Replace “researcher” with “IT worker,” and one sees the brutally efficient logic that put thousands of college-educated, highly skilled, local information technology workers out of work, many permanently. Is there any reason to believe American musicians and other creative types are somehow insulated from the same fate?

According to a recent Zogby poll, more than half the American population believes we’re a country “in decline.” A lot of the media and many of our politicians focus on outsourcing as a main source of that consternation. Perhaps there’s a better explanation for that depressing state of mind. Maybe it’s the emerging reality that few of us are prepared to compete in a world where no one even stops to consider whether 1/10,000th of 1 percent in sales revenue would be better distributed to a worker than to thousands of stockholders. In that context, what country the workers come from and how many crumbs each gets to eat from a particular bare-bones, flat-fee contract is almost beside the point.

According to Freidman, musicians and singers getting recording-session pay rates considered “good” by Hollywood or even Silicon Valley’s low standards should realize that their English-speaking potential replacements in India are but a Skype call away. The number of Mumbai-based music producers happy to provide Activision and other game firms with music for a 10th the price paid to U.S. contract producers is plenty long. Despite all those American flag lapels adorning suit lapels of corporate managers, Brownie points and promotions get awarded for lowering costs and increasing profits even if that means not doing right by the home team.

Another answer comes from Hollywood. Trying to arrange the participation of a famous or once-famous American artist in an untested entertainment form for a share of the proceeds rarely succeeds. So almost without exception, when Guitar Hero I was a mere idea being developed by then-little-known companies, big-name acts—or, more accurately, their representatives—weren’t the least bit interested in being, quite literally, part of the game. Fast-forward two games and a half-billion dollars later and these same people are climbing over each other to get their “classic” songs from decades past licensed into Guitar Hero’s monster cash-generating machine. Big Entertainment’s sensibilities demand a sure thing, and the rising fortune of the Guitar Hero franchise is just the kind of sure bet the entertainment industry loves.

Ironically, Littlejohn and his band of music makers may have put themselves out of business by helping make Guitar Hero too enjoyable, too popular and too profitable. Piling irony upon irony, Alan watched the South Park “Guitar Hero” episode and noted the series producers misrepresented the actual game soundtrack by using the original Kansas version of “Carry On Wayward Son,” as opposed to the “play-enhanced” version Wave Group produced for the game. “That’s pretty funny if you think about it,” he says without a trace of bitterness at circumstances that made yet another “residual performance” payday unobtainable.

Video games now bring in more cash than the music and movie industries combined. But without the regular pay and health benefits that come with, say, a 9-to-5 job animating games, freelance musicians and singers who perform on video games are, essentially, Silicon Valley’s newest janitors, maybe to be replaced one day by India’s. If you believe companies like Activision wouldn’t mind expanding that distinction to other members of the supposedly protected “creative class,” take a hint from the title of a Judas Priest song included on Guitar Hero I: “You Got Another Thing Comin’.”

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