Monday, October 15, 2007

Rock Band and Guitar Hero III: the Separate Paths

Don Barree sent me this excerpt from a recent Gamestop preview of Guitar Hero III:
One of the big new additions to Legends of Rock is the two-player battle mode, so we spent some time investigating it. Battle mode is the most directly competitive multiplayer yet in a Guitar Hero game and felt a bit to us like Mario Kart because it focuses on wacky power-ups that you'll collect as you play by completing sequences of notes in the same way you gain star power. Some of the power-ups we used (or had used against us) included a broken string, which forces you to hammer on a particular button repeatedly before you can actually start playing notes again; a whammy block, where you have to wiggle the whammy bar quickly to resume playing; amp overload, which makes all the notes on your board start flashing randomly; lefty flip, which reverses the buttons on your board (and is darn near impossible to compensate for); and difficulty up, which temporarily raises your difficulty level by one. The game's hectic boss battles against such guitar greats as Slash and Tom Morello also play out with this battle mode setup.

Mario Kart?

From what I can tell, the boss battles are mandatory in the career portion of the game.

Conceptually, this is a problem. In both previous versions of Guitar Hero, your ability to advance depended solely on your skill. The game was gimmick-free. Now, though, even if you're a great player, the power-ups during boss battles could completely befuddle you--you could keep failing a song because Slash unleased a lefty-flip power-up.

Let me say it clearly: this is a huge mistake. We all know it's a huge mistake, that it's an abandonment of the core concepts of the franchise, and yet Neversoft has ignored us all. It wouldn't have been difficult to optionally include the songs that now feature boss battles as regular encores. I think this is going to alienate many people who would have otherwise been loyal to the franchise, and it's going to drive them to Rock Band.

Rock Band has made its own curious decisions in the last few weeks-namely, the release date. Releasing the game on Black Friday is a baffling decision. If it was in stores the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we'd miss the post-Thanksgiving hordes. There's just no coherent reason for releasing it on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is why (to the best of my knowledge) no one's ever done it before.

It was also announced last week that Rock Band will only be available as a bundle until early 2008--in other words, you have to buy the full $169.99 bundle if you're getting the game this year.

That makes sense--I would imagine they're supply constrained when it comes to the peripherals, and retailers weren't going to give them floor space for four different bundles of the same game--but the decision to release a PS2 version without online capability is more puzzling. If you're supply-constrained, why release a version where consumers can't buy the downloadable content? That's where the real money is going to be made. If you can't supply demand, why shift peripherals away from a downloadable content platform?

So far, though, even with oddities occurring at the non-music level, the concept of the game and it's essential "music-ness" remain unmarred.

Here's one more thing to think about: the possible price of downloadable content. Thanks to an article sent to me by Marc Klein, we know that the fee iTunes pays to the music companies is .60-.70 per song. We also know that Microsoft takes roughly a 30% cut for Xbox Live Marketplace content.

If Rock Band downloadable content were .99 a song, and the licensing fees they pay are similar to iTunes, the profit margin would basically be zero. In other words, forget .99 songs--they're not happening.

Yes, there are some clever things MTV could do with licensing fees, showing how a band's CD and digital download sales go up (and by how much) when one of their songs has been included in a Guitar Hero (and, by implication, Rock Band) game. It's the long view, that reducing their licensing fees for downloadable content (and doubling the number of downloads because of it) is in their best interest.

In future generations of consoles, it will be interesting to see if that relationship is tracked more directly. Say, for instance, that there's a song in Rock Band that you really like, and you'd like to purchase it. There would be a link in the game that would take you to a download for that song on a digital marketplace, and you'd buy it right there.

In other words, make it as convenient as possible for someone to buy the song, and at the same time, establish a direct link between the game and the purchase of the song. That sort of concrete data could be very successful in getting licensing fees reduced.

Back to the real question, though: if the licensing fees are similar, is $1.49 a song possible? That still leaves a profit of roughly .34 a song, even with a .70 song fee and .45 for Microsoft.

I'm always going to argue that in a situation like this, lower cost and higher volume is the way to go. The more people that download the song, the more people there are to talk about it to their friends, maybe getting them to download it as well. Plus, Rock Band is in a competitive situation with Guitar Hero, and if one game's downloadable content is cheaper, it's going to create more loyalty.

The one thing Harmonix can't do is argue that downloadable content for Rock Band should cost more because there are multiple instrument tracks for the game. That's true, but nobody cares. Nobody. They're not going to get away with charging $2.49 a song just because there's a drum and vocal track. From a content producer point-of-view, that makes sense. But from a consumer's point-of-view, forget it.

This is kind of the mindset that has gotten Sony into so much trouble. They were looking at the market from the point-of-view of a hardware producer, not the consumer. That hasn't gone well for them.

At this point, I don't even know if I'm going to buy Guitar Hero III. That's a shocking statement coming from someone who easily put in 100+ hours each on both previous versions.

Rock Band? I'm first in line.

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