Plastic Instrument Wars…GO!

1 03 2010

Rock Band Vs. Guitar Hero

As all of you who read my ramblings here (why?  I don’t get it!) probably know that I’m a large fan of Rock Band 2.  I’m not against the Guitar Hero franchise, as I have MANY fond memories of playing with friends the original and second in the series.  But, many of the newer titles (Guitar Hero 3 especially, but also Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Van Halen, and World Tour) have been simply mediocre.  Not bad, but just par for the course.  Innovations in the space seem to originate with the Rock Band franchise, and then migrate (sometimes well and other times, not so much) to the Guitar Hero platform.  The instruments are well crafted for Guitar Hero, but the song song selection, as well as the loathsome “play-as-real-singers” thing for World Tour was just the tipping point for me.  But here’s the interesting thing…some of you may have heard this and some of you may have not, but Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick was speaking at the DICE summit recently and lamented not working with Harmonix (creator of the Rock Band franchise, and half of the original Guitar Hero game creators), saying:

We really didn’t even think, ‘Hey, we should go to Boston and meet these Harmonix guys and see what they’re up to.’  The world of music games would be very different had Activision partnered with Harmonix.  It would probably be a profitable opportunity for both of us.

Mind you, he said this at a developer’s conference, while the economy and the “plastic-instrument-based rhythm game” genre are in recession.  So lament is bound to be found anywhere.  And let’s not forget that the “Hero” franchise of Activision’s has been milked (Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Band Hero, DJ Hero, etc.).  The golden goose has been squeezed and prodded to overproduce, and unsurprisingly has come up short of Activision’s earnings expectations.
Yet, despite a couple ventures off the path for Harmonix (Rock Band: Beatles, Lego Rock Band, and the forthcoming Rock Band: Green Day), Rock Band 2 remains a platform product, choosing to update the catalog of downloadable content, instead of selling new hardware and retail discs every time they want to expand.  As of this writing, the Rock Band Music Store boasts well over 1000 downloadable songs, with the limitless prospect of more content coming from independent bands through their Rock Band Network (still in beta) offering.  It is this “platform, not iteration” strategy that is keeping the Rock Band brand full of vitality, as the Guitar Hero franchise declines and flounders.
Couple this with the information in February that Red Octane (owned by Activision) has been completely closed, with many employees laid-off, and one has to wonder at the viability of a two-party system for the foreseeable future in the rhythm game-space.  (All other Red Octane employees that were retained have been relocated and will report directly to the Activision mothership for future Guitar Hero games.)  Sure, any company can make a rhythm game (and many do) but the value of the Guitar Hero games was supposed to be in the guitar peripherals as well as the original “flavor” that the founders of the franchise brought to the table.
So where does this leave the industry?  Of course, we know Rock Band: Green Day is in the works.  It would be stupid to dismiss that a Guitar Hero 6 of some sort is being developed currently.  The main question is whether Harmonix (and its partners) will launch a Rock Band 3 platform prior to a new console generation, or remain firm with their dedication to simply updating the current platform.

I absolutely do not believe that rhythm-action gaming has reached its peak.  Of course, 2009 was a tough year with the recession, which especially affects music games given the relatively high price point of instrument bundles. But in the long term, people’s passion for music isn’t going away, and rhythm gaming will continue to provide people with a deeper level of engagement with the music they love. So, yes, I do think that future music games will exceed the sales success of the last generation.

-Harmonix CEO, Alex Rigopulos

However, it is interesting to note that while Harmonix/Rock Band’s new initiative, the user-fueled “Rock Band Network”, which will launch with at least 180 songs created by independent artists, Activision/Guitar Hero project director Brian Bright is the one quoted as saying:

If you can’t create or edit licensed music due to copyright laws then you’re limited to pretending to play someone else’s music. I think the key is to create music, but make it compelling to create, so the game is in the creation, not the playback.

So what does the future of music gaming hold?  I think it’s safe to say that there will be new plastic instruments to clog up your living room, more great songs, both new and old, and competition as always.  However, it also seems naive to think that both companies will remain in a stalemate.  One franchise will eventually take the throne.  Currently, Guitar Hero sales handily beat Rock Band sales.  However, quality polls seem to indicate that people tend to be much more loyal to the Rock Band brand, once familiar, and the brand is growing with each title.  Who knows who will win, but as long as rock and roll exists, I think it’s equally safe to say, we all win.

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