The first half of the year was not kind to the makers of music games, according to Anita Frazier of research firm NPD Group. "Of all genres, the music/dance genre has suffered the greatest declines this year, with nearly $390 million less revenues than the same time period last year." Shrinking sales mean that the publishers of these two franchises will have to fight hard for market share.
The battle started this week, with MTV Games' release of The Beatles: Rock Band. It's competing against Activision Blizzard's Guitar Hero 5, the latest installment in the franchise that first made plastic axes cool. Both companies share a common goal: To appeal beyond their base and reach a more mainstream "casual" audience. In Guitar Hero 5, along with the usual finger-numbing songs for expert shredders, there is a musical jukebox mode and social challenges that players of any skill level will enjoy. And with The Beatles: Rock Band, is expected to attract fans of the Fab 4 who may never have touched a video game.
But this is only the beginning of the video game music war. Both companies are fortifying their lineup with additional titles due later this year. Activision Blizzard is offering Guitar Hero: Van Halen, Band Hero, and DJ Hero; while MTV is preparing Lego Rock Band and Rock Band Unplugged (for the PlayStation Portable) for the holidays. Why another Rock Band? "Lego lets us go to a slightly younger demographic with the music," says Chris Foster, the lead designer at Harmonix, which created the game. "But it's also the use of Lego—it has fun and humor, and storytelling that is unique."
A similar strategy is behind Band Hero. "Guitar Hero 5 is all about rock. Band Hero is focused on a younger demographic, more focused on pop music; for example, Taylor Swift and Maroon 5," said Guitar Hero creator Kai Huang. And DJ Hero? "DJ Hero's objective is to bring in a whole new audience: dance, electronica, hip-hop."
An additional factor in the outcome of this battle is the landscape—in this case, the rough economy. Most of these games require the player to buy a pricey instrument set. The Beatles: Rock Band bundle retails for a wallet-busting $250. "The instruments exist for Beatles fans that want the gear," says Foster. "It's very important for us to work with past Rock Band and Guitar Hero instruments, and the Lips or Sing Star Microphones. We don't want to hit them up for more money."
Activision Blizzard's strategy to counter the downturn is to provide more value. Only Band Hero requires a full bundle with drums and microphone ($199); Guitar Hero 5 has a $99 guitar bundle, but Van Halen can be bought as a stand alone game—and players who purchase GH5 in September will be able to get the Van Halen game for free when it arrives in December. "In tough economics time consumers are spending less money," says Huang. "You have to provide value to your consumer." It remains to be seen if either franchises' volley of games will grab the fickle attention of the masses and slow the decline of the music genre.
But do not lament the musical genre—both franchises have found plenty of success so far. Guitar Hero has become a dynasty since its release, selling 32 million units in the last 4 years. Rock Band, the newer of the two franchises and the one that expanded the genre to include drumming and singing, has sold an impressive 13 million units worldwide in its two years on the market. In the digital arena, the numbers are equally astounding: with over 50 million song downloads for Rock Band, and another 25 million for Guitar Hero. Both of this year's flagship titles are being geared toward downloadable content. GH5 comes with 85 songs, but there are over 150 additional songs currently available. The Beatles: Rock Band may only have 45 songs, but there will be monthly album releases including Abbey Road on October 20, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in November, and Rubber Soul coming in December.
And beyond the holiday season? How bright can the future be for a music genre that has already released The Beatles, what many considered the holy grail of music games? "Where I see it going is classical and country," says Huang. Foster added that Rock Band's Country track pack was there most successful ever, "It speaks to an untapped market." He added, "People ask about more instruments. And we talk about making an easier music creator for non-musicians." Guitar Hero had a public space for user creator songs first, GH Tunes currently has half-a-million songs, and Harmonix has followed suit with the Rock Band Network. Foster said, "With the Rock Band Network, the platform is open to whatever new music genres. And we are excited to see what happens there."
Whatever new genres or new instruments come in 2010, with two huge releases and additional supporting titles, this back half of 2009 is definitely going to be a crescendo for music games. So whether you want to play with your friends in competing renditions of Cold Play's "In My Place," or harmonize with them during "With A Little Help From My Friends", you will be doing your part as a faux rock star to help the genre rock on.
Guitar Hero Franchise
Published and distributed by Activision Blizzard.
Guitar Hero 5 developer by Neversoft - $99 guitar bundle, $59 game - 9/1
DJ Hero developer by FreeStyleGames - $119 turntable bundle - 10/27
Band Hero developed by Neversoft, $199 band kit, $59 game - 11/3
Guitar Hero: Van Halen developed by Neversoft, $59 game - 12/22
Rock Band Franchise
Published by MTV Games and distributed by Electronic Arts.
Rock Band Unplugged developed by Backbone Entertainment - $39 game - 6/9
The Beatles: Rock Band developed by Harmonix - $249 band kit, $59 game - 9/9
Lego Rock Band developed by TT Games - $49 game - 11/3