Recently details came out about Guitar Hero: World Tour. It will have a fancy drum kit with faux cymbals. It will allow for music composition (sweet on paper). It may or may not be backwards compatible with DLC to date (depends on what article you read). It will feature approximately 85 master track songs, and will have a stronger downloadable content stream. It will also feature improved peripherals. Pricing will be “competitive” with Rock Band.
Rock Band 2 was just announced. It will feature improved peripherals, as well as support for third party peripherals. This is a great idea, because the equipment business sucks, and if Harmonix can find someone else to make better equipment, they can focus on their core competency: the music (we’ll get into that later). DLC songs will not only be forwards compatible, they will be backwards compatible: even if you choose not to upgrade to Rock Band 2, you will be able to continue to purchase new DLC and use it. There are also allusions to new game modes that are “party friendly,” and “help you transition to real instruments.”
Based on these preliminary, nebulous press releases, what can we take away? First off, the big gamble of the $170 price point game has paid off. Rock Band’s success–somewhere around 3 million units sold – shows that gamers accepted the price point. The fact that Activision is departing from the guitar-focus to a full band set with a “competitive” price point shows that $170 super-peripheral games are here to stay.
Second, GH:WT is an incremental release capitalizing on “Second mover advantage” (reverse engineering Rock Band equipment but not doing anything fundamentally new, just better), with Rock Band “Resting on its laurels” and not doing anything super crazy: no new peripherals, and apparently not even composition capability (which is the biggest innovation between these two announcements). However, for 99% of users, this will probably be a useless function. Charting songs properly is very, very difficult, as witnessed by the sometimes suspect charting found in the professional products of GH and Rock Band. Chances are, sharing of charted copyrighted music may get yanked, so we’ll be left with independent music of various quality. Now, the internet being the internet, even .1% may turn into 100 songs, and some might even be good–but also they could be a big pile of crap.
The winner of the next round will be the game with the better platform play, which means who can sell more DLC. The goal of Rock Band wasn’t just to create a multi-peripheral $170 monster, but to create a pervasive platform with users downloading music a la iTunes in real time. This has clearly worked: Rock Band has sold 3 million games, and a shocking 15 million songs. These songs come from a download stream of 155 songs released since November (I counted by hand on the Wikipedia page, I may be off), including a regular download schedule of at least 3 songs a week and 3 full albums.
Their dedication to new content is shown by the fact that they run promotions for discounted music, occasionally offer free songs, and have such a deep pipe that they were able to release a full album last week (the Pixies “Doolittle”) and 3 songs off of Weezer’s brand new album. MTV uses Rock Band to promote its products. This isn’t just a game with songs added on top: they are building a true marketplace, and building it quickly.
Not to say GH hasn’t done well. There are 50 DLC songs, and as of last January, 5 million DLCs had been purchased – a very high conversion rate. Newer numbers couldn’t be found, but the realm of 7 million songs seems reasonable. However, Activision has not demonstrated the level of dedication or success for a steady stream of DLC that their competitor has. Instead, much of their music plan seems to be similar to GH:2, which is to release thematic games (such as the upcoming GH:Aerosmith, a superior version of the terrible GH2 Encore: Rock the 80’s). Their business plan seems to focus more around re-using the engine for new units, as opposed to creating a virtual marketplace. This model may be superior financially – I don’t have the sales numbers – but it seems to be inferior in terms of content. And that’s not to say there isn’t room for both games. Clearly, Activision is not ceding the market, but rather upping the ante.
But unless GH:WT comes with some sort of sexual stimulation device as a peripheral (and chances are that would have made the news release), this battle will come down to DLC. And unless Activision has some tricks up their sleeve that extend beyond cutting deals with big bands, chances are that the next round of Rock Combat (similar to Mortal Kombat, but with groupies and drugs instead of fatalities) will be decided by DLC. And going in, it looks like Harmonix has a clear advantage that won’t challenged anytime soon.