The developers behind hit interactive game "Guitar Hero" are launching a new franchise called "Rock Band" that targets virtual singers, bass players and drummers, as well as axemen.

The game was created by Harmonix, a unit of Viacom-owned MTV Networks. It is expected to be available by Christmas via Electronic Arts and will be compatible with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 gaming systems.

"Rock Band" allows players to perform songs from popular rock acts using four peripheral "instruments" -- microphone, lead and bass guitars and drums. Users can form their own virtual bands with friends, or go online to play with others.

Harmonix has inked deals with EMI Recorded Music, Hollywood Records, Warner Music Group's Rhino Entertainment, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group to supply master recordings by their artists for use in "Rock Band." It also has agreements in place with EMI Music Publishing and Warner Chappell Music to clear publishing rights.

Additionally, plans are in the works to sell digital downloads through the online gaming environment.

MTVN acquired Harmonix last October for $175 million, but the rights to "Guitar Hero" were not part of the deal. The intellectual property to that game is controlled by Harmonix's previous publisher Red Octane, acquired by Activision last spring for $100 million.

The original "Guitar Hero" has sold more than 1 million units worldwide since its release in 2005, and continues to sell more than 10,000 per week in the United States, according to market research firm NPD. The sequel, "Guitar Hero II" has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide since its release last year, and continues to sell more than 40,000 per week in the United States.

In buying the brains behind "Guitar Hero" MTV is banking that Harmonix can create equally compelling games. "Rock Band" marks the first step in that effort.

"We are striving to create a new platform that allows people to connect with their favorite music and artists in like they never have before," says Jeff Yapp, executive VP of MTV Program Enterprises.

Harmonix co-founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos, calls "Rock Band" the company's most ambitious attempt yet to "merge authentic music, the fantasy of games, and everyone's secret desire to be a rock star."

The introduction of "Rock Band" comes as Activision and Red Octane prepare to launch a version of "Guitar Hero II" on Xbox 360 April 3 in North America. Until now it has been only available for Play Station 2; the new Xbox version of the game will feature additional master recordings and downloadable songs.

It also sets Harmonix up for a potential showdown with "Guitar Hero" this holiday season. Activision reportedly is working on a new version of "Guitar Hero" in connection with game developer Neversoft that it hopes to release during its current fiscal year, ending March 2008. There is no word yet whether it will be available by Christmas.