With yet another E3 conference now behind us, it's only fitting to dedicate a few lines to the state of music and videogames.
It hardly seems possible that only two years ago, the E3 news that MTV bought "Guitar Hero" developer Harmonix and Activision acquired publisher Red Octane barely made a ripple in either the music or videogame press (Billboard, May 2006). Those developments were the genesis of the casual music game explosion that we have today.
The tough part going forward will be for the creators of both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" to manage expectations. Both games were hugely successful in terms of both sales and cultural relevance. But success at that scale can't last, and neither company should try too hard to maintain it, lest they find themselves in an overkill situation that results in overkill.
These next two releases -- "Rock Band 2" and "Guitar Hero: World Tour" -- should represent the last major game distribution for the genre for some time. (I'm not counting the new "Wii: Music," because it's more of a simulation play-along game rather than a competitive rhythm game, and it looks completely retarded).
I'm skeptical of the special edition strategy like "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith." That strategy will have little relevance in the big picture, and their low sales will emerge as a point to pounce on by the naysayer press. And so will any attempt to roll out yet another reinvention of both games a year from now.
Seriously, time to give it a rest and let the games convert to what they ultimately were designed to be -- a platform.
This is where the Bob Lefsetz's of the world are missing the point. Yes, sales of "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" will fall after this Christmas after the new versions are out. But use of them will not. Lower game sales will not prove that these games were just a passing fad. The metric to look for is whether both can still sell new downloadable songs.
By constantly refreshing the available content used to play the game, both titles ensure their relevance for months and years to come. Will selling music through these games be the white knight the music industry needs? Not by itself, of course not. But it's certainly not a fad either.
In his recent column, Lefsetz says to ignore us in the business press (we "only focus on the money," you see) and instead look at the gamers. I suggest he take his own advice. Gamers, you see, are still playing both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" in significant numbers. They remain the darlings of videogame fan sites, blogs and magazines, precisely because the downloadable content feature keeps the game fresh with new music. It's called "replayability," a term anyone actually reading gaming press outlets would be familiar with.
I agree with the concern that the music industry is often all too quick to kill popular trends with ill-conceived partnerships motivated by money over user experience. But if you can't even handle the opening level of "Grand Theft Auto: IV," perhaps commenting on videogames is not your forte.
Since we're on the subject of videogames and music, there is one sticking issue that must be addressed. The developers of both "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" deserve a smackdown for this silly ongoing problem of incompatibility between their controllers.
Here's the situation: In some cases, the guitar controller you bought to play "Guitar Hero" works with the current iteration of "Rock Band." But with both companies now coming out with a full set of instruments -- guitar, drums and mics -- it remains unclear whether users can play both games using the original equipment for just one.
Nobody wants to have two sets of "fake" drum sets littering their game room, four guitars and two mics just to play both games. It's ridiculous. Every other game uses the same standard controller that comes with the console, but since these games are relatively newer and use more recent innovations, their controllers must come from the developer that makes them.
At some point, I'd like to see these developers work more closely with the major console manufacturers to create a set of common controllers that work with both music games. But for now, this is a matter of money.
Activision wants MTV to pay it for the privilege of its controllers working on their games. What's more, the addition of these proprietary instruments jack up the price of the respective games from the standard $50 to $60 per game to upwards of $200.
I can appreciate the point that creating a game specific to a proprietary controller allows for better integration and the ability to include more advanced features. It's what Apple has been doing for years with its closed iTunes/iPod system. But as cool as your games are Activision and MTV, they're no iPod.
So let's just all get along, huh? You both have good games, and fans of the genre want to play them together. Throw us a bone here and make it easy for us to do so in an interoperable basis.