How much to rock? The rising cost of music games.

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posted 10/9/2008 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
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Has anyone but me noticed that the cost of music games has been skyrocketing like star power during a streak of long notes? Ever since Guitar Hero, music-based rhythm games have been enjoying cultural icon status, as the first video games in a long time to attract a huge user base and mainstream recognition. With that prodigious popularity, though, has come an ever-swelling price tag. This price increase isn’t just because the instrument-shaped controllers are expensive to make, or because legendary bands take a lot of scratch to sign—the games are ludicrously popular, and that gives the publishers and retailers the excuse to gouge.

I decided to spend an afternoon surfing various retailer websites, comparing prices so that I could provide you, the loyal reader and consumer, with the bottom line about these games. The new Guitar Hero game is coming in a few short weeks, and the Rock Band sequel is already here. I know it’s easy to get swept up in the marketing for these games, and hard to ignore their immense popularity (or whining kids with Christmas lists). Below I’ve recounted the brief but storied history of the recent music game revolution, documenting the price increases as well. Hopefully my research can put things into perspective, and help you keep a cool head while you do your holiday shopping.

Back in November of 05, the original Guitar Hero shredded its way onto the gaming stage, exclusive to the Playstation 2. Initially, the gaming press didn’t expect it to succeed—it came bundled with a mini plastic guitar controller made by a company called RedOctane, and as a result the game was saddled with an $80 sticker. Games with expensive, bulky peripherals rarely do well, particularly ones where the controller is so specialized. The guitar could only be used to play Guitar Hero, and at a time when new games rarely broke the 50 buck limit, Guitar Hero seemed like an exorbitant gimmick.

But the developer, Harmonix, had made their game well. The song list was filled with old and modern classics, the gameplay feverishly difficult but addicting. Few games have provided that kind of arcade-style compulsion, and on top of that, it was a fantasy everyone understood and wanted—real life air guitar. The strange guitar-shaped controller added immeasurable authenticity to the game, and even had a motion sensor in it—you could activate “star power” by tilting the controller vertically, doubling your score in the process and making the crowd go wild.

Guitar Hero broke the barrier between the dedicated gamer crowd and the average person, and with the PS2’s 100 million plus install base, it sold like crazy. Guitar Hero wasn’t just a game it was a phenomenon, the must-have fad of holiday 05. That $80 was pretty steep, but you knew it was darn worth it.

Bail out

Naturally, it didn’t take Harmonix long to deliver a sequel. Guitar Hero 2 showed up a year later, again on the PS2. The game had a bigger, even more killer list of songs, improved gameplay and a deeper multiplayer mode. Although the core concept hadn’t changed much, Guitar Hero 2 felt like a more complete, legitimate package, and gamers and casual fans alike dutifully shelled out the established 80 dollars for it. Six months later Guitar Hero 2 was released on the Xbox 360 with a few improvements and the option to purchase new songs off of Microsoft’s online service, Xbox Live. The game’s initial price was a slightly dearer $90, but regular “next gen” games for the new Xbox were $60 instead of the previously standard $50—a supposedly “required” price hike due to the necessity of programming 360 games in HD. Fans were used to games being ten bucks pricier on the 360, and ended up stomaching the higher price. Besides, the 360 version came with a cool, retro Gibson Explorer guitar controller. Across both platforms, Guitar Hero 2 sold twice as well as its predecessor.

And then things started to change. To make a long story short, Harmonix sold the Guitar Hero brand to Activision, and went to develop a new game, Rock Band, under publisher Electronic Arts. Competition had come to the music game scene. Activision got right to work on Guitar Hero 3, signing more high profile artists and asking RedOctane to overhaul their guitar controller. The new guitar, a sleek plastic mock-up of the Gibson Les Paul, could be customized with interchangeable faceplates, but more importantly it was the first fully wireless guitar controller to come bundled with a Guitar Hero game.

Activision planned to release Guitar Hero 3 on the PS2 and across all current generation game consoles: the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and most importantly, the insanely popular Nintendo Wii. Activision was all set to capitalize on both the Guitar Hero craze and the inexplicable phenomenon of Nintendo’s strange little white box.

But over at EA, Rock Band was taking the genre to a whole new level. Harmonix set out to kill their old creation, by letting gamers do more than Guitar Hero 3 could ever provide. With Rock Band, four players could play the lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, and sing vocals all at the same time. Rock Band was more than Guitar Hero or karaoke, it was the first video game to make you and your three closest friends feel like a touring, rocking band.

This is where the pricing starts to get a little steep, and veer into brand exploitation territory. On the Xbox 360 and PS3, Guitar Hero 3 finally hit the $100 mark. This hike is at least understandable. The wireless technology in the new Les Paul controller was more expensive than the old wired guitars, and with this wireless capability built into the 360 and PS3 guitars a price increase was inevitable. The sticking point comes with the Wii version, and its $90 price. You might think ten bucks less than the other versions is a deal, but considering the nature of the Wii’s unique guitar controller, it’s a royal rip-off.

The 360 and PS3 guitar controllers have the wireless tech hardwired into the case, and communicate with their respective consoles as if they were regular controllers. The Wii guitar is different. It takes advantage of the Wii’s wireless remote controllers, by having one plug directly into the actual guitar controller. The wireless communication, star power tilt sensor, even the guitar’s battery power, all come from the Wii remote and its wireless, motion sensing abilities. The guitar shell is really just a plastic box with switches and buttons in it; I know, I gutted one to be sure.

This means that you’re getting most of the functionality from the Wii remote that you already own. All of the expensive hardware is in the Wii remote, a $40 piece of technology. In the $90 Guitar Hero 3 package for Wii, you’re paying $50 for the game, and $40 for a plastic box that can’t even operate on its own. I think it’s awesome that the developers found a way to take advantage of the Wii remote, and use it to handle all the wireless functionality—disregarding the Wii remote and just cranking out another expensive guitar controller would have been a waste of the remote’s abilities. But they should pass that savings on to the customer.

But wait, it gets worse! If you want to buy a separate Wii guitar controller shell, they’re going to charge you $70 for it. That’s right, 70 bucks for a plastic box with switches. Considering what you’re getting, it shouldn’t cost more than $30, and that’s pushing it.

What it comes down to is this: the Wii is huge with the casual non-gamer crowd, and so is Guitar Hero. Wii and Guitar Hero go together like GTA and controversy, and Activision knew it. They also knew that casual gamers wouldn’t realize that they were getting ripped off. Basically, Activision charged more for a product which wasn’t worth such a high price. They took advantage of the casual market’s ignorance and it worked; Guitar Hero 3 sold better on the Wii than on any of the other consoles.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the music game battlefield, Rock Band was reinventing the genre. Playing rock band felt like graduating from Guitar Hero into something more mature. Rock Band wasn’t as ridiculously hard as the Guitar Hero games, but the gameplay felt sleeker, more stylish. Gone were Guitar Hero’s garish, cartoony graphics, replaced with sleek black lines and subtle color patterns. The font, character design and menus all looked more professional and refined. Rock Band was the music game that you played at a casual party; Guitar Hero felt more appropriate at a kid’s birthday or a frat house bash.

Rock Band’s price was certainly more “adult” too, ringing in at an unprecedented $170. Few individual games had cost close to $200, a notable exception being the ultimate niche market game Steel Battalion. Junior certainly wasn’t going to buy Rock Band unless he saved his allowance for a very long time.

Still, Rock Band billed itself as a worthwhile investment, the party game that could let four people participate instead of just one or two. The contents of the box justified the price: you got not only a guitar controller, but also a four-pad drum set and a microphone. None of the instruments were wireless and there was debate as to their quality compared to RedOctane’s Guitar Hero controllers, but they looked classier, more realistic, and in any case they made the band experience happen.

Drums

Launching about a month after the 360 and PS3 builds of Rock Band was a version for the venerable old PS2. The console where Guitar Hero was born got its own version of the band simulator, but because of the platform’s limited abilities, Rock Band on PS2 was downsized considerably. You couldn’t create your own rock star characters, play online or download new songs. To make up for these lacking features, Rock Band PS2 was marketed at a lower price of $140.

But wait, what’s this? Did you think we were done exploring Wii exploitation territory? Oh no, there’s more. Harmonix and EA had initially neglected the Wii in their Rock Band plans, but nobody can ignore the embarrassingly profitable success of the pipsqueak console for long. Over six months after the release of Rock Band on the other consoles, a Wii version came out.

The Wii build was the same stripped-down PS2 game, ported over to the little white box. Instead of admitting they ignored the Wii, and then putting the time and resources into making the Wii version a robust, respectable package, EA pushed its developers to rush a quick port out the door. What’s more, Rock Band Wii doesn't’t incorporate the Wii remote into any of its instruments the way Guitar Hero 3 did—you’re still using the same old wired Rock Band controllers.

The kicker is that Rock Band Wii wasn’t budget priced like the PS2 version; it retailed for the full $170. Later EA released a “track pack” disc that included some of the songs you could download on other platforms, but it didn’t make up for the previous insult—they made Wii owners pay more for an inferior product. EA PR reps wrote off the lack of features in the Wii build, saying that the Wii’s predominantly casual user base wouldn’t be interested in complex features like character creation and online play. To me, it sounded like a diplomatic way of calling Wii owners simpletons. Now it’s Activision’s turn to win them back to the Guitar Hero lobby.

Once the smoke and debris cleared from last year’s holiday shopping battlefield, it was clear that the battle lines were drawn for 2008. Guitar Hero and Rock Band proved that they were both viable franchises that could stand toe to toe, and that neither of them was leaving anytime soon. 08’s holiday season is playing host to two new games from the competing developers.

In one corner is Rock Band 2, released in late September for Xbox 360, continuing its dominance as the only true full band game. A PS3 version is planned for October, with PS2 and Wii versions coming some time before the end of the year. Details are scarce on exactly what the PS2 and Wii builds will let you do, but the Wii version is confirmed to have online play. We do have a full picture for the 360 version, though. The gameplay is nearly identical to the first game, with a few added bonuses like drum solos and training, a revamped world tour mode and multiplayer battle of the bands. All of the instruments are freshly redesigned and fully wireless, and the new drum set is a marked improvement over the old one. The new instruments might be better, but you’re paying big for the improvements: the full box set of Rock Band 2 totals at an aristocratic $190.

But Activision isn’t sitting down for this one. To compete directly with EA’s Rock Band series, they’re preparing to release Guitar Hero World Tour in mid October. World Tour offers the same four instruments as Rock Band—lead, bass, vocals and drums—all wireless and with the trusted quality of RedOctane construction. World Tour’s song list rivals Rock Band 2’s in length, and some rock music connoisseurs are saying the selection is better, with less dud songs than Rock Band 2 and more killer hits. World Tour is matching Rock Band 2 blow for blow, but has a unique feature that may tip the balance: a song creator. This mode will allow players to write their own tunes, including original songs and, with the right skill, cover versions of established tracks. They can even be uploaded and shared over the Internet.

Unfortunately, World Tour is also matching Rock Band 2’s price of 190 big ones. This includes the Wii version, which again uses a plugged-in Wii remote to handle all of the functionality of the guitars and now the drums too. At least you can expect a Wii experience equal to the 360 and PS3 versions—World Tour Wii will share all of the features you’ll find on the other consoles. The Wii version even gets its own exclusive “Mii freestyle” mode, which lets you jam freely as your cute little Wii avatar. If the Wii version of Rock Band 2 is as simplistic as the first game, EA will have a hard time competing with Activision’s feature-rich game and might lose the highly profitable Wii crowd.

I think it’s great that Activision is stepping up their game to compete with Rock Band across all consoles, but does the price really need to be so high? I can understand that wireless technology is expensive, and you’re getting a lot for your money, but $190 is kind of ridiculous. They’re also playing the Wii exploitation game again, marketing plastic shells at the same price as the controllers that actually have some guts in them. The Wii build at the very least shouldn’t be anywhere near $190.

And really, none of the versions should be. If these bundles are so expensive to manufacture that they cost near $200 for the consumer, maybe Activision and EA should try selling the games at a loss. It’s a little drastic, yes, but for a game, approaching a $200 price is dangerous. The Wii console itself is only $250, and the cheapest Xbox 360 model, gimped as it is, costs only $200. When the price of a game is getting close to the price of the console you’re playing it on, you have a problem. Besides, both companies are going to make a killing on downloadable songs. America is addicted to iTunes, and both new music games let you download extra songs is much the same fashion with microtransactions. With so much revenue coming in from downloads, maybe Activision and EA can afford to take a small hit on the game.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for the developers, especially after seeing the hard work Vicarious Visions is doing to make World Tour Wii as good as the other versions. They deserve some nice paychecks for toiling away on these games, but I can guarantee the publishers will see a lot more of the millions of dollars these games make than the developers.

Ultimately it’s up to you, the consumer. Neither company is likely to lower their prices, and they’re going to sell tons of units regardless, but you still have the choice on what to buy. You can be informed, you can know when you’re being ripped off. Yes, the games are popular, and they’re the big thing to have in your living room this Christmas. But sometimes it’s smart to slow down and consider that spending $190 for a single game is a little crazy, and it’s really crazy to drop $380 on both of them.