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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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.




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