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It’s the DLC, stupid!

posted on June 30th, 2008 by golden jew
Now Playing: Final Fantasy Tactics A2

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.

6 Comments

  1. Christian said on June 30, 2008:

    you know, I’m not even sure if World Tour’s notechart generator allows you to make charts for new songs, as you’d need a master track. Well, you do not need them, as the hacked GH2 does it with regular tracks, but it isn’t quite the same. I was under the impression that the generator is for making new tracks for the existing songs, which is still interesting in my mind.

    I have some comments about this next battle, but since I’ve sworn a vow to no longer buy these games, I will stay out of it. I will say that, no matter how many people use it, the notechart generator (and some of the controller additions) in World Tour is both an incredible idea and potentially a horrid one, but nonetheless interesting.

  2. Christian said on June 30, 2008:

    Submitting comment for free Gravatar. Try it yourself!!

  3. TrueTallus said on June 30, 2008:

    DLC sure appears to be the key battle in the GH vs RB war, though if that’s the case I’m wondering why the next Rock Band needs to leave the hanger. What’s the appeal in buying a new Rock Band game at all, since all new DLC will continue to be downloadable for people with the original title and nothing noteworthy is making its way into the new release? Guitar Hero’s unabashed leap-frogging off its competitor’s success seems a bit slimy and reactionary, but expecting people to buy a completely unnecessary sequel sounds downright ridiculous.

    Also, why the oath, Christian?

  4. Christian said on July 1, 2008:

    TT – partly because I don’t want any more plastic instruments. My GH obsession was so strong that I have all the Red Octane guitars up through GH2, which is four, totalling to about 8 with my roomates. I literally have no more room for any more.

    The other half of the answer is the prick option – I started playing guitar, quite literally inspired by these games. It isn’t that I won’t play them with friends, I just won’t continue. Of course, this isn’t me scoffing at them – quite the opposite. I’m playing the real thing thanks to them, which shows how powerful they really are. They fulfilled their mission for me. Now they get to take a break.

  5. TrueTallus said on July 1, 2008:

    Fair enough. I’m sure the folks at Harmonix would be happy to know another person fell prey to their mission statement of getting non-musicians interested in music, even if it means they sell a few less plastic guitars. Perhaps by the time you have room for more peripherals they’ll be making games based off instruments too impractical to learn (Concert Harp Hero and Pipe Organ Hero come to mind) :)

  6. Christian said on July 2, 2008:

    Disclaimer – while I stand by my decision, I did say I will only stop from buying. I never said anything about renting, or playing at a friend’s house.

    That means there may be surprises in the future!

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