Viacom is selling Harmonix thanks to lackluster sales. Could the industry have gone too far with a new idea?
Back in 2005, there was an explosion. Not a literal one, but a figurative explosion made of money from the sale of plastic instruments. ‘Guitar Hero’ had been released and was flying off the shelves. The impressive sales of the franchise spawned a competitor in ‘Rock Band’ and a subsequent war between the two.
It started off reasonably, with one game a year, and then started growing. Plastic guitars made way for plastic drums, microphones and even a keyboard. Bundle pricing skyrocketed, designs got more elaborate, and the licensing of music got incredibly competitive.
Both the makers of ‘Rock Band’ and ‘Guitar Hero’ wanted to have the most stuff and the best product. In 2009 alone, a total of six different ‘Guitar Hero’ games were released. That’s just the ‘Guitar Hero’ franchise and doesn’t include ‘Rock Band’, knockoff games, ‘DJ Hero’ or any of the other music games released in the year.
Of course, the games weren’t the only thing being released. Downloadable content (DLC) came down the line too, which offered gamers the chance to buy new songs without having to buy new games.
That’s part of the problem. DLC is meant to lengthen the life of a game. Take a look at ‘Fallout 3’ or ‘Borderlands’, for example. The DLC exists to make money, but also to keep people from trading the game in. It lets you keep playing the game long after you’ve run through what’s already on the disc.
It works beautifully for these games because we know we won’t see another one for a few years at least. It’s there to tide people over until the next release. But with music games, the DLC acts as a substitute.
After all, why buy a new game full of songs that you may or may not like when you can simply buy the songs you want to play? This, plus the eventual ceiling on people who want to play rhythm games results in fewer and fewer new games being sold.
This year, ‘Rock Band’ went absolutely nuts with the Pro Mode, which includes support for incredibly realistic peripherals that cost as much as the real instruments. The price of a full ‘Rock Band’ setup for Pro Mode goes into the hundreds – That’s hundreds of dollars for a single game.
Pro Mode was seen as a way to keep people buying the game. It’s a new feature, and there’s a new instrument, which means you’ll need the new game. “When the NPD numbers get announced,” muses industry analyst Bill Harris, “Rock Band 3 will have been terrible versus expectations.”
To make it worse, the new ‘Rock Band’ DLC isn’t compatible with the old games. That segments the market for those tracks severely and ensures that only those who own ‘Rock Band 3’ can buy the content. “Unless a shitload of people buy Rock Band 3, making DLC is going to lose money,” says Harris.
So now, after going completely over the top with these games, the plastic instrument industry seems to be on the inevitable downturn.
The big question now – Who will buy Harmonix? It’s a great developer, but it exclusively makes games in a failing genre. My money’s on Activision.