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Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Guitar Hero Is Unsustainable

I recently went out and picked up Guitar Hero: World Tour. It's fun. Not the best game I've ever played, but it's good. I really want to trade it for Rock Band 2, but here's the kicker: No one wants to trade. This isn't going to be a post bemoaning the fact that no one wants to trade their copy to me. Far from it. Instead, it's going to be a postmorten on Guitar Hero as a franchise.

Guitar Hero has sold gajillions of copies, and with good reason. The concept is really fun. But here's the problem that publishers HAVE NOT LEARNED. By the time that Guitar Hero 5 launches in September, we will have 13 Guitar Hero games in the space of four years. That's insane. On top of that, you have Rock Band 1 and 2 and in September, Beatles Rock Band. Don't forget about Lego Rock Band and Rock Band Unplugged. Now we're talking 18 types of the same game in four years.

Here's a newsflash, publishers: People get really tired of buying the same game over and over again in a small span of time. The backlash was huge against Smash Hits, and 5 might undeservedly suffer the same fate.

Let's compare the Guitar Hero approach to the Rock Band approach. Rock Band 1 came out almost as a proof-of-concept. It took off, and Rock Band 2 took it to the next level with more DLC on all three current-gen systems. DLC still comes out every week. It's gotten so huge that a story came out last week about a music-purchase tracking firm that now wants to track weekly downloads just like regular music sales. Harmonix doesn't have to sell as many copies of Rock Band to be as profitable if not more than Guitar Hero, since they're still raking in money on the one game they've already sold. The next major iteration, Beatles Rock Band, won't be a direct competitor to their DLC empire. It will be its own separate entity and will reach a larger audience that Rock Band on its own couldn't.

Meanwhile, Guitar Hero has to come out with a new game every couple months to satisfy people who want more from their franchise. They've flirted with DLC in World Tour, even bought it flowers and drinks and took it home with them for a romantic evening, but ultimately couldn't seal the deal proper and have left their fans frustrated. Sure, there's DLC in World Tour, but definitely not on the magnitude of Rock Band's DLC. I found one song - just ONE SONG! - that I actually was excited about downloading in World Tour, and I decided not to do it. I'm not going to spend money on one song ("Born To Run", by the way) out of a meager library of songs, and I expect that many people feel the same.

So, in other words, Harmonix is able to keep their development costs to a minimum while continually selling product. They don't have to design a new Rock Band game. All they have to do is convert songs into the Rock Band format, which is a relatively easy process. They've sold one game and they're still making money off of it. Neversoft can't take that route. They have to make a brand new game with a new graphics engine, piles of new songs, sink a ton into development, shipping, and tweaking the guitar and drums to make it worthwhile. They have to keep doing this at a furious clip or their audience will wander away.

How is that a sustainable business model? Combine this with the glut of Guitar Hero games on the market and the coming peripheral-pocalypse, and you have a recipe for a precipitous fall.