What's the difference between the business models of the leading rhythm video games, Rock Band and Guitar Hero?

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Answered by: Lee, An Expert in the Classic Video Games - General Category
In 2005, a video game was released which just about single-handedly introduced America to the genre of rhythm video games. The game was Guitar Hero, and was developed by Massachusetts-based company Harmonix, in association with publisher RedOctane.

Harmonix had previously been responsible for the development of other acclaimed music games such as Amplitude and Frequency, but it was Guitar Hero, a game based on a similar Japanese video game called Guitar Freaks, that put them on the map. Guitar Hero received widespread praise for its innovative control scheme, gameplay, and classic rock soundtrack. A sequel (Guitar Hero II) would be released in 2006, and cement Guitar Hero’s standing as a major franchise.

The year 2006 would also be the year that Harmonix would leave the franchise, however. A larger video game publisher Activision bought out RedOctane, bringing NeverSoft onboard to develop new Guitar Hero games, while MTV Games purchased Harmonix, to produce a new game called Rock Band. What separated Rock Band from Guitar Hero was an increase in peripherals.

While Guitar Hero previously only had the single guitar peripheral, Rock Band expanded its gameplay to include vocals and drums as well, encouraging a larger, multiplayer experience. Guitar Hero would continue on its previous path for one game before switching over to the full-band setup that Rock Band had originated, with 2008’s Guitar Hero: World Tour. While other companies would attempt to stake their claim in the landscape of rhythm gaming, such as Konami’s Rock Revolution or Disney Interactive’s Ultimate Band, it would be Guitar Hero & Rock Band that dominate the genre up to now.

Since the two franchises have come into competition with one another, both games have gone in completely different directions in their development process. This has made debate over which of the two games is the better very polarizing. Whether one game is better than the other is entirely a matter of personal opinion, (I personally prefer the Rock Band games.) but there’s little argument that ever since Harmonix relinquished control of Guitar Hero to Activision and Neversoft, the two games have become very different from one another.

When talking about the differences between the two franchises today, generally the first difference that critics refer to is their differing sales models. Since Activision took control of Guitar Hero, the company has developed more and more games bearing the Guitar Hero brand than Harmonix had ever developed with it, or Rock Band games. In 2009 alone, 9 different variations of Guitar Hero were released into the gaming market, spin-offs and ports included. (Rock Band by contrast has only released 5 games in 2009.)

This has led many critics, gaming industry figures, and even professional musicians to accuse Activision of over-saturating the market with music games, which could do serious damage to the genre. Onstage at the 2008 D.I.C.E. summit in Las Vegas, game developer Masaya Matsuura put it simply: “While games like these are fun, they have proliferated so quickly that the genre has become oversaturated and stale, focusing mainly on music as a commodity rather than integrating it into games in new and exciting ways.” (Geddes)

Matsuura is the creator of the 1996 video game PaRappa the Rapper, which is widely regarded as one of the first modern rhythm video games.

Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, and the three single band titles, (Guitar Hero Aerosmith, Metallica, and Van Halen.) are seen by critics as examples of why Activision’s business model is no good. Smash Hits was a compilation of tracks that were in previous games before switching to a full-band format, updated with vocal and drum tracks, while the single band titles are simply Guitar Hero games with the focus devoted entirely to one artist or group.

These were released as stand-alone games, complete with a full $60 price tag, but most critics considered them sub-standard at best, and shouldn’t have been their own game in the first place. The primary argument is that these games should have been released as downloadable content instead. (Individual tracks released to an online service, which can be purchased and added to one’s library of songs, in addition to the ones that come on the game discs.)

In a review of Smash Hits for GameShark.com, Todd Brakke wrote: “It’s also something of a mystery why all this content wasn’t made available as downloadable additions for Guitar Hero: World Tour or at least made portable into that game. Let’s face it, as much as some of us might want to be able to play ‘Bark at the Moon’ again, most would rather play it in World Tour than have to slip in a separate disc.” (Brakke)

In contrast, more critics have taken a shine to Rock Band’s model of sales. As opposed to Activision’s reliance upon consumer brand loyalty, Harmonix has put much more emphasis upon downloadable content. Representatives of the company have referred to Rock Band less as a game and more as a platform for music distribution, with the added bonus of it being a very fun game. By late November of 2009, Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos announced that Rock Band now had 1000 songs on it’s network, and had sold upwards of 60 million tracks through downloadable content. Certainly an indicator that their business model works wonders. (Remo)

Though critics have come down overwhelmingly in favor of Harmonix, there are some that don’t see things the same way...Particularly Activision’s CEO, Mike Griffith. In an interview with IndustryGamers.com, he remarked: “First of all, the consumer has voted and we've outsold Rock Band four-to-one; we're outselling Rock Band 10-to-1 in Europe. So, you'd have to conclude so far, our business model has served the consumer and shareholders better.” (Brightman)

While sales are not necessarily an indicator of quality over another product, the debate is ultimately left in the hands of the consumer. Rock Band and Guitar Hero’s fans usually don’t pay attention to sales models when choosing which one they like more, but personal preference. Some think that Activision has misused the Guitar Hero brand, but as the game’s sales indicate most people either aren’t aware of the changes made, or they don’t even care.

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