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Counting Rupees: Battle of the brands

Jeff Engel

Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

When Guitar Hero 3 launched last year it was an immediate success, selling out at a fairly quick pace throughout the holiday season. Following just behind it was Rock Band, selling very well, but not nearly as quickly as Guitar Hero. So far, all versions of Guitar Hero III have sold about 9.1M copies, versus just roughly 1.5M for Rock Band. Of course, part of the discrepancy lies in the fact that Rock Band launched on two platforms while Guitar Hero 3 launched on four, but that is about to be remedied with Harmonix's recent announcement of Rock Band for Wii. While Rock Band was a more ambitious game and representative of an evolution of the music game, it did seem like Activision may have made the right choice in buying the Guitar Hero publisher (and thus the Guitar Hero brand), but not the developer. With so much brand awareness already built into Guitar Hero, was there any way that Harmonix could possibly top the original creation that it no longer owned the rights to?

Rock Band
did have some advantages that would potentially help it close the sales gap. Its ambitious plan to release new tracks on a weekly basis would ensure a potential steady stream of revenue from Rock Band even from those who had already purchased it. In mid-January, Harmonix announced that it had sold over 2.5m songs, and just a few days ago it revealed downloads had surpassed the 6 million song mark. At roughly $2 a song, that's nearly $12,000,000 worth of purchases. If we assume that Microsoft takes 30% of this, that's basically $8.4M going directly to MTV/Harmonix. A $60 game would have to sell 140k copies to generate that much revenue -- altenatively, 52k copies of the Special Edition of Rock Band would have to sell at $160. That may not seem like much, but consider that the $8.4M from DLC does not get impacted by the far higher manufacturing and distribution costs associated with a retail product, nor the increased amount of royalties likely paid per retail product (since there are roughly 60 songs in the game), and it starts looking much better in terms of profitability. Now that Harmonix has unveiled its new in-game store, it seems likely that the developer could actually improve its ability to sell music.

Not to be outdone, though, Guitar Hero has also touted its DLC success, claiming to have sold 5 million downloads back in January. However, it's unclear to me whether that includes all the freebies that Activision released for the game up until that point, including the "boss" battles, the Halo theme song, and the free Christmas download. I'm inclined to think that the numbers Activision released in January actually included the freebies, but even if they didn't, the ratio of DLC per copy sold was still better for Rock Band. Clearly, the constant stream of weekly downloads has proven to be a successful and steady revenue stream for MTV/Harmonix.

While Guitar Hero has offered the occasional piece downloadable content, and has even had some success with it, Activision's strategy for success with the Guitar Hero franchise still appears to be through the retail channel. Like Guitar Hero Encore Rocks the 80's, which released last Summer, Activision intends to provide another "standalone expansion" of sorts in the Guitar Hero series this June with Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. While it will probably sell decently, I was slightly skeptical about its appeal. Guitar Hero is unquestionably popular with gamers, and Aerosmith is an unquestionably popular band, but when it was announced I wondered exactly how many Guitar Hero gamers were actually also big enough fans of Aerosmith to buy a $60 game with a soundtrack mainly (but not entirely) focused on a single band.

Aerosmith has been around for a long time, but I wondered whether they had enough songs worthy of inclusion in a music game (Wikipedia lists 21 "Top 40" singles). Since its announcement, some new details have surfaced that indicate it won't be entirely composed of Aerosmith songs -- probably a good thing since I believe one aspect that people like about these games is the variety. Since the experience in the game will consist of a couple opening acts of music from non-Aerosmith bands, and then a set of Aerosmith music, it does seem like Activision may hit a good mix of both variety for the general Guitar Hero fan and depth for the Aerosmith fan.

Releasing two versions of the Guitar Hero franchise per year is certainly something that could negate the importance of selling Guitar Hero DLC for Activision. Using the current trends for Rock Band, by the time Guitar Hero: Aerosmith launches, Rock Band will have sold roughly 9 million songs, which would translate into about $12.6M for MTV/Harmonix. This would result in a needing to sell at least 210k copies of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and then of course there's the additional development cost of creating a new game (rather than just new content), and the extra distribution costs associated with retail sales. Still, we can probably safely assume that if 500k copies of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith were to be sold, it would likely generate a profit for Activision. I have a feeling it will sell more than that, but for comparison purposes, Guitar Hero Encore Rocks the 80's sold 810k copies. Interestingly, Activision may not be stopping with the band-centric games after Aerosmith either, as there have already been rumors of a Guitar Hero: U2 and Guitar Hero: Beatles editions. Assuming these are being considered right now, the success of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith will probably determine their futures.

The difference in sales strategies (at least so far) doesn't answer the question of whether Rock Band can catch up to Guitar Hero at some point, though. With Guitar Hero's massive advantage in brand awareness, and the fact that it launched a few weeks before Rock Band, Guitar Hero III was able to sell amazingly well. It does not appear that Rock Band will be able to catch Guitar Hero with the current installments, considering the 6 to 1 sales advantage that Guitar Hero III currently holds. However, with their next installments, the Rock Band property could potentially win on the "next-gen" platforms. While Rock Band has not sold more than Guitar Hero III on any platform, part of the huge discrepancy between the sales is Guitar Hero's dominance on the PS2 versus Rock Band. While it came out later, Rock Band for PS2 has only sold a paltry 30k copies compared to 3.59M for Guitar Hero. This could be due to the fact that the PS2 version of the game came slightly "crippled" compared to the next-gen versions, with no "World Tour" mode and no support for DLC. But, more likely, this is simply attributed to the fact that Guitar Hero was already established as a brand on the PS2 where people already had the hardware they needed to play the game, and most people probably didn't want to shell out for an expensive new game with new hardware for their aging system.

If we remove the PS2 and the Wii (for now) from the equation, instead of a 6 to 1 advantage, Guitar Hero III has just over a 2 to 1 advantage over Rock Band. That gap is also shrinking little by little, as in the last two months NPD reports, the 360 version of Rock Band has been outselling the 360 version of Guitar Hero III. With its weekly downloadable content, favorable media reports, and more mainstream sightings, the positive buzz for Rock Band is certainly spreading. Much like the early days of Guitar Hero, the word-of-mouth for Rock Band will ensure that when the next versions of the two games go head-to-head, the "Rock Band" name will at least be far more well known than it was the first time around. While nothing has been officially announced yet for this holiday season in either of these franchises, I have a feeling that we'll be able to test this theory out come November.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at

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