C'mon, bring the toys
Will video games kill the radio star or help save a struggling industry?
A rumor swirls among the crowd at this year’s Lollapalooza: Slash is going to show up on the Kidzapalooza stage. At the appointed hour, hundreds of Guns N’ Roses junkies pack in behind the cordoned-off toddler pen. It might seem inappropriate for the ax icon to play to children, and, well, it kinda is—he takes the stage with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a trucker cap that says FUCK. But the kids recognize Slash immediately: “Look, it’s Slash from Guitar Hero!” After Slash rips through an extended solo, Perry Ferrell tells the audience, “It’s not easy being Slash. It takes a lot of practice.” Actually, anyone can be Slash now, minus the liver damage. He is a boss character in Guitar Hero III.
This fall, the video-game biz upgrades its interactive music stable with a new round of two massive franchises, Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band 2. On top of the millions of game discs sold, gamers’ downloads of additional songs have soared. Rock Band recently surpassed 16 million paid downloads, while 20 million playable Hero tracks have been sold at $2 a pop. As traditional formats such as CDs and radio evaporate, more bands are turning to video games to drum up hype and cash. Guns N’ Roses (sans Slash, of course) will unleash the first official taste of their ridiculously delayed Chinese Democracy album when the single “Shackler’s Revenge” debuts with the September launch of Rock Band 2. Similarly, Metallica will premiere its entire upcoming Death Magnetic record on Guitar Hero III, along with a physical release—a first for the industry. Is this new strategy for hyping an album going to be the record industry’s savior, i.e., the next iTunes, or just the new karaoke—or both?
Alas, it’s far too early to anoint these games the new iTunes. For one thing, because of both games’ genesis as a form of interactive air guitaring, the song selection leans heavily toward cock rock and hair metal. That limits the type of songs showcased; nobody wants to plug in and tap along to Air Supply or, for that matter, Animal Collective. Coming after Guitar Hero’s solo-heavy approach, Rock Band, with digital drums, bass and microphone, created new prerequisites for virtual jamming—now gameplay wasn’t limited to the guitar and was open to genres beyond rock. Paul DeGooyer, senior vice president of electronic games and music for MTV Networks Music Group, explains: “There are songs that might be great to listen to but boring to play. The songs we use [in Rock Band] have to meet the criteria—fun parts for all four instruments: vocals, bass, drums and guitar.” In case you’re curious, he cites the Who as the ultimate source for a four-part party.
But the criteria are not restrictions so much as a marketing strategy. According to DeGooyer, Rock Band is sticking with the fist-pumping fun stuff to guarantee the game’s success. Once every song isn’t a “make-or-break proposition,” he says, “we’ll be able to do things that are a lot more creative.” In other words, Rock Band is in a war with Guitar Hero (which just copied the full-band, four-player setup pioneered by Harmonix in Rock Band 1). When enough hard units of Rock Band have sold and the dust has settled, you might be able to play Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew or My Bloody Valentine.
Further off for Rock Band, but certainly in development, is the idea of opening up the software to the public, giving independent bands the chance to upload their own songs to the library and generate exposure and cash through downloads. However, the Harmonix team needs two weeks to convert a tune into a playable level, because each note for each instrument must be placed by hand, not to mention blocking out camera shots. Until this process is streamlined, it’s hard to imagine basement bands putting forth the effort.
Video games and music have been slowly melding for years. Artists such as Beck use Game Boys to remix tracks. Trent Reznor posted composite parts of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero on his website for fans to fiddle with in Apple’s GarageBand. The colored blocks of loops and samples in compositional software like Ableton evoke the stream of button-mash cues in Rock Band. It’s not far fetched to see kids creating music with their faux-guitar controllers one day. Then again, Slash is still rocking a Les Paul Gibson, not a Game Boy. Rock Band might not be a revolution but merely an amusing fad among the often-drunk revelers. Even DeGooyer says, “We’ve heard that many karaoke bars are adopting Rock Band as their main karaoke engine. It’s a good antidote for the squalling, terrible singer. You can just turn up the original vocal mix. It’s superkaraoke.”
Rock Band 2 hits Xbox in September, and other systems later in the quarter. Guitar Hero World Tour arrives on all formats October 28.
Check out the other sections in our 2008 Fall Preview: