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Analysis:  Guitar Hero  Vs.  Rock Band  - Behind The Numbers
Analysis: Guitar Hero Vs. Rock Band - Behind The Numbers Exclusive
October 23, 2009 | By Matt Matthews

October 23, 2009 | By Matt Matthews
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The September 2009 showdown between The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 is perhaps the most direct competition between the two franchises the industry has yet experienced. The Harmonix-developed Beatles game launched on September 9th while the fifth major installment of the Guitar Hero franchise hit stores eight days earlier on the first of the month.

At the end of the NPD Group U.S. game console retail reporting period for September (which ended on Saturday, October 3rd) the final tally showed a decisive win for The Beatles: Rock Band in both units of software sold and dollars of revenue.

The Beatles moved a strong 595,000 software-only and instrument-bundled units across three platforms. The Xbox 360 versions accounted for 43% of those units while 35% and 22% were sold to Wii and PlayStation 3 owners, respectively.

According to figures provided to Gamasutra by Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities and Anita Frazier of the NPD Group, the average price of a copy of The Beatles during this period was approximately $100. Total revenue for the title was around $59-$60 million or more than 9% of all software revenue for the month.

Despite launching on four platforms and over a week earlier, Activision Blizzard's Guitar Hero 5 only sold 499,000 units through 3 October. Again the Xbox 360 was the lead platform with 42% of the total units while the PlayStation 3 version claimed 21%. The PlayStation 2 version and Wii collectively accounted for the remaining 37%, although precise figures were not made available to us by the NPD Group.

Based on analyst comments, copies of Guitar Hero 5 averaged about $67 at retail during the game's launch month. With the 33% lower per-unit price and 16% fewer units sold, the revenue for Guitar Hero 5 during September was only $33 million, or about half of the revenue generated by The Beatles: Rock Band.

The emergence of the Xbox 360 as the definitive primary platform for these games is a notable development. For example, during the launch of Guitar Hero: World Tour in October 2008, the Xbox 360 and Wii versions were 11th and 12th, respectively, in the monthly all-format top 20 software chart.

Then in November 2008 the Wii version took a definitive lead over the Xbox 360 version and by December the Wii and PlayStation 2 versions both outsold the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero: World Tour.

When Guitar Hero: Metallica launched in March of this year, the Xbox 360 version charted for two straight months while the Wii version never made an appearance.

As we have pointed out previously, both the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises have seen revenue drop in 2009 relative to the same period in 2008. As of September 2009 the two franchises together (across all packages, including track packs) have generated $373 million less in revenue from the comparable period in 2008.

For some perspective, the software category as a whole is behind by $720 million compared to the first three quarters of 2008. That is, the revenue drop in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises accounts for more than half of the drop in revenue across all software from 2008 to 2009.

Overall, however, the Rock Band franchise has taken the larger hit with revenues down by 55% year-to-date in 2009. (However, many of last year's sales may have been bundled with expensive hardware like guitars and drums which the consumer now owns.)

The one part of the business that we cannot see directly is the revenue that comes in from the sale of songs and song packs through each game's online store. At the moment Rock Band has the larger catalog of songs and has recently touted over 60 million downloads since the launch of the first Rock Band.

Even at $2 per song, the additional $120 million in revenue over the last two years doesn't come close to offsetting the drop in retail revenue just in 2009.

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David Wesley
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In my book, I devoted a chapter to music games and discussed their eventual decline. Unfortunately, even though the manuscript was completed months ago, the book will not be out until next year and by then the trend will be obvious. That does not mean that music games were a fad. I believe they are here to stay. However, once people own a music game, there is less reason to purchase another one. Given that fact, the 2009 sales numbers seem pretty respectable. I expect further deterioration in 2010 before sales begin to level off. At that point, the franchises will need to focus on add-ons and adapt to having a smaller number of new customers. There simply aren't that many bands with the sales driving power of the Beatles. Some companies are trying to compensate by adding more peripherals and more sophisticated game play. That is a mistake. The target market of these types of games wants simplicity and adding more features will actually have a negative effect on sales.

Kirk Battle
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Now if someone can just figure out a new game design for all those controllers that's still fun, they can ride the wave right on into money town.

Rafael Brown
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I think the initial decline is due to some people trying the trend and then passing it over as a fad and some is due to getting over initial setup costs (buying equipment). But music games have found a new audience and a new way to interact with popular music. People are still trying it out and developers are still finding ways to reach and grow that audience.

Once people own a music game, there are three reasons to buy more music games (1) the music game app is a significant feature upgrade from prior versions, (2) the cost of the disc is a good value for money with enough of the 40-80 songs, or (3) a featured band is compelling enough that they drive ales alone. Now DLC is a whole different ballgame. I expect that to grow like the iTunes music store, slow and steady at first and then exponentially.

And I disagree, The Beatles are far from the only band that can drive sales globally. Music sales should indicate that there are other bands. U2, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Madonna & Michael Jackson stand out just off the top of my head as bands that could be featured in Rock band, Guitar Hero, SingStar or Lips. If anything, artists have been waiting for something like The Beatles: Rock Band to come along and show the beginnings of where the music genre could take a single band featured game. I expect that it opens the floodgates rather than being the last of its kind.

David Wesley
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I didn't say that the Beatles were the "only band that can drive sales." I said "There simply aren't that many bands with the sales driving power of the Beatles." It is an important distinction.

David Delanty
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Wesley, I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment that music games experience a gradual decline, but I think it's mostly attributed to franchises instead of genres. The music genre has been around for ages, and like every genre, has had its ups and downs. It burst onto the scene with Parappa the Rappa, held on with Space Channel 5, then experienced a gradual decline. Then hit another big burst and became even more popular than ever with Dance Dance Revolution. Then again, hit a peak and started declining.

Now we've gone through another swell in the genre's popularity with the introduction of the Hero franchise, and as it has happened twice before, and as franchises go on longer from iteration to iteration, the consumption rate will also reduce between each installment.

In the future, another franchise will land, diversifying the way we can experience music through our gaming systems, and it'll seem like the music gaming genre is a brand new invention all over again. I can imagine it now, the way the short-term membory mags and rags reacted to Parappa, DDR, and Guitar Hero. 'By golly, play MUSIC in our GAMES!? HOW NEW! Why hasn't this been DONE before!?'

David Wesley
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Delanty, you are absolutely right. My reference was specific to the band/instrument subgenre. In fact, DDR is a good example. Although I think Guitar Hero and Rock Band will enjoy more long term popularity than DDR, they will likely follow the same general sales pattern.

Rafael Brown
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First off I do agree that adding too many features is not necessarily a good thing. Having 4-10 GH games come out per year just makes it easier for feature creep to bleed in 60+ new features per year. Music games could go the way of Madden ... or Photoshop, an interface and app cluttered by too many features.

A general point, we seem to keep forgetting that much of the world is in recession right now. Spending is down across the board in many countries. Expecting that sales of large plastic instruments and luxury music interactive entertainment will be at pre-recession levels during a recession is a little unrealistic. I expect that 2010 numbers may continue to be low but that doesn't assume that they won't go up rather than down as countries go out of recession.

Its not surprising that sales are down this year. They're down for everything, and music game bundles were the biggest ticket item. But trying to draw a connection from that to a notion that music games as a business have reached their peak seems overly reactionary. While I think its fair to say that Guitar Hero may be oversaturating its market (was it 6 or 7 releases across how many SKUs?). I don't think that determines the course for the rest of the music game end of the industry. If anything the number of new people I've seen interacting with music games continues to increase.

Let me ask, did FPS games reach their peak in the late 90s with Quake? A new genre has come around, and its a bit early to start singing its funeral dirge when it doesn't hit a high set largely prior to the recession. Just don't be too surprised if music games are 3-10 times their current audience in 5 years. It happened from Quake to Halo.

Adam Flutie
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Does anyone know of any numbers regarding the DLC numbers? It would seem that RB could sink it's sales and still have much better wings due to all the DLC they have available. I know I probably spend $10 every few months on the songs I really like that come out. So I'm pretty much buying the game again at $60 every year... and they don't even have to provide me with a new main game.

As for the core software, despite the fact I thought RB2 would be the end of it, depending on the features they throw into RB3 I will probably buy it again, and maybe not even for the setlist. For example, I would like to see an more open career mode that lets me play all the DLC in more than just one 'make your own setlist' per venue; or a sorting system that lets me rate my songs by how much I like them and sort the huge list by that; or improved party mode drop-in/out; or a way to play these songs by the X360 media center, and as such for other games... these features alone would give me the desire to purchase the next release at $60.

RB has established the continuous library approach... but these numbers never seem to include any figures into how well it is paying off for them.

Rafael Brown
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Adam, you've hit on something there. Just remember it took several years of Apple bypassing naysayers before they became the defacto standard for digital music distribution. Same thing for Steam with PC downloadable games. There are other services, there are always competitors, but Steam and iTunes took the risks and got to a point where half the convenience is that the do enough things right and have the greatest volume of content. Its the Craigslist approach. Rock Band is headed down that path. Meanwhile Guitar Hero is still emulating the CD market of the 90s.

Guitar Hero may have started with a larger installed base (when Harmonix left), but Activision has grown that base on an outdated model. I wonder how long it'll take them to realize that while they're pursing short term disposable disc sales, that Rock Band is locking in people by building a multi-purpose interactive music app. People don't want to have two separate digital music libraries. And 10 different GH discs isn't a _digital_ music library. If people do exactly what you're doing, buy $60 worth of songs every year in DLC, they won't do it on both GH & RB. They'll stick to one, because switching back and forth between apps is as much a pain as switching discs

zed zeek
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I saw this today, I know most games are profitable but even still.

I large share for this I lay at the fee of GH + the overmilking (from 2005-2009 there has been 21 GH games!!!!)

"However, what seemed to have been completely glanced over was a recent report by Credit Suisse which highlights some stunning revelations on the music game series. Quite simply, Rock Band has lost a vast amount of money for Viacom. By the end of 2009, Credit Suisse projects that Rock Band stands to have lost over $90 million. The game series simply has not been profitable since day one."

Matt Benic
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Rafael, I believe even Activision have finally come to realize that players want a single 'platform', rather than and endless collection of album-like disks that have to be swapped out to play different music (especially in social contexts). GH5 and Band hero will both include song backward compatibility functionality similar to that in Rock Band 2, only as far back as world tour though. What I wonder though is whether it's too late for them. I for one have switched over to the Rock Band franchise because it allows me an easier way to play a wider selection of music, and after investing quite a bit in downloadable content Activision will have to give me a really good reason to switch back.

I'd also like to see the comparative DLC numbers here, as I'm sure while the revenue may be down from last year, the operating costs to get that DLC out must be significantly lower than for constantly churning out new disk based titles. As both franchises build up a bigger install base prepared to pay for DLC, one would think that relatively high margin revenue stream would keep climbing quite nicely.