It's common knowledge that the face of the music gaming sector - and arguably the music industry as well - has been changed completely by the advent of Guitar Hero, and the sales success of the latest iteration of the franchise points to a lasting popularity as well.
To find out what the key to that success has been we sat down with Activision's Guitar Hero business CEO Dan Rosensweig, former COO of Yahoo!, and also covered off the impending launch expectations for DJ Hero as well.
Q: Guitar Hero 5 features quite a wide variety in terms of artists and music - certainly more so than the earlier titles which focused much more on the rock music genre. Is that because a lot of the classic rock tracks have already featured in a Guitar Hero game, or because it's an attempt to engage a wider audience?
Dan Rosensweig: Neither, and I mean that sincerely. Music is very personal, so what you'd consider to be legendary, others may not. The common thread of Guitar Hero 5 - and every Guitar Hero - is that it really does feature the guitar. So what gets in the game has to be a great song, but also has to be really fun to play the guitar - if it doesn't, then it doesn't make the game.
We have a sophisticated way, in our music team around the world who work with the studios to really... once it's determined what the focus of the game is about, what would be the kinds of songs that go in there. Then you do a scientific analysis of the popularity of that song, how you group the songs together, how many songs should be in there.
And then you do the magic part which they're focused on, which is the stuff statistics can't tell you. Some of it is factual - who's going on tour, who's interested in promoting, but really they blend the science and the art together.
Then the last component goes to the studio, which is, is it fun to play? If it's not fun as hell to play, it's not going to make the game. That's the common element, and the reviews have been spectacular on it. To say there aren't legendary songs today... there are - it's just different themes.
This theme of this season was variety and value - variety of a series of great guitar songs - it's 82 artists and 85 songs. So we really focused on not even having too many songs by any one artist. That was deliberate, and that was what the fans had been advocating, and we wanted to give the fans what they want.
The second this is value - that's a lot of songs for a USD 59 game. If you were to buy those 85 songs for your iPod it would cost you USD 85, and so the plastic (if you buy the guitar with it) for USD 99 in the US... you get 85 songs and a guitar, and a 91-rated game, and one of the most popular games as well.
So that was the theme - and then within the game the innovations were really around party play, any grouping of instruments, more instruments, jump in-jump out, the lower levels were more inviting to people so you couldn't get booed off the stage, and at the higher levels your friends could win you back in the game so you didn't ruin it for everybody... all of it was about it being more social, more inviting and just as much fun - while at the higher levels being more sophisticated and more competitive.
We're pretty happy, and as you look at the European sales and our ability to outsell The Beatles: Rock Band 2-to-1 on their home field... that would suggest it was a good decision.
Q: Timing-wise, The Beatles also released an entire back catalogue too, which helped their marketing - so what was it that made Guitar Hero 5 beat it... was it that variety, was it the marketing you did?
Dan Rosensweig: I think it's the entire experience. The number one thing about Guitar Hero is that it's fun as hell -it's focused on the guitar, and the variety and value proposition - and the reviews are spectacular. So I guess we're the only ones not surprised... internally we always talked about the Fab Five - Guitar Hero 5 - was going to beat the Fab Four. Not because we don't love The Beatles, we love The Beatles, I will acknowledge that I went out and bought the analogue music set because I'm from the generation that grew up and loves The Beatles.
But for gameplay, we just felt this was a better decision in the market place.
Q: There are other artist-specific version of Guitar Hero in the market though - Metallica to name one, so how does that feature in the overall plan?
Dan Rosensweig: When we do a band - like we're about to do on December 22 in the US and early in 2010 in Europe - with Val Halen... Eddie Van Halen can certainly be considered the greatest living American guitarist, and arguably one of the greatest of all time. That makes a great deal of sense to make a game around. We're really excited about that, as are the fans of Van Halen, as are the fans of Guitar Hero. Metallica and Aerosmith were also incredibly successful.
But for us our signature release during this Holiday season are Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero - which is more current music, 65 songs from 61 artists, more focused on all of the instruments and singing - we think that will continue to evolve the market place to add more women, and of course singing is very popular here in Europe. Strikingly it's less so in the US, it's more popular with women than with men, but with the technology we have in the game we think it'll be more inviting to everybody.
And then DJ Hero - 93 songs, 100 mixes that no one's ever mixed before, with some of the most popular music in the world connecting the legends of rock, pop, tech, dance and rap. All of that is in one game, and we're introducing the turntable as the iconic instrument of this game, where you get to scratch, you get to fade, and feel the power of a DJ in the same way that Guitar Hero helps you feel like you're a rock star.
We're really happy with the line-up that we have, we think we can expand the market place with new genres of music, new capabilities, new innovations - it's what leaders should do.
Q: With Guitar Hero, if you're buying a peripheral you know that there are a number of software versions of the game you can buy, so you've a decent back catalogue. Can consumers be confident of a similar situation in years to come with DJ Hero and the turntable?
Dan Rosensweig: I see it as great value for money, period. The game's not even out and the reviews are beginning to pour in - it's the highest-rated set of reviews we've ever had. As a game for the money, outstanding value, and we're really happy to deliver that to the fans.
But our complete expectation is that this is going to be one of our tent pole franchises - we already have a 2010 slate that assumes success of this product.
Q: How have pre-orders of the game been going?
Dan Rosensweig: Pre-orders are a very interesting thing - they make a great deal of sense to me when people think there's scarcity of a game, and when people think they must play it on the first day. Things like Call of Duty make a great deal of sense for that.
But strikingly to me, pre-order sales of Guitar Hero continue to do extraordinarily well - you're seeing DJ Hero in particular... we were very loud in June when we announced that Jay-Z and Eminem were having a relationship with the game itself - they spiked up very high - and then we've sort of been under the radar because we've been launching Guitar Hero 5.
But as major mainstream press is now writing this as one of the top five games you have to have for the Holiday Season, the reviews are beginning to come out... I think we saw a huge pre-sales spike of DJ Hero last week, and as we build to the launch you're going to see that rise to a nice high number just like Guitar Hero did. We're really excited about that.
Dan Rosensweig is CEO of Activision's Guitar Hero business. Interview by Phil Elliott.