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Making Music

Fri 27 Jun 2008 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Hardware

The flood of plastic instruments needs a dose of common sense.

At a friend's birthday party last weekend, one outsized gift was swiftly unwrapped and proceeded to provide much of the entertainment for the evening - Harmonix' fantastic Rock Band, whose controversial UK pricing hasn't prevented it from fuelling countless nights of rhythm-action rock fantasy up and down the country.

It is, however, undeniably bulky. The original box for the game is huge, and carrying the instruments back to London after the weekend required a significant redistribution of luggage between our cars. Even separated from their bulky packaging, the combination of guitar, drum kit and microphone will inevitably take up a significant chunk of storage space in the home of any consumer.

The weekend's Rock Band fun, however, encouraged me to do a quick inventory of the fake plastic instrument count in my own home. That turned up two Guitar Hero (PS2) axes, a third-party Guitar Hero (PS2) wireless controller, and my own rhythm-action pride and joy, a ridiculously overpriced Guitar Freaks arcade-style controller.

That's four plastic guitars - and thus far, we have resisted the urge to step up to the next gen, which will make our GH controllers obsolete, requiring us to buy new ones. That in itself is fair enough, since moving up a hardware generation unsurprisingly brings with it the risk of having to dump old controllers. What isn't fair enough, however, is that with more and more companies getting in on the musical gaming act, consumers who enjoy the genre now face seeing their plastic guitar quotas rise exponentially.

As it stands, you can't use your Guitar Hero axe on Rock Band on PS3, or vice versa. Guitar Hero axes on the 360 work in Rock Band, but Rock Band's guitar controller doesn't return the favour. When Guitar Hero World Tour comes out later this year, bringing with it drums and vocals, it seems unlikely that the kits will be cross-compatible - and Konami will add its own flavour of peripheral with Rock Revolution.

All of these games have their merits, and many consumers would like the option to play all of them, if possible. After all, videogames have built their success on the fact that, like other creative mediums, they are not in any way exclusive, and don't always directly compete with one another. They compete in broad terms - but many of the same gamers who bought Halo 3 also bought Call of Duty 4, for instance, and buying GTA IV last month doesn't mean you didn't also buy MGS4 this month.

The insular, uncooperative approach being taken to instrument design and cross-compatibility risks completely eliminating that aspect of the market. Not only are the instruments expensive, they're also bulky. Few gamers will be able to justify buying into more than one of these franchises. The result? Consumer lock-in to a single franchise.

Now, if you've studied a little business, you may not see what the problem is. Okay, it's not exactly market competition at its finest, but tying consumer into your franchise and ecosystem isn't exactly a bad thing - right? Those with more market experience, however, saw the flaw in this plan coming several paragraphs ago. If your consumers are locked in by this approach - so are everyone else's.

That means that, quite simply, once a consumer has bought Konami's instruments, they won't touch EA's game. Once they're playing Activision's plastic drums, there's no revenue from their wallet going into Konami's coffers - and so on. Conversely, if those instruments were cross-compatible, the same consumer could well buy all three games, purchase DLC for all three games, and end up spending far more money than they would have otherwise. Sure, your average revenue per user could drop (because people playing your instruments are spreading their spend across other publishers), but you'll also start making dollars from the users of other publishers' instruments. The pie grows, and everyone's slices grow with it.

Konami, at least, seems to get it. I returned from the weekend's Rock Band assisted partying to discover that Rock Revolution associate producer Keith Matejka shares many of my concerns. "I think all guitar- and drum-based games need to be compatible with each other to some level" was his closing word on the problem, which he described as a "big issue for music games".

(Although they're seen as something of a Johnny-Come-Lately in the market at present, Konami has some authority to make pronouncements like this - after all, they essentially invented the whole genre with their Guitar Freaks and DrumMania games, which remain insanely popular in Japan but never quite emulated that success in the West.)

Of course, it remains to be seen what Konami will do about this big issue - or how much it can do about it, in the face of potential intransigence from EA and Activision. The point, however, is that he's right. This is certainly a big issue. In fact, it's an issue so big that it threatens to topple over and crush the burgeoning success of this new market sector, by splintering off the installed base of peripherals and seriously limiting the success of all entrants to the market.

For those companies taking part - primarily EA, Activision and Konami - the temptation will always be to avoid compatibility and try to lock consumers into their products. This approach doesn't just do a massive disservice to consumers, however. It also seriously limits the potential profitability of the products in question, restricts further market growth and ultimately, damages everyone's bottom line. The knee-jerk reaction is all we've seen so far in this sector - it's time for clearer business heads to prevail.

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