If there’s a scenario that defines the phrase “Egg on Your Face,” the opening days sales totals for the much celebrated Rock Band 3 are probably it. Having told Eurogamer “It’s possible that sales of other games in the category are down because people are waiting to spend their money on Rock Band 3” in an interview last week, project director Daniel Sussman may be feeling a little red faced this evening.
In case you’re wondering, his game entered the UK all-formats chart at number 26, having sold 7,386 units in total. 5,318 on Xbox 360, 1,555 on PS3 and 295 on Wii. Ouch. That’s the sales equivalent of watching someone run over your dog. Then reverse. Over and over again..
People can, will and already have drawn up potential caveats for Rock Band 3’s lack of opening day success; ranging from suggestions that the game will prove to be a slow burner to others proclaiming this as evidence of the music genre’s rather rapid demise. In truth, I think there’s an element of reality in almost all the possible causes for such low numbers.
One thing that is for sure is that Rock Band 3 isn’t necessarily a bad game. Eurogamer themselves awarded it a maximum score just hours after the Sussman interview, while other’s have praised it as the defining game in the genre and hailed it as potentially the only music game anyone will ever need to play again. Rock Band has long since established itself as a music network and a platform rather than a mere string of individual games, and save for the occasional spin off (including Rock Band: The Beatles, which was brilliant anyway) the franchise has never suffered from the same stigma’s or criticism of it’s updates as Guitar Hero. With the addition of Pro mode, a new feature which actually allows you to play, use and learn real instruments in the game, Rock Band 3 has even potentially elevated itself above and beyond what music games – or even games in general – are normally expected to achieve. Teaching users to replace their coloured buttons with strings and, you know, actually play a real guitar, is what music games should probably have been doing all along. It’s a pretty compelling selling point.
But.. well, those numbers. They’re not good. A place at 26 genuinely surprised me, but upon looking at those figures, the real surprise is how a game that sold less than 8,000 copies on launch day across 3 platforms was able to get that high in the charts. Those are dauntingly low numbers, especially for a game which has been so well received critically. What’s the story?
Rock Band 3 has been rather conspicuous by its absence from a marketing perspective. I only paid attention to the fact that it launched last Friday because I just so happened to be in my local HMV store anyway. It wasn’t given any particular preference in terms of store positioning either, instead finding itself muddled in amongst other new releases such as Fallout: New Vegas and Vanquish, whilst receiving no more attention than, say, The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest or The Sims 3. It was just there, hiding amongst a wave of other new releases. HMV are no cheapskates either when it comes to promoting major releases – I’ve picked up money off vouchers, T-Shirts, Blu-Rays and even free games while shopping there in the recent past – but they did nothing for the release of Rock Band 3. This isn’t a groan about HMV, either. The games retail presence was similarly low key elsewhere and from reading comments from other potential buyers up and down the UK, it wasn’t just restricted to my City. To see such a lack of presence from a franchise that would have rightfully expected to sell by the millions a year or two ago seems strange.
Part of Rock Band 3’s major sell is in its new instruments. Harmonix have introduced a Keytar to their existing range, which in keeping with the games new Pro mode can even be used to make actual music when connected via a MIDI adapter, but this was only available for Xbox 360 at launch and in limited numbers at that. None of the new Mustang guitars were available for either system and those waiting for the Pro axe will have to wait until next year. Much like the marketing issues, the problems with stock seem widespread, with many commenters bemoaning the lack of new instruments to pick up with their games. This point can be disputed by the fact that anyone who has acquired a plastic, 5 button guitar from at any time over the last 4 or 5 years will be able to use their gear for Rock Band 3, but the Keytar was obviously a big issue. The lack of stock on Xbox 360 and total no shows on PS3 and Wii seem to have upset some.
3. The price?
There’s no getting away from this one, unfortunately. Picking up a new set of instruments every year has never been a cheap hobby to sustain, but even by the industry’s own standards, Rock Band 3 ups the ante somewhat. The Keytar costs £70 by itself or £110 with the game. Guitars cost upto £130. MIDI adapters are £35. Microphones are £25, as are the stands to put them on. That’s a lot of money to be shelling out on more music equipment. Given the new Pro features, its not really fair to use the “more plastic crap” complaint, because some of this stuff is real and genuinely useful, but to get the most out of the new games innovations is going to cost you. It’s also worth noting that as per the point above, barely any of this stuff is actually available yet, which is a double kick in the knackers even if you are happy to shell out.
4. It’s a Slow Burner?
Maybe. If Rock Band 3 is the pinnacle of the genre – as those who have played and reviewed the game seem to be suggesting – then there should be no rush to bring Rock Band 4 to the market, and EA have never appeared to apply pressure for annual updates like Activision. Harmonix’s commitment to supporting their games has always been one of the franchises selling points, particularly in the face of Guitar Hero, and the current library of more than 2,000 tracks is only going to expand between now and when the team feel the need to release an update. Is there any reason to rush out and spend £40 on launch, especially with such slim pickings available in terms of the new instruments? Perhaps Rock Band 3 will find itself with a long tail, or perhaps interest will pick up when the Pro instruments are released or drop in price. Who knows. It’s little more than speculation currently.
5. Music Games are Finished?
Do people still want to spend relatively big money on instruments and music rhythm games? Has the genre burnt itself out? Quite possibly. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock has slid down the charts since release and DJ Hero has once again failed to make a significant sales impact. Rock Band 3’s diabolical launch will do little to silence those who suggest that the genre has crashed. I’ve never invested heavily in the genre, only really finding time for Guitar Hero III (which, incidentally, sold 3.5 million copies in 2 months just 2 years ago), Rock Band: The Beatles and Rock Band 2, but even then I feel exasperated by the prospect of playing another music game. It could be suggested that we’ve simply been exposed to far too much in far too short a space of time, and that the casual players no longer see the justification in spending at least £40 a year on what they perceive to be little more than track packs and incremental updates. If that is the case and if the bells really do toll for Harmonix and Neversoft, then it seems a shame that they do so at a time when Rock Band 3 appears to have given the genre it’s biggest and boldest achievement since it all started.
There might not be a definitive answer and all we can do at present is speculate, but in my opinion Rock Band 3 is potentially a victim of all the above scenarios. It’s a melting pot of poor marketing, poor hardware availability and consumer lethargy towards a genre which is unquestionably on a downwards slope. Unfortunately, it seems to have come at a time when from a critical perspective, and where Pro mode has finally fulfilled the genre’s potential, Rock Band has apparently never been better.
What we do know however is that Daniel Sussman is pretty darn wrong about what his potential customers were up to. “I’m not an analyst“, he said. You’re not wrong there, mate.
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