The year’s two big music games both came out recently. Their gameplay is similar, but everything else about them points to two very different ideas about the future of this popular genre.
To great fanfare, MTV Games released “The Beatles: Rock Band” on September 9th. High-profile reviewers greeted the game with breathless praise. Much of the coverage has concentrated on its unlikely creation. Ringo, Paul, Yoko and Olivia Harrison have jealously guarded the band’s legacy, and have chosen new opportunities very carefully. (The Beatles have yet to offer their music through iTunes, for example.)
Anyone who plays this game instantly understands why the band and their families trusted its developer, Harmonix, with the world’s most desirable music catalogue. The game is a love letter to the Beatles, offering both an exciting new way to experience their music and a sort of primer on their history.
The other new music game, “Guitar Hero 5”, on the other hand, has become embroiled in a public spat between Courtney Love and the surviving members of Nirvana on one side, and the game's publisher Activision on the other. The apparent origin of this dispute is this video, posted in advance of the game’s release. While the inclusion of a Kurt Cobain avatar in the game had been publicly known, few had previously realised that players would be able to “unlock” the avatar and use it in any of the game’s other songs (including a rather convincing Flavor Flav parody). Ms Love has since declaimed Activision’s “rape” of her late husband’s legacy, while Activision has calmly maintained that they have acted within their rights under contract.
Regardless of the merits of these arguments, the whole escapade has added to the general sense among gamers that the "Guitar Hero" series is driven exclusively by profit margins, without concern for the feelings of fans or artists, while "The Beatles: Rock Band" has only added to the perceived halo around that series. The comments of Activision's boss, Bobby Kotick, do little to assuage: recent reports quoted him telling a financial audience that the company’s employee-incentive programme “really rewards profit and nothing else” and that his aim is to “take all the fun out of making video games”.
Yet the "Guitar Hero" series has thus far handily outsold "Rock Band". The coming months will help to determine whether the future of the music gaming genre has room for artistry, or only for shifting units.