GUITAR HERO CEO Dan Rosensweig isn’t actually very good at the game his division of Activision is so famous for.
“My fingers can’t keep up with the speed,” he jokes to MCV when talking about the $2bn dollar franchise, admitting he’s more of a fan of DJ Hero – the newer, edgier take on music games that launched two weeks ago to strong reviews and good sales for a high-ticket £90 game.
Which is just as well – the mixing game was designed to widen the Hero franchise further and appeal to those who didn’t like Guitar Hero he tells us.
A former Yahoo COO, Rosensweig joined Activision in March this year, stepping in to oversee the franchise as it hit a crucial crossroads – diversifying to reach more consumers.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
This year, with many saying that music game sales were flat, the Guitar Hero series returned to its guitar and rock roots. Meanwhile new family-focused Band Hero will emphasise extra instruments and with pop music, while UK-made DJ Hero and its turntable controller took on urban music.
This three-flavour approach is arguably quite the gamble – in a recession year Activision actually plans to sell more instruments and discs.
“It's hard to know with the economy how big the market is for anything – but our objective is that wherever we go we want to take our unfair share,” says Rosenweig, with all of Activision’s characteristic sales swagger. “GH5 has proven we can do that – and we feel the same about the new games.”
But he admits that the recession creates an immediate pressure on high-ticket items like DJ Hero: “However what we are focused on is value for money. So for less than £100 DJ Hero owners get 93 new mixes, a peripheral, and a game with a Metacritic of over 85. For value, if a consumer is looking to buy the best games I think we win.”
But so far, with GH5 reviewed as the best game in the series yet, a respectable debut for DJ Hero, and now the introduction of Band Hero, it’s an approach that is keeping the series fresh at the very least.
“DJ Hero was designed with Europe in mind – those 100 songs have real appeal in Europe. And as I say it is real value for money – it would cost you more money to buy all those tracks individually than if you bought the game.”
Band Hero makes the series “more social” than ever before.
So does that mean the Hero franchise – which was already very inclusive – previously left some consumers behind?
“It’s not a matter of ‘left out’,” argues Rosensweig. “But when you pick an instrument or a type of music – in our case the guitar and rock music – the demographic is going to be specific. For us that was young males. But now with pop music stars like Taylor Swift and No Doubt and Bon Jovi and Maroon 5 you have more family, sing-along and multiple instrument music. That will just attract more families.”
As for DJ Hero, he jokes: “Well that’s just for everyone who wants to funk.”
But the pressure to keep a big money business the Hero music franchise rolling must be high. How does a big corporation like Activision appeal to consumers who, in his words, ‘want to funk’ – the ones who are logo conscious, on the cutting edge, and are cynical about uncool brands?
Rosensweig doesn’t initially appreciate the suggestion that even the mighty Guitar Hero brand can’t win everyone over.
“Do you really think there are people that would be sceptical about Activision? We have Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Guitar Hero – three of the biggest games franchises in the world. I think that tells people a lot about what they can expect,” he scoffs.
“But I appreciate the tension in what you are saying – how does any company build a game for an audience on the edge? But the way you do it is to be authentic, to engage that consumer and understand what they care about – and engage the iconic figures of that category. So in Guitar Hero we have Van Halen, Aerosmith and some of the biggest bands in the world.
"In DJ Hero we have David Guetta associated with us, plus Daft Punk, Eminem and Jay-Z. We stay authentic to the music and the genre. We have formed our own in-house DJ team and we are experts in music. So you do it by doing it right.”
Where Guitar Hero has been met with some occasional resistance is in the music industry itself. While it makes millions through instrument, disc and digital sales, it has raised some ire.
Record label execs have complained that they don’t see enough royalty revenue, while celebrity musicians like No Doubt and Courtnay Love have called in lawyers to check up on how Activision has used artists’ likenesses.
Rosensweig shrugs off any question about cynicism from the music industry, though – ultimately, any hold outs there will need to accept that games are an important new revenue stream.
“There is no industry I have ever been in where you have been able to satisfy everybody,” he says, “but given the vast amount of people that work happily with us – and the talent pool we have to pick from – I think we’ve done a great job.
“We strive for and have really terrific relationships with artists, their labels and their fans – so there is a real desire to want to work with us. We bring back lapsed fans and introduce new ones; they participate with music in a new way, and it boosts catalogue sales and artist awareness.”
On average, he says, a song that featured in Guitar Hero: World Tour increased the catalogue sales of the artists featured in the game by up to 50 per cent.
He insists that likewise this has primed an audience of music fans ready to watch bands new and old when they go on tour. Which is good news for the music industry; live events and tours are now more important revenue streams than ever before. He says: “We’re generating visibility and revenue for these acts.”
DOWNLOAD WITH THE KIDS
But as the series heads into 2010, Activision is also preparing the Hero brand for the next challenge – the rise in importance of digital content sales.
So far, Guitar Hero’s success has hinged on retail sales for its instrument packs. But now Activision plans to ramp up online connectivity and digital sales as part of the mix keeping the franchise relevant, reveals Rosensweig.
“There’s new hardware, new genres, new regions to launch in – all of it when it is appropriate to do so. Increased connectivity to the internet means more customisation, user recommendation, more download sales – that adds to the experience and keeps it fresh.”
Activision knows first-hand how regular DLC and online support can benefit retail and its bottom line. Call of Duty 4 maintained its RRP for two years thanks in part to its online community and regular releases of map packs and DLC. It sounds a lot like Activision is planning a similar strategy for its Hero games – but the firm is also keen to make it clear the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Rosensweig concludes: “We’re working on our 2010 slate now. You will probably see fewer SKUs from us, but the focus on making the best-selling, most fun to play, best-reviewed games will continue. Those are the things that are constant. [There will be] more DJ Hero, and the next iterations of Guitar and Band are on the way. But we will see how the market plays out. What you will see is the games will live longer and be more vibrant through DLC.
“We intend and are really happy to be mostly distributed through retail. We love those partnerships. It’s our primary environment. But retailers like the fact that connectivity helps consumers enhance the product they buy in shops. – it isn’t one versus the other.”