If you’re a fan of plastic instruments, the last week’s headlines haven’t made pleasant reading.
First, Activision announced it would be ‘restructuring’ (read: making a lot of redundancies) its FreeStyleGames Studio – the makers of Guitar Hero Live.
Then, yesterday, Harmonix’s crowd-funding effort for Rock Band 4 on PC failed.
Both stories cement a disappointing fact: the grand comeback for the plastic music genre hasn’t gone according to plan.
Guitar Hero Live hasn’t been a disaster. It reviewed well and its sales have been ok by most standards. However, its commercial performance is currently tracking behind that of the previous game in the series – Guitar Hero: Warrior’s of Rock – a game that ultimately led to the death of the franchise back in 2011.
There’s life left in Guitar Hero Live, but don’t expect Activision to release another game in the series anytime soon.
Rock Band has also endured a depressing comeback. Rock Band 4 immediately vanished from the charts upon release and publisher MadCatz lost the product this year – and have made a number of redundancies in the process.
So what went wrong?
It’s hard to be too critical. Both Activision or Harmonix really went for it last Christmas, the games were of good quality and were promoted heavily. Gamers just weren’t interested.
There are multiple reasons we can dream up as to why the games didn’t perform. But one thing that certainly didn’t help was the audience demographics on PS4 and Xbox One.
Back in the Guitar Hero/Rock Band glory years, the phenomenon was really driven by two platforms: PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii.
Both consoles had successfully moved into the mainstream market and were the perfect home for a social game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
As of right now, PS4 and Xbox One have yet to crack the kids, family or social markets. In fact, both consoles are still gripped in a fight for the hardcore consumer.
The toys-to-life market, a continuing growth area for the games business, has even had to ‘age up’ their games in an effort to appeal to a slightly older player, because the younger demographic has been slow to adopt the new machines.
Publishers are understandably reticent about releasing kids or family games on these platforms, yet the core gaming community is finite – how many triple-A adult action games can the market realistically sustain?
In many ways it is down to the platform holders to inspire mainstream interest in their machines. Microsoft started strongly with its mass market focus for Xbox One, but it only angered hardcore players, and the company has since scaled back its focus on its accessible Kinect device, not to mention its ambitions in film, sport and TV.
PlayStation talks a lot about wanting to widen its reach, but so far its efforts have been subdued. The upcoming Ratchet & Clank game is exclusive to PS4 and arrives alongside a movie starring John Goodman, Sylvester Stallone and Paul Giamatti. The game surely has some potential to pull in a wider, younger consumer, but so far PlayStation’s marketing efforts have solely targeted the game’s existing fan base. Perhaps that will change closer to the movie’s arrival later this month.
PlayStation VR has some promising social experiences launching alongside it. But with a 350+ price tag, it will be a big sell to convince families that it is worth the expense.
If PlayStation and Xbox have ambitions to outperform, or at least match, the successes they’ve seen in the past with PS2 and Xbox 360, it is imperative that they win over this mass market audience.
The disappointing results around Rock Band and Guitar Hero highlight that this isn’t going to be easy.
And it will be interesting to see whether Nintendo, and its mysterious NX system, can do anything to convince kids and parents to put down their smartphones and return to the dedicated gaming device.