Scott Steinberg: Can The Beatles: Rock Band Succeed?
Time to get the party started! By the time you read this, The Beatles: Rock Band will undoubtedly be making its star-studded debut, introducing millions of impressionable young minds to the beauty of classics like "Day Tripper" and "Yellow Submarine." Ironically though, the question that I'm asked by interviewers more than any other surrounding the title isn't "How long before Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Soulja Boy inevitably get their own boxed sets?" Rather, more depressingly, it's simply as follows: "When push comes to shove, is there really any chance in hell that the game will actually sell?"
Not that I blame anyone. We've already seen five straight months of video game revenue decline at retail, and the proceeds from music simulations like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have literally been slashed in half as of late. Moreover, you can thank a combination of factors as follows for ensuring TB: RB isn't necessarily the slam dunk that some might think. For one, an oversaturated market brimming over with countless toe-tapping releases from Band Hero to GH: Van Halen, SingStar: Queen, Rock Band: Unplugged, Lips: Number One Hits and virtually everything short of Kevin Federline Presents Emo-Rap-Rock Revolution. Two, the fact that many existing fans already own a full complement of pricey plastic instruments, or don't have a spare sibling to sell in order to afford 120 USD "steals" like DJ Hero, let alone its 200 USD Jay-Z/Eminem-endorsed Renegade Edition. Three, the presence of no-cost alternatives such as Web-browser-based jam session RockFree, or simply bumming a spare USB mic off a buddy, since we all undoubtedly know at least one friend who's already sprung for the necessary hardware. Four, conventional wisdom, which tells us that existing games whose integrated options to download new songs - thereby constantly keeping the experience fresh and new - still represent incredible and perfectly satisfying value (not to mention negate the need for constant annual upgrades). Lastly five, a gaming public that's yet to grow at a rate capable of keeping pace with publishers' ambitions.
Still, just in case you were concerned, fear not: I'm convinced we needn't worry that John Lennon will wind up rolling over in his patchouli-scented grave. For starters, as the biggest band in the world, The Beatles come with a built-in fan base the size of certain third-world nations. Also worth noting is that their music remains effectively timeless, and possesses the proven power to transcend age, gender, culture or geographical background. Likewise, both the tunes and the title which backs them have been definitively shown to be highly social experiences capable of bringing people together (and all this before handy features like "multipart vocal harmonies" became a fancy way of saying "let's go down to the local pub, get sloshed and sing along!"). As such, if any musical group, or game stands the chance of single-handedly growing the video game market beyond its existing audience, it's this one.
Moreover, and perhaps more tellingly, the title also marks a coming-of-age point for gaming as a whole. Think of it as a cultural tipping point where - thanks to the gleeful endorsement of the world's biggest living rock stars' - interactive entertainment finally begins to assume its rightful place in the pop culture pantheon alongside books, comics, art and film. So whether or not initial sales skyrocket is, in many ways, irrelevant. Over time, I more than expect the title to atone for any up-front failings with ongoing digital sales of the globe's greatest musical catalogue, and - pay attention now - by opening the door for hundreds of other acts to follow. At the very least, what it does is definitively prove the power of play to influence people's lives by ingratiating the Fab Four's music with an entirely new generation of fans. And, more vitally still, firmly solidify that video games have finally come into their own as a socially acceptable, mainstream form of entertainment.
To wit, whether the first few weeks of SoundScan (alright, NPD) numbers actually add up or not doesn't truly matter in the long run. Because by bringing new players into the fold, and helping spread the gospel of gaming to previously unexplored quarters, The Beatles: Rock Band will ultimately prove that there's still life left in the genre and video games as a whole. As such, I have no doubt that it's a pairing that's bound to end on a high note.
Video game expert and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg is the author of Get Rich Playing Games and the creator of game industry documentary series Players Only. A celebrated gadget guru and technology expert, he frequently appears as a technology and video game analyst on broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CNN, and has contributed to 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Playboy and Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit www.scottsteinberg.com.