Fifty years later, can the Fab Four do it one more time?
If you have even the slightest contact with computer game industry – or walked into a Blockbuster video store in the last month – you know that the biggest thing in the gamer world is the Sept. 9 release of MTV Games/Electronic Arts' "The Beatles: Rock Band" for the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBox 360 and Nintendo Wii.
Posters have been plastered everywhere, and it seems as if every TV screen is carrying animated images of John, Paul, George and Ringo in their Sgt. Peppers gear.
Like the real Beatles themselves, everything about "The Beatles: Rock Band" screams first-class project. Game designer Harmonix has thrown everything into this project, starting with the fact that it contains 45 classic Beatle songs, from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Get Back."
The graphics are equally impressive: not only have all of the Rock Band 2 graphics been upgraded, but actually retooled; a three microphone set-up allows for multi-user harmonies; the soundtrack includes never-before released conversations by the band during sessions at Abbey Road studios; backgrounds that range from the Cavern Club to the Apple Corp. roof (what, no Hamburg strip club?) and, coolest of all, user controllers in the iconic shapes of Lennon's Rickenbacker 325 guitar, Harrison's Gretsch DuoJet, and McCartney's Hofner violin bass.
As you might expect, that same premium attitude is also reflected in the price: for the XBox version, you're going to pony up $60 – and $250 for the premium "bundle" with the microphones, new guitar controllers, etc.
Will it work?
One answer is: it had better succeed. The electronic game business is in something of a funk these days, which might come as a surprise given that economic downturns are usually a good time for home entertainment as consumers trade down from more expensive sources of fun and cocoon in their dens. In the last few days Microsoft has announced a $100 cut in the price of its XBox 360 Elite console and the discontinuation of its cheaper Pro version; and Sony has announced a new budget Playstation 3 'Slim' model (essentially obsoleting older versions).
This puts the second- and third-largest game console makers in the position of offering competing products at the same price. Only Nintendo, still enjoying the phenomenal success of the Wii, remains above the fray...but it seems likely that the industry won't be able to stay out of this price war forever.
Meanwhile, with mostly the usual crop of upgrades and new versions of old best-sellers, this has not been a particularly interesting season for new game releases. And since it is typically new breakthrough games that drive the sale of players to first-time customers, something of a vicious cycle has been created.
There are other factors as well. One is that game players, like most electronic devices, follow Moore's Law, which means that a new generation of more powerful machines comes out every two or three years – sometimes longer if the development costs are high and the manufacturer needs to more time to gets its money back. As it happens, right now we are in one of those troughs between product generations – which means there is little compulsion to buy any new hardware.