'Guitar Hero,' 'Rock Band' strum up big sales

A battle of the bands is at center stage this holiday season.

The opening act, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, has been a tough ticket at retailers in all versions (Xbox, Wii, PS2 and PS3, about $50, or about $100 with controller) since its release in late October. It's the latest in a 2-year-old franchise in which players strum along with rock tunes using a guitar-shaped controller.

New competitor Rock Band, released a month ago for Xbox 360 and PS3, is a near-sellout despite a $170 price tag (including microphone, guitar and drum controller). "Clearly, this is the hot genre of the moment," says analyst David Cole of market researcher DFC Intelligence.

Each game's song list has Rock Hall of Fame credentials: Guitar Hero III includes Paint It Black (the Rolling Stones), La Grange (ZZ Top) and The Seeker (The Who), while Rock Band boasts Should I Stay or Should I Go (The Clash), Next to You (The Police) and Orange Crush (R.E.M.).

"It really plays into the idea that somehow you are re-creating these famous songs," says Adam Sessler, managing editor for the G4 video game TV network.

Each game's song list also features more modern hits from bands such as The Killers and Queens of the Stone Age.

Initially designed as a solo affair for virtual guitarists to play against the computer or take their turn against an opponent, Guitar Hero games have added cooperative play, in person and online. Rock Band transforms music video games into a virtual jam session, ideally for four players (two on guitar, a drummer and a vocalist).

"If you have four players, there is no game more fun than Rock Band," says Joe Gibes, 17, of Janesville, Wis. "It's many people's dream to be able to rock out in front of a huge, screaming crowd. Rock Band enables you to do this, all while having a great time with your friends."

The makers of Rock Band— Electronic Arts, MTV Games and Harmonix — say that nearly every game shipped has sold. "We have tapped into something that is very big here," says MTV's Jeff Yapp.

It's not just teens or twentysomethings rocking out. Longtime game player Dan Thomas, 51, a computer programmer in Placentia, Calif., even gets his wife, Gina, to join in Guitar Hero on songs such as Boston's Foreplay/Long Time and the Foo Fighters' Learn to Fly: "She hates video games, but she's really enjoying this."

With supplies scarce, some sellers on Amazon.com and eBay are asking $800 or more for Rock Band and more than $300 for Guitar Hero III. "Demand for Guitar Hero continues to far exceed supply," says Dusty Welch of publisher Activision/Red Octane. "Guitar Hero has become a mass-market entertainment phenomenon."

Guitar Hero III has sold about $300 million since its release and could generate $600 million by year's end, says Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter. In comparison, the year's top movie, Spider-Man 3, grossed about $337 million, and the top concert tour, the Police reunion, $212 million. Past Guitar Hero games, still selling well, may account for $300 million more. And Rock Band will likely sell about $200 million worth.

The titles are helping drive the video game industry to new high notes. Through November, industry revenues have surpassed 2006's record-setting $12.5 billion, according to market tracking firm The NPD Group.

"These music-based games and the Nintendo Wii all encourage you to get off the couch and stand up and move," he says. "There is something going on here, which means you are drawing in non-traditional gamers."

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