Free-to-play 'Rockfree' aims to really get a hold on gamers

Music-based video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band have composed a multibillion-dollar industry. Now Rockfree, a free online game, hopes to tap into that groove.

While Guitar Hero requires a console game system connected to a TV and almost life-size, instrument-shaped controllers, Rockfree can be played on all net-connected PCs, including no-frills netbooks.

"We want to make this ubiquitous, so wherever you are, if you are sitting at the airport, you can fire up Rockfree and play it," says David Perry of Acclaim, the game's publisher.

Players tap keyboard keys to the music as color-coded notes scroll by. You can customize your on-screen player and open a club for jam sessions with up to seven others.

Acclaim has deals with major record labels to provide songs for the game, which opens for play tonight at 9 ET/6 PT at rockfree.acclaim.com. Its 50-plus note-for-note cover versions — like those used in the initial Guitar Hero games — include Iron Man, You Really Got Me and Carry On Wayward Son. But independent artists can upload their own songs as well.

Acclaim is taking "the YouTube approach" with Rockfree, says industry journalist Evan Van Zelfden. "You will be able to play songs in Rockfree that you will never see in Guitar Hero."

Players can connect USB guitar controllers; a Facebook game is planned.

Rockfree also riffs on a global trend of free-to-play, pay-for-upgrade online games. Rockfree lets players store three songs for free in their playlist, then pay to store more. (Expected price: less than $1 a song.)

Such micro-transactions have helped Asian companies such as South Korea's Nexon earn $200 million-plus annually, including more than $30 million from a U.S. version of its MapleStory role-playing game, says DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole.

Rockfree could attract those who can't afford or don't often try traditional games. "A product that does well can have very high profit margins," Cole says. Also developing free-to-play games: EA (Battlefield Heroes) and THQ (Company of Heroes).

The economic downturn could make free-to-play games "appealing," especially, says Craig Holland of the Casual Games Association, "if your entertainment budget has been cut."

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