There's a new war brewing on the gaming battlefield. But it isn't between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo — it's between three music games: Activision's "Guitar Hero: World Tour," MTV Games' "Rock Band" and newcomer "Rock Revolution" from Konami.
Just this week, a new "Rock Band" will be released for the Wii and a new "Guitar Hero" is out for the Nintendo DS. Across the street from MTV's New York offices, a "Rock Band" billboard sits directly above an electric sign that has been looping ads for the new "Guitar Hero." "Rock Band" gets featured on MTV. "Guitar Hero" showed up on "American Idol." This battle of the band games is serious.
And come this fall, there will be at least three games, including Konami's "Rock Revolution," that offer users a virtual band experience. The stakes are high for each.
One of the questions gamers now face is, just how many plastic instruments are they willing to buy?
For some, the question is irrelevant. They just want more music games. "I, for one, will be getting [both 'Rock Band' and 'Guitar Hero']," said a user on the "Rock Band" forums. "I just cram the useless plastic instruments in my closet anyway. No reason to miss out on a good game because I have my head shoved up another company's ass."
But that's not the answer for everyone. Though pricing for the next "Guitar Hero" has yet to be revealed, if it's anything like the currently available "Rock Band" bundle, consumers are being asked to drop more than $150 for each experience. Buying two of these games is just as expensive as purchasing a brand-new Xbox 360 or Wii.
And there are many conflicting issues specific to each game. If you're a big fan of Aerosmith , for example, and have already purchased "Rock Band," there's a problem. "Guitar Hero" publisher Activision has exclusively signed Aerosmith to the "Guitar Hero" franchise. (Aerosmith will be featured in "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith," which releases later this month.) So, for the foreseeable future, you'll never sing "Dream On" in "Rock Band." So far, "Rock Band" has not announced any exclusive artists, but if Activision continues to sign musicians, that's not out of the question.
It's not as simple as just buying one set of instruments and picking up each game separately, either: The controllers are not universally compatible. A "Rock Band" controller is not guaranteed to work with "Guitar Hero." "Rock Band" developer Harmonix wanted to release patches for their games to enable support of the "Guitar Hero" guitars, but Activision objected and the idea was scrapped.
The associate producer of newcomer "Rock Revolution" sees this as a problem.
"Compatibility is a big issue for music games," Konami Digital Entertainment associate producer Keith Matejka told MTV News. "Peripherals are expensive for the user and they are expensive to produce. The existing peripherals all deliver only a slightly different gameplay experience. Different teams have varying perspectives on what should be compatible with each game. I think all guitar- and drum-based games need to be compatible with each other to some level."
Just because it might be in the best interest of the consumers, however, doesn't mean it will happen, and gaming-industry analysts don't necessarily think it's a requirement.
"The lack of compatibility reduces the amount of switching between 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band,' " said Pacific Crest Securities analyst Evan Wilson. "Because 'Guitar Hero' currently has a larger installed base, it is to its advantage if market share remains the same. Most consumers don't want to buy duplicative hardware. So, lack of compatibility certainly isn't a problem for Activision."
MTV News reached out to representatives for both "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" to participate in this story, but MTV Games wanted to wait until further "Rock Band" announcements were made, and the representatives for "Guitar Hero" turned down our offer.
Hard-core gamers — the ones who drove early sales of "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" before they achieved mainstream success — aren't necessarily happy with the technicalities and legal hoops stopping the music games from getting along with one another. These are big questions for game fans, presenting obstacles that prevent them from purchasing more.
"Guitar Hero" fan Matthew Berch told MTV News that he wanted to purchase "Rock Band" for his Wii but decided not to. His top reason for not purchasing "Rock Band"? It's incompatible with the "Guitar Hero III" guitar he already owns. "It's very disappointing, because when it was first announced, I was ready to pre-order, even though I already had 'GH3,' " Berch said.
"I think both Activision and Harmonix are to blame for the whole situation on all systems," he continued. "They really need to work together to have compatible drums, guitars and mics between their games. I don't think they realize that it hurts them both."
If that's all too confusing, there are other, less pricey music games to consider. Disney is currently prepping "Ultimate Band" for later this year on Wii and DS. Unlike the other music games mentioned here, "Ultimate Band" requires no extra controllers — nor does it offer the same experience, but it's likely to retail for much less.
With so much money still to be made in music games, the competition isn't likely to die down anytime soon. Some gamers are happy with that. To them, it means each company is forced to up the ante with their new music games.
"I'm not hating on 'Rock Band,' " wrote one user on the "Guitar Hero" forums. "But I'll just say that ['Guitar Hero'] will be way better. 'Rock Band' is a good game, but ['Guitar Hero'] is improving on it."
There are still many important details that have yet to be revealed. A long-rumored sequel to "Rock Band" has not been announced, and we don't know the pricing of the band-centric "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Revolution." With the industry's largest annual expo, E3, coming up in a few weeks, however, those answers may not be far off.
Until then, maybe it's time to clean out the closet and make room for another plastic drum set.
Today, Multiplayer more closely examines all three games' stances on two crucial issues: approaches to Wii development and design of the drums. Check out Multiplayer.MTV.com for more.