The Beatles: Jumping the Shark or a New Era Edition
Everyone in the world knows The Beatles Rock Band is out. That's the point, everyone in the world knows The Beatles: Rock Band is out. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a piece of media about the game. I believe this single game has more media hits than the aggregate hits for all the games being released in the fourth quarter. Don't believe me? Ask your mom, or if you are a bit older, your wife if she knows about The Beatles game. Now ask if she knows Splinter Cell and Bioshock 2 slipped out of the quarter. How about Assassin's Creed 2? Is she waiting for that one? Sorry to revisit old posts, but the folks behind the game did a simple little thing no game company has ever done before. They made a good –some say great, accessible game and told people it was available - and they are not even a game company. What seems so obvious to the marketers behind two of the best known brands in the world - MTV and The Beatles - is the antithesis of game industry thought and the title signals the ability to grow the industry from a relative niche industry of early adopters to one of mainstream.
Actard will certainly market its way through a lot of units of Call of Duty and perhaps penetrate 15 to 20% of the installed base, and Madden may have huge awareness and suffers no lack of love in the advertising department, but the inaccessibility of the game will prevent it from hitting the heights of The Beatles. We are not the first industry to go through these changes. It is actually a hallmark of industry maturation. We may be seeing the end of the US auto industry today, but one hundred years ago, it did not look much different from the game business. Cars were for early adopters. Because the industry was selling everything they could make, there was no reason to innovate. They forced the customer to adapt to the market.
Here are the controls for a Model T.
A Transmission Neutral / Parking Brake Lever
B High Gear / Neutral / Low Gear Pedal
C Reverse Gear Pedal
D Brake Pedal
E Two Speed Rear Axle Shift Lever
F Battery / Magneto Ignition Switch
G Throttle Lever and Quadrant
H Advance – Retard Lever (opposite G behind wheel)
They are just about as intuitive as the controls for Madden 07 (I couldn't find a picture of a newer version)
Neither one is really inviting, but you had to learn the Model T controls if you wanted to get somewhere.
Ford was able to sell over 14 million Model T's and dominate the market with over 50% market share in 1919, so they never changed it. But they dominated the market when only 25% of the public owned cars. They thought they were doing great and focused on low price, rather than style, ease of use, product differentiation, or most significantly, market expansion. In 1920, the network - they call them roads - the infrastructure for fuel delivery and easier to use vehicles came on line; driving auto ownership from 25% in 1923 to 50% in 1929, with ownership over 90% in rural areas. Ford, and a host of other companies were left in GM's dust. GM dusted them with a radical concept, make a good, accessible product, and tell people you made it. GM moved the market from one driven by early adoption, to one driven by features and marketing. When consumers are done with the one they bought, have a new one ready for them. Just in case they want to keep it too long, incorporate “planned obsolescence” into your business plan. Ford was able to recover somewhat with the easier to use, more feature laden Model A, but it never recovered market share and GM grew to over 50% of the market over the next thirty years. Unfortunately, as a market leader both hands were busy at the same time. One hand was holding on to the past to maintain existing customers, while the other was trying to remain current. At some point the burden of supporting past success overcomes the ability to innovate and innovation comes from the guys with nothing to lose – in this case, MTV Games, the ones with no legacy. The funny thing is, in supporting Harmonix in making the game, Viacom didn't even have to take that big a leap. To say they took two great tastes that taste great together is overstating the risk profile. Knowing chocolate would taste great with peanut butter is less obvious than knowing the best known music in the world would fit well with the phenom music game. The innovation happened on the marketing side.
Before I rant any further, it is important to note, I am not denigrating the Model T or current games. The entire auto industry, and much of America was built on Model T's shoulders and I wouldn't even be writing this piece, let alone be able to pay for the computer it is written, on without all the games made to date. But we see MUDs, text based adventures and 8 bit games in the same entertaining, but antiquated light as the Model T and the patina found on highly desirable American muscle cars is forming on multi-button controllers. These are lasting representations of a golden age of engineering and creativity in each industry. The good news is we are finally appreciating our game heritage and creating a library value in games, rather than throwing each generation away as a new generation of console is introduced.
The other half of the equation is marketing. For years the most innovative move in game marketing was taking the games out of ziplock bags and putting them in a package with a picture on the front. We continue to take the same approach. Market first to the hardcore, get their buy in and then grow to the mainstream. I've said it before, and Actard is doing it, but has anything changed? Not since I started in the industry and certainly not since I started to write this blog. We are so concerned about market share and market protection, we built a wall around the industry and remain the benevolent protectors of our gaming populous. "Don't let the mainstream people see, they will pollute our waters and drive our core away." While we revel in our victories - Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3, Madden whatever - years of learned helplessness have deluded us into thinking it is the best we can do when in fact our volume is barely a dust mite on the flea on the tip of the tail of the dog which is mainstream media. I am beginning to believe game industry domination of world media is the same pipe dream as Soccer American sport. It is always five years away and has been as long as I can remember, until The Beatles Rock Band. Viacom invested plenty of money in advertising and PR to make sure people knew it came. It treated the game like it does all of its media events.
Gaming purists and those who wish to retain the status quo will be convinced the industry jumped the shark. This title opened the doors and let the folks who have never killed an orc and don't know a Street Fighter combo from a Mortal Kombat finishing move into our stores. They are going to come into Gamestop and worse yet, they will pollute the Live network with their presence. Worse yet, they will find Microsoft's network useful and pull it into the mainstream. How will we be cool when the best we can do is say "I knew it before you did?" Others will say gaming finally came into its own. A mainstream media company got a hold of the secret sauce to make a credible game, marketed it like it was a form of entertainment and blew up the market at the same time the network infrastructure matured.
Viacom and Harmonix will benefit a lot from the product, but it is certainly not a one way street. The Beatles are pulling fans into the game, but they understand the game will pull fans into The Beatles.
Kids like The Beatles, but they don't always know it. They also look at the music in Rock Band differently than we do. Where we see the Rush, Cheap Trick or Who song from high school, they see a level. I'll never forget walking into a room full of ten year olds and having one look up at me and say "Keith, I unlocked Freebird for you" - don't get me started on kids calling me by my first name. After the quick set of flashback mental vignettes to stadiums with lighters, smokey rooms with bongs and people yelling "Dude, play Freebird," I realized this kid had no clue what he was talking about. Freebird isn’t a song, it’s an achievement, or at least it starts that way. After this could who would not be satisfied listening to song with no visuals plays it enough, he would hear the song. Then he may hear it on the radio and have a connection to the song because hearing for the first time marked an accomplishment. If The Beatles were not part of this, they would be missing out on an entire generation.
Finally, it will bring families together. Sure, a lot of people will be playing the game with their friends, and a lot of kids will play on their own. But one of the least discussed, largest benefits of a video games is the way it can bring families together. Parents interact with kids on a level playing field. While there are parents who are willing to have their asses handed to them in a sports or driving game the activity resides closer to the “chore” side than the “fun” side of life’s continuum. In some cases, it sits right along side root canal. Of course they played Wii sports for a while, but the lack of engagement is evidenced by the failure to purchase any other games. Even though the kids are playing levels and parents are playing the songs they love, Rock Band - especially The Beatles version - brings everyone together. Isn't that what games are supposed to do?
I am not saying this is the end of games as we know it, because the potential is there for great expansion. A rush of new consumers will feed the box on the top of the tv with their own game for the first time. The big question is what will we do with them. When they came for the Wii, we really didn't give them any compelling reason to buy more games. Now, when they come for The Beatles, will they find other compelling entertainment options? Natal on the Motion Controller are coming and could represent great opportunities but they are not here now.