The lights are on
What percentage of online-enabled Rock Band players has purchased a downloadable song?I can’t tell you the exact figure, and it varies by platform, but it’s very high relative to other games with add-on content. We have an incredible breadth of music options that has broad appeal, it’s easy for people to browse music and find songs they love in our in-game music store, and the price of entry is pretty low. So, almost everyone who is set up to buy DLC has proven willing to buy something from us. We’re more focused on creating reasons for those people to keep coming back.The Rock Band franchise has been unique within the world of video games – very few (if any) other titles have had such consistent DLC releases over such a long period of time. What are the advantages of pursuing such a robust DLC strategy? Without getting into specifics, can you explain the profitability of selling the game at retail versus selling DLC tracks online?Great question. We’ve aggressively pursued a music platform strategy for a couple of reasons. First, ongoing music content was the obvious way to extend the life of the game and sustain interest. We’re trying to accommodate very diverse musical tastes among our fans, so we have to produce a lot of music in order to achieve a broad enough selection of music to keep our fans happy.Second, DLC is the most efficient way to satisfy this demand. We can put 83 great songs on the Rock Band 3 disc, but nobody loves the entire soundtrack. They love some, like others, maybe find a new track they enjoy, and could do without the rest. A large, diverse DLC library allows people to customize their music content in the game to suit their individual preferences. You can’t achieve that efficiently with frequent retail disc releases.Third, a big part of what we do is work closely with the artist community to understand their objectives and priorities, and coordinate our DLC releases accordingly. The digital platform gives us the schedule flexibility to pull that off. Disc releases are not well-suited to matching the natural rhythms of major events in the music industry. You can see this strategy in action during May, with the Foo Fighters and Lady Gaga both promoting new records and simultaneously releasing some of those tracks via Rock Band.Finally, comparing profitability of discs vs. DLC is really an apples-to-oranges thing. Ideally, they should be complementary parts of the whole. DLC represents an ongoing opportunity to improve the economics of the disc release. This is substantial enough in our case that it might affect how we think about our retail strategy. For example, the price for Rock Band 3 was recently reduced to $19.99. A price cut like that has much more compelling economics when you consider that each unit sold represents the potential creation of a new DLC customer.For all of these reasons, we’re not planning a Rock Band 4 disc release in 2011. Rock Band 3 is a big game with lots of available music content and lots of new goals and challenges. We want to give our fans the time to explore that fully. But rest assured that Harmonix is still developing new ideas and concepts to advance the Rock Band franchise, and we look forward to sharing those when the time is right. How does an outage in a console’s online services, like the one currently being experienced with PlayStation Network, affect a developer like Harmonix?Well, it’s obviously unfortunate for everyone involved. We just have to hope that PSN players will hang tight, take note of what is coming out these past few weeks, and come back to purchase all the great DLC that will be waiting for them when PSN comes back online! Can you offer any sense of on which console you see the most or the least DLC activity? Is there a dramatic difference between the number of players who download songs on the 360, PS3, or Wii?Well, the behavior of 360 and PS3 users is pretty similar, but if pressed, I would say 360 users buy the most DLC. They do have access to the largest catalog of music with all of the Rock Band Network content. Not surprisingly, our Wii users are a distant third. The Wii is a great console and does a lot of unique things really well, but DLC is a less integral part of the Wii user experience.At Harmonix, are you still actively pursuing new songs and artists to go into the Rock Band DLC catalog? Or are the deals for songs worked out now so far in advance that you don’t find the need to continue looking for new artists or songs to enlist?We’re still actively pursuing new music. There are some artists that aren’t yet represented in Rock Band or are sorely underrepresented that we want to work with in the future. But ultimately, the world is not our jukebox. We try to work closely with artists to release their music when it makes the most sense for them. Ozzy Osbourne is a good example. Ozzy is re-releasing two legendary albums – Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Ozz – at the end of this month so this was the right time for Rock Band to participate in the excitement that this will undoubtedly create and release some amazing DLC from those albums.Have any new doors opened with the apparent absence of Guitar Hero from the market moving forward? Has that allowed you to gain access to any artists that might previously have held exclusive contracts with Activision?First, you have to assume that any of those contracts are still valid and binding. That said, exclusivity terms are typically finite, and we would love to have some of those bands bring their music to Rock Band. It just might take a little time in some cases to see that through. How has Rock Band Network worked out as an avenue to deliver new content to users? Has RBN been a successful approach to content delivery from the perspective of Harmonix?The Rock Band Network has been successful from our point of view – it’s opened up the Rock Band platform to any band that wants to be in the game. Harmonix simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to match the demand of artists who want to be a part of this platform. We’ve now published more than 1,000 RBN tracks, ranging from platinum-selling artists to independent self-released artists like this month’s Artist of the Month, Parry Gripp. And we have enjoyed the amazing creativity from the community in the types of songs selected, how the songs are authored, and how they are promoted. Exhibit A – Cleveland-based Affiance produced a genius YouTube video in support of their RBN track “Call to the Warrior.” It’s worth a look.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.