THE RETURN OF A LITTLE BAND FROM LIVERPOOL by Michael S. Malone
Fifty years later, can the Fab Four do it one more time?
If you have even the slightest contact with computer game industry – or walked into a Blockbuster video store in the last month – you know that the biggest thing in the gamer world is the impending (September 9) release of MTV Games/Electronic Arts’ “The Beatles: Rock Band” for the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Posters have been plastered everywhere, and it seems as if every TV screen is carrying animated images of John, Paul, George and Ringo in their Sgt. Peppers gear.
Like the real Beatles themselves, everything about “The Beatles: Rock Band” screams first-class project. Game designer Harmonix has thrown everything into this project, starting with the fact that it contains 45 classic Beatle songs, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Get Back”. The graphics are equally impressive: not only have all of the Rock Band 2 graphics been upgraded, but actually retooled; a three microphone set-up allows for multi-user harmonies; the soundtrack includes never-before released conversations by the band during sessions at Abbey Road studios; backgrounds that range from the Cavern Club to the Apple Corp. roof (what, no Hamburg strip club?) and, coolest of all, user controllers in the iconic shapes of Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 guitar, Harrison’s Gretsch DuoJet, and McCartney’s Hofner violin bass.
As you might expect, that same premium attitude is also reflected in the price: for the XBox version, you’re going to pony up sixty bucks – and $250 for the premium “bundle” with the microphones, new guitar controllers, etc.
Will it work?
One answer is: it had better succeed. The electronic game business is in something of a funk these days, which might come as a surprise given that economic downturns are usually a good time for home entertainment as consumers trade down from more expensive sources of fun and cocoon in their dens. The last few days have seen Microsoft announce a $100 cut in the price of its XBox 360 Elite console and the discontinuation of its cheaper Pro version; and Sony’s announcement of a new budget Playstation 3 ‘Slim’ model (essentially obsoleting older versions). This puts the second and third largest game console makers in the position of offering competing products at the same price. Only Nintendo, still enjoying the phenomenal success of the Wii, remaining above the fray . . .but it seems likely that the industry won’t be able to stay out of this price war forever.
Meanwhile, with mostly the usual crop of upgrades and new versions of old best-sellers, this has not been a particularly interesting season for new game releases. And since it is typically new breakthrough games that drive the sale of players to first-time customers, something of a vicious cycle has been created.
There are other factors as well. One is that game players, like most electronic devices, follow Moore’s Law, which means that a new generation of more powerful machines comes out every two or three years – sometimes longer if the development costs are high and the manufacturer needs to more time to gets its money back. As it happens, right now we are in one of those troughs between product generations – which means there is little compulsion to buy any new hardware.
Moreover, there is also a larger demographic factor as well. Ever since Atari’s Pong it’s been obvious that electronic gaming is a cyclical business, booming whenever a new cohort of young people reaches their teen years, then slumping about the time they graduate from college and go to work. Right now we are at the tail end of one of those long waves, this one the Baby Boom Echo, which is currently heading into its twenties. The Millennials, which follow, may have been born in the gamer mileu, but their numbers aren’t as great (nor is their purchasing power right now).
In other words, the electronic gaming industry currently finds itself in a real slump that combines economic, technological and cultural factors all converging on this autumn. It needs a blockbuster right now to stave off hard times – and “The Beatles: Rock Band”, with its appeal across multiple generations, seems custom-made for the task.
That’s not to say there aren’t skeptics out there. One analyst has already made the downbeat prediction that “The Beatles: Rock Band” will sell only 1.7 million units this year – an impressive number, but less than half of the predicted 4 mllion unit sales of competing Guitar Player 5. According to this analyst, Jesse Divnich of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, the participation music genre “has peaked. This genre has seen explosive growth over the past two years, so it would be wrong to assume that would continue.” Indeed, sales of these types of ‘music and rhythm’ games have fallen faster than the rest of the game business: after growing more than 1100 percent in the previous three years, this year’s revenues are expected to fall by half to just $452 million.
But against all of that is one simple fact: it’s the Beatles. There is still no cultural force equal to this short-lived musical group, which disbanded forty years ago. Every time one thinks the Beatles are passé, their music finds a way to reach a new generation. Thus, the Beatles Greatest Hits collections sold millions of copies to kids who were babies when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan; then the Beatles Number One collections sold millions more to supposedly jaded Gen Xers; and today any new Beatle release encounters huge audiences from the Gen Ys who are the children of the second era Boomers. Meanwhile, the Millennials, still in junior high school, are more likely to know the lyrics to “Yesterday” than they are to a Jonas Brothers song. Just imagine saying that in 1978 about a Glenn Miller recording . . .
In other words, with anything that has to do with the Beatles, normal metrics just don’t work. There is always the chance that the offering will catch fire and the numbers go off the chart – not just in sales of the game, but consoles being sold to older (and younger) first time customers. It’s happened so many times before with the Beatles that you’d be foolish not to entertain the possibility that it will happen again.
As it happens, I’m one of those people who actually saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan that Sunday night in February 1964. I was in my bedroom, watching “The Swamp Fox” on Disney when my parents, on my instructions, called me into the living room to watch. What I saw were four nervous guys with funny hair playing a couple catchy songs as the audience screamed. But at that moment, along with millions of other people, I knew my world was changing. And by the next morning, when every kid at my school had a transistor radio to his ear listening to Top 30 stations that had turned over their programming to All Beatles All the Time and plotting how to get their parents to buy them Beatle boots and let their hair grow long, that revolution was well underway.
Why? In retrospect, it’s not entirely clear. Certainly it wasn’t the quality of the music – the real genius of the Beatles wouldn’t be apparent for another year. Rather, I think one reason was that there were a whole lot of us Baby Boomers looking for something new to call our own. Pop music had devolved into bland formula groups and singing TV stars (hey, just like today!). Just as important, we were still under the dark cloud of the Kennedy assassination and were desperate for something fresh and new. But most of all, I think it was because the Four Moptops seemed to be having a lot of fun – and we wanted to join the party . . .which, of course, we did.
For anyone in the Developed (and most of the Underdeveloped) World under the age of 60, the Beatles have always been a part of our lives. Their iconography and their music are now embedded in our DNA. I’ve owned every Beatle album, then bought the CDs, and now have converted the songs to MP3 – and if I don’t listen to Revolver or Abbey Road much anymore, it’s because I don’t need to: every note is wired into my brain. My wife still has the ticket and program from seeing one of the last Beatle concerts (at the Cow Palace). And my kids, even my 13 year-old, can name just about any Beatle song within three notes. I’ll admit to even suffering a touch of unprofessional Beatlemania a couple years ago when, editing a photography book, Sir Paul wrote an essay for me. I didn’t quite scream when I saw his emails, but it did cross my mind.
In other words, don’t write off “The Beatles: Rock Band” just yet. Forty-five years ago, during another dark and dreary time, the Fab Four turned the world upside down. Who’s to say that, in the electronic game business at least, it can’t happen one more time?