Some strings attached

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2009 - 8:37 PM

Real riffs, but will it sell? Minneapolis-based Zivix hopes that Guitar Hero strummers will want a real guitar.

Jason Nelson
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Zivix software engineer Jason Nelson played a round of Guitar Hero on a Zivix Headliner digital guitar

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Sure, they're just video games, but anyone who has played the hugely popular Guitar Hero or Rock Band has probably channeled a little bit of Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, or Aerosmith in their performance.

But can someone truly rock out by hitting a bunch of colorful buttons on a plastic guitar controller?

Zivix LLC is betting some players will want to upgrade to the real thing. The Minneapolis-based start-up is developing an electric guitar with fingertip sensors that allow users to wirelessly play and control the game. The company hopes players will want to feel and look the part.

But the Headliner digital guitar is not meant to be just another tricked-out controller. By holding and feeling out a real guitar, players may want to actually learn how to play the instrument and write music, said Zivix president and founder Dan Sullivan.

"There is a certain group that aspires to go beyond the game," said Sullivan, who started Zivix in 2006. "They had a taste of what it's like to be a real guitar player because that's the illusion. Why not take the next step and being able to play?"

Zivix is also developing software called JamSession that it could package with Headliner. The software allows multiple users to mix prerecorded song loops from different instruments and genres.

But some venture capitalists wonder if Zivix is making too big of a leap. Users may love to play Guitar Hero, but will they pay $249.99 for the Headliner guitar when they can get a beefed-up PlayStation 2 guitar controller for $39.99? That depends on whether a video game player really does want to be a musician instead of pretending to be one. (First-time players might spend $500 for a quality electric guitar.)

"The question that comes to mind is ... why would anyone want to buy this?" said Peter Birkeland, chief financial officer of Rain Source Capital, a St. Paul-based network of angel investors. "Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not about playing music. It's about playing a game."

Cost is an issue

Birkeland also questions the cost of making real guitars vs. traditional game controllers.

Sales of video game accessories like controllers jumped 14 percent last year to $2.6 billion, according to NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Much of those sales are due to the phenomenal success of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Star. Activision Blizzard Inc. of Santa Monica, Calif., which released Guitar Hero III in 2007, has sold 10 million units in the United States, making Guitar Hero the all-time bestselling video game.

"The game-play is fun whether or not you have an interest in music or being a musician, and I think that is key to the success of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero," said Anita Frazier, a NPD analyst.  "They're also quite accessible -- video game enthusiasts and newcomers to gaming as a form of entertainment can both enjoy these games."

The popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band has led some industry officials to speculate whether the games can boost sales of real instruments. So far, the numbers don't bear that out.

U.S. guitar sales totaled $1.1 billion in 2007, about flat compared with the previous year, according to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Unit sales fell 4.1 percent to 2.86 million.

From game to the real thing

However, some data suggest there might be a correlation between game and guitar. About 67 percent of people who play rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band said they were likely to pick up a real instrument, according to survey by Guitar Center, a guitar retailer that reported a nearly 27 percent jump in first-time sales last year. Another 81 percent said the video games motivated them to ask for a real instrument for the holiday season.

NAMM is funding a study by Drexel University that seeks to determine whether Guitar Hero and Rock Band will encourage middle school and high school students to pursue formal music education and whether playing the game results in real musical skills.

Zivix hopes to release the JamSession software in June and the Headline guitar by late fall. The company is discussing partnerships with retailers, video game makers, and even real-life musicians to create song loops for JamSession. Sullivan envisions people creating their own loops and sharing the music with other JamSession users over the Internet.

"The idea is to use technology to make it easier for beginners that don't know anything about music to sound like they are playing music," Sullivan said. "It's a technology boost to music creation."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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