Will 'Beatles: Rock Band' be fab formula for gamers?

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2009 - 10:46 PM

The much-awaited release might help revive slumping sales.

Forget meeting the Beatles. Now, you can be the Beatles.

"Rock Band," the popular video-game franchise that has created many rec-room rock stars, is adding the songs of the Fab Four to its growing playlist. Wednesday's release of "The Beatles: Rock Band" will allow gamers to play fake guitars and drums or even sing three-part harmonies to original Beatles tunes.

Call it the Fab Faux.

With 45 interactive songs, "The Beatles: Rock Band" marks the first time the legendary British band's music has been used in a video game. The game -- for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii systems -- was created with the cooperation of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Such input is not common, said Matt Miller, an associate editor at Minneapolis-based Game Informer magazine who was privy to the game's development.

"You've got the biggest band in history, one that really doesn't do a lot of licensing of their work," Miller said. "They wanted the music they've done to only be used in products that they can be proud of ... and are very careful about selecting the products they work on."

The game is part of a Beatlemania blitz that includes today's reissue by EMI and the Beatles' Apple Corps of the band's remastered albums on CD, as well as magazine cover stories and TV-special reruns. The hoopla also has fueled rumors (again) that Apple Inc., the computer company, might finally be adding downloads of the band's songs to its iTunes store Wednesday. (The Beatles-free iTunes has been blamed on lawsuits between Apple Corps and Apple Inc. over trademark infringement and, more recently, on iTunes pricing and a dispute between EMI and Apple.

Many in the industry believe "The Beatles: Rock Band" could help turn around the slumping video-game industry. Sales have declined for five straight months -- with year-to-date video-game sales at $8.16 billion through July, off by 14 percent through the same period in 2008, according to the NPD Group tracking firm.

Despite such high hopes, at least one analyst questions whether the game will even surpass its main rival, "Guitar Hero," which released its newest installment last Tuesday. Jesse Divnich of Electronic Entertainment Design & Research said recently that he expects "Guitar Hero 5" to sell at least 4 million copies, more than twice the 1.7 million he predicts for the Beatles game.

Sweet music

Music-based video games such as "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" make up the industry's second-biggest genre so far this year (behind general action titles), according to NPD. The music genre's lifetime sales through July were $4.26 billion, according to NPD. In 2008, music-based games accounted for almost $2 billion of the nearly $11 billion in game sales, NPD said.

The "Rock Band" franchise has sold 7.7 million copies through July, NPD reports.

Some people have wondered whether a video game featuring a band -- even a hallowed one -- that broke up nearly 40 years ago can be popular with young players. But 2008 data from the Consumer Electronics Association shows that most owners of a video-game console (34 percent) are 35 to 49 and that the second-most (25 percent) are 50 to 64.

That's beside the point, observers say.

"It's the Beatles!" Miller said.

Younger Beatles fans

Brian McGuire, who plays Paul McCartney in the Twin Cities-based Beatles tribute band Rubber Soul, said, "The next generation is totally into the Beatles. We have 16-year-old girls just going wild at our shows because we're the closest thing to the Beatles live."

At the Best Buy store in Maple Grove, Jamie Hagen and John Parenteau, both 26, cued up "Here Comes the Sun" on a pre-release demo of the Beatles game on a recent Sunday.

"In college, I got into them, and everyone knows their music," Parenteau said.

The couple said they might buy the $60 game but didn't need a $140 bundle that includes guitar controllers and drums because they already have a "Rock Band" setup. And they had no interest in a $250 bundle that includes controllers replicating the Beatles actual instruments.

"That seems a little unnecessary," Hagen said. Actually, the makers of "The Beatles: Rock Band" are hoping to attract people like Rubber Soul's McGuire, who's 42 -- not because of his age, but because he's never really played video games.

"We wanted to make it as accessible as possible to what we saw as a bunch of new gamers coming around the corner," said Chris Foster, the game's lead designer at developer Harmonix.

The amount of money that publisher MTV Games paid to license the Beatles' music for its latest "Rock Band" entry hasn't been released, but there's a clue that it was higher than for other games, which feature a variety of artists. At $60, "The Beatles: Rock Band" costs the same as the previous "Rock Band 2" and "Guitar Hero 5," but has about half as many songs.

Game owners will be able to add songs to the game's library via downloads. "All You Need Is Love" will be available Wednesday through Xbox Live for $2, with proceeds going to Doctors Without Borders. Future downloadable content will include entire albums -- "Abbey Road" on Oct. 20, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in November and "Rubber Soul" in December -- for $17 each, or $2 per song.

Retailers are getting in on Beatlemania, too. Blockbuster's Eden Prairie store will have a midnight release party tonight, and Wal-Mart will have copies on shelves at midnight at its 24-hour stores.

Best Buy's Mall of America store will open at 8 a.m. Wednesday for a day's worth of Beatles-themed activities and giveaways.

"The Beatles have achieved an iconic status," Rubber Soul's McGuire said. "They're bigger than life."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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