A battle of the bands is shaping up in the red-hot genre of musical video games, with a highly anticipated debut title set to take on a hit franchise for the collective rock 'n' roll soul of gamers.
Rock Band, which will be published by MTV and distributed by Electronic Arts Inc., was a star of the video game industry's E3 expo this month, wowing crowds by showing how up to four wannabe rockers can sing, strum and drum together.
The game is going up against Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, the latest installment of a series that has boosted the sales and fortunes of publisher Activision Inc.
Both games are set to be ready for release for the holidays and shaping up as fierce rivals with a shared lineage.
The first two Guitar Hero games were created by a pair of developers -- Red Octane, which fashioned the guitar-shaped controllers, and Harmonix, which crafted the games with a humor reminiscent of movies like Spinal Tap or School of Rock.
The games' success made the development teams targets. Last year Viacom Inc. unit MTV Networks bought Harmonix as Activision snapped up Red Octane and the Guitar Hero brand.
The music-game genre is growing explosively. I think it's plenty large to accommodate multiple franchises, more than two, really, said Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos.
The games feature the same basic gameplay: colored dots representing notes cascade down the screen and a player wielding a guitar, for instance, pressing matching colored fret buttons while hitting a strum bar in sync with the dots.
PLAYERS OR PRANKSTERS?
But Rock Band will emphasize trying to recreate the chemistry of some of rock's most legendary groups, tantalizing gamers with promises of reams of downloadable content including whole albums like The Who's Who's Next.
Guitar Hero III touts a competitive mode full of devilish tricks such as snapping strings to sabotage opponents with the brand landing exclusive talent such as former Guns 'N' Roses guitarist Slash, who is a professed fan of the game.
Guitar Hero proved music-based games, long regarded by many as little more than ambitious karaoke, can be big bucks.
Activision this month said its quarterly performance will beat expectations partly due to Guitar Hero II, which was on track to sell 1 million copies in the period -- despite its high price of $90.
It's hard to imagine Activision today without the 'Guitar Hero' franchise. It was truly a stroke of genius to acquire that property, said Janco Partners analyst Mike Hickey.
MTV has not revealed how much Rock Band will cost but speculation is rife that the whole package -- game, guitar, drum kit and microphone -- will run at least $200.
The games are shattering assumptions about gamers' buying habits, proving they don't mind paying top dollar for a fun game that can be replayed over and over.
I'm not worried about the price point being a huge barrier because the experience is powerful enough, Hickey said of Rock Band. It's absolutely a beautiful product.
Financial terms between MTV and EA have not been disclosed, but simply distributing the game won't be as lucrative to EA as its core publishing business. Still, by attaching its name to one of the hottest new titles, EA gets bragging rights against Activision, its closest U.S. rival.
What Activision provides now is huge muscle and know-how to take a franchise and extend it to the next level. My expectations are that 'Guitar Hero III' will remain the leader, said Dusty Welch, Red Octane's head of publishing.