Commentary

Come Together, Right Now, Over Rockband

In the opening credits of "A Hard Day's Night," the 1964 mock-u-mentary, the clean-cut, youthful Beatles are seen madly scampering through the streets of London, dodging throngs of frenzied, worshipping teenage Boomer fans. With the release of "The Beatles: Rockband" on Monday, Harmonix Music Systems is hoping that The Beatles will bring that same generation, now 45-64 years old, to video gaming and multi-media music consumption -- just as they brought that generation to rock and roll, stadium concerts and music videos.

Video gaming has long been entertainment medium of choice of teenage boys. The introduction of role-playing games such as Sims and Harvest Moon helped convert teenage girls but it wasn't until the advent of new, easier-to-manipulate platforms -- such as the Wii -- and social play through Rockband and Wii Sports, that video games began attracting a wider following. It is now a formidable entertainment medium in its own right and generated more than $21 billion in sales in 2008. Throughout this growth, though, Boomers, were largely absent -- even as they began embracing other non-traditional media forms such as social networks. Research indicates anywhere from 12%-19% of Boomers have played a video game at least once but monthly video game usage tracked by Nielsen suggests that trial is not enough: Boomers' represent less than 10% of monthly video game activity.

Console distributionBut, Harmonix believes the release of "The Beatles: Rockband" could change that. "From the beginning, Rockband has attracted a wider demographic audience than we ever anticipated," Harmonix Creative Director Josh Randall shared with me via phone last week. "We discovered it wasn't just teens -- but also parents and younger children. And, we wanted 'The Beatles: Rockband' to invite people into the game that had never played before."

Design changes Randall oversaw included simplified navigation, an easier "beginner" setting, and inclusion of a three-part vocal harmony feature, which lets non-musically inclined players participate in the game as well. Another important change that Harmonix implemented was a "no fail" option.

In most games, once a player fails to complete a task, the game ends and the player has to start from the beginning and overcome those challenges to complete the game. In a musical game, "failing" ends a song performance. "People, particularly older people, have to cross multiple barriers to play a video game," stated Randall matter-of-factly, "so, you don't want people who just crossed these barriers to play, get 'boo-ed off the stage' immediately because they're just learning." The "no fail" option allows players to continue enjoying Beatles songs, even if their instrumental playing fails.

This strategy -- of modifying design to appeal to a broader audience -- is reminiscent of Facebook's evolving changes that ultimately helped it become the social networking site for Boomers. While Facebook did not intentionally make changes to attract Boomers, this generational group is now the fastest-growing segment on the site. Boomers join Facebook to connect with their families, according Anderson Analytics. This growth from Boomers has helped Facebook reach 250 million users and created a rare opportunity to generate revenue from an audience base that dwarfs any traditional or digital channel.

If "The Beatles: Rockband" succeeds at drawing Boomers to their video gaming, it offers Harmonix and MTV networks an opportunity to grow their market share as well as revenues from gaming software, accessories and future musical downloads. While "The Beatles: Rockband" launches with 45 digitally re-mastered Beatles songs covering the span of their career, Harmonix and MTV plan to offer other Beatles songs for additional downloading. And, unlike teens, Boomers are willing to pay for their music. This is, after all, the generation that launched MTV -- a channel on a subscriber-based platform.

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