DENVER (Billboard) - Now that selling song downloads through video games has achieved liftoff, the business appears poised to rocket into orbit.
In 2008, "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" users downloaded more than 50 million tracks from the games. Game-linked song downloads are expected to surge in the coming year as the music-simulation games continue to extend their reach in the marketplace and, more important, other games allow users to buy and download songs as well.
"What comes with the success of 'Rock Band' and 'Guitar Hero' is the microscopic view of what the potential of music in this medium can be," said Steve Schnur, worldwide executive of music and marketing for "Rock Band" distributor Electronic Arts.
"There are other titles that continue to be not just successful, but outsell these games by wide margins," Schnur said. "So the question isn't, What's the next 'Rock Band'? The question is, When can we take the model of a 24/7, day-by-day musical relationship with not only music games, but with every game? I believe this is the year that's going to happen."
The "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" franchises will keep leading the way in music sales. "Rock Band," which has been the most aggressive to date, offers new music every week, maintains a selection of more than 500 songs on its platform and has sold an average of four songs per user. MTV said it plans to increase the number of available songs this year to as many as 5,000.
Meanwhile, "Guitar Hero" has fewer than 100 songs available for sale and has sold an average of one track per user. But Kai Huang, founder/president of "Guitar Hero" publisher Red Octane, said it will begin offering new music on a weekly basis as well in 2009.
According to the NPD Group, there are about 22 million copies of various "Guitar Hero" games in the market today and another 5 million copies of the more recent "Rock Band" series.
ROOM FOR GROWTH
While the growing number of "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" players will likely boost related music sales, both franchises combined accounted for only a fraction of the $16 billion that NPD said U.S. consumers spent through November on video-game hardware and software. That points to a big opportunity for music sales through other, non-music-simulation games.
Such game consoles as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 allow developers to create new game levels, weapons, graphics packs and other content that gamers can buy to update games they already own. While such "microtransactions" haven't yet included song downloads outside of "Rock Band" or "Guitar Hero," Schnur said he expects game developers to begin offering them through the Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Store.
Gamers can already import songs into games on their own, but in most cases the added music plays on top of the game's programed audio, much like listening to an iPod while watching a movie. Music sold and downloaded through a game console would have the added appeal of being directly integrated into a game's soundtrack.
"Once we start allowing people to introduce and incorporate their own songs ... I believe games that are not even known for music will soon begin to be important to people musically speaking," Schnur said.
Today, songs purchased for "Rock Band" or "Guitar Hero" are usable only within those respective games. But Red Octane parent Activision and MTV, parent of "Rock Band" developer Harmonix, say they are interested in bundling download-to-own tracks with any song purchased for either game, which could help boost in-game music sales.
Rockstar Games, the developer of "Grand Theft Auto IV," took a small step in this direction when it enabled "GTA" gamers to tag songs in the soundtrack for later purchase at Amazon's MP3 store. Close to 700,000 users tagged more than 2 million songs, but data isn't available on how many resulted in a sale.
But for game developers to bundle download-to-own tracks with game-linked song downloads would require them to work through a myriad of licensing, revenue-sharing and user interface issues. Such agreements will be critical to the ongoing convergence of the video-game and music industries.