Guitar Hero CEO plots game's future

Sales rise 50% for artists featured in video franchise

There is more growth left in the "Guitar Hero" franchise and the broader music video game segment in the coming years, Guitar Hero CEO Dan Rosensweig believes.

The former Yahoo COO, who joined video game maker Activision Blizzard this spring to oversee one of its crown jewels, is also unfazed by the buzz surrounding "The Beatles: Rock Band," the just-launched game from competitor Harmonix, which is now part of Viacom Inc. "We'll have to wait and see," he told The Hollywood Reporter Thursday when asked how much of an impact the Beatles release may make.

Rosensweig predicted that favorable reviews will help his firm's "Guitar Hero 5," released at the start of this month, and that its fun game play will keep consumers coming back for more. Sales are "off to a very good start even though there's a bad economy," he said without providing specifics.

His longer-term strategy for the Guitar Hero business is about expanding into additional music genres and demographics and extending the franchise's life by keeping game play fun, simple and fresh.

Rosensweig admits that he hears questions about whether there is growth left in "Guitar Hero" given that a lot of music games have been around for several years now.

"Less than 20% of console owners have a music game. So, there is upside," he told THR. "Also, we are only two years into (the franchise's launch) in Europe. And we haven't even started thinking about Asia yet. There's plenty of growth left." Music games will be the No. 2 genre in gaming for the second or third year in a row, he predicted.

His recipe to keep the games on consumers' minds even in a recession are "variety and value." Said Rosensweig: "The game category has been affected (by the recession), but less than other consumer entertainment categories." He added that music games' value is particularly strong when they are done right.

It will be a busy year-end period for Rosensweig. The first "DJ Hero" game, designed to expand his unit's offers into dance music, is out in late October, followed by the Nov. 3 release of "Band Hero," which Rosensweig described as more family- and social-oriented and featuring more pop music.

What is the proper balance between general and specific band-focused releases? "Variety is fun. Look at your iPod!," said Rosensweig. "And if we choose to work with a band, we want to work with one that's a great experience for guitar." Cases in point: the franchise's previous Aerosmith and Metallica releases and a Van Halen title that is also slated for release late this year.

Despite a couple of attempts to get a peek at next year's product plans, Rosensweig isn't ready to unveil the 2010 slate.

But he told THR that in the coming years, console games will be more connected to the Web, meaning that games could offer more additional music that may not make business sense as a separate game, but can add revenue for his firm and excitement for players in the Web's long tail environment.

Guitar Hero's relationship with the labels and artists remains strong, according to Rosensweig who cited this key statistic as evidence: artists that have been featured in a game, see their catalogue sales rise 50% on average.

On that note, he also said that Guitar Hero is not really looking to become another full-fledged iTunes as some have suggested. "If it helps drive sales of music, we're thrilled," he told THR. "But we will focus on the core game."

Still, more in-game capabilities to give consumers access to things they like "could be an option" in the future, he acknowledged, and that could mean teaming up with outside partners.