Guitar Hero is playing our song

One of the most popular video games this year is Guitar Hero, in which players flail away, Van-Halen-style, at a guitar-shaped controller and try to replicate the moves of the guitarist playing a popular song. Think of it as guitar karaoke. The original came out in 2005, and there is now a Guitar Hero II and a Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, as well as a Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s (a new game called Rock Band adds drums and a microphone to the mix).

Harmonix and RedOctane, the companies that developed and marketed the original Guitar Hero game for the Sony PlayStation2, reportedly had some difficulty getting the rights to certain songs that it wanted to use (most of which are performed by “soundalike” musicians). But they may not have as much trouble in the future.

According to a story at the tech blog Ars Technica, sales numbers from Soundscan — an industry tracking firm — show a fairly strong correlation between the music included in Guitar Hero III and sales of that same song through retailers and other outlets.

As an example, sales of the song “Reptilia” by The Strokes climbed by 127 per cent in the week the game was released, compared with the week before. A track by the band Slipknot saw a similar type of increase after being included in the game, with sales up more than 70 per cent in the first week after the game’s release, and up by triple digits the week after that.

The connection between Guitar Hero and higher sales is hardly black and white, of course. Some songs that were included didn’t see much of an increase. In some cases, the increase seen in album or CD sales could have been a result of conventional marketing campaigns or other influences that Soundscan and Ars Technica didn’t take into account. Nevertheless, there appears to be a fairly strong relationship between the game and sales.

At least one band seems to see the value of having their music included in Guitar Hero, to the point where they would like an increase in compensation for it: The Romantics, a 1980s band whose hits included “What I Like About You“, is suing Activision — which distributes the game — claiming that the soundalikes who recorded their song are too similar to the original band, and therefore they should get extra compensation.

Nice guys do finish first sometimes

snipshot_e41bgtfca5ut.jpgThree hard-working, family-oriented guys from the picturesque mountain town of Kelowna, B.C. A website that is filled with nothing but wholesome, kid-friendly entertainment featuring that most kid-friendly of animals, the penguin — and not a single advertisement, pop-up window or spyware-installing toolbar. The only way the Club Penguin story could be any more Canadian is if the site featured Mounties in it. The company even donates 10 per cent of its profits to charities involving underprivileged youth. If Mother Theresa had kids, this is the website they would play on. The site is so clean it almost squeaks. Congratulations to the Club Penguin team — nice guys (and Canadians) do finish first sometimes.

Something smells funny in videogame-land

I don’t know who to blame for the fact that Manhunt 2 has been indefinitely shelved by Rockstar Games: the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rated the game Adults Only because of its “excessive violence” (thus ensuring that Sony and Nintendo would never release a version for their consoles); the video-game console makers for being such nervous Nellies, when they already ship violent titles by the truckload — and happily so; or Rockstar itself, for caving in and shelving the game.

snipshot_e4hug54p2wp.jpgIs Manhunt 2 extremely violent? Undoubtedly, considering the first one was, and the second likely ups the ante — considering the player is seeing the game through the eyes of someone who may be a psycopath, recently held in a mental institution. Is that an unreasonable premise for a game? I hardly think so. I played Max Payne and Max Payne 2, and they had a similar theme — including Satanism — and they were great. Moody, frightening, cinematic even. Doom 3 was quite the gore-fest too. And speaking of cinematic, why is it OK for kids to see the Saw movies, but not to play video games? As my friend Clive Thompson asked recently, why is it OK for me to grow up playing violent games, but not my kids?

New York Times: Portrait of a virtual sweatshop

Great piece in the New York Times magazine today, in which Julian Dibbel describes his tour of the “gold farms” in China, where young Chinese men toil over their keyboards for 12 hours a day collecting virtual money in games like World of Warcraft, sleeping in cramped dormitories and earning the equivalent of about 25 cents an hour. Stories about gold farming aren’t new, but this is the first time I have read a first-hand description of what they are like, and interviews with gold farmers. There’s also a video intro by Dibbel here (Update: Ed Felten of Freedom to Tinker has some thoughts here).


gold-farm.jpg

One of the things that interested me about the story was the fact that there is already a hierarchy in gold farming operations — the lowest level just pays young men to play games all day and collect gold, which is then sold to (primarily) Western players. But the companies that run games like World of Warcraft don’t like the gold farmers, so a second class of operation has developed that takes over the character of a player who wants more gold and plays the game while the owner goes about their real lives.

Is this any worse than a real sweatshop or gold mining operation? Hardly. In fact it’s arguably a lot better, since the only real health risk is either repetitive stress injury or some vitamin-related ailment from never seeing the sun. It’s also interesting that when these young men aren’t working, many of them play World of Warcraft in Internet cafes. It’s difficult to imagine anyone making shoes or t-shirts or mining gold for fun in their off-hours.

Bonus link:

There’s a great photo essay in the magazine as well, which is reproduced in an online slide show: it shows some game players and their avatars. Not surprisingly, there is a severely overweight young man whose avatar is a muscled superhero, and an Asian man whose avatar is a young schoolgirl. But there are also several young women, and one man who clearly has ALS or some other muscle-wasting disease, and is in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask — he plays Star Wars Galaxies about 80 hours a week.