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For Those About to Rock

I learned a few things about myself this week:

  • I can hit those high notes while wailing hopelessly out of key along with Radiohead's "Creep."
  • The drum fills in Nirvana's "In Bloom" are ridiculously hard to keep up with if you're a non-drummer.
  • Playing along with the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" is a lot easier when your guitar has just five buttons.

Yes, there's been a little more video-game-accessory clutter around my home since Rock Band came out on Tuesday. The $170 game, which simulates playing in an up-and-coming musical group, comes with controllers in the form of a guitar, a microphone, and a set of drums. It's all fake, of course, though the rhythmic game has a funny way of improving your musical timing as well as visually nurturing an appreciation of song structure.

The game was developed by Viacom's (NYSE: VIA  ) Harmonix, and is being distributed by Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) . If the five-fret colored interface seems familiar, it's because it's a kissing cousin of Activision's (Nasdaq: ATVI  ) popular Guitar Hero franchise.

Harmonix and Red Octane teamed up to create the original Guitar Hero simulation before going their separate ways. Viacom's MTV acquired Harmonix, while Activision snatched Red Octane.

Guitar Hero III was last month's big seller. Rock Band is a new brand in this suddenly competitive niche, but it too should sell briskly over the holidays.

There are two important takeaways from the success of these musical simulation titles. The first is that they are raising the bar on what gamers expect to pay for video games. The market was waiting to see if consumers would be willing to go from paying $50 a game to $60 a game when the Xbox 360 came out two years ago. Now it's finding that shoppers have no problem plunking down $90 for Guitar Hero III and $170 for Rock Band.

Sure, the games come with slick add-ons. Guitar Hero III comes with a guitar-shaped controller. Rock Band offers that as well as a microphone and a four-piece faux drum kit (complete with kick pedal). These aren't stocking stuffers, unless you're using 30-gallon trash bags as stockings this year.

The other important takeaway is that the two titles are expanding the gaming audience. It's not just kids jamming away here. Graying grown-ups can relive their air-guitar ways. And good luck finding a rock-band tour bus that doesn't have a Guitar Hero setup. Just as Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) has widened the audience for its DS by putting out cerebral titles like Brain Age and Big Brain Academy, now the industry is going after music-loving board-game players with the ultimate in interactive party games.

Now I'm off to see how far I can push my faux chops with a little Weezer "Say it Ain't So" action. 

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