When you get served, and then you serve them back something fierce, you know it's on.
That's where we stand today with Activision Blizzard (Nasdaq: ATVI ) and Viacom (NYSE: VIA ) staring each other down across the music-game playground. Last Friday, the day that Viacom and publishing partner Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS ) unleashed Rock Band 2 on us all, Activision shot right back with an official track list for Guitar Hero: World Tour. Anything to steal the competition's thunder, right?
Who's got what?
Early reviews for RB2 have started to roll in, and the game looks like a serious contender for the hearts and minds of plastic-guitar gods worldwide. A few gameplay tweaks, fresh online competition modes, and slightly nicer official drum and guitar peripherals bring some freshness to this bad boy, but the biggest selling point is a track list with 84 original master recordings from some of the biggest names in rock, pop, metal, and reggae. If you love AC/DC or Panic! at the Disco, or just want the first Guns N' Roses single in a decade, this is the game for you.
That's exactly why Activision wanted to drop its own set list on top of Viacom's party.
The two games share a lot of material. Fifteen songs show up in both RB2 and GH:WT, including prime cuts by the Allman Brothers, Bon Jovi, and Fleetwood Mac. Others, like Metallica and Linkin Park, sent different songs to each game. It's the remaining list of more than 55 unique songs per game that will decide where massive amounts of pocket money will flow.
We already knew that Jimi Hendrix would headline the Guitar Hero title, and big names like The Doors, Sublime, and Van Halen had also been written in stone. The new information surprises and delights with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" (hey, I spent five years in Freakville -- cut me some slack, homeboy), R.E.M. anthem "The One I Love," and even Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."
How much, you said?
In the first five months of this year, the likes of GameStop (NYSE: GME ) and Target (NYSE: TGT ) pushed out 2.5 million units of Guitar Hero III and 1.3 million Rock Band packages. That doesn't account for Guitar Hero: Aerosmith or the mobile Guitar Hero: On Tour games, and both games were actually released in 2007. In January, Activision bragged that the Guitar Hero brand had collected sales of more than $1 billion.
Both franchises are building momentum and can now present a slicker gaming experience, with a distinct lack of halfhearted cover versions of our favorite songs. Moreover, console builders Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Sony (NYSE: SNE ) helped Activision and Viacom come up with bona fide standards for the hardware, so that the guitars and drums you bought for one game will work on the other. Rock Band 1 and Guitar Hero III accessories should also work with the next-generation games.
I think that's brilliant, not just for gamers but also for investors. When you can add another 80-something songs and a few spiffy features by just shelling out $60 for another game disc, those expensive drum kits won't stop the real enthusiasts from buying into both games. Activision, Viacom, and EA all win in that sane arrangement, and the real loser is my personal productivity. "Vinternoll2," then "Keep 'Em Separated," and a rousing "Santeria" encore?
Hold my calls, 'cause it's on, baby!