Selling Out With Rock Band

Does buying in-game ad space also mean buying editorial control?

Not so long ago I was tasked with reviewing Rock Band 2 for the XBox 360.

I’m not going to recap my review, you can find it elsewhere on the site, but something interesting (and a little funny) happened during my play through.

I’m currently preparing a PS3 Trophy Guide for the game now that it’s available for Sony’s platform, and as I got to the same point in the game…

It got more interesting.

If you’ve played any of the Rock Band games you’ve seen this before:

‘(blank) is interested in your band! If you score higher than (blank) then you will get double the cash you would normally receive, else you get nothing.’

There are dozens of variations of these gambles and special offers, but a NEW one in Rock Band 2 left me scratching my head.

(paraphrasing)

‘Hot Topic would like to sponsor your band! They would also like you to play Paramore’s ‘That’s What You Get’ instead of the song you were planning on performing. Play this song instead and Hot Topic will start selling your merchandise. You’ll make more money, but unfortunately some of your fans will see this as Selling Out and will abandon you.’

Whoa.

Did EA/Harmonix just equate Hot Topic sponsorship with selling out? Isn’t Hot Topic one of the sponsors of the VERY GAME I WAS PLAYING?

I refused the offer (I was working towards 1 million fans) and continued my game. I was left wondering whether this was Harmonix way of showing displeasure at having Hot Topic ads thrust into their game, and I wondered what EA had to say about it.

Then it gets a little frustrating.

The ‘special offer’ kept recurring, and eventually I accepted it hoping it would go away forever.

It went away, but not until it took a good chunk of fans with it.

Thanks for the nag-ware and the penalty, guys.

Weeks pass, the PS3 version is released, and I get to work on grabbing all the trophies and putting together a tip sheet.

The offer reared it’s ugly head again… with a minor change.

(paraphrasing)

‘Hot Topic would like to sponsor your band! They would also like you to play Paramore’s ‘That’s What You Get’ instead of the song you were planning on performing. Play this song instead and Hot Topic will start selling your merchandise. You’ll make more money!’

Not a word about ‘selling out’, and no mention of losing fans. I was sitting at around 975,000 fans, and this show would most likely net the ‘1 Million Fans’ trophy.

Knowing that the offer would most likely continue to pop up, thinking that maybe the penalty had been removed from the offer, I felt I had no choice. I accepted.

I rocked it like it was your mother.

100% on Expert. All energy used. Essentially, I got the highest possible score (give or take a few hundred points). Gold Starred it like a home schooled kid. I was rocking so hard, I almost didn’t notice the ‘Hot Top – It’s All About The Music’ banners in the background.

After the set, in the summary screen, I see that my fan base has grown to WELL over 1 million fans… but the trophy doesn’t appear.

Baffled, I continue to the next screen and get my answer:

‘That set was sloppy, you certainly weren’t playing your best. You lost a few fans, but you can easily regain them at your next show.’

Sloppy my ass. It was (literally) perfect. And I still lost 145,000 fans.

Let me get this straight:

  • The game has an offer that is impossible to refuse
  • The offer is universally bad for your virtual band
  • Included in the offer is a sly jab at corporate sponsorship
  • The player is warned that this will adversely effect fanbase

When the game comes out for PS3, this changes to:

  • The game has an offer that is impossible to refuse
  • The offer is universally bad for your virtual band
  • A lame excuse is offered for why you’re missing fans

The whole thing has the distinct odor of ‘pissed off sponsor’. Hot Topic likely saw the 360 version and got a little peeved. I get that, it’s a business and they’re paying the bills. Maybe Harmonix should have had a little more sense than to bite the hand that feeds them (pun intended), and maybe EA should have noticed this before the XBox version went to mastering.

To (kinda) quote the Paramore song that brought this all up: ‘That’s what you get when you let the ads in…’

I don’t mind in-game ads, but the advertisers get editorial claws in there too, and I think this is setting a dangerous precedent. We’ve just seen a real world example of sponsorship not only changing aesthetic content, but actually effecting how a game is played.

I think we’re just starting to see the future of ad revenue in gaming… and I don’t like it.

Based on the XBox version of Rock Band 2, I’m thinking the team at Harmonix doesn’t like it either.

Efforts to reach Electronic Arts for a response have gone unanswered.

Matt Ellis is co-founder of Bag Of Mad Bastards, co-host of the podcast Drunken Monkey Tech, and will destroy you with any instrument in any rhythm game.

His opinions are his own.

He can be reached at: matt@bagofmadbastards.com

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