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Gamers Boo New Music Titles off the Stage

Activision is bringing back its $3 billion 'Guitar Hero' music franchise this fall.Activision is bringing back its $3 billion 'Guitar Hero' music franchise this fall.
Activision is bringing back its $3 billion 'Guitar Hero' music franchise this fall.Courtesy of Activision

The second act of music video games is sounding a sour note.

The revival of Harmonix’ Rock Band franchise and Activision’s (ATVI) Guitar Hero both failed to find a significant audience in their first month at retail—traditionally the strongest time for new games. New data from The NPD Group shows Rock Band 4 was just the 10th best-selling game of October, while Guitar Hero Live was 11th, in terms of units sold.

Because the games carried notably higher price tags than other titles (generally ranging from $100 to $250 due to their inclusion of plastic instruments), the rankings came to fourth and sixth, respectively, in terms of dollar sales.

The NPD Group does not release specific sales numbers. But, prior to the release of Thursday’s sales information, analysts said the whisper number on Guitar Hero (based on checks-ins with retailers) was it had sold roughly half of the series’ last installment.

The revival of the music gaming genre was one that always carried a risk. It was just four years ago that the subcategory imploded, largely due to publisher greed in the once red-hot field.

Guitar Hero, at its peak, was a $3 billion dollar franchise, but Activision pumped out new games at a phenomenal pace at its height (including 2009 when it released a mind-boggling three games in the Hero series). By 2011, the well was dry. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, the last installment in the series, sold fewer than 261,000 copies — with nine different SKUs on the market.

“It’s just not a category that’s getting consumers enthusiastic right now,” Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said on CNBC in 2011. “I think you need to focus your resources on the things that get consumers really excited.”

Sales expectations for both games were moderate, but Activision is better able to absorb a low-performing title. Harmonix is an independent publisher — and its distribution partner, Mad Catz (MCZ), in July, received an audit opinion that included a “going concern” paragraph, sounding an alarm about its “ability to comply with certain debt covenants.”

The poor start is discouraging, but a sliver of hope remains for both games. The holiday shopping season brings out mainstream shoppers who might buy the titles for loved ones based on the name recognition and memories of the originals.

The October sales figures weren’t so disappointing for everyone. Microsoft’s (MSFT) Halo 5: Guardians was, not surprisingly, the month’s best selling title. That gave Xbox One the boost it needed to claim the top selling console hardware spot away from Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4.

Microsoft said Xbox One sales were up 81% compared with October 2014.

“The strength of the greatest games lineup in Xbox history drove record Xbox Live usage for October,” said Mike Nichols, Microsoft corporate vice president of Xbox Marketing. “It’s going to be an amazing holiday for Xbox fans.”

Take-Two Interactive Software’s (TTWO) NBA2K16 was the month’s second best selling title, while Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate came in third.

Overall industry sales were up 2% to $805.9 million.

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