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MTV Betting Big on Gaming

mtv gamesThe news from MTV Networks (“MTVN”) is games, lots and lots of games.    As part of a two year plan, reports are: the Viacom owned media network plans to invest more than $500m on games.  The investment will emphasize casual gaming and will include both online, mobile and console based games.

Historically, dating back to Warner Communications purchase of Atari in 1976, big entertainment media companies have not been terribly successful at launching in-house game initiatives.   History won’t deter MTVN. They, Disney, and other big media companies are anxious to cash in on the branding and revenue opportunities in the gaming industry.  They are also loathsome to let independent publishers and startups steal all the thunder, and dollars.

MTV CEO Judy McGrath is hoping they’ll be able to expand some of their brands with game offerings.  Network president Mika Salmi has said explicitly “games are critical.”

MTVN will have some advantages mitigating their risks that past media companies venturing into gaming haven’t had.  For starters, MTV has been successful building games before, notably for its Nickelodeon properties.  So this will not be their first effort and they’ll be unlikely to make rookie mistakes. Additionally, a significant portion of MTV’s audience already plays games (online and off).  That should be an asset when it comes to marketing.   Still, even if successful with building and marketing games, making money from online offerings will be a challenge.

For consoles, it’ll be a different story.  There, the revenue models aren’t the question, the development of top quality games is.  MTV’s hoping they can pull that off and counting on their Harmonix division to  be the ace up their sleeve.  Harmonix, which MTV Networks acquired in 2006, has a track record of gaming success so far. As an independent, the company first gained notoriety for a popular series of karaoke based games (“Karaoke Revolution”) in 2003 to 2005.  They then hit the jackpot with their breakout hit, Guitar Hero, which was first published by RedOctane and now Activision; for whom it has been a phenomenal seller.(Guitar Hero has largely been responsible for Activision overtaking EA as the top selling 3rd party game developer so far this year ).

MTV is betting big Harmonix can duplicate their success and they’ll take on Guitar Hero to prove it.  The first results will come in the late fall.  That’s when, in partnership with Electronic Arts, they’ll release their first effort- a highly anticipated game called Rock Band

Rock Band, which was announced in April, will be available for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 in time for the holiday season. The game is designed to let players play guitar, drums, or sing along with their favorite rock bands as a virtual band.  You could call it virtual karaoke on steroids.  (It’s a clear extension, or evolution, of Harmonix’ past offerings)

A microphone, drum pad and guitar, and other custom controllers are promised, as is extensive online connectivity.  Guitar maker Fender signed on as a partner for some peripherals.  Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band and Soprano’s fame, signed on to chair a Music Advisory Board to pick songs.   And notably, all 4 of the Big 4 record labels signed licensing deals to allow music from their catalogs to be used.  Game levels based on full-length albums are also reported in the works.

It’s an ambitious plan.  And a risky one.   In the original announcement, Jeff Yapp, EVP, MTV Program Enterprises admitted as much saying “our vision for Rock Band is to completely change the way people interact with and enjoy the music they love… By joining forces with EA and the music industry’s largest record labels and publishers, we are striving to create a groundbreaking new platform that allows people to connect with their favorite music and artists in ways they never have before.”  

Will MTV change the world of gaming? Or at least music related gaming?   Those are lofty goals. It remains to be seen if MTV will be able to pull any of this off, not just Rock Band, but their gaming gamble as a whole.  But that isn’t stopping them from betting big.  Really big.   

Time will tell if MTVN can turn $500m into a bigger pot of gold but two things are sure: i. they are not scared to try; and ii. the effort shouldn’t be under capitalized. Beyond that, their company president said it best: “it’s hard to tell where it’s going to go.  It’s in the in the consumers’ hands to take it to the next level.” 

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