Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No discount for Rock Band song repurchases

Video game fans always make a fuss when a developer charges them for something, even if it's completely justified, so it feels weird for me to be on their side this time.

I support companies that charge users to access parts of the game that are included on the disc. I don't have any problem with using downloadable content to kill the used game market. I think the legions of forum rats feel they are entitled to the whole carnival just because they bought an entrance ticket. Usually they're wrong. This time, they have a point.

But this time is different.

Here's the scoop: Harmonix makes the Rock Band video game series where players use fake instruments to simulate playing popular songs. Besides the songs on the disc, players can pay to download additional songs. Players can also pay to export songs from older versions of the games onto their hard drives, so they don't need to swap discs around to play those songs.

This fall Harmonix released Rock Band 3 which includes a new instrument, the keyboard, and songs with multiple singers, known as harmonies. All of the old DLC works in this game, it just doesn't include keyboards or harmony parts. A lot of the older songs like Queen and Bon Jovi featured them musically, but nothing was programmed in to make them interactive.

So that's where the trouble starts. Harmonix said they did plan to add keyboard and harmonies to "legacy" songs, but were unsure how they would charge for them. The three major options to upgrade songs to include the new parts were:

*Upgrades will be free.

*Upgrades will cost a fee, but it will be less than the cost of purchasing a new song.

*Songs will be re-relased entirely and no discount will be given to customers who purchased the original version of the song.

This morning Harmonix re-released several Queen songs using the third option. A lot of fans expressed their anger on the official forum when the pricing scheme was confirmed at the end of last week. Again, this is exactly how they respond when the cost is entirely justified. This time is different.

I was hoping they would choose the second option, and I think it would have been the best solution. We got a preview that they were going with the third option a few weeks ago when some Bon Jovi songs were re-released the same way, but fans said it wasn't a big deal because all of the legacy songs were exported disc songs bundled together with a large swathe of other tracks - not DLC that fans individually chose. They were hoping it would be different for legacy DLC.

Making the upgrades free would have been entirely unrealistic. As other fans have discussed, it takes resources to engineer these upgrades. Harmonix deserves to be paid for the work it does. I expected the price of new songs to rise about the $2 standard rate, as they now require more work to create each song. Harmonix kept the price the same, and they deserve credit for it.

Harmonix also has a way of upgrading their new songs. They've introduced a special realistic guitar controller with actual strings, and it costs an extra $1 to upgrade new DLC songs to get the "pro guitar" upgrade. That's why I imagined paying an extra $1 to upgrade legacy songs.

But apparently that is not possible, engineering-wise. I've seen several references in the official forum to Harmonix claiming it's not possible to upgrade legacy DLC or to know what songs the user has purchased. Also, the contracts Harmonix makes with the rights-holder of the songs may not allow it. I can't find an official statement anywhere, but let's assume they said it. This raises several questions.

Is it really impossible, or did they just not find a feasible and cheap way to do it?My Xbox Live account is aware of which DLC I purchased. Is there really no way to access that information?

I realize that post-Rock Band 3 DLC can be upgraded, but I'm aware that the files are very different for the new DLC songs. If the old tracks can not receive upgrades, is there a way to patch the files to make it possible? Since they invented the file types, didn't they already know this six months ago when they would not reveal the pricing strategy?

Would Harmonix be open to letting the fans pool some money together with a PayPal account to put up a reward for someone to solve the technical problem? I imagine a few code monkeys would be tempted by reward money to solve the problem and if one of them succeeded, would Harmonix agree to change plans?

This pricing option is a recipe for a major public relations setback. Music games peaked in sales a few years ago and the genre leader doesn't need to take any risks. I think Harmonix should make a stand here and explain the technical hurdles they claim forced their hand in choosing this payment option. Their website does not have an easy-to-find statement, and I have not seen one released anywhere else. Either they are keeping quiet when they shouldn't, or they are speaking very softly.

Perhaps the company is afraid speaking up would draw more attention to the situation. That's a risky strategy and we'll see how it works out. I don't think they made the right choice.

I have to admit that when I purchased the older versions of songs, I made a deal with Harmonix. They gave me a product I thought was worth $2. They promised me nothing more. This is why I find myself on the same side with the complainers, but still don't feel like one of them. They have a point, but that doesn't make them entirely right.

A lot of this is a reflection of the nontransferable nature of DLC. A fraction of the legacy DLC I purchased in the past is redundant and if it was any other product I could sell it or give it away. Instead it's a sunk cost.

I don't feel like Harmonix owes me the upgrade option, but I am disappointed I didn't get it. That's as close to their side as I'll get.

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