Monday, April 12, 2010

Rock Band Network

I'd like to take a minute to grouse about Rock Band Network not being available for the PS3.

Admittedly, most of the tracks on RBN now are things I would be very unlikely to buy; true to intent and expectation, RBN is mostly populated so far with bands not widely known but interested in making a mark, who are now struggling with selling a $2 game version of a song when they have trouble selling the song itself for $1, both because people don't know the song well enough to know if they want to pay. Free samples of the song/game are harder to get on RBN -- you could open a browser and go listen to a sample of the MP3-for-sale on iTunes/Amazon/whatever if you want, but it's not integral to the buying process. (They should perhaps make a system where you can download a song for free but it only lasts for three playings or an hour, or something.) Nor do RBN tunes tend to cost less than the main Rock Band songs, which is surprising.

But there are a few RBN songs I'd like to buy, and I would like the opportunity to explore others. And I have hopes other bands we probably won't ever see from Rock Band directly (like They Might Be Giants) would be obvious candidates for RBN (being geeks, technophiles, and great fans of using technology to get people involved in music).

However, with RBN up for almost two months now, there's still no RBN for anything other than Xbox. The reason apparently is that the Xbox network's architecture (XNA) includes a bunch of functions to make it really easy for data files to be exchanged between game players and developers, and Microsoft doesn't charge for the bandwidth. That made it simple for Harmonix to deploy RBN using the existing network, and to keep licensing agreements simple since the only parties (other than the customer) are the band and Harmonix. Deploying to PS3 and Wii requires not just the conversion process (assuming, as some people claim, the file formats require any significant conversion process) but also dealing with the distribution system in an entirely different and more complicated way, plus paying Sony and Nintendo a share for the slot in their stores, which complicates the legal issues of licensing agreements with the bands.

So it was expected this would mean Xbox players would get all the tracks first, and then only the ones that did well would migrate on, about 30 days later, to the PS3 and Wii. But so far, there hasn't even been an announcement about PS3 or Wii offerings, or an update to the months-old statements that came out when RBN itself was first announced. All I could find were a few semi-informal posts on forums, apologizing and insisting it's all much more complex than you'd expect.

I can't believe that when Harmonix was drawing up legal terms to offer developers they didn't include multi-platform licensing up front. That's hardly something that might have slipped their minds. At worst, they have to tell the bands they get one rate when the track sells on one network, and another rate on another platform. Big deal. I don't buy that that's a real obstacle, unless Harmonix completely had their heads in the sand for some reason (in which case they should own up to that, and then fix it -- their lawyers can probably draft up terms to fix it in a few days).

Which leaves technical issues. Putting the tracks in the Playstation Store can't be a big challenge, since they are already putting their other tracks up every week, and so far the RBN tracks are offered by precisely the same mechanism so it can't require different procedures or software. Sure, Sony has a more rigorous quality assurance testing than Microsoft ever dreamed of, but they're already pushing tracks through that process every week.

Which leaves only file format conversion, and I can imagine that could be a lot trickier than people expect, but why isn't Harmonix fessing up that that's the real roadblock? And why didn't they work on making it so the developer faces that hurdle by building it into the SDK? The whole point of RBN is to shift the burden onto the bands.

It's bad enough we'll never get most of the RBN tracks. Right now, we don't even know if we'll ever get any of them. An announcement would really be a nice good faith gesture.

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