Public relations, by definition, exists to manage the flow of information relating to, public opinion of, and to answer questions on, a particular product. Relating to video games, PR aims to generate as much hype and positive feeling prior to release as possible, giving a game the best possible chance of selling well when it's released. This week EA endured a public relations nightmare when Rock Band's European release date and pricing was confirmed. The Internet exploded, sending shock waves cascading across the virtual sea that makes up the web like a tsunami. Why? Because, once again, we European's are being ripped off when it comes to video games. Or are we?
Let's compare the prices of the Xbox 360 version in both the US and the UK (the 360 will have Rock Band exclusively for at least a few months from its release on May 23). In the US, the special edition of Rock Band, which comes with a microphone, guitar, drum kit and the game, has an SRP of $169.99. In the UK EA won't be bundling the game with the peripherals. The Rock Band: Band In A Box (Instruments Edition), which includes microphone, drums and guitar, has an RRP of £129.99. The game, sold separately, has an RRP of £49.99.
At the time of writing £100 will buy you $197.079. That's just shy of $2 for every pound, a wonderful exchange rate for those of you going over to the US on holiday. Applying this rate, Rock Band, including game and three peripherals, costs just over £85 in the US. That's just under £100 cheaper than the equivalent products in the UK. Ouch.
Let's be realistic. We here in the UK rarely pay RRP for video game products. Indeed, right now Play.com is selling the Instruments Edition for £100 and the game for £40. You might even be able to get it cheaper, if you shop around. In the US, the Rock Band SRP of $169.99 is much more likely to be adhered to. And it doesn't take into consideration tax, which varies by state. Generally, UK tourists are told to add about 5% to the price of stuff they see on store shelves when they go over on holiday, so let's do that here. This brings the realistic US price up a little to $177.50, compared with the realistic UK price of £140.
So, the £100 discrepancy is obviously reduced. Even if we accept that we're going to end up paying $177.50 for Rock Band in the US, that's still only about £90, or £50 cheaper than in the UK.
Developer Harmonix has already come out in damage limitation force, citing the UK's factored in 17.5% VAT and high shipping costs as valid reasons for the price disparity. But gamers don't care about details, or the local issues a global behemoth like EA faces when trying to make a profit on a product. And nor should they. The fact of the matter is that gamers look at how much it costs in the UK, compare that to how much it costs in the US, and even compare it to other products in the UK, like the Wii and the Xbox 360, and cry foul.
UK gamers have had to endure paying more for video game products than elsewhere in the world, including the US, for years. Remember how much N64 games used to cost? Unfortunately the situation with Rock Band is nothing new. If we are being ripped off with Rock Band then it is true that we have always and are currently being ripped off with every other video game product out there. This doesn't make it right, of course. But there it is.
This article is about a question: is Rock Band a rip-off? When you can import a game from the US for less money than it costs to buy the game from your local GAME store, it seems impossible to imagine that EA is doing anything less than shafting gamers.
Time to jump off the fence. I understand completely that to get the most out of the game you need a microphone, a guitar and a drum kit - much more than a simple game controller. These products obviously cost more money to manufacture, design and ship than a game disc. I know that Rock Band simply has to cost more than your average video game. But the RRP of £180 for the game and three peripherals is, unquestionably, a rip-off. It's a rip-off when you consider the equivalent price in the US, it's a rip-off when you consider the fact that you can get a Wii, a Wii Remote and a copy of Wii Sports for the same price, and it's a rip-off when you consider that you can buy an Xbox 360 Arcade console, which comes with five free LIVE Arcade games and a wireless controller, for £20 less.
We can talk about the fact that gamers can buy Rock Band online for £140 all day long, but most of its sales will come from bricks and mortar retail at the full RRP. UK high-street specialist store GAME, for example, is extremely unlikely to sell the game and the Instruments Edition at anything other than the RRP. We can talk about the fact that, if you have a USB microphone and a 360 Guitar Hero guitar (both GH2 and GH3 guitars work with Rock Band), you don't necessarily need to buy the Instruments Edition - you'll only need the drum kit. But, again, for the majority of people who have been looking forward to Rock Band ever since it was released in the US way back in November 2007, getting the complete Rock Band experience will involve getting the game, the Instruments Edition and possibly even another guitar. The harsh, unfortunate truth is that, for most people, Rock Band is undoubtedly a rip-off.
At £140 however, things change for me. Rock Band stops being a rip-off and becomes simply an expensive video game purchase. It is a fantastic game, providing an experience you won't get anywhere else. I had a blast on it when I got some hands-on with other journalists early last week. In many ways, it's the best post-pub party game ever made, and when I think about the tremendous fun I'll have with my friends and family, it's just about worth it. Just.
One thing Harmonix is right about is that after all the dust settles on this, everyone will have to decide for themselves whether Rock Band is worth what EA is asking for it. The thing about this whole sorry situation is that, despite many people's refusal to buy the game out of principle, it's so good that plenty will hand over their cash. Whether you do it with gritted teeth or a Cheshire cat smile matters not to the retailers, EA and Harmonix. The till has rung either way.