When it hits stores Sunday, the fourth installment of the wildly popular Guitar Hero video game could become a test of the game industry's ability to weather the broader economic storm.
Activision Blizzard Inc.'s Guitar Hero World Tour is one of the company's most important games of the year. At $189.99, it will also be one of the most expensive games the Santa Monica publisher has ever released.
Although some analysts still expect the franchise to drum up $1.4 billion in sales this year, the title's steep price could turn away some consumers as they pinch pennies this holiday season.
"In this economy, people will be a little more frugal," said Ricardo Torres, editor of Gamespot, a website that reviews games. "This fall, it's all about value."
For Aaron Green, who plays Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock with his 9-year-old son, Alex, the new game is still a good value.
But the price tag makes him pause. Instead of splurging on the game right when it comes out, as he would have in years past, the 43-year-old audio-visual coordinator from Rancho Mirage said he would wait to give the game to his son for Christmas.
"The price is a little steep," Green said. "But we still need our creature comforts to help us feel better."
That's music to the game's creators, who are pitching it as a great bang for the buck. It comes with a guitar controller, drum kit, microphone and software that lets players create and edit their own music.
"It's like several games in one," said Brian Bright, one of the lead developers. "So you get a lot for your money."
Sarah Wright-Killinger, 30, an operations manager from West Los Angeles, isn't convinced, though she likes to play music games with her husband.
"I'm afraid if I spend money on Guitar Hero, I'm just asking for it," she said. "It's just not the time to be spending money on things like that."
To persuade reluctant consumers, Activision is releasing several versions of the title, including a stand-alone game disc for as low as $49.99, which can be played using guitar controllers from previous versions of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, a competing franchise from MTV Networks. There's also a $90 version of the game that comes with a guitar controller only.
For Activision, hitting the right notes with consumers with World Tour is crucial. The Guitar Hero franchise is "one of the three biggest profit generators" for the company this year, Activision Chief Executive Robert Kotick said.
The company currently leads the music simulation category, but MTV is catching up fast, said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities.
Guitar Hero III, released last October, sold 9.1 million copies in the U.S., said Anita Frazier, an analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm. Rock Band, which came out last November, has sold 3.5 million copies.
"Activision needs this game to keep Rock Band from gaining market share," Pachter said.