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July 14, 2008 at 2:05 PM

E3: Microsoft strikes up the bands as more musicians dive in to video games

LOS ANGELES — While players are still flocking to games with guns and swords, it’s the axe that has been the surprise weapon of choice. That would be the electric guitar in “Guitar Hero,” which has taken the games world by storm in recent years. As the popularity of music games has skyrocketed, more musicians are getting into the act and seeing video games as an important distribution channel, as illustrated in several announcements from Microsoft and its partners today.

“Music games of course have taken the world by storm. … People can not get enough of these games,” Shane Kim, corporate vice president of strategy and business development with Microsoft’s video games business, said during the company’s press conference today. Some 3.5 million songs are downloaded from Xbox Live each month, he added, and the service “accounts for 80 percent of all songs downloaded across all platforms.” (I’m checking on what exactly that means because it sounds like an astoundingly large share of music downloads.)

Bob Dylan and AC/DC will each have a track on “Rock Band 2,” a “Guitar Hero” competitor that launches on the Xbox 360 in September and on the Sony PlayStation 3 later in the year. They are among the rock icons diving into wildly popular music games in which players use controllers shaped like instruments, hitting buttons in sequence to the music.

R.E.M. will release over Xbox Live a package of three songs from their new album for “Guitar Hero World Tour,” said Kai Huang of Red Octane, the game’s creator. Metallica, too, is releasing its full-length album, “Death Magnetic,” as downloadable content for two “Guitar Hero” titles at the same time as the album is released — a first in the industry, Huang said.

“Guitar Hero World Tour” will also let players create and share their own music with a studio feature.

Microsoft, too, is getting into the act directly with “Lips,” a title it’s publishing exclusively, that allows players to lip-synch to some songs from their personal music collections, using wireless, motion-sensing microphones. (This was about as close as Microsoft got to countering the wireless, motion-sensing game controller from Nintendo that has made the Wii the most-popular console of the current generation. Nintendo announced an upgrade accessory for the Wii Remote just as Microsoft’s event got under way.) Keiichi Yano, of iNiS, the developer of “Lips,” said players can plug a Zune or an iPod into the Xbox 360 and play along with all their music — another industry first, he said.

Comments | More in E3 2008, Games & entertainment, Music

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