Because the plastic accessories used to play music games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band look somewhat like real musical instruments, they have the unintended consequence of making gamers think they can pick up a real-life guitar and play, and real-world musicians think they'll be instant experts at these games. Neither case is generally true (take it from someone whose most recent album is holding steady at No. 87 in Amazon's Funk Rock category, and has been playing guitar for more than 20 years, but who can hardly get through a Guitar Hero song on medium difficulty).
The inclusion of basic but usable electronic drum pads in the past few generations of these games changed the situation somewhat, and at harder difficulties, one could end up playing a fairly realistic drum part, but it wasn't until this year that the line between real instruments and game controllers really started to blur.
Having recently gotten a chance to demo the latest gear for Rock Band 3, I found a lot of new angles designed to punch some life into the ailing music games genre, but also still ran into several examples of the disconnect between real music and game music.
Just as Rock Band changed the guitar game landscape by adding drums, the upcoming version of the game adds a keyboard controller, a few new types of guitar controllers, and a new chord-playing system in the game that finally makes actual music-playing ability relevant.
Besides the usual five-button guitar controller similar to the ones used in music games as far back as the original Guitar Hero, there's also a new Pro-level controller. This version has six fixed string-like sensors in place of the traditional strum bar, and replaces the five colored fret buttons with separate tiny buttons for each string at every fret on the guitar neck. That's 17 frets across six strings, more than 100 independent buttons.
Playing with this Pro guitar controller turns on an optional chording system, which allows for onscreen chords requiring up to six notes to be hit simultaneously (thereby forming the chord in question). The in-game tutorial for learning to play these chords seems reasonable enough, but the notation used in the game itself was confusing, with bars of differing heights scrolling down a virtual fretboard, indicating a chord constructed from notes above or below an indicated root note. If that sounds hard to follow, that's because it is.
Playing a song on the medium difficulty setting was a disaster, as I couldn't figure out what the game was asking me to play, which seemed like simplified versions of common guitar chords. On a hunch, I cranked the difficulty up to hard and tried to play by ignoring the onscreen notation and just playing the actual chords (C, Em, etc.) that scrolled alongside the onscreen notes (remember, there's a separate tiny button for every fret on the guitar neck).
Amazingly, it worked almost perfectly, and I achieved a much higher score. More importantly, for the first time ever, I actually felt like I was playing a real guitar in a music game. Still, there were things about the Rock Band Pro guitar that made it harder to play than it should be. Though there's a button for every note on the fretboard, the frets themselves are tiny plastic lines, not thick metal strips, which makes it hard to judge where your hand should be without looking (and hard even then, as instead of frets and fret markers, all you see are a sea of tiny buttons). Because of that, playing complex polyphonic chords was actually much easier than single-note runs at the advanced difficulty level I was playing.
If the Pro guitar is a video game controller that looks and feels just a bit more like a real guitar, then the new keyboard peripheral is best described as a real MIDI keyboard with a little bit of game controller DNA.
A two-octave standard USB/MIDI keyboard with semiweighted keys, this will look and feel familiar to anyone with a bedroom recording studio--except, perhaps, for the synth-pop-style keytar neck sticking out of one end, presumably so you can strap it on like a lost member of an '80s new-wave band.
Though the keyboard itself played fine--it felt like a standard M-Audio or Korg MIDI controller--again the onscreen notation made playing along with the game more difficult than it should be. The two octaves worth of keys were color-coded to conform to the colored buttons on a traditional Rock Band controller, with each color assigned to a few keys in a row (and labeled just above the keys themselves). The onscreen notation was similarly labeled, but with the onscreen keys packed so closely together, it was hard to tell which keys were actually being indicated as the notes scrolled down the game screen until it was too late.
The timing is, in true music game style, far too exacting, and any attempt to humanize the keyboard playing means you're penalized for missing notes. The keyboard requires a Kraftwerk-worthy sense of 4/4 timing--no swing allowed.
One step beyond all that is an actual Fender-made Stratocaster guitar, specially designed for the game with built in MIDI sensor hardware, which will be able to connect to the game, as well as any standard guitar amp or recording set-up. I had a chance to briefly check out one of these units, but it wasn't hooked up to a working game system. The headstock had Fender's "Made in the USA" stamp on it, which means either this will be a very expensive accessory, or it was a prototype with a sample headstock (most Fender guitars are made in Asia or Mexico; only the very expensive high-end models are made in the USA).
That reminded me of another upcoming music game with a "real" guitar tie-in. Back in March, we, a new game being developed by a sister company to musical-instrument maker First Act. These are real guitars as well, albeit very low-end ones. When connected to a game console, you press a button and a dampening block pops out of the body and holds the strings in place, so you can use the guitar's fingerboard to control the game.
The end effect is nothing close to what Rock Band 3 does with its capability to play full guitar chords; the Power Gig controller basically has you playing the same standard music game notation, just with a controller that's more like a real guitar. The closest it gets to real playing is the capability to play two-note power chords in some songs.
Interestingly, this year's installment of the game that started it all, Guitar Hero, is skipping all the real instrument upgrades. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock instead concentrates on adding more rock, some new guitar controllers with swappable designs, and a narration from Gene Simmons.
Will gamers go for music games that attempt to push real music-playing chops through new instruments and in-game tutorials? Or will it take the fun out of faux-rocking as a pick-up-and-play pastime? More importantly: are these new, more realistic takes on music games enough to save a genre hit hard by consumer fatigue? Let us know if you're interested in playing a music game with real guitars and keyboards in the comments section below.