Me and E3 2010: Music Games: “Not dead yet!”

For instance, last year Microsoft announced “Project Natal” at E3 (which at this year’s E3 was re-dubbed “Kinect”). It’s the big “Vegas” show of the game industry. Lining the aisles are over the top “booths” that bear more resemblance to Disneyland rides than to trade show booths. Audio bombardment mashups of low frequency pump, Lucha Libre wrestling, Def Jam rhymes, and chiptune melodies sit on you like a wonderful cone of chaos. Everyone is excited and playing games and keeping their eye out for Rasheed Wallace, Curt Schilling or Method Man to walk by.

By now, you’ve all probably heard the big announcements from E3 (3DS, Sony Move, MS Kinect etc) so I’ll move on to my experience of E3. For the most part I was shocked at the amount of upcoming music games, music game controllers being announced. It was also interesting to note the potential crossover territory that many developers (both hardware and software) are looking to establish themselves in, seeing an opportunity for music gamers that want to move into actually learning music. I couldn’t help but think of the South Park Guitar Hero episode: the boys are all playing “Carry on My Wayward son” on Guitar Hero when Kyle’s dad busts out the real electric guitar to play the same tune, only to embarrass the boys in front of their friends (because he actually *knew* how to play guitar.)

The Games:

You’ve probably heard about the big ones: Guitar Hero – Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3. The new Guitar Hero title (with “quest-like” play) also features a new “weapon-like” peripheral that you can ‘add-on’ weapon-like parts to and change the look of your guitar. As I was headed up the escalator at E3 there was a guy coming down the escalator with his Guitar Hero – Warriors of Rock guitar device with all the ‘weapon’ add-ons attached (all the electronics on this new one are in the neck, not in the body) and as he accidentally bumped his ‘guitar-weapon’ on the escalator stairs, the guitar-weapon parts all fell off of the neck, exploding over everyone around him. So don’t rock out too hard with that new device!

Rock Band 3 is moving into new territory by introducing the Keyboard peripheral, which also works as a midi keyboard. With this new device and the added tracks (vocal, guitars and rhythm section) you can have up to 7 people in your band. Now that’s a party! Harmonix also introduced “Pro” mode into Rock Band 3 where the game play is supposed to introduce the player to real musical concepts in an effort to create some musical education as you play Rock Band 3. What would the South Park kids think?

Harmonix also introduced their new rhythm dance game, Dance Central, which is using the Kinect technology from Microsoft. Watching all of the action at the Harmonix booth was like standing outside of the aerobics class at the gym.

There were some newcomers to the music game genre as well. PowerGig is taking on the giants of music games, by offering a new game AND new peripherals (drums and guitars). The game plays much like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, with an added story line, and your character moves (almost RPG like) throughout the story as you finish each level. The game looked quite good, but played the same as the other big names. The peripherals were another problem, which I’ll get to shortly.

I think we all knew this would happen eventually: Zombies meet the Music Game. Rock of the Dead (Epicenter) is another new music game that involves zombies. A lot of zombies! Including Rob Zombie! Yes, Rob Zombie contributed some music to this game (Wii only at this time), where you use your guitar controller (with a buddy too, if you like to team up) to take out the oncoming zombie hordes by executing short musical phrases or chord shapes as the Zombies keep throwing stuff at you. The game was inspired by Typing for the Dead, if you are familiar with that title.

Ubisoft revealed it’s Michael Jackson game, which features both dancing and singing for the player; of course we have DJ Hero 2 coming up, and Def Jam Rapstar (I actually did catch Redman and Method Man doing a short set over at that booth one afternoon). In addition to Rapstar, Konami also has Glee: Karaoke Revolution and Dance Master coming out this year, and there’s even a Grease game coming out (yes, based on the movie with Travolta and Olivia Newton John).

The Hardware

I mentioned PowerGig, and their proprietary controllers. The PowerGig guitar is being touted as a “real electric guitar”. When you are in game mode there is a little spring loaded foam block that pops up from under the strings (in the pickup area) to damp the strings for gameplay. At that point you can play it like a game controller, (the frets act as electrical contacts with the strings, making a connection to track the game play) and in theory you can use any string, as long as you are playing that string on the correct fret (green, red, yellow, blue, orange). I tried it out, and found that I could only track by using the high E string. The other strings didn’t properly track the game play. When mentioning it to the rep, he thought that either the device had taken too much abuse (though I was playing at a ‘media’ station) or that the batteries were low.

How was it as a real guitar? I think if youngsters try to get started by playing the Power Gig guitar they’ll become really frustrated. My first guitar was a terrible Ibanez Iceman copy that I bought at a pawn shop for $100 and it was 10 times the guitar that the Power Gig guitar is. There is no adjustable bridge (okay, some of my Danelectros have no adjustable bridge) but there’s no option to swap out for another bridge if you wanted to upgrade. The action at the 12th fret was the thickness of my finger, and the guitar was virtually impossible to play past the 5th fret (plus the guitar is 100% plastic). They also had a drum kit that featured infrared drum sticks (instead of actually hitting something) and pads that shone infrared light up, and you were to play the sticks like an air drummer, not hitting anything (“so that there’s no sound between the music and your gameplay”). The pads just sensed which color pad you were shaking your sticks at. Not a lot of satisfaction in playing drums that you don’t smack!

Peavy was also showing off their new game controller (HeroMaker), which is an actual real wooden electric guitar, with metal parts (hooray!) They have a tracking sensor that runs under the first 2 strings of the electric guitar fretboard (the E and B strings) to track game play. The tracking on this device worked pretty well and they were showing it as a controller for Zivix’s Jam Party: Be The Music game, which was more about creating music, than following along to a classic rock tune. But they were also showing it with Rock Band. It was nice to have a game controller that actually felt like a real guitar, but is that my inner “Kyle’s dad” rearing his ugly mug?

Also at the show were Inspired Instruments, with their You Rock Guitar (which I covered in my NAMM 2010 story). Essentially the YouRock is trying to cover all of the bases: game controller for the gamer, midi instrument for the professional, and beginner’s instrument for the gamer learning to rock. The tracking on the YouRock is quite impressive (it’s a rubber fret board with raised lines for the strings, a whammy bar, and real strings in the picking area). The device has a USB midi out, a standard midi out, a 1/4 guitar cable out (the You Rock comes with it’s own digital sounds you can play thru a guitar amp) and it’s game connections (depending on which console you have, you can get a “game flex” cartridge for Wii, XBOX or PS3). I was impressed enough that I ordered one of these things. Back in January. It’s still not here yet.

UPDATE: Inspired says my YouRock Guitar shipped today!

Rather than becoming a fad that wears out it’s welcome (which many of us predicted), it seems that the music game is simply settling in as a game genre and might always have a place in the game world. Personally, I’ve worked on a number of music games myself (some of which haven’t even been announced yet) and always wondered if the skill set I’d developed for this genre was going to be worthless in the next 6-12 months. Looks like I have my answer. After this E3, however, I think the most interesting question is wether or not these ‘crossover’ devices and games will show any tangible evidence that they are turning gamers into musicians? Probably not, if Cartman has anything to say about it.

Written by Dren McDonald exclusively for Game Audio Network Guild