Thursday, January 31, 2008


For a long time I've been planning to write a post comparing GH3 and Rock Band, which both came in the mail at the end of November -- but my GH3 controller didn't work properly, and what with the troubleshooting and the exchange process I still haven't really been able to play it. Nevertheless, there were some interesting contrasts right out of the box. For example, the GH3 guitar looked like a toy next to the Rock Band guitar; Harmonix went with a larger, more realistic Fender Strat replica, and they removed the bright colors on the front of the fret buttons, substantially decreasing the tinker-toy feeling of the earlier controllers. Making the controller larger meant the neck might be too long for young children to comfortably reach the fret buttons, so an additional set of fret buttons close to the body of the guitar accommodates their short arms and also creates special showboating potential for virtuoso players. (Rob Kay discussed this design decision with me when I visited Harmonix and previewed Rock Band; I probably wouldn't have thought of the short-armed-children issue on my own.) Between the new guitar controller design and of course the much more dramatic change in available instrumentation (the addition of the drum kit and karaoke microphone), it immediately seemed clear that achieving a closer match with the aesthetic and physical experiences of actual musical performance was a design priority for Rock Band.

When I put GH3 into my PS3, the startup video made it clear that competition was going to be a key theme. The imagery included a mountain with a rock god icon at the top; a character worked his way past various challenges to reach the peak of the mountain and contend with the boss, a very old-school videogame narrative structure (no princess, though!). This accorded with what I'd heard in pre-release reviews of the game: that the focus would be hard-core competitive play, vs. the more collaborative orientation for Rock Band (e.g., you are encouraged to "rescue" a bandmate who is about to get booed off the stage). This might actually be considered a risk for Harmonix, since I would guess they don't want this game to seem too sweetly collaborative -- that could be read as kind of girly, right? I know this was an issue for the reception of karaoke games in the U.S. In any case, Harmonix also invested some energy in making it possible for bands to compete against each other.

I've been thinking a lot about how the drum kit and the karaoke mike are different from the guitar controller, in terms of having a more direct connection to "the real thing." (It might seem that the karaoke mike makes this connection a perfect one -- you are actually singing -- but because you have to sing exactly the pitches and rhythms that are laid out for you I'd say there's actually a significant gap between the game experience and a typical popular music vocal performance.) I already feel I have learned much more about playing a real drum set than my previous GH experience had taught me about playing a real guitar. The impact on my listening experience has been similar for both guitar and drum parts, though; I now hear those parts in a dramatically different way (and not just when listening to songs included in the games).

The new semester has started and I'm despairing of finding time to think, play, and read about all of this in the next few months. But I am hoping to set up a couple of GH/Rock Band nights in our recital hall so that students can come and play with a huge screen and great sound system. I certainly have no shortage of willing research assistants. Meanwhile, I've had the curious experience of being contacted for "expert" soundbites on these games (by the Christian Science Monitor and the BBC's On Screen program). Funny how the press hasn't shown so much of an interest in my years of research on an apparently less-sexy topic, which recently resulted in an actual book (rather than some depressingly sporadic blog entries).