March 24, 2008

Fake Plastic Rock is for Losers. Go Buy Real Instruments!

Occasionally I’ll meet people that just don’t understand the appeal of Rock Band or Guitar Hero. That’s fine. There are plenty of games I don’t enjoy, too. Where they sometimes go wrong is converting that preference into a blanket statement of fact:

Guitar Hero was one thing, but Rock Band is entirely another. You’re better off learning how to play a real drum kit and/or buying a real guitar than investing in all this equipment to pretend to be a musician.

Somehow, I don’t see these people making that same argument about flying an F-16 fighter in Ace Combat, shooting at enemies in Call of Duty, or driving a car in Forza or Gran Turismo.

I think these two cartoons summarize it well:

XKCD on Rock Band

Ctrl-Alt-Del on Guitar Hero

There are also plenty of real musicians who find a lot of merit in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Take it from Carrie Brownstein, the former guitarist for Sleater-Kinney who wrote a piece for Salon titled Rock Band vs. Real Band:

There is a sad similarity between Rock Band and some actual bands, and that is the attempt at realness. With so much of music blurring the lines between ersatz and authenticity, at least the Rock Band game is a tribute to rock, rather than an affront. In the realm of fakery, I would choose Rock Band over American Idol or over any of the other flimsy truths masquerading as music.

She also wrote a followup on NPR titled Are We Not Gamers? which expands on this article.

So, do I like Rock Band? In short, yes. If people listen to David Bowie or Black Sabbath because of the game, if they get even one glimpse of Keith Moon’s frantic genius or feel how Kurt Cobain’s guitar lines were as expressive as his hoarse cry, then Rock Band is better than listening to most of the awful music out there. And, the truth is, not everyone should form a band. Any stroll on MySpace or visit to a modern rock station will tell you that. There are probably a handful of bands who would be doing the world a favor if they broke up and played Rock Band instead. They might actually learn a thing or two.

Furthermore, there’s a lot of evidence that young players are being introduced to music fundamentals in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Could tomorrow’s Clapton be playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band today?

The enthusiasm of [guitar] teachers like Emery and Skyler indicate that there’s a real chance the ultimate result of millions of people getting hooked on games like Guitar Hero and now Rock Band will be a new love of rock ‘n’ roll.

Part of the equation, Skyler said, is that Guitar Hero teaches rhythm.

“In the game, you have four buttons,” he said. “You have to get them in time, in sequence. So in a sense, even though (you’re) not learning the specific strings, you are building rhythm in a musical context, which is valuable.”

Do you know someone who feels fake plastic rock is for losers, and that we should all collectively form a band? Send them a link to this blog post — and invite them to your next fake plastic rock jam session!

I think the way the guitars work is brilliant. I can’t play them, but I think it’s really smart. There are 144 fret positions on an average guitar, and a nearly infinite number of chords – plus there’s the timing of when to hit the note or chord. So simplifying that down to five colored buttons and a strummer thingy in the name of fun is a great idea.

I think they totally blew it with the drums, though. Drums are much simpler instruments which could have been pretty much exactly duplicated in the game. Instead, “The four pads will commonly change functionality to represent other drums, depending on the requirements of a song”. What starts as the snare drum at the start of the song may turn into the a tom during a fill, then into a cymbal later. The bummer there is that they broke the simple physical and audible connections which make drums learnable, so instead of learning to play what you hear by muscle memory, you’re learning to hit a colored pad in time with what you see on the screen. People can learn their way around that, I’m sure, but it was a very unfortunate move on the part of the game designers. It’s like they made you sing the color names on the screen instead of the words to the song, or a video typing game that taught in modified Dvorak layout. It’s an arbitrary decision which doesn’t do anything to help new Rock Band players, wastes what could be an opportunity to accidentally learn something, and prevents people who can keep a beat on drums from sitting down and playing.

Maybe they did it to keep profits up – maybe some songs needed more pads, and more pads would have raised the price outside of their profit projections or something. But at least they could have sold a “rock band pro drums add on kit” or something. This isn’t any criticism of people that play Rock Band, it’s a criticism of the game design. Your time and money, your game. It’s just frustrating to see them unnecessarily mangle the user experience here for no real purpose.

And, yes, I’ve seen your subsequent post with the guy playing with Consolas and Cambria. As commenters noted, he already played drums, so that doesn’t really prove anything.

Oh, and the thousands of dollars thing kills me. It’s cheaper to buy a cheap, used guitar than Rock Band. Some people decide to fetishize music music equipment, maybe as a way of keeping it as a nice but unobtainable dream rather than have to actually buckle down and learn to play. With the exception of some orchestra equipment, you can get ugly but usable versions of most instruments for under $100.

Jon Galloway
March 31, 2008 at 9:56 am

per the manual: “the red drum is your snare, the green drum is your crash, and the yellow and blue drums are your cymbals (that turn into toms during fills).”

Jeff Atwood
April 5, 2008 at 6:10 pm

BTW Jon…ITS COHEED!!!!! Where the fuck did you get Consolas? However, I do agree on the drums being OVER simplified. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love playing them, but the same pad shouldn’t make four different sounds in one song, hell it really shouldn’t make four different sounds throughout the game, but if they went with that premise then we’d have a fake plastic drum set that rivals that of Niel Peart. (Sp?)

August 6, 2008 at 10:24 am

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