Why Pro Guitar Will, Sadly, Fail in Rock Band 3

jmaltz@pnosker.com September 11, 2010 0

So, there I was, avoiding reading Percepolis for another 15 minutes by playing Rock Band with my newest friend, Nick.  In between sessions rocking out the entire Foo Fighters catalog, we would discus whatever was on our mind.  Eventually, the conversation drifted to Rock Band 3 and some of the cool features that it had.  At first things were going swimmingly, as we were in complete agreement about how awesome some of the new features are, especially dynamic drop-in drop-out and the keyboard.   As we continued to talk, I asked him what his thoughts were on pro mode for the guitar, which, in my mind at least, is the single biggest advancement that Rock Band 3 is making in terms of gameplay.  Nearly without hesitation, Nick responded in  that he would not be getting the pro guitar.  I was floored.  Here was a kid who had brought his complete Rock Band set-up with him to college, had dropped what in his own words was “an embarrassingly large” amount of money on DLC (with much more planned), and was 100% sold on getting the keyboard when it releases later this year, yet he was unwilling to fork over the money necessary to try one of Rock Band 3's biggest advancements.  As I probed further, surprised and curious to meet someone who was not as blown away by these peripherals as me and Steve were when we saw them at E3, Nick made a very telling statement; in the midst of talking about how cool pro mode was as a concept he said “if I wanted to learn to play guitar, I’d go out and buy a guitar”.  At that moment I realized that pro mode, for all of its innovation, will likely not be widely embraced because of a variety of factors which limit its appeal.



Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that no matter what Harmonix does, people who want to learn to become a musician will never turn to Rock Band to learn.  Nonetheless though, pro mode is targeted at people who either want to be real musicians or are bored with their Rock Band experience.  However, neither of these groups is very large.  Think about it, when have you heard the words “wow this is really lame; I wish this was more like real guitar” come out of the mouth of anyone who is playing Rock Band.  I know for me at least the answer is never.  Instead, the guy who comments on the apparent “lameness” of not being able to play real guitar is the same person who is unwilling to even pick up a plastic five-fretted guitar simply because he or she likes to feel superior because they have a real fender up in their room.   The fact is, most of the people who play Rock Band will never pick up a real fender guitar simply because they don’t want to deal with the hassle that comes along with learning to play a real instrument.  It is much more enjoyable, especially in the short run, to just pick up and play a fake one.  Granted, Rock Band has inspired many people to pick up real instruments, however, the people who truly wanted to learn real instruments as a result of playing Rock Band have had a full three years to do so.  If those people who have already played Rock Band already haven’t decided to give real musicianship a try, putting the same mechanics into a video game will likely not convince them to do so.  Similarly, the number of people who are bored enough with their Rock Band experience is limited to only those who are tired of the concept of virtual music as a whole or those who have mastered expert.  Although I couldn't find any statistics on exactly how many people this is, I'm fairly certain that it isn't a large enough number to carry the sales of a peripheral.

                In spite of this though, I think it’s highly likely Pro Mode will be successful and well received both for the keys and drums for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the price in order to “go pro” for both of these instruments is not nearly as prohibitive for either of these instruments as it is for the guitar/bass.  The regular drums, which nearly every Rock Band player currently has, can be upgraded to pro drums with the addition of a cymbal set for $39.99, which is hardly a significant price to pay even for casual Rock Band players.  The keys are a little bit more expensive, as they clock in at $79.99 by themselves or $129.99 in a bundle with Rock Band 3.  Although this may seem like a high price to pay for one peripheral, bear in mind that this is similar to what a new drum set will currently run you, and that hasn't stopped the drums from becoming.  What’s more, the keyboard will almost certainly be adopted by people who aren’t even considering giving pro mode a whirl as it allows you to both play a pared down version of keys and pro mode with the same peripheral, something which will appeal to both the hardest core rockers and more casual players.  Both the drums and the keys stand in stark contrast to the pro guitar from a value perspective.  Sure, $149.99 will get gamers a peripheral which can play on normal and pro modes; however, seeing as there is no relatively affordable bundle featuring the pro guitar, the pro guitar will be both expensive and intimidating enough to scare newcomers to the Rock Band series away.  Think about it, you have just paid $59.99 for the game and $69.99 on your instrument of choice. Would you spend $149.99 on another peripheral when you can get two different and unique instruments for that same price.  I know I certainly wouldn't. This difference in price will limit the market for Harmonix’s most innovative peripheral to only those who have already played the series and have become tired of what it has to offer.

                Last but not least, pro mode on bass and guitar will not be embraced on a large scale because the controller is really effing intimidating.  Seriously, if you haven’t taken a look at it already, run over to google images and take a look at that sucker, there are over 100 frets buttons (that's why I write about video games) on it, that’s more than the number of keys on a grand piano.  Playing pro drums and keys seems quite manageable by contrast, as both of those only require you to keep track of eight and twenty-five buttons respectively.  Granted, this complexity is a function of how complicated a normal guitar is, but that does nothing to change the fact that even looking at a pro guitar makes your head spin.  I have no doubt that Harmonix will curve the difficulty on the pro guitar perfectly, making for a smooth learning experience as you progress from easy to expert on the pro guitar.  Nonetheless though, the mere fact that picking up a pro guitar puts you in charge of 102 individual fret buttons and six strings will be intimidating enough, especially when combined with an already prohibitive price point, that many people will choose to stick with their old and trust worthy guitars come October 26th.

                Lastly, I want to end with a statement which might come as a surprise: I really hope that this article ends up being completely and totally wrong.  I hope that this article is so terribly and completely wrong that in three years when I’m writing about Rock Band 4 I’m mentioning how ubiquitous the pro guitar in our lives and receiving emails about my failures as a writer.  I think that what the team at Harmonix has done is truly remarkable, in that they have figured out a way to model a real guitar on the classic Rock Band track and have done so in a way which can be easily understood on screen and in concept.  Hell, I think that in doing so they have made the next logical jump in the music genre and even gaming as a whole.  What they have done with Pro mode is the functional equivalent of putting every single Halo 3 player into a Spartan suit and forcing him or her to run around pulling the trigger on a fully modeled assault rifle, and for that I really do hope that their endeavor succeeds.  In spite of that, the fact that the price point on the pro guitar is so high (perhaps out of necessity), the initial impressions so intimidating, and the market so small (the hardest of the hardcore Rock Band fans) that, for all of its awesomeness, the Rock Band 3 pro guitar will likely fall by the wayside when it releases alongside the full game.

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