Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lunch, Guitar Hero III, and Rock Band

I had lunch with John Harwood today.

John was the genius who found Guitar Hero II for the 360 almost a WEEK early. John is in the top 1% of all scores on the campaign leaderboard. I'm in the top 2% (or was--it may be 3% now).
Point being, we've both spent hundreds of hours playing Guitar Hero. Combined, you'd be hard-pressed to find two people more crazy about Guitar Hero than us.

We spent the whole hour talking about Rock Band.

Just a few months ago, we both had Rock Band firmly in the "unknown" category. Now, I'm not even sure that I'm buying Guitar Hero III. John is, but I have doubts he'll even work through career.

Why we've changed our minds is worth discussing, because these two games will be chasing huge, huge amounts of consumer dollars this fall.

Let's go to Guitar Hero III first.

This may sound silly, if you haven't played the game, but Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II were as close to "pure" experiences as anything I've ever played. They conveyed, using a game, a phenomenal musical experience.

By musical experience, I don't mean to imply that playing Guitar Hero was like playing a real guitar. It wasn't, obviously, but it did provide an intense, focused way to experience music. The game channeled you, quite subtlely, into an incredibly intense place.

To play at the highest levels, the game required technique. It required skill. It really didn't require any knowledge of gaming at all. There were lots of funny, clever bits, but it wasn't really about gaming at all.

So what did Activision/Red Octane decide to do with Guitar Hero III? They decided to "game up" the game. In that single decision, they told the serious player that they fundamentally had no understanding of what the game was really about.

Boss battles? With power-ups? The horror. Take a look at this video, but be ready to cringe. "Whammy" power-ups? "Amp overload?" Your notes can actually disappear during this goofy battle.

So instead of a "battle" being decided with skill, it's going to heavily involve knowing when to use f-ing power-ups? Oh, the humanity. And I assume that the player-versus-player multiplayer battles, since they're described as "action" based, will include those power-ups as well.

Like I said, those kinds of additions, instead of more music-focused ones, demonstrate very clearly to me that they just don't get it.

So what does Harmonix do with Rock Band? Is there any goofy bullshit, any power-ups, and "battles?"

No. Just music stuff. A ton of career modes, a drum kit controller, vocals. Music, music, music, music, music, music.


At E3 this week, Activision announced that they'd signed a guitar player.


Slash can play, no question, but he's also the closest you can get to a living cartoon character--stovepipe hat, bushy curls, ever-present cigarette danging from his mouth. And you can battle him! Ooh, use the whammy, use the whammy!

Two days later, Harmonix announces they'll have downloadable albums, and oh-by-the-way the first album is by The Who, who feature not only one of the greatest guitar players of all time (Townshend), but also one of the greatest drummers of all time (Moon). Oh, and the album is going to be one of the most intense albums ever recorded--Who's Next.

Sorry, smoking cartoon guy. Get off the stage, bitch.

It's more than that, though. It's the drum kit, which looks absolutely, incredibly cool. I'm probably more excited about having a career as a drummer than I am about a guitar career, and I don't even like drums that much. It's about being able to have a band.

What it's mostly about, though, is seeing that the people making the game so obviously respect the musical experience.

I'm going to write next week about some of the possibilities we discussed for Rock Band (John had a ton of great ideas), but that's it for today.

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