Ask any musician what’s wrong with video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band and you’ll get some variation of this response: If gamers spent half as much time with a real instrument as they did pushing plastic buttons on a toy version, they could become musicians instead of just mimicking them.
That argument has been heard loud and clear at Seven45 Studios in Boston, where game designers have come up with Power Gig: Rise of the SixString, which puts a genuine electric guitar into players’ hands, allowing them to unplug from the game, hook up to an amplifier and rock for real.
At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Seven45 officials on Tuesday demonstrated their version, which they boast has “the most sophisticated game controller ever invented.” Power Gig is expected to hit the market this fall despite the sputtering sales of music-centric games.
“This is unique and different enough to give the industry the shot in the arm it needs,” Seven45 Vice President of Marketing Jeff Walker said Monday. “We believe there’s a sizable audience out there that is wanting to see the next natural evolution of where these music-based video games need to head.”
Walker also noted that several prominent musicians and bands who have withheld their music from other games because of the lack of realism have agreed to license songs to Power Gig, but he wouldn’t specify which acts.
The new game offers players a “beat-matching” mode in which strings are pressed on the guitar neck to score points. That parallels the experience of pressing multicolored buttons on the toy controllers in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But Power Gig also has a more advanced “chording” mode in which playing notes correctly and forming basic guitar chords advances the game play.
That function, Walker said, “is only for that segment of the audience that says, ‘I want to take the next step.’”
Makers of the existing games concede that their products aren’t intended to create real-world guitar heroes. Alex Rigopulos, one of the creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, has often said his goal in developing those games was to give non-musicians a significant portion of the experience of being a musician without the endless hours of practice and dues-paying.
Seven45 officials take pains to say the game won’t turn tone-deaf players into Eric Claptons and John Mayers. “This is not a learn-how-to-play game,” Walker said.
Many, if not most, video-game players aren’t interested anyway. “It’s like people who like to play racing games — they don’t go out, get a car and then enter the Indy 500,” said Guitar Player magazine associate editor Barry Cleveland.
“This sounds like a gateway instrument. It’s really apples and oranges — the motor skills needed to play these games are very different than the skills you need to play musical instruments. They’re mostly discussed in terms of the psychological part: Is it something that’s diverting people from becoming musicians, or is it expanding the number of people who are attracted to playing? ... People have surprisingly strong opinions about this.”
Still, the musically inclined can expect some benefit from gaming with a real instrument in hand.
“We call it the ‘stealth learning’ approach,” said Walker, who, like 80 percent of Seven45’s staff, also is a musician. “Tutorials can be boring,” he said, noting nevertheless that the game does have a tutorial function. “But people will find that after they’ve played for hours and hours that they start to develop the basic fundamentals of finger-strength building, knowing how much pressure to apply to the strings, and how to form basic chords.”
Power Gig will hit the market at a time when Guitar Hero and Rock Band have lost a lot of their luster. Sales of music-centric games tailed off nearly 50 percent last year compared to 2008, when they hit about $1.6 billion, according to Wedbush Securities research analyst Michael Pachter.
“This sounds like it will have lots of appeal if a person has an interest in learning to play guitar, and it will have pretty low appeal for those who don’t,” Pachter said. “The music-game genre is not dead at all. Sales are still strong, but they’ve dropped a lot. It’s a niche market and it will be good for guitar players who also happen to be gamers, but it won’t be for gamers, unless they want to learn to play guitar.”
Consumers also may be increasingly confused as more peripherals for music games from third-party manufacturers arrive.
Cleveland said two prominent guitar manufacturers are working on more realistic-feeling controllers for Guitar Hero, and InspiredInstruments is about to introduce its You Rock Guitar, a hybrid guitar synthesizer-game controller that replaces the strum bar of the existing toy controllers with a short section of strings. But it stops short of being a fully functional guitar, using buttons on the fret board to generate synthesized sounds.
Seven45 has the advantage of being owned by the same people who own First Act, a line of affordable, introductory-level musical instruments and accessories sold at Wal-Mart, Target and other major retailers, potentially giving Power Gig a foot in the door to a mass audience.
Power Gig will be introduced initially for Xbox and Sony Playstation3 game systems, with plans for a Wii version. The guitar controller will be also sold separately and is “100 percent compatible” with existing games, for those who don’t want the entire Power Gig software-hardware package. But its function will be limited to beat-matching if used with Rock Band, Guitar Hero or Band Hero.
Seven45 officials are banking on building an audience for Power Gig’s story line, which also hasn’t been fully detailed yet.
“It goes beyond starting out in a garage band and working your way up to playing arenas and stadiums,” said company spokesman Brian Rubin. “It’s a whole world of its own.”
// Notes from the Road
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