No chops required

Two locally made guitar games cater to rookies and rockers alike

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By Luke O’Neil
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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There’s a small audience gathered as Albert Polk and Andrew Mello of the Boston indie-rock band Streight Angular are plugging in their guitars. Requests are tossed out from onlookers, considered, and passed over. Eventually they settle on a crowd pleaser. It’s a cover they haven’t had a chance to rehearse, but one familiar enough that they’re confident they can wing it. When they kick into the unmistakable bass intro of “Just Like Heaven’’ by the Cure, the mood in the room brightens — that is, until they start fumbling with Robert Smith’s trademark delay-heavy guitar lead. By the time the synth line comes in, the song starts to fall apart.

If this were a normal gig, you might be tempted to ask for your money back. Fortunately for the band, this isn’t a club — it’s the offices of the Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, where we’re testing out Rock Band 3, the latest offering in the MTV-owned developer’s enduring franchise.

The game’s release this past Tuesday came just one week after another locally-based developer, the upstart Seven45 Studios, launched its own entry into the interactive music game genre with Power Gig: Rise of the SixString.

In previous versions of Rock Band and in similar titles like Activision’s Guitar Hero, gamers “play’’ along with hit songs from well-known artists in a sort of pantomime of guitar playing — tapping out musical sequences on a color-coded series of buttons on instrument-shaped controllers. In an upgrade that could either enhance or inhibit their potential audience, both Power Gig and Rock Band 3 are introducing actual stringed guitars as controllers. Rather than just going through the motions, these new devices aim to deliver a gaming experience that comes a lot closer to actually rocking out.

Rock Band 3 offers a “Pro Mode’’ in which gamers can choose between two replica Fender guitars as controllers — the Mustang, which simulates strings along its neck with a series of easily playable buttons, and the Squier, which, along with controlling the game, can actually be plugged into a real amplifier. PowerGig also employs a controller which can similarly double as a traditional electric guitar. Both titles are available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Rock Band 3 is also available for the Nintendo Wii.

“The technology works on where your hand is, what fret and what strings you play,’’ explains Sylvain Dubrofsky, senior designer on Rock Band 3. The onscreen image indicates the shape of the actual guitar chord or notes the user is meant to play.

Part of what makes these games so popular — Rock Band titles alone have sold 16.1 million units worldwide — is the way they give non-musicians the chance to experience, on some level, what it’s like to perform in a band. The addition of realistic guitars could draw a more varied audience: from rookie rockers taking their first ersatz music lessons in their living room to seasoned pros looking to fine-tune their chops. For musicians who double as gamers, it’s a development that’s been long anticipated, says Jonn Smith of the Boston power-pop band Sidewalk Driver.

“Ever since the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games came out, I’d hoped that they would make a ‘complete’ guitar controller for the game out of an actual working guitar,’’ Smith says. “I always thought the games were cool, but that the skills kids, and adults, were gaining by playing guitar or bass in these games for hours on end did not translate at all to an actual instrument.’’ What if gamers had spent all this time learning to play guitar, he wonders?

A common refrain among critics is that these virtual performance games are fun to play, but have little to do with music aside from introducing basic concepts like rhythm and beat.

“We’ve seen a lot of examples of people learning how to play songs around the office,’’ says Dubrofsky. “Employees who already know how to play guitar will come in and say ‘I want to learn how to play “The Power of Love’’ by Huey Lewis & The News,’ for example, and learn how to perform it on real guitar after a few plays through the game,’’ he says. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he says, employees with no experience have been able to pick up basic power chords with relative ease.

Polk and Mello, both guitar players with relevant gaming experience, were curious to see how the two games translated to actual musicianship.

“It’s like learning how to read music — or tablature,’’ Mello says, taking his first pass through the instructional mode of Rock Band 3.

“It takes a little getting used to,’’ Polk says. “Maybe because it’s so precise.’’ Indeed, sometimes this precision can expose a seasoned player’s weaknesses; flubbed notes that are easy to cover up with feedback and effects in a live setting become more apparent in game play.

Polk and Mello were especially intrigued by the possibilities the instruments will have for children learning on them, and for established musicians incorporating them into the songs they write.

“I think people will take this and start their own bands and write their own songs,’’ Mello says.

A test run though Power Gig later that evening proved less exciting for the duo.

“This is more about hitting the frets, like the older-style games,’’ Polk says.

In the Power Gig system, the stringed guitar controller seemed more of a novelty addition to the game than an actual guitar. Unlike Rock Band 3, Power Gig employs a more narrative format, in which a player’s performance on the instrument helps usher the game’s characters through various levels of an adventure-like story. The game also features a Quick Gig mode that allows players to simply play through a selection of songs.

That traditional video game level structure seems designed to appeal more to a younger gaming crowd than to musicians eager to test — or hone — their skills through simulation, Polk and Mello agree.

“This is simple enough,’’ Mello says. “But Harmonix has the range where the layman can understand it, and the musician can be entertained.’’

On higher levels of difficulty, Power Gig introduces the concept of forming power chord shapes along the guitar’s neck. “It will get your hands used to playing power chords,’’ Polk offers. “It has the strings so it gets people interested in what a guitar feels like.’’

That’s the idea, says Matt Sughrue, executive producer at Seven45. “The way we designed it is as a beat-matching game familiar to people who play existing games. Since you’re using a real instrument to play it, we designed game play to be very easy to play, even if you’ve never picked up a real instrument.

“It’s designed for the mass market, it’s for people who want to take the beginning steps of learning how to be a guitar player, not to teach you to be a shredder,’’ says Sughrue. “It’s designed to spark interest and take those skills further if you want to. Rock Band is for people who are more advanced in their skills — a very niche market, different from the approach we’re taking.’’

Like the guys from Streight Angular, for example. “It’s got pretty good action,’’ Mello said, inspecting the fretboard of the Power Gig guitar before plugging it into an actual guitar amp. “I could play this live. But when I walk away from the game I don’t know how to play this song,’’ he says of the Smashing Pumpkins tune he was working through.

“But when I walked away from the other one, I definitely knew how to play that Cure song.’’

Luke O’Neil can be reached at