Some Thoughts on Rock Band 3

To me, Rock Band 3 feels like a swan song for a genre that doesn’t quite realize the end has come. It is the veteran quarterback coming to the end of his prime who finally wins the Super Bowl. It is the long struggling writer who finally writes his Great American Novel before fading back to obscurity. It is the best of its kind, and the last great hurrah before the coming fall.

I’ve been playing plastic instruments for about half decade now, and I must admit that Rock Band 3 has long been high on my must-buy list. Now, just more than a week after its release, I am comfortable with my investment, and having a terrific time. It is an outstanding game, quality from top to bottom with an unerring emphasis on fan service. It is the ultimate party game, the music game fully realized.

And yet, I can’t shake the sense that it is the triumphant final note on a rock-opera epic gone on two minutes too long.

As I sit with my new faux-clavier across my lap, the note highway stretches before me like a Nevada backroad as seen on LSD. The song is two minutes in, and background animated models cavort across some downtown dive’s stage, the lead singer making elaborate flourishes with every over-emphasized guttural vowel. As the keyboardist, I’ve played a handful of notes so far, and it’s increasingly clear that this song is not my spotlight. This is my new pretend rock star experience, the underutilized band member who is probably the second cousin of the manager but who is already planning to strike off on his own.

Without question Rock Band 3 is packed with songs like Centerfold, Walk of Life, Power of Love, Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody that embrace the full power of the keyboard at every ivory-tickling turn, but the longer you play Rock Band as a keyboardist the more you realize that only a limited number of styles and eras aggressively employ the instrument. It’s like playing Symphony Hero: French Horn Edition.

And, when you do get your turn at the spotlight, the experience of playing keyboards, particularly in Pro Mode, is very different than the more accommodating five button experiences of the past. Becoming adept at keyboards is a different kind of learning curve, somehow much more unforgiving and less automatically fun than previous instruments. Rock Band 3 wants to teach you how to play music, and there’s a good reason that very few people ever rush through the door at the end of a long day to play scales and arpeggios. The reality is that practice rarely makes you feel like a rock star, and to get good at keyboards demands practice.

As a long time drummer, the Pro Drums mode is much more natural, though with an underpinning of frustration. Adding in the high hat, ride Cymbal and crash somehow doesn't seem like it should be a particular leap in complexity even as it so very obviously is, and drum parts that demand you switch from drums to cymbals and back again can kick even the most experience Rock Band 2 drummer back at least a difficulty level or two, and reminds you of how genuinely far from playing a real instrument you actually are.

I can only imagine, at this point, what the Pro Guitar mode will be like with its hundred-and-something buttons.

I feel like automatically lumping Rock Band 3 into the “just another rhythm game” class is flawed. To me, Rock Band 3 shares more in common with Flight Simulator or any other hardcore simulation experience than its Guitar Hero or DDR roots. Like Flight Simulator, Rock Band 3 isn’t just trying to give you an artificial high based on romantic notions of being a musician so much as it is trying to coax you ever closer to an actual instrument. And like any hardcore simulator, there is no end to the number of gadgets and peripherals you can add to inch toward something like a true representation of the mechanical feel of music making.

I speak not as a casual user, however, who can simply embrace the party nature of the game and leave it happily at the surface level with the Stygian depths unplumbed. My perspective on Rock Band 3 is decidedly skewed, and I admit that my perception is colored by the fact that Harmonix has provided a platform with deep complexity and I can not resist the gauntlet at my feet.

It’s hard to imagine where they go next. There’s really very little need for further refinement, and the market has obviously cooled. I imagine a long, but slowly declining future, of DLC and perhaps a few more tepid band-focused releases, but Rock Band 3 feels very much like the last, best music game I’ll ever need. I admit, strangely, that I am at peace with that.

Comments

Interesting take. As someone who works on the other side of this, in a manner of speaking — working with the market leaders to create and then sell songbooks and other learning/playing materials — I would say that you're tapping into the transitional nature of the Rock Band experience. Between it, Glee, and a few other things, there have been people running in droves to pick up real instruments, for which there is no cap of 80 songs (with a few extras to be added at $2 a pop). Although a few have realized that you're unlikely to "rush through the door....to play scales and arpeggios", as you put it, it seems that most people are sticking with it. It's almost as though RB et al has given people a taste of what mastery of an instrument feels like, and that's allowing them to persevere through the more difficult periods of instrumental learning. At any rate, it's been good for business.

Oh, and there's no such thing as a French Horn; a common misconception. It's simply "Horn" or "Horn in F" or "Double Horn".

First Pluto, now the French Horn.

I'm totally getting a bumper stick that says "The French Horn is Still an Instrument!"

I'm with you, Sean. I love the RB series to death. I haven't been as excited for a game as I was for RB3 since...well, since RB1. Even so, I have to admit I can see places that the franchise can go, just not so much for the casual player. By the way, if pro keys is giving you a headache, you can play regular five lane keys as well with just the five white keys from middle C to G. I find pro mode far more fulfilling though, even though I'm playing on medium or hard at best so far.

No, I think future developments in the music game area will be focused on improving this "pro mode" style gameplay. It's possible they could work some kind of creation and improvisation into the mix and create a whole new musical tool that goes far beyond being a mere video game. Hell, pro guitar already goes far beyond just a video game. Pro keys may be restricted to two octaves and one hand, but as far as I'm concerned, pro guitar is a legitimate learning tool disguised as a video game. Especially once the Squier guitar comes out next year and we have a real stringed instrument to play.

Yes, I'm aware that it's a cheap guitar in the grand scheme of things. I've heard this all over the place. "Oh, it's a Squier, it's just a cheap piece of crap." Well it probably is when you compare it to your quality instruments that cost upwards of a grand. News flash: Instruments are expensive! We're talking about a beginner's instrument here. The goal is to get people to learn real skills where they otherwise wouldn't have, and I think this is absolutely the future of the music game genre. As far as mashing five plastic buttons goes, I think we've already pretty much hit the peak. But learning real skills? That is a whole new ball game...

Nice read! I get RB3 this week sometime from Amazon, sitting on the keyboard I got from Target. I hope I'm not disappointed as I don't have a ton of time to invest into pro mode. Hopefully I'll be able to play some Billy Joel at some point and that will justify the investment for me.

drew327 wrote:

Hopefully I'll be able to play some Billy Joel at some point and that will justify the investment for me.

You might be interested in this:

http://rockbandaide.com/9081/billy-j...
http://rockbandaide.com/9146/billy-j...

We're getting a Billy Joel greatest hits 12 pack in December, and a 6 song "piano challenge pack" in the spring. I too am excited.

Good take. I agree entirely with your premise that plastic instruments are grabbing their coats and jackets, about ready to leave the party.

Just... one... more... drink.

I have always been in search of the energy punch that can see me through.

briantan the dirty spammer wrote:

The developers of energy beverages have obviously concentrated on one thing, delivering the much sought after energy punch to see us through. They concentrated on energy.

SallyNasty wrote:

I have always been in search of the energy punch that can see me through.

As long as it isn't the energy punch that makes me see through.

Makes sense to me. After all, it's not another game, but a platform. Right?

All I can say is I was waiting patiently for Christmas when RB3 would make a grand entrance at my house. My son would be in heaven and I could go along for the ride with his enthusiasm.

However, reading this makes me ask do I really need RB3? I am a moderately adept Hard player, but nowhere near expert on RB2. I am thinking keyboards could be nice, but pro mode is beyond me, so do I really need RB3. Tough to say, but I welcome your thoughts.

You must be confusing the French Horn with the Sousaphone.

I actually want the increase in complexity which comes from the Pro Drums, I imagine it's still nowhere near the real thing but I feel slightly better about the illusion when there's more things to hit.

I've come full circle.

My (sort of) mastery of Guitar Hero tempted me to start learning the piano. I reasoned that if I could master the plastic guitar then a keyboard should be within reach.

That was 4 and a half years ago. Since then, a weekly lesson and some practice has got me playing with some level of accomplishment.

I'm looking forward to getting RB3, converting over all my RB content - at least as much as they'll let me - and rocking out. It'll make a pleasant change from the classical and blues numbers I mainly focus on.

Who knows, it might even improve my piano playing!

I held my first Rock Band 3 party the other night. Six experienced (but not all expert) Rock Band players ready to take it to the next level.

One comment from the next day "It's a bummer that you can't really play 5 or 6 [or 7] player Rock Band."

We had a good time, sure. But the keyboard, even on pro-mode, really does feel like the second cousin to the rest of the band. Occasionally we got multilpe mics running, but none of us were that good at harmonies - although "Rock Lobster" was tons of fun - so that was a slight miss.

We'll keep playing for certain, but the big groups we were envisioning coming out of RB3 isn't quite the same. Losing vocals as an "Instrument" is a bit of a bummer.

And it will bump the tons of DLC down the priority charts since all the old stuff lacks keyboard and harmony.

I do wonder what will come next. I also wonder if I'll buy it or not....

I've got some serious rhythm-action chops. I played (and loved) Parappa, I've owned various DDR games over 3 entire generations of consoles, and Frequency and Amplitude were probably my second most-played PS2 games after Guitar Heros 1 and 2. I've bought every Rock Band game (Green Day excluded) on launch day. In the past 3 years, there's barely been a week go by in my house where a plastic instrument hasn't been brandished. Rock Band is family time, when "all three of the both of us" (me on drums, the wife dual-wielding guitar and mic) hang out.

You get the idea.

With that lineage established, Elysium *really* hit it out of the park on the podcast when he said "I don't want to sound like a douche, but I'm really enjoying playing something I suck at again". This is my experience of Rock Band 3, right there.

After a few days reflection, what's been really enjoyable about playing keys has been being on the left hand side of the learning curve again. That steep part where you finish each song appreciably better than when you started. That's what I'm really looking forward to with the pro guitar. It's another skillset to master, and that's what I really get satisfaction from. It's not about beating the game, it's about beating my own ineptitude.

And that's why I've found pro drums to be less great than I had hoped. It's just not dissimilar enough from regular drums. I'm still hitting things with 2 sticks, albeit that I have more things to hit. As a result, it isn't that significant a ramp in difficulty from regular drums.

I share the sentiment that it'll be a long time before I feel a need for Rock Band 4. I wouldn't say that Harmonix have painted themselves into a corner so much as explored all there is for the genre to offer.

On the plus side, it's only a lack of funds that's responsible for me not having a real drum kit in my basement right now. Rock Band made me want to learn. It's only a matter of months before there's an actual, functioning guitar in my house. Rock Band did that. I have a piano in my basement that we inherited. Rock Band may well be responsible for me actually learning how to play that too. That's a pretty amazing achievement.

Yeah... while I'm loving the keyboards and think they're a great addition, it's obvious why they weren't included in the first iteration of Rock Band.

Minarchist wrote:

Interesting take. As someone who works on the other side of this, in a manner of speaking — working with the market leaders to create and then sell songbooks and other learning/playing materials — I would say that you're tapping into the transitional nature of the Rock Band experience.

{snip}

It's almost as though RB et al has given people a taste of what mastery of an instrument feels like, and that's allowing them to persevere through the more difficult periods of instrumental learning. At any rate, it's been good for business. :-)

I'm coming at this from the instructional design side of things (finish my masters in a month, if I can stop reading GWJ and get back to building my portfolio), and I think you've got it right. When it comes to teaching, learner motivation and confidence are at least as important as how you pace and order the material. Harmonix has done wonders for music education on this front. That taste of real music helps keep people motivated. The difficulty curve of the game helps with the confidence building. While I know that Rock Band alone won't make me a drummer, getting good at the game has convinced me that real drumming is well within my abilities.

Something I particularly like about the game is how they've built the pro modes with the 4 difficulty levels. Starting with simplified versions of awesome songs has all the strengths of both the "build-up-from-basics" approach and the Suzuki method's "have them play actual songs right away." And pretending to play Imagine and Bohemian Rhapsody is way more satisfying and engaging than playing scales or picking out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

I speak not as a casual user, however, who can simply embrace the party nature of the game and leave it happily at the surface level with the Stygian depths unplumbed.

Well put. I am that casual gamer who just requires a handful of friends, beer, pizza and the RB setup. My most recent experience with RB3 was an absolute blast, and I really hope the game continues to be supported with great music.

And thank you for Power of Love.

I won't be playing pro drums any time soon. I'm waiting on the midi adapter before keyboards. The guitar doesn't come out for months.

For me, RB3 is a wonderful and worthy expansion of a great franchise. As a party game, the interface improvements alone are worth 60 bucks. I feel wholly justified in my purchase and I haven't seen anynofnthe new hotness.

I'll definitely be buying it to spice up my guitar practice, but yeah, other than the keyboard it does seem more like a big expansion pack.

I dunno, I think Activision killed them just by flooding the stores with Guitar Hero clones, not with a better product

cmitts wrote:

All I can say is I was waiting patiently for Christmas when RB3 would make a grand entrance at my house. My son would be in heaven and I could go along for the ride with his enthusiasm.

However, reading this makes me ask do I really need RB3? I am a moderately adept Hard player, but nowhere near expert on RB2. I am thinking keyboards could be nice, but pro mode is beyond me, so do I really need RB3. Tough to say, but I welcome your thoughts.

I'm an even more casual player than you (95+% on Medium guitar but having real trouble jumping to Hard, pretty terrible at Normal drums, and an utter failure on all things vocal), but for me Rock Band 3 was worth the $40ish I spent getting it through the Amazon B2G1 sale.

It is the first RB title that I actually wanted enough to spend more than $20 on for the disc, and I'm someone who has purchased all the available past discs except the Metal Track Pack. I haven't regretted the bigger expenditure for a minute even though for me it is in some ways just a gigantic track pack until I can find a cheap keyboard next summer. While I have a strong interest in eventually trying out the keyboard, the various pro modes add little value for a casual player like me.

In spite of this I would still recommend the game as they have added easy drop in/drop out, an improved challenge/career mode, the ability to create setlists, and the ability to rate songs. My understanding is that rating a song 1 star virtually insures it won't show up in random track lists which is really nice for people like me who have a # of songs they don't like but can't delete because they are part of larger packs.

Well, I went and did it. Picked up RB3 Saturday night and have to say its great.

I think on Guitar at least that they have corrected a flaw (perceived by me) where on medium you never saw the fifth orange key. You needed to go to hard at which point you saw it a lot and you tended to suck. Now they throw it in a couple of times a song on medium. I think that this will help prepare you for hard at an easier level. At least i hope so.

Again totally worth getting IMHO

So much for waiting until Christmas.

Picked up the Game + Keyboard kit, as well as the RB3 "Pro" drums. From someone that's always been on the plastic guitar side of things, this has been awesome.

My wife (who can plays piano & keyboard by ear) was excited to hear about a keyboard being added, and I went in with the mindset that if we weren't getting drums as well, I wasn't interested at all. I'm just tired of the guitar controller at the moment. However, I can totally see picking up the pro guitar down the road, especially if the rest of this pans out, because right now, I'm just awesomely sucking at drums and enjoying every minute of it.

Now, if I could just get it calibrated where it feels perfect hitting those darned 8th notes in drum training, I'd be much better off

Also note, this is the first Rock Band game that I've planned on keeping, but that probably has more to do with the instruments than anything else. I don't mind being a 1-man-band as I learn the drums!

"Symphony Hero: French Horn Edition."

That's an awesome image.