We got to play a couple of songs with the Mustang Pro Guitar controller shown off by Harmonix and MadCatz at E3 this week, and it's a beast -- each string of 17 frets on the guitar is an individual button, and there are six strings where the strum bar sits. Harmonix really wanted to make a real guitar as a controller (and it eventually did with the Fender Rock Band 3 Squier), but that "comes with a little bit of baggage of its own" in the form of tuning and calluses. We asked if the developer tried a touch-based system, but reps passed on confirming any prototypes, instead saying that the 102-button setup was the best solution it found.
"This worked for us because it was simple, and the technology is reliable. And in fact, it translates to the medium really well," Harmonix told us. "When you're playing an E shape, it's an E shape, and you're just pressing the buttons." Indeed, the controller feels somewhere between the standard Rock Band guitar and a real electric in size, and the buttons do work -- when you play a G chord or bar across an F chord, it works. The strings have a little less give than a standard guitar, because of course they don't really travel freely across the whole instrument, but otherwise, the buttons are a good simulation of fingering the patterns without actually using the real thing.
Playing the game, however, brings a new set of skills into the mix. Rather than strumming chords (which is what most amateur guitar players probably start with), the game throws single notes at you right away. There are six lines on the screen, and the fret number appears on each note, so you need to hold down the appropriate button (the button you're holding appears at the bottom of the screen on the strum line), and then strum the right string as it comes across. If the note coming at you says 3 on the red line, you need to get your finger on the 3rd fret, first string, and then strum as it goes across.
The mechanic is a little different from the regular game itself -- while the colored buttons have your fingers traveling horizontally across the five buttons, the Pro Guitar has your fingers moving vertically also, so the motion doesn't quite equate to the plastic guitar we've all been using to play these games. Also, the only indicator of which fret you're supposed to be on is a number, so there's an extra bit of cognitive power needed to figure out what button equates to "3," and then get your finger there.
As a result, you're not strumming chords, you're hitting notes. Harmonix says that power chords and chord progression appear at higher Pro difficulties, but even on the Pro Easy setting for more difficult songs you'll be picking specific notes. That makes it harder than just strumming chords, but the bonus is that learning to play the songs in Pro mode means that if you bring the same motions to a real guitar, you'll be able to play an approximation of the real song, even on Pro Easy.
According to Harmonix, if you can pull off 100% on the most difficult Rock Band songs, you'll actually have a head start in Pro mode -- while there will be a little curve on learning the guitar itself, you will soon be able to complete most songs on Pro Easy mode and even some Pro Medium songs.
You can make your way up the curve from there, and while Pro Expert offers up an extreme challenge, Harmonix admits that it's still an abstraction from actually learning the guitar. But there are advantages to trying to "learn" how to play this way -- "it puts it in a game context where you are motivated to do it," we were told, "and we've flattened out the learning curve ... such that you could totally do this for six months and then pick up a guitar." You won't be a high-level shredder, but Rock Band Pro mode is a way "through which skills learned in that game can be applied to stuff outside of the game."
We only played Pro guitar, but Harmonix said it's tuned the drums and keyboard to the same philosophy -- "Expert is effectively note-for-note ... Easy is a very scaled-down version of that, and then Medium is a little hard and Hard is a little harder." Drums will make use of the cymbal add-ons, and the difficulty there is in finding the new motor memory to include new locations in the drumming patterns. Keyboard ramps up the challenge by making full use of the peripheral, and even moving the onscreen note scale to make the physical keys play higher and lower notes on the scale.
Rock Band Pro mode is all about potential. It's about the individual player's potential to move on up to the next, optional level of difficulty in the game, and, eventually, the player's potential to make real music with a real instrument. And as Harmonix reps told us, it seems "designed to show the potential of what the music category can do in gaming" -- if anything can answer that question of whether music games can translate to the real world, this mode will do it.
So there's potential, and plenty of it. We'll have to see if Harmonix's revolution in music gaming can fulfill all of that potential later this year.