Peripheral Sequels

by Steve Bowler on March 24, 2008 · 4 comments

in design,user interface

Was playing more Rock Band tonight (big surprise, I know), and started thinking about what they might do if when they release the sequel to it. There wasn’t a whole lot in the way of innovation between the Guitar Heroes; just a ton more difficulty piled on to keep their “subscriber” base happy with more and more challenges. Sure, they added a few new chord finger positions, but mostly, it was more of what you already loved. Just harder.

So I’m wondering what kind of innovations one could cram into a sequel for Rock Band. While giving the singer a lot more control over their star power (seriously, the face buttons on the controller are still live, let us use them) would be welcome, I don’t know what else you could do with the fret pattern. This is the 3rd generation sequel, and little has actually changed (if anything) from the original modern fret pattern.

I began to wonder if actually innovating on the hardware wouldn’t be a welcome addition to the series.

Looking back at (specifically) the guitar peripheral history over the last ten years, there hasn’t really been a whole lot of updating in the controller itself. Guitar Freaks gave you, what, three buttons, the strum bar, and a whammy bar? Guitar Hero gave you five fret buttons, and the rest was the same, except for the star power (was that in Guitar Freaks? I didn’t really get into it at the time). Pretty much the same game with a couple of additional finger positions (which admittedly makes a world of difference).

Rock Band evidently listened to a fan in their forums and added the shred button mod he was talking about, and gave us a switch to change what the instrument sounds like (which I largely ignore because it ruins the song for the most part). All told, some welcome additions to the gaming guitar controller legacy.

But what I’d love to see enabled for Rock Band 2 on that controller are two small innovations that would give the Expert players something to write home about:

  1. An analog sensitive strum bar.
  2. Analog sensitive fret buttons.

The strum bar could sense how hard you’re strumming (up or down) and that could control your instrument’s volume. So on songs like “Here it Goes Again” which start off quiet and quickly build up volume, you could control that by how hard you were hitting that strum bar. I know, I know, electric guitars’ volume isn’t controlled by how hard you hit the strings, overall, but it still applies in a smaller range, for the most part.

The analog fret buttons are what I’d really love to see, though. One of my biggest beefs about rhythm games is that I don’t have any real freestyle control over what I’m doing. Yeah, I have to hit the notes/beats/steps as they drop, but a guitar is analog by its very nature, being that it’s a stringed instrument.

I love using the whammy bar “artfully” to pitch bend notes, or bend them rhythmically to a beat. I like having whatever sized window I can get to make a song my performance as much as possible. But the problem is, a whammy bar only allows you to pitch bend a note down. I hope you like flat notes, because that’s all you’re going to get when you use it. Analog fret buttons, however, would allow players to pitch bend the notes up. And when you’re jamming on solos and hitting the high notes, you almost always want to instinctively bend notes to the sharp range, not flat. Pressing the button down at any normal sensitivity would yield the note you expected, but pushing down harder on the button (similar to pushing a string up on a fretboard) would pitch bend the note higher. I’d love to see a button that pushes down and slides up, but I have no doubt that would break and be a large tech investment for a small return.

I’d just love to see a guitar controller (and software to match) that doesn’t penalize the beginner player, but rewards the higher caliber players, and I think analog buttons are the way to get there.