Merging the Instrument and the Controller - Video Game Week


The realistic guitar controller for Rock Band 3. Photo by Brian J Matis.

Video games create a space for fantasy role-playing, and games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are no exception. Hero? That game can make you feel like a rock god. Given some practice and… a lot of free time, your fingers can fly with the dexterity of a neurosurgeon over the green, red, yellow, blue, and orange buttons.

Eventually, that guitar solo in DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” becomes mere child’s play, and like Icarus with the wings given to him by his father, you decide to fly a little closer to the sun and pick up a real guitar. But just as Icarus forgot that his wings were not real and only made of wax, you realize there is a big difference between the frets and strings on a real guitar and the buttons on your game controller.

Despite music video games and plastic instrument controllers flying off the shelves, there was still plenty of space wide open for frustrated aspiring rock stars to tinker around with the idea of learning to play the real thing through a video game format. Finding a way to hook up a guitar to your Xbox could mean a major payoff (both monetary and musical) if practicing guitar and addictive could be as entertaining as a video game.

Major game developers and at-home engineers alike have been at it for years create such a format. A year before Rock Band 3 would introduce their revolutionary ‘Pro’ mode, Alan Chatham decided to outfit a real guitar to work as a game controller when he was playing rival game, Guitar Hero, with his friends in college.

“I started thinking about it, and had the inspiration that the strings and frets of a guitar, being metal, could be used as switches,” says Chatham, who founded the non-profit organization, Open Chord, to that end .

The OpenChord product comes with option of buying a fully built “V1” guitar you can plug into either your game system or a real amplifier, which allows you to play both for video games and for recreation. Alternatively, you can purchase an electronic kit to customize your own guitar into a game controller.

Though Chatham admits he was not the first to come up with the idea, it’s one that’s far older than the guitar-based video games.

“It turns out, after developing most of the hardware, that these things had been done extensively back in the ’80s with the first MIDI guitars,” says Chatham.

He also cites the minds behind Power Gig, a similar commercial product from the First Act instrument manufacturer, who put out a game controller with the same idea of playing video games with a real guitar, but with limited success. Both the competition of a crowding market place and lack of funding, Chatham says, ultimately drove the OpenChord project to a halt.

“There were a few other big names entering the ‘play with a real guitar’ space at the time, and so I got the feeling that a major push would have probably run into a number of legal problems.”

Chatham has plenty of advice for anyone else looking to put out a product similar to the V1 controller, especially on a smaller scale.

“The biggest things to worry about…are the testing requirements for government regulations — FCC, CE for Europe, others — that will burn up a few thousand dollars per test, and then the huge threat of legal patent action,” says the young entrepreneur. “While it’s incredibly easy to get into electronics these days, I feel like the amount of potential for patent litigation in the space more or less requires a company to get some degree of financial backing to limit the risk of getting sued out of existence.”

In addition to the degree of difficulty, Chatham estimates that the market for “rhythm games” is becoming stagnant, saying, “[It] was more or less collapsing at the same time we were coming out. I compare us to Power Gig… As much as they tried, they likely lost a boatload of money on that project.”

Power Gig received a “4 out of 10 (Bad)” rating from IGN Entertainment and the company suffered major layoffs soon after the game hit store shelves.

In an already atrophying game genre, is it wise to continue developing “real guitar” video games? The ‘Pro mode’ for Rock Band 3 requires a guitar controller with over 100 buttons that correspond to the frets on a real guitar, but even the IGN Entertainment review asks the million dollar question: “If you’re going to pay this much for a fake guitar with buttons that make it hard to slide your fingers on, why not spend a little more and buy the real thing?”

However, the million-and-one dollar question might be: Since buying/developing new hardware to trick out a real guitar, why not go the other route and develop software that makes playing a real guitar seem like a game?

This was essentially the idea behind Rock Prodigy, the free application now available for download from the iTunes store. In fact, its creators insist that, while the Rock Prodigy products have many video game like elements, “At its core, it is a learning and practicing tool for beginners and experts alike. Nonetheless, it is by design fun, engaging and provides immediate gratification – not unlike a game.” Or so says Chris Ohno, a representative of the game’s aptly-titled parent company, Music Prodigy.

The application works on Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch products, which all have an external microphone to pick up the sound of an acoustic guitar while electric guitars require plugging into whatever device you are using. The application works using a patent-pending polyphonic chord recognition software, which will tell you when you have played a correct note or chord.

Ohno says the difference between their application and other music-based games is players hear the original master recordings from the artist themselves, play along to precisely timed performance cues, and be evaluated in real-time no matter whether they are playing acoustic or electric guitars.

“On top of all that,” says Ohno, “Players can learn and practice whenever and where ever they want since it’s fully mobile.”

The application also has the appeal of being made by musicians, for musicians. Music Prodigy Co-Founder and CEO, Howard Lee, studied jazz at Berklee College of Music and classical guitar at USCB as well as achieving other professional accolades. Along with a team of other professional musicians, the developers at Music Prodigy, Ohno says, are responsible for “music transcriptions, custom lesson plans, song and music theory analysis, copywriting, audio engineering and product and quality assurance testing.”

As fun and rewarding as the makers of Rock Prodigy hope to make learning to play guitar, they do not look to replace the traditional learning process completely.

“We see it as an additional tool to help in the learning process,” says Ohno. “In fact, we know many guitar instructors that use Rock Prodigy with their students… We see the Music Prodigy platform as the future of music education and music ‘gaming.’  In fact, that’s the reason why we are doing what we are doing – to make it available to anyone who wants to learn to play music.”