Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You Rock Band 3?

About a year ago Inspired Instruments announced the You Rock Guitar. It's an electronic guitar that you can play like a real guitar, but it can also work as a controller for games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Each piece of guitar string over each fret, while feeling and playing just like real guitar string, works like a button when it's used as a game controller. There's also set of six strings to pluck which are attached to sensors. The result: it will let you play those games, and then advance to real music, and when you play real music it's a brilliantly powerful guitar because it works from a library of samples to sound like almost any kind of guitar you can think of (and other instruments too).

This was revolutionary, but it took them a long time to get them out the door. They were originally supposed to be in our hands last September, but they're only just arriving this summer. During the ensuing gap, the same idea has come along at least two more times in forms that are built into the next generation of rhythm games, which take the next step towards being about really playing music. Power Gig comes out this fall and features a six-string guitar controller very similar in design to the You Rock, though limited to being just a controller for that particular game. More visibly, Rock Band 3 is due out before Christmas, and its two biggest changes: the addition of keyboards, and a "pro" mode in which the guitar, keyboard, and drums all have you actually playing the song using real techniques. Which necessitates a new controller which again looks almost exactly like the You Rock.

Actually, Rock Band 3 is talking about two new guitar controllers, one of which is just a controller like the Power Gig one, while the other one, the Squier, is a fully functional guitar as well as being a controller, similar to the You Rock. No word yet on its functionality. You Rock has a lot of guitar features that I bet the Squier doesn't have, but it's too soon to tell.

I'm wondering if Inspired Instruments is going to suffer the "first to market" curse. We like to imagine that being first to market with an idea just before it catches fire is always good, but if you go back through the recent history of technology, you'll find quite often a small company hits with a revolutionary idea, a bigger company grabs the same idea and makes a much bigger splash, and the first company goes under. (Apple loves to be that second company. Often, to avoid the risk of going first, they'll wait until they're fifth or sixth instead. Steve Jobs would, off the record, admit it: he'd rather do it "right" than "first" at least by what he considers right. How much is really them doing it right, and how much is them selling it sexy, is a topic for another argument.)

But Inspired Instruments has made one very right choice that could save them. The functionality that lets the You Rock work with each game is in the form of a separate component, a GameFlex cartridge. It's basically a cartridge that links the YouRock to the game system, and makes the YouRock appear like the controller that game and system expect. That means that the day after Rock Band 3 comes out (or well before), they could be working on a GameFlex cartridge to make the You Rock be like the Squier, only better. If they can get that out fast enough and sell the advantages that the You Rock has over the Squier well enough, they can be swept along, not away, by Rock Band 3.

Not only would that be good for them, it'd be good for me! It'd mean I won't need to buy a new guitar when I get Rock Band 3. I just need a new GameFlex for my sexy sexy guitar.

So I hope that the people at Inspired Instruments are having these exact same thoughts right now. Naturally they wouldn't be saying them publicly. (Actually, since they're rushing their first shipment of guitars out the door after a nine-month delay, they're probably too tired to be thinking much of anything.) But their website does now say this: "For gamers, the You Rock Guitar provides a more guitar-like gaming experience with existing games and is gamer-ready for the next generation of more complex games." I hope that "next generation" comment, and a few vague and non-committal comments on their forum and their Facebook page, mean what I think they mean. I can't wait for Rock Band 3, particularly if it'll work with my You Rock.

(There's also talk that Rock Band 3 will be sold with a MIDI interface that means you can plop any MIDI-compatible instrument, including the You Rock or just about anything else, into your Rock Band 3 system, and it'll work as a controller. If so, that would be an amazing step, though it would probably also be a lot more complicated, and probably more expensive, than just another GameFlex cartridge. More on this as they make it clearer!)

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