As someone who has been playing drums on and off for a good 13 years now, Rock Band started out as an interesting curiosity. Drum games have never quite worked for me. I hear the DrumMania arcade machines are pretty awesome, but I've never played one. The closest I ever came was the home version Konami released here in 2000, and I thought that game was garbage, primarily because the pads just sucked. Beyond that, the landscape gets pretty bare, degenerating into the Donkey Konga and Taiko Drum Master range--games I don't much enjoy, myself.
Then Harmonix had to go and do something crazy. They build this kooky pad set that's set up pretty similarly to most practice pads you can buy at real music stores, include some drum sticks, and design the gameplay in such a way that by the time you get up to expert level, you are actually playing the goddamn drums. There are no bones about it. This isn't the guitar hero/real guitar debate all over again. You may be hitting less stuff than you are when you play a real drum kit, but you are hitting that less stuff in a mechanically identical way to authentic drumming. Essentially, whether you want it to be or not, this is a teaching tool. Rock Band is going to manufacture real, honest to god drummers.
I know it sounds like hyperbole, and I don't mean to oversell the game. But at no point was this fact more apparent to me than today at EA's Summer Showcase, the company's big gamer's day thing where it showed off the gaggle of games it has coming out for the next eight months. Brad covered the basics in his updated hands-on. EA had the game playable inside the campus' auditorium, complete with a drum riser and a gigantic screen behind the people playing. Hell of a set-up, and certainly not the way you'll see the game played by most consumers, but awesome all the same.
Anyway, I digress. I spent some time playing the game after I got all my write-ups done. Much of the time was spent drumming, and I finally got to try a few songs on hard and expert. When I first got hands-on time with the game back at E3, during that fateful stage performance during the live broadcast, I set the game to medium because, quite frankly, I was a little paranoid about looking like an idiot on live internet TV. The thing about the drums on medium is that it skips hits. Like, for instance, on the bass drum intro to "Wanted Dead or Alive," you only hit the bass pedal once on every hit, even though the rhythm is a hit followed by two quick hits in a "dun, dundun, dun, dundun" kind of thing. Hard and expert put it back to the real rhythm. Same goes for every song. For me, being a drummer, that is a much more natural feel. I've heard these songs, and come to expect notes that aren't there on easy and medium. On the songs that I played today, including "Wanted Dead or Alive," "Say It Ain't So," (did both hard AND expert on that one) and "Wave of Mutilation," I did everything on hard and expert, and fell into each song really quickly. In some instances, I wasn't even really looking that carefully at the screen because the rhythms just became natural. I think I damn near broke that bass pedal during "Wave of Mutilation" I was rocking out so hard.
Of course, there's a flipside to that coin. I sat and watched several other people, who I presume weren't drummers of any kind, fumble their way through the available songs. Some people you could tell were just hopeless, completely unable to grasp the proper timing even on easy. Some people just don't have a sense of rhythm--it happens. Others seemed to grasp the timing, but clearly just weren't used to holding sticks and hitting things in said timing, not to mention using their foot as well. Those are the guys I watched get better each time they played. Most of them dared not go beyond medium, but you could see them get more comfortable with each song they played. They weren't hitting 100% or anything, but the comfort level definitely improved.
And that's the thing of it: the ability to learn the basics of drumming is there, embedded within the game. I guarantee that anyone with a rhythmic bone in their body who picks up Rock Band and dedicates themselves to getting good at the drumming part of the game will be able to play a real drum kit at least well enough to get by. I'm not saying you're going to become the next Neil Peart or Danny Carrey by playing Rock Band, because you won't, but you will be able to comfortably play a 4/4 rock beat, the cornerstone of all things rock drumming. It took me a good number of lessons before I got to a point where a 4/4 beat became second nature. You kids are going to have it easy.
The one thing that's still an x-factor for me is drum fills. To me, at least from the couple of songs I played today, it seemed like a big difference between hard and expert difficulty was the way fills are mapped out. For instance, "Say It Ain't So" plays basically the same the whole way through on both hard and expert, save for a few minor adjustments. The big difference is the wicked crazy snare fill right at the end of the bridge/guitar solo. It's easy on hard, and note for note difficult on expert. That stuff is fine--the thing I'm more concerned about are the fills people can make on their own. Save for a few song sections I remembered as having very specific fills, the "free fill" areas, as I call them, seemed to be a little random at times. Plus, because of the way the audio was mixed in the room, I had a hard time hearing what I was even doing when I was hitting that stuff. Mind you, I'm all for improvisation, I was simply left curious as to whether those free fill sections would sound particularly good if you knew what you were doing, or just lead to a lot of messy sounding drum wankery, a la Keith Moon on a horse tranquilizer bender.
The thing that's really interesting about all of this is that drummers are traditionally the hardest brand of musician to breed. Well, OK, maybe harpsichord players are tougher, but in the realm of rock, drummers are notoriously tough to get, especially good ones. There's a simple reason for this--drums are a pain in the ass. The equipment is heavy, awkward, and expensive, and drummers simply do not get the glory. Ever. Guitarists and singers get all the fame, the money, the notoriety, and, of course, the women. Bass players might not get much glory, but they've got it relatively easy in terms of equipment hassles and at least they get to move around on stage and get noticed. What do drummers get? With a few exceptions, they get a few quick camera shots in the videos and performances and no love beyond that. And the women? Unless you're ridiculous famous (like, Tommy Lee/Lars Ulrich/Travis Barker status), you're getting the chicks that the guitar player and singer turned away. I guess the one exception is that guy from the Strokes (whose name I don't know and refuse to look up), who as I recall, is shacking up with Drew Barrymore. Wait, does that even count? Didn't Drew Barrymore's hotness and relevance dry up sometime around 1993? That's like winning the lottery and finding out your winnings have been rate adjusted for what they'd have been worth 15 years ago.
So, yeah, long story short, drummers don't get much play, despite the amount of effort that goes into the craft. Maybe Rock Band will change that to some degree. It's still an overly expensive instrument to pick up, but if you learn the basics of drumming before you have to spend dime one on a crappy Mapex starter kit (do they even still make those?) with even crappier Sabian entry-level cymbals and hardware that looks like it's made out of a combination of thin sheets of tin and a prayer (all of which still costs several hundred dollars, at LEAST), maybe that will make the decision all the clearer, and solidify or dissolve whatever drive you might have to learn the instrument for real. That's what's been missing from drumming. A concrete and popular way to get people interested without spending an assload of money. Sure, we don't know how much Rock Band will cost, but anything other than a kidney, a first-born child, and all your body hair would be a good start.
It's much, much too early to say definitively if Rock Band will be worth owning for all the people of the world. But for anyone with aspirations of one day sitting behind 40-piece drum kit floating inside a spinning cage high atop a stage inside a jam packed arena (because, let's face it, we've ALL had that dream at least once in our lives), it's looking like it could be the sort of thing that 's just too cool and too beneficial to pass up.