Interviews// Rocksmith: 'Games With Benefits'

Posted 20 Sep 2012 19:00 by
Games: Rocksmith
?Edutainment? is a bit of a dirty word around these parts. Nobody wants to be seen learning while having fun, right? It?s seriously uncool. Well, Ubisoft could well smash that perception with Rocksmith - an interactive gaming experience that allows you to play guitar. Unlike the Guitar Heros and Rock Bands before it, this actually tutors you, by using a real guitar as a gaming peripheral.

This isn?t Mavis Beacon Teaches Riffing, though. The software is designed exactly as you would expect from a rhythm action game - complete classic rock songs one by one to rise the ranks and perform on virtual stages - except instead of hitting brightly-coloured buttons to match vague approximations of a song?s note track, you?re using your own guitar to quite literally play the entire song.

It?s a great concept, and one that could elevate the music genre of games to something a little more substantial than throwaway plastic props. I spoke to Rocksmith?s note tracker lead, Brian Adam McCune, on the US version?s launch a year ago, how the game has changed and the challenges the team faced.

SPOnG: Rocksmith?s been out for a year already in the US. Why has it taken so long to release in Europe? Was it a licensing thing, or a logistics issue perhaps?

Brian Adam McCune: I?m not actually sure how to answer that, but what I will say is that this release is a much more complete game. Especially now that it has full bass integration - that in itself is basically a whole other game on top of the existing one. The rough edges from the initial release have definitely been smoothed out, too.

The European release is coming after three title updates have launched Stateside, so we?ve definitely caught up in that respect. We were able to listen to the community and adjust some of the rougher areas of the game - more lives in Riff Repeater and faster loading times, for example.

SPOnG: You must have learned some things along the way to get to this point? Things that worked, things that didn?t work so well, as well as the reaction from the US audience. Can you tell us a little about that?

Brian Adam McCune: I think in the early days of development, people were almost afraid of the words ?learn? or ?teach?. Anything to do with that. People generally don?t want to buy educational software - they aren?t so enthusiastic about it.

But the response we?ve had with this has been really quite something. We certainly learned that people can enjoy games that are a bit more educational. This is a game that gives you real life benefits.

SPOnG: You?ve had three title updates - what were the reactions from US audiences that led to those updates? What did you learn from initial release up to this point?

Brian Adam McCune: I think we just did a lot of refinements. Riff Repeater was a big part of that - now players have thirty lives as opposed to five. Being able to set your own speed and mastery within that mode too, that was an important tweak.

If you haven?t unlocked 100% of the notes in a particular guitar solo, you can now go into the pause menu and use a slider to practice all of the notes. Those kind of things, as far as learning side of the game, have been smoothed out for sure.

SPOnG: The game?s obviously been quite successful, as you say people were once afraid of the word ?learning?.

Brian Adam McCune: Yeah, in the early days. Before the US release. But now people are enjoying it, and we have tonnes of evidence that supports the fact that people are improving as they play. We did some research, and I think it?s over 90 or 95 per cent of people saying that they have definitely improved their guitar skills after playing this game.

SPOnG: It must be challenging to design something like this, given that no-one?s ever really tackled this sort of thing before. What were the biggest hurdles for you?

Brian Adam McCune: I think one of the best things that happened was getting rid of any sense of difficulty in terms of set levels. There?s no Easy, Medium, Difficult or Hard mode to select here. That?s the standard in rhythm games and dancing or music. Going with the adaptive difficulty system was one of the smartest moves we made.

That became a hurdle of its own though - let?s say you set something on Easy and at a certain point you get it. It becomes too easy, and it can be boring. And sometimes Expert can just overwhelm you. Here, it?s nuanced - the game is assessing how much you got right and will constantly nudge you forward. You?re always improving, which I think is a great thing.

SPOnG: You?ve obviously looked to other rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, adapting teaching lessons to that. How did you go about getting that balance - maintaining a sense of familiarity for players who might have come in from Rock Band, but also injecting lessons into it without boring players?

Brian Adam McCune: It?s a really fine line. you don?t want anything to impede the learning experience. Any time you have to listen to a voice over, or watch a video, that?s time not spent playing. It is important to learn these things, though, so what the game tries to do is get you up and running to play a song as quickly as possible. Get in, learn a song, and then try to keep up. To not slow down the game with a tonne of voice overs and videos.

But, if you want access to those learning experiences - and if you have the time or the patience - we have a number of things that players can watch. But just getting people in from the word go was important.

SPOnG: Playing it for myself, I found that while there were visual cues at points, I wasn?t swamped with icons and text telling me how to play the song correctly. Was it difficult to resists trying to do that?

Brian Adam McCune: Yeah. I mean, you don?t want to flood the interface with too much feedback. We also like that there?s no failing in this game. If you can?t keep up, the game just eases up on you. But we do have little arrows guiding you about. We just wanted to keep that stuff subtle so people don?t get overwhelmed with too much.

The game will also remember what your ability level is. So every time you play a new song, it?s not going to start you off at the bottom rung. It?s going to start you off where it thinks you can handle it. That?s nice too. As you improve as a guitarist, going into a new song, the game will place you where it thinks you?re capable.

SPOnG: Did you have any input from guitar teachers, or established companies like Gibson to help with the creation of the lessons?

Brian Adam McCune: We have a team of musicians that are all experienced guitarists who were very involved in this process. They hand-crafted all the note tracks so that all the arrangements are catered to the learning experience - but also, we had to cater it to the gaming experience. As far as the technique challenges and all the videos, we used on-site musicians as resources for that.

SPOnG: What was the selection process behind picking some of the songs?

Brian Adam McCune: Well I think primarily we wanted to pick songs that were guitar-centred, obviously. That was the first thing. But also we wanted to have songs that were made for compelling gameplay. More repetition is good - we try to have a variety of songs that have good single-note riffs or songs that are more chord-oriented. But we also wanted to cover a wide spectrum of music genres, spanning from late 1960s to 2011.

SPOnG: Was it difficult to pick these songs knowing that every chord and note in game had to be the same as the song itself? Unlike Guitar Hero, where you could take a creative liberty with the buttons?

Brian Adam McCune: It?s a painstaking process, for sure. I should add that part of the selection process is that we have to pick songs according to the tuning that Rocksmith supports. Currently, the game only support two tunings - E Standard and Drop Ds. So we have to pick songs that are in those tunings. Other song that are played in E Flat are out of the question.

SPOnG: Is there scope to expand that?

Brian Adam McCune: Absolutely. In the current version of the game, the in-game tuner actually does support E Flat Standard tuning, but we only have songs that can be played in E Standard or Drop D right now.

SPOnG: With the rhythm action boom in Guitar Hero and Rock Band now well and truly dead, is there a concern for you guys that something like Rocksmith won?t gain any traction? Due to rhythm action fatigue?

Brian Adam McCune: I think so. There was hesitation on all sides, in not knowing how well the game would do. But the results in the US speak for themselves, really. The success stories that users are experiencing, and how passionate people are about the game, goes to show that it works.

SPOnG: You?ve managed to straddle a line between tutorial and game. Would you classify Rocksmith as more software than game?

Brian Adam McCune: To me, Rocksmith really defies genre, in a way. I mean, it is a game by design, because you?re trying to beat your score and complete challenges, and the mini-games are absolutely games. But it is... educational entertainment. Edutainment. People ask me for my opinion on this, and personally... I absolutely believe it is a game. It is a game that you play. You play with guitar.

SPOnG: I wanted to get your thoughts on how the games industry?s transforming. We see all these emerging markets - mobile, social, free-to-play - and now Rocksmith has carved a whole new line.

Brian Adam McCune: Yeah, we call it ?Games with Benefits?.

SPOnG: Do you see Rocksmith as a pioneering product that can inspire other games?

Brian Adam McCune: I sure hope so. I don?t know what kind of... I can?t even imagine what kind of ?Games with Benefits? will emerge. But it just goes to show how versatile gaming can be and how it can actually improve your skill set, while entertaining at the same time. It serves both purposes very well, in my opinion. The thing is, it?s totally fun and you?re learning something at the same time. Who would have thought?

SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.

Brian Adam McCune: Absolutely! Thank you.
Games: Rocksmith

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