“There are lots of games that use music in really interesting ways, like Sound Shapes and Fantasia, but we are the ‘music genre’ now.”
Paul Cross, creative director on Ubisoft’s Rocksmith 2014, is not a musician — or at least, he wasn’t before he joined Ubisoft San Francisco in 2009. Cross was previously a racing game fanatic, working as lead designer on Criterion’s Burnout series, and EA Black Box’s Need for Speed.
When Ubisoft decided to enter the music game space with the original Rocksmith back in 2011, the genre was well and truly winding down after a serious boom. Rock Band‘s last game released in 2010, and Activision dissolved its Guitar Hero business in early 2011.
As you might expect, Rocksmith suffered from some serious music game genre fatigue. After several years of clicking colored buttons and strumming fake instruments, consumers were becoming increasingly bored with the same old “here comes the highway!” style of music game, and while last year’s Rocksmith provided a new take on the genre — being able to play with a real guitar — it didn’t particularly spark excitement.
But, says Cross, with this latest edition of Rocksmith, “We suffer from a different thing. The first time around we suffered from ‘eugh, rhythm games are dead, didn’t you know?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah we did know, and that’s why we’re doing something completely different, so shut up!'”
“But this time people are like, ‘Oh OK, that was actually quite good.’ The problem this time around is that people say, ‘But I don’t want to learn guitar.'”
This is the large-scale difference between the original Rocksmith, and this 2014 reboot — the first time around, Ubisoft was attempting to ride on the coattails of Rock Band, Guitar Hero et al. This time around, the company is far more interesting in teaching people how to play the guitar.
“On Rocksmith 1, we said ‘learn’ was a dirty word,” notes Cross. “We thought it should be this special secret. ‘Look, you’re just playing a game like Guitar Hero, except it’s 21 lanes wide and 6 lanes high instead!'”
With Rocksmith 2014, Cross now realizes that taking a cue from past rhythm games was not the right way to go about teaching people guitar. In fact, focusing on the learning bit is exactly where the team needed to go.
“The funny thing is, every single one of the games I’ve worked on before, you have to learn how to play them,” he says. “You have to be taught what buttons to press, and what good combinations are, uses of attacks, when to boost etc.”
“So every game you’re playing, you’re learning, but you’re not learning anything real-world useful,” he adds. That doesn’t make it less valid, just to be clear.”
What Cross and his team realized with Rocksmith 1 is that applying the difficulty levels seen in Guitar Hero and Rock Band simply made no sense when learning the guitar.
“We started working on it, and we realized – and this applies to all these games – playing on ‘Easy’ tended to get boring,” he notes. “You only end up doing it for a minute or so, because you want to get settled in. After that if you’re getting it right, it was boring. If you’re getting it wrong, it’s frustrating. That’s an annoyance – it stops your fun.”
“That’s even worse with Rocksmith, because you’ve got people who might already be able to play guitar, and people who can’t, and that’s a big difference.”
Here’s the crux of the issue: If you pick up, say, a racing game, you already have a rough idea of how it’s going to play. The cars and tracks might be different, but in general you know how to play from the get-go.
With a game like Rocksmith it’s rather different argues Cross: “We’ve got people who are incredibly accomplished and can play all the songs by ear, versus people who have never picked up a guitar before, so what do we do with that?”
“So we looked at these people, and we looked at the way they were playing, and the way they all respond to the software,” he adds. “And we decided with dynamic difficulty, it’ll get harder pretty quickly if you already know what you’re doing, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s going to stay easy.”
This dynamic difficulty angle works wonders in action. On your first play, the game gives you barely any notes at all — but depending on how well you tackle these, it will either quickly ramp up and throw more notes and chords in on the fly, or remain incredibly simple, depending on your skill.
In this way, veteran guitarists looking to brush up on their skills or learn new songs will have access to a track’s full tab within minutes, while beginners and intermediates will be presented with more and more notes with each new session.
“If you’re in the middle – and this is the real magic, from my point of view, because most people are in the middle – it kind of adjusts and balances for you,” Cross says. “That was a huge breakthrough for us.”
“There were people who were concerned that dynamic difficulty wouldn’t work – that people would want to set their own difficulty,” he adds. “Well, in GTA I don’t set my difficulty. In Burnout I don’t set my difficulty. In a lot of games, you don’t actually set your difficulty. They are balanced and fun the way they are out of the box. People forget that. It’s just that rhythm games set a precedent for having ‘Easy,’ ‘Medium’ and ‘Hard.’
Providing dynamic difficulty means that Rocksmith 2014 can create a constant challenge for the player too. By maintaining a target that is always one step ahead of you, it means that this learning tool tends to be more fun than homework.
“When you’re playing a football game and you’re one-nil down, it’s really exciting chasing that goal,” reasons Cross. “But when you’re five goals up, it’s a bit ‘ehh.’ It’s not as exciting.”
“Those sensations and feelings are really important,” he says, “so in Rocksmith, the game is always just one step ahead of you. That in turn means you’re always pushing yourself to play better and achieve more. The byproduct of all of this is that you’re learning.”
Cross found another issue with the original release of Rocksmith too. It wasn’t just the hunt to be the next Guitar Hero that led Ubisoft astray — it was the way the game’s learning tools were presented too.
“I had this theory that people want to rehearse a song, and if we can find a way to make them play it a couple of times, getting used to it, and then having a challenge set on that song, that would be a good way of doing it,” he tells me. “It’s like doing the practice and qualifying in a race, and then going into the race prepared.”
So the team took this theory and applied it to Rocksmith as a method for learning the songs, providing a sort of learning “journey” for players, if they so wished to take it. However, Cross soon realized that barely anyone was bothering with this method, and were instead trying to jump straight into the fray.
As a result, this journey was brought to the front, and turned into the main course. Players were asked to get used to the songs and playing the instrument, with the aim to provide them with higher difficulty settings later on — but this didn’t go down so well.
“I looked at how people were playing, and there was only a tiny percentage of people that were really following that journey,” Cross notes. “What people were doing was saying ‘Where’s Plug in Baby from Muse? That’s the song I want to learn.'”
The solution for Rocksmith 2014 was to make learning the core of the game, and provide “gamey” elements as a side-order. Indeed, when you boot up to the Rocksmith 2014 main menu, you’re provided with the “Learn a Song” option, and Score Attack mode is available as an alternative mode to this.
“Separating Score Attack from Learn a Song seems odd, and people have said to us ‘Why would you do that?'” says Cross. “I’m still learning guitar, and I still will be in five years. You don’t master the instrument overnight by any means. And some days, I just want to play a song.”
“Other days, I do feel like I want to beat the song,” he continues. “I want to get my platinum medal on R U Mine? from Arctic Monkeys, and I’ll have another go, and another go, and when I finally clear it, I have that awesome Rock Band moment of ‘I did it!’ Something to tell your friends about. So I wanted to make sure that we had both sides of the coin, so that people who want to compete can do so, versus people who are just learning.”
Is Rocksmith 2014 the start of “the next big thing” in music games taking over the living room? Says Cross, it’s not as simple as that.
“I thought to myself, if they came out with a new Guitar Hero, I’d be excited about it,” he says. “Then I had this weird thing in my stomach where I remembered that last time I played, it was weird because it wasn’t a real guitar. And then I suddenly felt like all those people who play guitar and call it stupid, and I thought ‘Ohhh.'”
It’s the party aspect that will no doubt bring the music game genre back into the limelight at some point, says Cross, but he doesn’t believe it will be Rocksmith that does it.
“People say ‘Oh this is going to be awesome at parties!’ And I say ‘No it’s not – it’s really not!'” he laughs. “If you want to sound good, you have to play for a lot of time. You don’t want to stand up in front of people and learn guitar. That’s just weird. So this dream of this new party game was quickly pushed aside.”
“I’m really curious moving forward to see what happens,” he adds. “Music and parties go together like booze and parties, so to see those music party games make a resurgence – which I’m sure they will – I don’t know what that’s going to be yet. It’s exciting though.”