Rocksmith: Guitar Hero Gets Real(er)

Oct 25, 2011
Originally published on October 25, 2011 5:06 pm

Music-based games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which let you play along to popular songs with fake instruments, once ruled the video game industry. They raked in billions of dollars in sales in 2008, when their popularity was at its peak. But such games have since lost their luster, and sales for both have plummeted. Now the French video game publisher and development company Ubisoft is hoping to revive interest in the video game genre by adding a new twist — the ability to use a real guitar.

Four years ago Ubisoft acquired and adapted technology that allows gaming systems similar to Guitar Hero and Rock Band to recognize and process the notes you play on your guitar. Paul Cross was charged with incorporating this technology into a new video game — which meant first learning how to play a guitar.

In the end, he and his team came up with a game they call Rocksmith that turns learning how to play a guitar into what Ubisoft hopes will be fun challenge. But Cross and his team's goal wasn't just to make an instructional video.

"I don't know if you're a big fan of watching learning DVDs but they're pretty scary," says Cross — they can be intimidating. "We make video games and they're not meant to be scary in anyway shape or form."

So for those of you who have an electric guitar in the attic, this game could be the reason to dust it off. Ubisoft designed Rocksmith so that you can plug your guitar directly into your Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, give it a strum and the game will handle the rest.

To start, it will automatically sense that the guitar is out of tune and teach you how to tune it — a first step for every beginner — you just tighten and loosen the guitar pegs until a meter on the screen hits zero.

Rocksmith's lessons break down the guitar components of popular songs: a color-coded system for each string indicates where to hold each string down while strumming a chord or picking out a solo, all while the song plays in the background.

The game also adjusts itself based on its assessment of your skill level. Depending on how well you are playing a given song, the game will simplify the note structure or make it more complex. Cross says the game even notices when you keep having a hard time on one particular part of a song. If you're struggling, he says, Rocksmith will "suggest a challenge to take for that section so that you can get better and better and better."

Theresa Sawi — a guitarist who performs under the name A Girl Named T — and another guitarist, Garrin Benfield, were invited by Ubisoft to check out the game. They both found that it made them anxious, even though they both have been playing for years.

"The thing that's most challenging, I found, having played guitar for all these years, is it's asking you to stare at the screen and go, 'OK ... 9th fret ,'" Benfield says, "and you're sort of accustomed to glancing down at the guitar; not just staring at a screen."

Rocksmith might teach you how to play along with Rocksmith, but will the lessons stick once your guitar is unplugged from your Playstation? Sawi thinks not.

"It doesn't have any note names. It has fret numbers," she says. "No, I wouldn't use it to teach — unless it had scales or something. That would be fun."

It doesn't have scales, but it does teach various guitar-playing techniques. It has little mini games where you master bending the strings and palm muting. That was baffling to Klaus Flouride, who plays bass in the punk band The Dead Kennedys.

"No. No. No," Flouride says while struggling with the game. "It doesn't tell me what the heck that was about. Help me. What did I just not do? Oh boy."

Rocksmith also has a rehearsal space where you get get better at your songs before going on stage. The game's space has a nice leather couch and an oriental rug. Flouride says it isn't exactly what his rehearsal spaces look like — for one, they're aren't any empty beer bottles. "There's usually three bands sharing 'em and there's piles of amps all over the place," he says. To him the game looks like a sterilized version of rock and roll.

Rocksmith is a game. You win by getting better at playing the songs, which leads to bigger and bigger audiences — all girls — until you're playing stadiums filled with girls. Flouride has played actual stadiums before, but he says in real life the foot of the stage is usually filled by guys.

Flouride isn't winning the game. "I'm gonna flunk it," he says. "I can play this song, but I can't follow their instructions." The game ranks him as an amateur.

But if you don't play guitar and you haven't played big clubs — and that is most of us — it's kind of fun to imagine, to finally get some use out of that guitar that's been hibernating in the attic. According to the National Association of Music Merchants about 2.7 million guitars are sold in the U.S. every year. Ubisoft is counting on the people who bought them to be more into pulling one out for a game than they would for an instructional DVD.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

And I'm Michele Norris. Games like "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" let you play along to popular music with fake instruments, but sales for both games have plummeted. One company is hoping to revive interest in that genre by adding a new twist: a real guitar. As NPR's Laura Sydell tells us, real guitarists are finding the game a little too hard.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Four years ago, the game maker Ubisoft acquired an unusual technology.

PAUL CROSS: It could recognize notes you were playing on a guitar.

SYDELL: Paul Cross was charged with using this technology to create a game, and that meant learning how to play a guitar.

CROSS: I don't know if you're a big fan of watching learning DVDs, but they're pretty scary. We make video games, and they're not meant to be scary in any way shape or form - scary, intimidating-scary.

SYDELL: Cross and his team came up with a game they called "Rocksmith," that turns learning how to play a guitar into what they hope will be fun. All you have to do is pull out that electric guitar that's been collecting dust, plug it into your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and give it a strum.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ROCKSMITH")

CROSS: It says it's out of tune, then automatically brings up the tuner, of course, because you're playing a real guitar. You have to learn how to tune the guitar as well, and it has to be in tune.

SYDELL: The game makes that pretty easy; just turn the tuning pegs until a meter on the screen hits zero. "Rocksmith" teaches you how to play the guitar parts of rock songs by using color coding for each string, and showing you where to hold down the string on the neck to play notes in a solo, or which combination of strings to fret for a chord. It does this as the song is playing, and it adjusts how much of the song you play based on how good it thinks you are.

CROSS: Oops, missed it. Now, you saw the notes disappear because I missed.

SYDELL: So Cross has to play fewer notes. He says the game even notices when you keep having a hard time on one particular part of a song.

CROSS: And then suggests a challenge to take for that section so that you can get better and better and better.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ROCKSMITH")

THERESA SAWI: Ooh. Wow. That's really panic-inducing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: Is it, really?

SAWI: Like, coming at you so fast.

SYDELL: That's guitarist Theresa Sawi. She and another guitarist, Garrin Benfield, are checking out the game in my living room.

GARRIN BENFIELD: I haven't hit a single note it wanted me to hit there.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ROCKSMITH")

SYDELL: They both find the game anxiety-producing.

BENFIELD: The thing that's most challenging, I found, having played guitar for all these years, is it's asking you to stare at the screen and go, OK, ninth fret, you know. And you're sort of accustomed to glancing down at the guitar, not just staring at a screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ROCKSMITH")

SYDELL: But is "Rocksmith" a good teaching tool?

SAWI: No, not really.

SYDELL: Sawi teaches guitar.

SAWI: It doesn't have any note names. It has fret numbers but, no, I wouldn't use it to teach unless it had scales or something. That would be fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SYDELL: "Rocksmith" does rate your playing.

SYDELL: You got a groove bonus.

BENFIELD: A groove bonus - now, that's cool. It's like, all the notes were wrong, but your groove is good.

SYDELL: The game tries to teach various techniques through extras, where you can master bending the strings and palm muting.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ROCKSMITH")

SYDELL: That was baffling to Klaus Flouride, the bass player from the punk band the Dead Kennedys.

KLAUS FLOURIDE: No, no, no. It doesn't tell me what the heck that was about. Help me. What did I just not do? Oh, boy.

SYDELL: "Rocksmith" is a game. You win by getting better at playing the songs, then you get bigger club audiences - all girls - until you're playing stadiums filled with all girls. Flouride has done this in real life, but he says the foot of the stage is usually filled with guys. He's having a harder time getting himself into the virtual stadium.

FLOURIDE: OK, I'm going to flunk it. I can play this song, but I can't follow their instructions.

SYDELL: The game ranks Flouride an amateur. "Rocksmith" also has a rehearsal space, where you practice your songs before going on stage. The game's space has a nice, leather couch and an oriental rug. Flouride says this isn't exactly what his rehearsal spaces look like.

FLOURIDE: They're chaos, basically, usually. Three bands sharing them; piles of amps all over the place.

SYDELL: This is definitely a cleaned-up version of rock 'n' roll.

FLOURIDE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Sterilized.

SYDELL: The room is also missing empty beer bottles, but this is a family game. If you're not a professional guitarist - and that is most of us - it is kind of fun to finally get some use out of the guitar I've been moving from house to house for the last - well, I'm not going to say how many years. OK, here I go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION")

SYDELL: Ubisoft, the company that makes "Rocksmith," is counting on people like me. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, about 2.7 million guitars are sold in the U.S. every year. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(I CAN'T GET NO) SATISFACTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.