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AusGamers Rocksmith Developer Interview with Jason Schroeder
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:45pm 24/09/12 | Comments
AusGamers recently spoke with Rocksmith producer, Jason Schroeder, about their foray into the world of music videogames, and how they hope to shake things up in a genre filled with fatigue. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Where did the genesis of Rocksmith come from? From the perspective of the music game genre, it almost seems bold, to go and do Rocksmith when...

Jason Schroeder: [laughs] I like that term, “bold”, better than “too late”, or... [laughs]

AusGamers: Yeah, that’s the thing, because that stuff just waned out really quickly -- it’s a toy guitar, so it’s a little bit different. So for you guys, was it always a risk? Was it something where you kind of played Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and said “we have to do this properly? How did that come about?

Jason: I think it’s a long road that led from no game to Rocksmith, but I think a lot of it was: the industry and musicians and everyone saying “oh, these games are cool, but someone should do it with a real guitar”. Everyone thought “someone should do it; someone should do it”.

Then Ubisoft ended up with a technology for a game called Guitar Rising that was out in the world -- it was basically a PC tech demo of note detection -- and that project was given to our Creative Director Paul Cross and Senior Producer Nao Higo, and they’re game people -- they had no idea how to play guitar.

So they were one of the first project teams to look at one of these real instrument games, and come at it from a purely game design perspective and say “well, what do we need to do to make it fun, and make it work for us?”. So Guitar Rising became Rocksmith, as they changed it from a horizontal scrolling tab -- which didn’t work for a non guitar player -- to the vertical scrolling notes that we have now.

And it changed from selecting your difficulty, and being able to get yourself into a lot of overwhelming trouble -- where you would decide you’re going to give up, because you’re never going to play that many notes -- to dynamic difficulty, which is just: when you get a note correct, and prove that you’re able to keep up with the game, we’ll just keeping adding in more notes until you’re challenged.



AusGamers: Internally, once you had started working on the game, what was the core philosophy? Was it: game first; tutor second? Or was it kind of a cross direction?

Jason: I think it was game first, and tutor for everything that you need to know in order to play the game, and that sort of coincidentally... or naturally, just becomes guitar education. So in order to max out a song, and play every note in it, there’s going to be a number of techniques that you have to learn, and the first time that you encounter those techniques, you’re probably going to be pretty bad at it.

So we better teach you how to do, for example, a slide; so then we add a technique challenge for slides, because “well, playing slides over and over in that song over and over is not the best way to learn slides. How about we come up with a game like super-slider to help you practice slides”. So it just keeps evolving, to a point where, now the game has a number of different options to help you play it, and through those options you learn to play guitar.

AusGamers: The world of guitar is probably as loved as something like, people that love cars, or people that love trains, you know, it’s got this really kind of niche group of people that talk about pickups, and different types of necks and stuff. How do you kind of broach that crowd, and broach people like myself that are not necessarily as familiar with that, and keep everybody happy?

Because obviously, this is... I have a lot of friends that played in bands, and when Guitar Hero first came out, they were, like, “yeah, we’re going to shred at this”, and then they played and were, like, “I can’t play this; this is ridiculous”.

Jason: Yeah, because it doesn’t follow the rules.

AusGamers: Right. So how do you find that balance? To keep everybody happy, and everyone engaged at the same time?

Jason: I think, to use your same car analogy, there’s people that love cars, they’re car aficionados and know every working part inside of it, but everyone enjoys a car, or can learn to drive one right? For us, the guitar is the same. Throughout the game, you’ll see that we try to pay a lot of respect to the sort of sexiness that comes with a guitar. From that opening video that you watched, there’s a lot of beauty shots of guitars that make you sort of long for a guitar; they have really nice looking instruments.

But throughout it, we have unlocks that unlock new guitars for you, and tell you a little bit about them; not a tonne of history about them, but enough that you can get an idea that beyond the guitar that you bought with the game, there’s a whole world of guitars out there. Especially, as we partnered with Epiphone and Gibson, and they have a beautiful set of guitars, but even beyond them, there’s people that are very loyal to different brands, and it becomes a very personal sort of collection.

So I think we’ve taken all of the universal aspects, which is sort of the beauty of it, and the desire to acquire guitars, and made that part of the game and part of the presentation. But we don’t really get into “hey, you may have a maple neck; perhaps you should enquire with your local guitar retailer about upgrading” or something like that. That’s something where I think it’s happening naturally with people that are spending a lot of time with their guitar, and wondering you know “how do I get a guitar that sounds more like what I’m hearing on the radio?”, or “what’s the difference between the guitar I’m holding, and the one I’m seeing on MTV?, and they’re doing that additional research themselves. We’re sort of inspiring them to learn more about the things that they’re interested in.



AusGamers: For you guys, was there ever a case of too many cooks in the kitchen at the studio? Because everyone has their own idea on how to play guitar, and how to approach guitar. Even different tutors will teach you different ways and different methods, so how did you guys come up with a kind of universal approach?

Jason: Having one head chef [laughs]. Paul Cross, our Creative Director, is ultimately the person that decides the aesthetic and the level of complexity that we’re going to get into with the game. And since he didn’t play guitar: if one of our guitarists or musicians starts to explain something to him, he has a very good internal gauge where he’s like “I’m becoming uninterested in what you’re saying, and I don’t think it’s necessary for me to know this, in order for me to play this song. So maybe it’s not critical that we put it into the core game, and force everybody to learn it”.

And I think that balance of them saying “no, no, no, if people don’t understand this music theory, or why these notes sound good together, then they’re never going to know anything”, and that discussion goes on with every song we choose, and every technique challenge we decided to add with bass guitar. It just keeps developing, but ultimately with Paul Cross holds all of the decisions.

AusGamers: Getting back to the first point I made about the music genre fatigue, was it concerning for you guys that there’s kind of two barriers for entry there? One being that fatigue, and then two being: you need a real guitar?

Or did you look at it more as a case of: well, to buy Rockband, you still had to fork out a fair bit of money, and this seems like you can get away with buying a decent guitar to play. Then once you have a guitar, you don’t have to buy another peripheral, which is what happened a lot with Activision’s product, so you guys can continue the brand.

Jason: Yeah. I think once you have a guitar in your household, it’s like having a piece of furniture. If you invest a lot in it, then you can have a beautiful piece of furniture forever, and pass it down through generations. Even if you buy something at an entry-level price-point, it’s probably going to be good for a long while, then maybe some day you upgrade.

But ultimately, I think the point of your question isn’t “why do people buy guitars”, it’s... we weren’t worried internally about it, because the way that we looked at guitar ownership... when we look at the statistics of the number of guitars sold per year, or the number of people that say that they own guitars, it’s millions of people. Millions of people own guitars, and we were like “if we can tap into a fraction of that, then that’s enough games to make sure it’s worth doing”.

So even if people weren’t willing to buy a guitar, we knew that there were enough guitar owners out in the world, that we already had a player-base to start with. Then we knew that there were a number of people that just needed a little push. Maybe they are constantly doing research on the Internet and “If I just have the right guitar teacher, or the right guitar on sale, or I find the right lesson book or something, then I’ll finally make the leap, and I’ll purchase a guitar”, and I think Rocksmith was that final push that a lot of aspiring guitarists needed to just go ahead and make a purchase.

I think that’s why our guitar bundles have done well. We bundle a version of the game that comes with: Rocksmith, the cable, a strap, some picks, and an Epiphone Les Paul Jr. And it’s actually pretty limited quantity, because Epiphone only makes so many of those a year, but we find that they sell out. And it’s not necessarily that people necessarily super-love the Epiphone Les Paul Jr. but I think they just don’t want to have to make a decision.

We’ve gone through and researched a lot of guitars, and we know that’s a good starter guitar. So you don’t really have to think about it too much. Go ahead, get the bundle, and you have a nice safe bet to start with.

AusGamers: In terms of the music, what was the decision making behind that? Was that just kind of a pool in the office, or was that Paul again?



Jason: Paul has a lot to do with it. I think you’re seeing his personal preference there in a lot of the tracks. There’s technical reasons that some of them are in there. Everything had to be in either E Standard or Drop D, because those are the tunings that we supported, as we didn’t want people to be constantly having to re-tune their instrument; and they had to have techniques that we supported in the game.

Which means right now, we don’t really teach you how to do finger tapping. So if that was prominently displayed in a song, we’d decide “well, we’re not really effectively going to be able to teach them how to play that song, and it’s probably a little more advanced than a lot of our players are going to get within their first playthrough”.

So we chose to limit the songs to techniques that we could do well, and tunings that we wanted to represent, and then on top of all of that, we wanted recognisable music for a large part of the catalogue, so that people would have Rolling Stones, and Muse, and Eric Clapton, and Tom Petty, and all of these names that are just sort of ubiquitous with music.

Then, we wanted to give people songs that maybe they hadn’t heard before, or they hadn’t interacted with in a music game before. So that’s where The xx ,and Best Coast, and Red Fang, and bands like that start coming in, because they’re cool and people should know about them, and the guitar that they play is valid, even if it’s not classic rock or metal.

AusGamers: Did you guys ever toy with the idea of maybe creating some kind of dynamic system where people could put their own music in there? It sort of seems like that’s where this needs to head at some point.

Jason: Yeah. The number of licensing complications that always come in with that idea just shuts it down. But I think the complications that came with using a real guitar also made that seem like no one would actually get it done. So maybe in the future, but as it is right now, we have healthy music licensing relationships that are getting us a lot of the music that we want, and I think that we’ll keep working with them to make sure that we have good music in the game, and that hopefully it’s meeting the demand that our community out there is sort of always clamoring for more, and new challenges.

AusGamers: In terms of the future, what’s the process for you guys now the game is out there? Are you going to be just supporting it with more music in terms of DLC?

Jason: Yeah. The past year has been getting it ready for international release, and expanding it to PC. So we’ve been adding languages, then also doing the bass expansion: getting that ready as DLC, and as an on-disc feature for the worldwide release. So all of that has been about expanding Rocksmith, and expanding Rocksmith. So I think really the next thing to do is: see what happens [laughs].

I think we learnt a lot when the game launched in North America, and we’re probably going to learn a lot of different things when it’s launched in Europe, or Japan, or Australia, and from that, I think we’re going to have to decide where to go next.

AusGamers: Right. Because that was actually going to be my next question, is: it seems like a little bit of a no-brainer that you could kind of... well, drums would be a huge entry barrier for some people, but you must be thinking about the bigger band experience, because it sort of makes sense.

Jason: Yeah, it makes sense... I think you can see a lot of our philosophy in just the way that the game looks. Your guitar journey is a personal journey, and so we don’t do a lot of the things that other games have done, where you’re looking at a caricature of what a rock band is. You’re not looking at yourself as a guitarist; we’re not asking you to imagine yourself in the role of an imaginary guitarist in the game, because as far as we’re concerned, you’re the only guitarist that matters.

And expanding that to a full band experience means that now we would have to figure out how to get everybody to play along together and share that experience. I guess we are teaching people how to play an instrument, and next we have to teach them how to play with somebody else.

But it’s really going to come down to: what is our player-base for one, and if people want more instruments, or if they want more help with different techniques, or if they’re struggling with moving from the game to the external world, we’ll try to find a way to help.



AusGamers: Well that was actually my next point, was that you talked about feedback since the game launched a year ago in North America. What has the feedback been there? What has been the most critical, and the most successful feedback?

Jason: The feedback that I obviously love, is seeing people on our Facebook page, or on our forums, or just on Twitter, or wherever they can sort of shout at us, with the overwhelming thank yous; “thank you for teaching me more about guitar than I was able to teach myself”, or “that I was able to learn through lessons”, or whatever. There’s a lot of people that believed that it really works, and that’s been really positive.

I think some of the critical feedback that we see, is usually from people that came into the game with a preconception of what learning a guitar means, or with what the game was going to be. And when the game didn’t meet that specific picture they had in their mind, they disregarded it.

It’s frustrating, because I think that if you can play Rocksmith with an open mind, or with an honest intent to learn to play guitar through it, it works. But if you fight against it, there’s nothing the game can really do to fight back [laughs].

AusGamers: Did it kind of alarm you that nothing like this had really been done properly before?

Jason: Not me, I’m full of confidence, but I’m sure there are people around Ubisoft that were waiting for someone to prove it before us. But I think it’s a good example of how Ubisoft sort of has a mentality of “oh, well we’ll try it”. You look at our catalogue of games and I think that we try to do a lot of things a little bit differently than other companies.

So yeah, we definitely took a chance on it, and I think we put a little bit of business sense into it... we made the right size of investment for it. The game does exactly what we say it does: it works with any real guitar, the tutorials, and the dynamic difficulty, all of that works. The guitar arcade games are a lot of fun, but ideas like making it so you can play any real song: that takes so much of a larger investment and is a much larger gamble, and so far, we weren’t willing to take it.

So where it goes from here, once we’ve launched worldwide and have success there, I think the confidence level is going to be greater, and we’re going to be able to keep growing what Rocksmith is.

AusGamers: Have you guys thought about the idea that this could actually be implemented in schools?

Jason: Yes [laughs], I would love to see that. I think, right now, we have a tracklist that some teachers have said is not exactly the healthiest -- I think they’re uncomfortable with Nirvana songs or whatever in their particular school curriculum; you know, to each their own.

But I think it’s definitely valid, and we’ve had guitar teachers, and church groups, or different things that have said “trying to get my students to practice between lessons is the greatest challenge, and by asking them to play Rocksmith between lessons, I know that they’re doing it, because they like to do it”, it’s not just “oh, just do that lesson in the book ten times between now and our next session” it’s “go ahead and play songs, and play Scale Runner, and play Ducks, until you reach this score” or “come back and tell me how you did” is a more compelling way for a student to practice. I think unofficially a number of educators are adopting it, but I would love to see it more officially adopted.

AusGamers: If you could have any instrument -- barring the bass and guitar -- implemented in the exact same capacity, what would you like to see in there?



Jason: Hmmm, I don’t know; those are the cool ones...

AusGamers: Harpsichord or something...

Jason: [laughs] I guess keyboard is the next place that my mind would go. You have the quarter-inch jack, and there’s a number of keyboards that use the same technology. We’ve had people tell us “oh yeah, I played House of the Rising Sun [in Rocksmith] with an organ and it worked”. Yeah, it will, it’ll just detect notes.

So I guess that’s where we would go next. I mean, we’ll see. If the demand for it is there. It would probably need its own whole game, huh? Because all of the techniques and things like that don’t overlap. But yeah, we’ll see...

AusGamers: I’ll probably wrap it up after this one, but in terms of the social aspect -- which is a huge factor in gaming today; and in things like the world of guitar -- for future, what have you guys learnt from how people are interacting with the game, and with each other? In terms of video sharing, or anything like that.

Jason: I think giving people the ability to communicate -- whether it’s in the game, or just by giving them some coaxing to know where to go to ask questions... because what’s happened naturally is a lot of Rocksmith players stumble on different lessons, or they have questions about their particular guitar, or they don’t know what “action” is, or whether it’s right on their guitar. Rocksmith can’t see, it can only here; so we can only tell you that “well, it doesn’t sound right”.

So they’ve been turning to the Rocksmith community and saying “hey, everything after the twelfth fret isn’t being detected by the game; I wonder what’s happening”, and people say “you may have a bent neck”, or “your attenuation may be off; you should go to a local guitar store”. And I think people are getting more comfortable with the idea that there’s a community of guitar players, out on the Internet, that is really quite supportive --whether they’re Rocksmith or otherwise; whether you just go to the Gibson enthusiast pages or whatever, there’s a lot of guitar information already out there.

And just getting people comfortable with the idea that you know enough about guitar that you don’t have to be embarrassed to go into a guitar shop to fix your guitar, and talk to the guys there. Because honestly, I’ve never been into a guitar shop where guys are not super happy to have you in there with your instrument, and happy to talk to you about it.

AusGamers: Alright, well that’s plenty of information. Thanks so much for that.

Jason: Absolutely.
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