June 13, 2012

Rocksmith vs. Rock Band 3 – The Pro Guitar Showdown

A quality chess tutorial could have you moving pieces within minutes. A smart guitar lesson could have you playing Smoke on the Water in nearly the same amount of time. However, one does not simply sit down at a chess board and become the next Kasparov, or pick up a guitar and become the next Eddie Van Halen. The path from beginner to expert is a long and winding road, and we stay the path because of the journey; we do it because it is fun.

Can learning to play guitar be turned into a game, and can that process be made fun? That’s what Rock Band 3 by Harmonix, and Rocksmith by Ubisoft both attempt to do.

The Tools

For Pro Guitar mode, Rock Band 3 lets you use an 112-button Fender Mustang controller, or the Fender Squier, a controller that looks, feels, and acts like a actual guitar. (The Squier is, sadly, no longer commercially available, but can still be found used in some places.)

While the Mustang controller is smaller, lighter, and not technically a real guitar, the Squier is absolutely passable for the real thing. In fact, if it weren’t for its neon blue power light and suspicious d-pad, an untrained eye could easily be fooled into thinking it was just another electric guitar. There is no secret to how the Mustang functions; combinations of button presses equate to guitar fingerings, which then register in Rock Band 3. The Squier is a bit sneakier. Since it is an actual guitar that uses real guitar strings, it communicates your command of the instrument in an ingenious way. When you press various strings down against the fret to form a chord, you close a circuit — the equivalent of an on/off switch. By playing the Squier as though you would a real guitar, your fingerings are sent back to Rock Band 3, allowing you to interact with the game by, basically, playing a real stringed guitar.

There is a side-effect to this form of “closed-circuit” playing. The heightened frets prevent the player from physically pushing the strings all the way down to the fretboard. This works against both the beginner and the expert. An amateur could be conditioned to develop bad habits, inadvertently muting all chords, which wouldn’t be audible until plugged in to an amplifier. A novice may also fail to develop the finger strength necessary to play correctly, once with real guitar in hand. Meanwhile, a professional player probably would try to push the strings all the way down to the fretboard, and while doable, it is not easy…and hurts a lot. After only a few minutes of playing some songs on the Squier (especially with barre chords), your fingertips — even calloused ones — feel like they are on fire. This fingertip pain is a side-effect of pressing too hard on the strings. Once you discover this nuance of the Squier, you can adjust your grip accordingly. Unfortunately, the concept of grip, posture, pressure on strings, muted chords, etc., isn’t taught to the player by Rock Band 3 at all. Fingerings are either on or off.

The hardware for Rocksmith, in comparison, involves no controller. Instead, a USB “True Tone” cable is provided with the game, which plugs directly into the output jack of any electric guitar. You can purchase any electric guitar you wish, and it is automatically compatible with Rocksmith. No special fingering tricks are required. The magic is in the cable, which sends the actual tones produced by your guitar to the game. Rather than expecting a multitude of on/off switches and translating them into chords in game, Rocksmith actually listens to the music you produce when you play your guitar.

The result is more natural gameplay than in Rock Band 3, but there’s also a catch: Because Rocksmith detects tones, there is a degree of latency ever present in gameplay. When you strum an F-Chord, Rocksmith must analyze, on-the-fly, if you’ve struck the appropriate strings, and produced the appropriate tone. Since that analysis happens in real-time, there are often noticeable delays. At times, you may feel compelled to play a chord early, but since the game adjusts your scores based on early/late chords strumming, this strategy is often futile — and not a good habit to get into, either.

Which way is better? Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but after trying both, I favor Rocksmith’s approach, which removes the need for specific (and, in the case of the Squier, discontinued) guitar hardware in favor of a simple cable that works with all guitars. It’s worth mentioning that the Rocksmith USB cable additionally works with a PC via ASIO4ALL*, which in turn, integrates with popular effect processing software like Guitar Rig, the value of which is quite significant considering the cost of amplifiers, pedals, cabinets, mixers, and their ilk.

Navigating the Game

You can navigate Rock Band 3′s interface using your game console controller. If you have the PS3 version, the d-pad on the two Fenders work well; for XBox 360 owners, the intermediary MIDI Pro-Adapter provides navigational control. In Rocksmith, navigation is handled via your console’s controllers, since you are already working with an actual electric guitar. Both systems work as well as they can. It’s awkward to be reaching for a game controller with a guitar slung across your shoulder, so players will have to learn to avoid accidentally driving the arm of the guitar through their TV while bending over to pick up a game controller when switching songs.

Choosing a song in Rock Band 3 is easy; you can sort your library various ways, and quickly jump from song to song, either by difficulty, artist title, song title, or one of a handful of other options. Additional filters to remove specific songs from the list (such as ones that are not Pro-Guitar** compliant) make the navigation a breeze. Unfortunately, Rocksmith song navigation is not as flexible. Players must scroll horizontally from one end of the song list to the other. One might have had the foresight to add a “wraparound” feature, letting us press left once, which would hypothetically jump to the end of the list…not the case. The years of work Harmonix poured into refining their games is evident in the Rock Band 3 UI polish, and sadly, Rocksmith suffers mightily in the UI department. But on the plus side, this gives them lots of room for obvious improvement in Rocksmith 2.

Rocking Out

Rock Band 3 and Rocksmith have two vastly different delivery methods for rocking out. RB3 utilizes the traditional, familiar “scrolling highway”.

Players watch multi-colored bars of light scroll toward them, strumming when they cross a line at the base, close to the bottom of the screen. In Rock Band 3, the scrolling highway now displays all six strings of the guitar, and the multi-colored bars of light are replaced with aqua blue “mountains and valleys”. These aqua-colored blobs don’t convey their meaning as concretely as the multi-colored bars did. The player is forced to spend time in the lessons and tutorials to understand their true meaning. Ultimately, the aqua blobs represent a combination of fret placement, finger spacing, strings to strum, and direction to strum (up or down). The benefit of Rock Band 3 is that, when strings are pressed down, the number of the fret lights up in-game on the scrolling highway, telling you where your fingers currently reside, so you can adjust without having to look back down at your guitar.

Additionally, names of chords will display along the side of the vertical guitar arm, so seasoned guitarists can see chords like “Em7” and “Csus4”, and know immediately to play an E-Minor 7th, or a C-Suspended 4th, respectively. The visual chords are immensely beneficial, especially as a learning tool, teaching new players what chords sound like as they are being played. However, there is one important caveat: RB3 only cares about the one specific way the chord should be played within the context of the current song. Experts beware: when the game asks you to play a G chord, make sure you pick the correct one of nineteen different fingerings. Choose the wrong one, and Rock Band 3 logs it as a miss.

Learning what the strange aqua “mountains and valleys” represent takes some getting used to. Harmonix was clearly constrained by trying to fit real guitar into the existing scrolling highway visual interface of previous Rock Band and Guitar Hero-like games, trying their best to come up with an intuitive way of describing fingerings. True, the numbers denote fret placement, but the blobs’ girth only provide generalizations of how far apart your fingers should be. And unfortunately, Rock Band 3 is not a game about generalizations, but pinpoint accuracy. Play the wrong fingering — even if it’s the right chord — and it’s counted as a miss. So, while the tutorials provide the necessary mechanism to learn each song, complete with every specific fingering, the aqua blobs racing toward you in-game are less than adequate to convey the same information. Players will have a very hard time “jumping in” to new songs without first spending significant time in the song’s lessons.

Rocksmith, on the other hand, doesn’t force the player to sit in song tutorials first. The gameplay interface is a new horizontal bar which reflects the arm of the guitar. Using this horizontal representation, every fret can be shown at once, allowing the player to accurately see the exact placement of their fingers for a particular chord. The guitar arm intuitively zooms smoothly in and out during the song as necessary. Every 3rd fret is numbered, matching up with the dots on the physical guitar arm held by the player. This unique interface, once the player is accustomed to it, becomes a joy to work with. It makes matching fingering a cinch. There’s never any guesswork, because it’s clear exactly where each finger should be placed on the fretboard. Rocksmith also displays real chord names alongside the fingerings, too, so as you play you can begin to associate certain hand positions with proper chord names.

The beauty of the Rocksmith interface isn’t just the switch from vertical to horizontal but the constant feedback loop it provides. In Rock Band 3, when you have practiced The Hardest Button to Button to the point where you feel like you’re ready to step on stage, if you botch certain chords or notes, all you get is a “miss” in-game. Your bonus multiplier resets and your score is impacted. That’s it. You have no way of knowing what it is you truly messed up. Did I pluck the wrong strings? Did I have the wrong fingering? Was I too early or too late? Is the game just being a bitch?

In Rocksmith, however, you constantly get feedback from the game on what you’re doing incorrectly as you play the song, so you can repair the damage on-the-fly. Here comes a fifth fret E, but you accidentally play a fourth fret E. In-game, the E string glows bright and an arrow flashes to the left, indicating that you need to move your finger down a fret. If you’re lucky, and it happened to be a sustained note, you might actually be able to fix the note quickly and get a partial score. In Rock Band 3, there is no concept of “fixing” a mistake — you either hit or miss. You’re either amazing … or completely inept. In a game built around the incredible complexity of playing a guitar, something that takes a lifetime to do well, and lots of practice to get better at, Rock Band 3 provides no gray area whatsoever. You either play the song exactly as described, or you get booed off the stage.

The Verdict

Rocksmith is fun to play because its gameplay is completely built around the steep inherent complexity of learning real guitar. It dynamically eases the player into the songs in its library; no one particular song is too difficult to start with, and it provides an interface that is both intuitive and precise. While Rock Band 3 provides multiple levels of difficulty to the player — albeit via a far greater library of titles — there are some songs in the library that an amateur (or even an intermediate) player has absolutely no business starting with. The “easy” versions of the RB3 songs are definitely easy, but even stepping up to “medium” or “hard” is often a massive undertaking that requires concentration, patience, and repetition. The game interface is imprecise, forcing you out of the game and into lessons just to learn new fingerings. Every Rocksmith song you play improves you without the need for separate tutorials or lessons; the gameplay is the lesson, and that’s what you are judged and scored on. Conversely, when you play Rock Band 3, you’re playing a game for a full band that just happens to include great — but not perfect — real guitar support, too. You’ll be judged on how accurately you pluck every string, and play every chord. Though it provides the tools necessary to learn guitar, integration into RB3 gameplay is awkward, and the result often forces you to dump out of the song, restart lessons, pause for correct fingerings — all of which add up to an experience that isn’t nearly as fun as it could be.

* ASIO stands for “Audio Stream Input/Output”, and is a digital audio protocol which accesses audio hardware directly.
** Detailed tutorials on how to play a particular song only exist for Pro-Guitar songs, and only a subset of songs in the RB3 library are Pro-Guitar compliant.

October 19, 2011

Rocksmith Lag Instructions

I received my copy of Rocksmith and guitar today!

Inside, I noticed there was a little flyer about dealing with lag, which I thought was important enough to share. Click through for a larger, more readable version:

Before setting up the game, you should first follow these steps to ensure your HDTV system is optimized for Rocksmith:

  1. Follow the Display Lag Correction instructions found in the in-game manual.
  2. Make sure your console is set to match your TV’s native resolution (1080p, 720p, etc.) and your TV is set to match your console’s native resolution.
  3. If your TV has a PC or Game mode, select it. For more information, check your TV’s manual.
  4. If your TV does not have a PC or Game mode, access your TV’s Options menu, disable image scaling, and turn off all processing effects. (This is effectively what “Game mode” or “PC mode” does.)

We never recommend using HDMI as your primary sound source. If you are experiencing lag and are using HDMI for audio, try switching to Component cables. Alternately, you can use the appropriate Audio Adapter Cable for your console with an external audio source like speakers, headphones, stereo, or home theater system. If HDMI is your primary sound source, we recommend that you do not use your TV’s speakers for sound.

Note that for best results, you need to have discrete audio and video outputs from your console — and the worst results are from a combined input to a single television.

I thought you could also use a Y-splitter on the 1/4″ guitar output — routing one side to a real guitar amplifier, and the other side to the Rocksmith USB adapter and your console. However, it appears you need a true powered / buffered signal splitter device for this to work, and those are not cheap…

October 15, 2011

Rocksmith Full Track List Revealed

I had a great time with Rocksmith during my hands-on preview; I came away convinced the game is going to actually work. A few of my thoughts are captured in this brief 2 minute video, below.

They were still coy about exactly which songs would be in Rocksmith at the time, but now that the game’s on the verge of release, here’s the full track list, courtesy of the gaming vault.

The Animals — House of the Rising Sun
Best Coast — When I’m With You
The Black Keys — Next Girl
The Black Keys — I Got Mine
Blur — Song 2
The Boxer Rebellion — Step Out The Car
Cream — Sunshine Of Your Love
The Cribs — We Share The Same Skies
The Cure — Boys Don’t Cry
Dan Auerbach — I Want Some More
David Bowie — Rebel Rebel
The Dead Weather — I Can’t Hear You
Eric Clapton — Run Back To Your Side
Franz Ferdinand — Take Me Out
The Horrors — Do You Remember
Incubus — I Miss You
Interpol — Slow Hands
Jarvis Cocker — Angela
Jenny O — Well OK Honey
Kings Of Leon — Use Somebody
Lenny Kravitz — Are You Gonna Go My Way
Little Barrie — Surf Hell
Lynyrd Skynyrd — Sweet Home Alabama
Muse — Unnatural Selection
Muse — Plug In Baby
Nirvana — In Bloom
Nirvana — Breed
The Pixies — Where Is My Mind
Queens of the Stone Age — Go With The Flow
Radiohead — High And Dry
The Rapscallions — California Brain
Red Fang — Number Thirteen
Red Hot Chili Peppers — Higher Ground
The Rolling Stones — The Spider And The Fly
The Rolling Stones — Play With Fire
The Rolling Stones — (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Sigur Ros — Gobbledigook
Silversun Pickups — Panic Switch
Soundgarden — Outshined
Spoon — Me And The Bean
Stone Temple Pilots — Between The Lines
Stone Temple Pilots — Vasoline
The Strokes — Under Cover Of Darkness
Taddy Porter — Mean Bitch
Titus Andronicus — A More Perfect Union
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers — Good Enough
Velvet Revolver — Slither
White Denim — Burnished
The White Stripes — Icky Thump
The xx — Islands
Yellow Moon Band — Chimney

Click through to see YouTube videos of any song, if you’re not familiar with it. There’s also DLC planned, of course. Two DLC tracks have been pre-announced, Free Bird and Radiohead’s Bodysnatchers.

A good song list, but a bit … obscure at the edges. Some of these artists I’ve honestly never heard of, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but probably reflects the licensing difficulties they had. On the other hand, picking up not one but two Muse tracks stings a little because of the running “more Muse please!” joke within the Rock Band community for the last year.

Rocksmith will be available in just a few days on October 18th, and comes in either a $199 full guitar bundle, or a $79 game and USB adapter bundle for Xbox, PS3 and PC.

I’m looking forward to getting my copy this month!

September 12, 2011

Rocksmith Hands on Preview

After writing about Rocksmith back in July, I was invited to the Ubisoft offices in San Fransisco for a hands-on preview of the game. How could I turn that down?

I took the opportunity to invite a friend of mine, Martín Marconcini, who happens to be a decent novice guitarist, far far beyond my meager guitar skills. Together we spent about an hour playing the Xbox 360 version of the game.

The official Rocksmith bundle guitar, the Epiphone Les Paul Junior ($129 MSRP) was the guitar we used to play the game — you can see Martín holding it in the picture. Remember, this is a 100% real guitar, no game elements whatsoever! (In fact, the game comes with fret number stickers to place on the top of the fretboard, and our guitar had them applied.)

I was a bit skeptical going in, but I have to admit: Rocksmith definitely works as advertised!

Rocksmith truly does reliably detect what you’re playing on an analog guitar, and in real time. Both Martín and I agreed on this; at no point did we think the game was screwing up, any time we made a mistake it was clearly us playing the wrong notes. There was no real compromise that we could see with the analog detection approach. Even subtle little mistakes like being off by one fret or one string were displayed correctly.

Because of the analog approach, you get a significantly different and arguably more musical experience compared to Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar mode:

  1. You can’t even play the game without begging, borrowing, buying, or stealing a real electric guitar. Everything starts with putting that electric guitar in your hands and plugging it in to the provided USB interface. It feels good!
  2. Every time you touch the guitar, you are making actual guitar sounds. This is in stark contrast to almost every other rhythm game where if you play correctly, you get the original audio track, and if you get it wrong, you hear generic guitar mistake noises. What really, really struck me when playing was that I was learning to hear when my notes sounded wrong. I wasn’t just learning about finger positioning, there was a very direct correlation between what my ears heard and what my hands were doing. Once I got a good basic pattern going, I could tell when I screwed up because I heard it before I saw it. That’s HUGE!

(Also, I was concerned that tuning the guitar, which is required before each new song, would be a tedious chore. But I was fascinated to discover that these pre-song tunings were kind of, dare I say, fun? Or more like … something I needed to learn to do properly because as a musician, of course you want your guitar to sound in tune!)

I was very worried about latency going in, and I’m happy to say that latency of note detection was not a problem. But there is a latency issue — it’s just not what I thought it was. When you play electric guitar in Rocksmith, the console is your amplifier. That is, the signals have to go from the guitar, to the console, and then back out through your sound system. It’s no different than the latency problem in vocals in Rock Band 3 which have to go through the same path: out of your mouth, into the mic, through the console, then back out of the speakers. This takes time, and you’ll notice a bit of lag between “playing a sound” and “hearing the sound you played”. But the advantage is that your console is in some ways the ultimate super flexible guitar amp in Rocksmith. You can apply effects, pedals, different guitar sounds, etcetera. It’s really cool and it even works during loading screens in the game, you can noodle around on the guitar while you’re waiting. Great stuff.

One permanent workaround for the audio latency is to get a real amplifier and hook it up, like for example the Roland Micro Cube Guitar Amplifier I have. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s definitely authentic, will solve the audio playback latency completely, and heck — shouldn’t you have a guitar amp anyway for your electric guitar?

Another thing I was very interested in is the automatic difficulty scaling in Rocksmith. That is, the more notes you play correctly on the guitar, the more notes it will give you — if you’re totally nailing the song on beginner mode, it will eventually scale you on up to medium and hard and beyond completely automatically. This also worked seamlessly for me, as I mastered the very simple beginner phrases they slowly got a tiny bit more complicated and more representative of the actual song. This did not last, because I truly suck at guitar, but the scaling up and down of difficulty was very gradual and smooth; not disruptive at all.

Now, not everything I saw in Rocksmith was great. For example the navigation UI in the game was pretty darn abysmal in my opinion, and the track list was solid, but can’t possibly compare with the hundreds of Rock Band 3 tracks available even if you just limit to the Pro Guitar capable tracks. There’s definitely enough room for improvement that I can see a Rocksmith 2 in there already. But the important bit is that Rocksmith does what it says it does and it is a very satisfying experience when playing the songs. For any music game, that’s really the only thing that matters in my book.

I also learned a few nuggets of news worth mentioning:

  • Two player guitar will be supported though I didn’t get to see it; it will be a splitscreen top/bottom sort of affair and will of course require two real guitars and two USB interface cables. Definitely looking forward to that.
  • An aggressive weekly DLC schedule is planned, though details on specifics were scarce. That’s very encouraging to hear.
  • The obvious where’s the bass guitar support? question came up. Apparently they have special plans to deliver bass guitar support through DLC and this may include unlocking bass guitar charts for the existing songs in the game.

I was already tentatively excited to play Rocksmith and had it pre-ordered before I got hands-on time with the game. But now that I have, I went back and pre-ordered the full guitar bundle, which is now available for $199. (That bundled Epiphone Les Paul Junior we got to try is a surprisingly solid axe, and the game is $79 alone … so I figured why not.)

Bottom line, Rocksmith rocks! It offers a uniquely musical, hands-and-ears-on approach to the rhythm genre that we haven’t seen before. It isn’t perfect, and it’s no party game, but it totally works as advertised for learning guitar and having fun while doing it, too. I have no problem recommending it highly to anyone who has an electric guitar gathering dust somewhere in their house — or anyone who is serious about learning electric guitar in general.

Rocksmith should be available later in October, and comes in either a $199 full guitar bundle, or a $79 game and USB adapter bundle for Xbox, PS3 and PC.

July 4, 2011

Rocksmith: More Real Guitar?

At this year’s E3, Ubisoft revealed a new guitar game — Rocksmith. The twist here is that the game only works with real guitars. There’s a special USB adapter provided with the game that plugs into the standard output port of any six-string guitar.

So buy the game, add a real guitar … and start playing.

Now, this isn’t exactly new, since Rock Band 3 has a fantastic pro guitar mode which also allows you to play on a real guitar, so long as it is one of the special MIDI capable ones supported by the game. Rocksmith is the first to focus exclusively on real guitar and the first to work with any guitar you happen to have lying around.

This IGN preview does the best job so far of showing off what the game is, and how it works. I definitely recommend checking it out.

The Wired preview has more details on the required tuning prior to each song (?) and some of the freeplay amp modes.

Only a handful of tracks have been revealed for the game so far, but it does include some fairly major artists, and all original master tracks; it’s no slouch in the soundtrack department:

  • House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
  • Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
  • High and Dry – Radiohead
  • Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones
  • Vasoline – Stone Temple Pilots

There’s also this clever viral ad for the game with a vaguely creepy baby guitar prodigy showing off his chops:

Rocksmith will be available on Xbox 360, PS3, and surprisingly enough, even on PC. Not sure what that means for any DLC plans, but it’s certainly convenient for a PC gamer like myself; the last “modern” rock gaming title that runs on the PC is moldy old Guitar Hero 4.

Interface wise, it turns the fretboard on its side — literally. So instead of strings pointing up, ala Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar mode, we get strings pointing to the side.

Pretend you’re playing guitar in front of a mirror, and you get the idea. It’s an interesting design choice, and I suppose it might make it easier to see some hand positions on the neck of the guitar this way.

Rocksmith’s 100% focus on real guitar out of the box, and the nifty dynamic difficulty scaling mechanism as you play, are welcome additions to the genre. (And the skill building guitarcade mini-games are genius!) But I have some serious concerns about the choice of analog guitar input to control the game, which means:

  1. Your guitar must be perfectly in tune for this to work at all, by definition. Not really a problem, just means you have to tune your guitar before playing. Guitars should be in tune anyway, right? Absolute worst case scenario the game ends up being a glorified $80 guitar tuning software package. Hardly the end of the world.
  2. The note detection absolutely, positively has to happen in real time. That is, when the game converts what’s coming over the USB cable from raw guitar sounds to “the user pressed these strings”, if there is significant lag, this is a dealbreaker. In music, timing is everything. Lag is a serious enough problem with existing digital 5 button guitars in Rock Band and Guitar Hero; input lag on an analog guitar would be absolutely brutal.

Worryingly, the lag issue is specifically called out as a problem in the IGN preview, with vague promises that they’ll fix it up before the October release. It’s not like Ubisoft is the first company to ever dream up the idea of a simple analog to digital real time note conversion. This has been tried before with little success. I can’t help wondering if there is a reason Harmonix used far more complex digital detection for Rock Band 3 pro guitar mode.

There are also some murmurings about a $199 Epiphone Les Paul Junior guitar + game bundle, but there’s no place to order it yet. Until then, Rocksmith is $79 with the USB cable included, and will be available for Xbox 360 and PS3 this October, and PC later in the year.

« Earlier Entries