The "Guitar Hero" Answers Your Questions
Last month we solicited your questions for Alex Rigopulos, co-founder of Harmonix, the video-game development company best known for its Guitar Hero and Rock Band games.
One of the most-asked questions was whether his games discourage players from learning to play real music.
Rigopulos doesn’t think so; the games, he says, give people “a taste of what lies on the other side.” Guitar instructors tell him they’ve gotten more new students in the past few years because they were motivated by his video games.
The question remains: how many of those students stick with it once they discover they can’t become a rock star in a few hours?
Thanks to Rigopulos for his answers and all of you for your good questions.
How difficult is it to arrange for the legal rights to use the music?
For the vast majority of music we attempt to license for Rock Band, it’s not difficult at all. In fact, at this point there’s so much interest from so many artists, the challenge is more deciding what material to work with first.
That said, of course there are some exceptions. For example, as you might imagine, licensing the Beatles’s music was no small undertaking. And there are a few artists who decline for various reasons. Usually it’s just that they’re not (yet) sufficiently comfortable with the idea of their music in video games (which they might have some negative perception of), or with the idea of their music being released in interactive form. In none of these cases have I found the answer to be “No, never.” Usually it’s just a matter of time and of helping these artists (particularly older ones who didn’t grow up with video games) see that music games aren’t some gimmick, and that they’re a way for the artists’ fans to experience their music in a powerful new way. Eventually we win them over.
For Rock Band, did you get the original master recordings to create separate drums, guitar, bass, and vocal tracks? If so, were there any strange things found when transforming any of the older tracks into the game?
The short answer is that yes, because of the audio interactivity per instrument, we need the original multi-track recordings for Rock Band.
Listening to the original studio multi-tracks is often full of fun surprises, many of which relate to the human elements of the recording process being exposed. For example, you’ll sometimes hear back-up singers chatting with each other between their sections, or you’ll hear one of the players screw something up (but the screw-up gets left in, because it’s sufficiently hidden in the final mix), or you’ll hear laughter or banter among the musicians before or after the take. There’s something very cool about hearing these people being actual people.
What is your favorite song to play on Rock Band?
Ah, no one song holds that title for long because we’re releasing more songs every week.
I generally most enjoy playing new songs, where the difficulty on a particular instrument is right on the edge of what I’m capable of playing — not prohibitively difficult (I’m looking at you, Yngwie!), but challenging enough that playing near 100 percent requires focus and practice. When I finally manage to nail it, it feels great.
Consequently, my favorite at any particular time is probably a recent DLC (downloadable content) release that I’ve gotten into. The latest one of these was last week, the James Gang’s “Funk #49” on expert drums, which is super fun. Another recent fave was Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose.” (Soundgarden’s drum parts are awesome.)
Freakonomics questioned whether your games might have actually helped to revive the music industry. At the same time, do you think they’re discouraging kids from picking up real instruments? If you really wanted to encode the essence of music into software, shouldn’t this be done in a way that people can actually learn a viable skill that will help them produce music?
First of all, in Rock Band the singing gameplay is really singing, and the game feedback on the singer’s pitch really does help people become better singers. And while the drumming gameplay isn’t an exact replication of real drumming, it’s certainly a sufficiently close simulation that players develop skills which they can directly apply to real drumming. I am continually seeing people migrate from Rock Band onto real drums naturally.
The guitar controller and gameplay are, of course, a far more abstracted version of the real thing. There are some rudimentary musical skills you’re learning through the gameplay, such as a better sense of rhythm, and you’re learning the basic dexterity of rhythmic input through one hand and pitch selection with the other. But it’s not like an expert Rock Band guitarist can just pick up a guitar and start playing.
That said, there’s still value. We don’t see Rock Band as an educational tool for guitar so much as an inspirational tool. Most people who try to learn guitar quit soon after, because their initial experience is just frustratingly difficult. By giving people a taste of what lies on the other side, we’re inspiring them to invest themselves in learning the instrument for real. The game isn’t a substitute, it’s a stimulus. I’ve had many guitar instructors now tell me that their business has heated up over the past couple of years, and most of their new students got motivated by their experience playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
In your early days studying for your B.S. and M.S., did you have to lie about being an avid gamer to get girls to go out with you? Do you still have to lie now?
Hah, in my early days studying for my B.S. and M.S., I had already had my first kid, so persuading girls to go out with me wasn’t exactly on the top of my list of priorities at that point. (And in any case, hiding your real interests in order to get a girl to go out with you generally doesn’t end well.)
But maybe what you’re asking is, was a guy’s gaming habit more likely to turn off a prospective girlfriend 20 years ago than it is today? To that I’d have to say yes. Twenty years ago, video games were mostly the province of nerdy boys.
That has gradually changed a lot over the past two decades. We’re making really good progress toward a time when the word “gamer” doesn’t have any gender baggage. I can’t wait, because when we finally get there, it will mean that the industry has started making some new kinds of games that we’re not making yet.
(By the way, in Harmonix’s testing department — home of our most bad-a** Rock Band players — last I checked the reigning champ was a woman. If you want to get her to go out with you, pretending you don’t like video games probably isn’t your best strategy.)
Have you met any real-life rock stars, and if so, what do they think about your games?
Yes, meeting rock stars comes with the territory. What they think about our games is all over the map. Sometimes they’re already enthusiastic fans of Harmonix’s games — which is disorienting, and I have to say, “No, wait, sorry, I’m the one who’s attending this meeting in the role of fan boy.” At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes they barely know what we do, or they even have a negative impression of video games in general, and we have to start from square one. Either way, it’s always a trip to engage directly with artists and hear how they think about music games.
How important is it to make the instruments closer to the real thing, and how do you prevent the complexities of realism from getting in the way of fun?
Authenticity of the musical experience was one of the key design goals in Rock Band, and I do think that during the coming years we will continue to try to bridge the gap between simulated musicianship and real musicianship. That said, the path there is not obvious: As the interactivity moves closer to real instrumental performance, the complexity/difficulty explodes rapidly. The challenge is to move along this axis in sufficiently tiny increments, so that the experience remains accessible and compelling for many millions of people. It’s a hard, hard problem. But that’s part of what makes it fun to work on.