Friday, September 4, 2009

Improving on Rock Band...

Last month, a couple weeks before Summerslam, I posted an article about what the WWE could do to improve its product, primarily for those of us fans, such as myself, who came into the program knowing it's fake, and enjoy it for its technical and production merits as well as the entertainment. I was contacted by a representative of a promotional firm representing the TV station WGN America and WWE suggesting I watch Superstars, WGN-A's hour-long WWE show. I watched and reviewed one episode (and continue to watch it - it's good), then Summerslam comes and I can't help but feel that one of my suggestions - that rules should be respected more - was taken personally by someone high up. Could be coincidence (and probably is - matches are planned and practiced well in advance of pay-per-views) but when I saw that match with Randy Orton and John Cena, and Orton kept cheating, and kept getting called on it... I couldn't help but notice something.

Maybe my luck, coincidental as it may be, will hold for another round. This time I'm taking aim at the music simulation/puzzle game Rock Band 2, having long held that it's not so much a game as a multimedia platform. Harmonix's Rock Band 2, preceded by Rock Band, Guitar Hero 2, and Guitar Hero (more recent Guitar Hero titles were made by a different company), have revitalized the ailing music industry, moving from a scene where pirates stole music online to one where people paid $200 each for a game disc and plastic instruments, and then $2 for additional songs, to play along with them on the screen. But it has been nearly a year since Rock Band 2 came out, and Harmonix is not producing a Rock Band 3 this year, instead focusing on the Beatles-themed Rock Band to come out next week. So one year in and people are still playing this game - is Harmonix just sitting back and letting the money roll in? Actually, no they're not. They put out half a dozen new songs each week, and that takes work. They're building a community of artists and programmers called the Rock Band Network which will allow musicians to build their own Rock Band tracks for inclusion into the game. This should exponentially increase the size of the Rock Band store, which Harmonix hopes to have stocked with 1,000 songs by year's end. Also, there is a rumor of a fabled "Gold Star patch" which notes which songs a player has Gold-Starred (beyond a five star performance rating is five gold stars), and possibly adds support for these new wireless microphones coming out... but little else.

While I certainly don't intend to suggest Harmonix isn't doing enough for its fans, I do have some ideas that would freshen the game up, make it feel new longer, and bridge the gap between Rock Band 2 and the eventual Rock Band 3.

1. Real-Life Rockers
Following the latest Dashboard update, Microsoft is now selling virtual clothing for your Xbox Live Avatar, at $1 for hats and glasses, $2 for shirts, pants, and shoes, and up to $5 for full costumes and "toys" - e.g. your avatar can now wield a lightsaber, or play with a radio-controlled ATV from Halo (yes fanboys, I know it's called a warthog).

Where is Harmonix on this? When you go to play, you have two categories of characters. The ones you've made, and the generic ones that come with the game (I prefer Ol' Smokey). You should be able to buy "Real-Life Rockers". When you own one of these avatars, and you play a song with them as a member, whoever has their instrument defaults to them, unless they've chosen a character they made. (Example: You buy a Nikki Sixx avatar, and select Ol' Smokey as your avatar, and play bass. You play "Saints of Los Angeles" by Motley Crue, and instead of Ol' Smokey, you get Sixx.) Or you can make your own supergroup. Deceased musicians would definitely be used, so for the recently-released Janis Joplin single "Piece of My Heart", you could have Janis herself singing it, and other songs you choose for your set list.

And where's the damn avatar support, anyway? Guitar Hero 5 jumped on this. To be able to use your Xbox Live avatar is trivial. While I'm at it, why can't I use my guy from Oblivion? Microsoft needs to make any company that lets you customize your character export the character in a universal format that any game can use, just because that would be beyond cool. And why can't you use your Oblivion mage or your Madden football player as your virtual rocker? If Rock Band's aim is to let anyone with a home game console be a rock star, why not a mage from an RPG or a sports star? Why even pick up the pen to draw that line? Sure, it's silly, but pick up a plastic guitar and tell me how seriously you take yourself. We don't play games to be serious, after all.

2. Real expansion sets
The Beatles should never have gotten their own game. Neither should Nirvana, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Foo Fighters, and others. What's that you say? Only the Beatles did? Therein lies the problem.

The other bands I named each got whole albums in Rock Band - in Nirvana's case, with the exception of "The Big Three" - "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Lithium", and "Come As You Are", which are probably being held for Rock Band 3 and/or a slow DLC week. $20 for an entire album, which is a good deal, because it's more than the 10 songs that $20 would ordinarily buy you. Well, it's still not enough. If I'm laying down $20 - one-third the cost of the game itself - I don't just want songs. I want Real-Life Rockers (see above) of the entire band, and the opportunity to earn the 250 Gamerscore that paid DLC often adds to a game's total Gamerscore allocation.

That said, the Beatles could have just been an expansion set, albeit a much bigger one. Or they could have done volumes. In fact, Harmonix has said that the Beatles game will be a closed platform - it won't work with downloadable content, and its downloadable content won't work with other games. Have they not been listening to the Guitar Hero fans who have complained about this fatal flaw in the Guitar Hero franchise? It would be unwise to lean towards any of the disadvantages Guitar Hero has when compared with Rock Band; rather, it should be looking at the two or three things Guitar Hero does better, and integrate those features.

3. Unpause countdown timer
The most requested feature in Rock Band - how can I not throw my voice behind it as well? When you resume Guitar Hero World Tour or Guitar Hero: Metallica from a pause (presumably Smash Hits and 5 as well), you get taken back to the paused note highway(s) and you get a countdown timer, so if you had to pause in a hurry, the number of notes you will actually miss is minimized.

Or, hey, how about doing Guitar Hero one better and rewinding 10 seconds? Sure, it could be abused, but maybe scores from songs paused and resumed would not be added to the leaderboards or something.

4. Turn "No Fail Mode" into "Studio Mode"
"No Fail Mode" is stupid. Let me just put that out there. The point of the game is to hit notes, and the penalty for that is the crowd loses interest, and eventually boos you off stage. "No Fail Mode" makes it so if you abandon your controller or the song is just that damn hard (see "Life is Beautiful" by Sixx:A.M. or "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads) you get booed, but you never get kicked out. So I say, drop "No Fail" and rather, have an option to drop the crowd. You get no crowd meter, and no feedback - positive or negative - from the fans (who aren't even there). You can't fail, either, even if you abandon the song from the start. The song just plays, and gives you your score at the end. "Studio Mode" is the best name I can think of; "Basement Mode" works too.

5. Custom Difficulty
If you've never played Rock Band before, could you tell me the difference between Easy, Medium, Hard, or Expert? Many veteran players can't, either. They just know that Easy only uses the first three fret buttons, Medium the first four, and Hard and Expert all five. And that the speed increases as you go up. Fewer notes does make things easier, but slower? Not always. I was playing on drums - doing badly as ever - and my wife suggested I go up to Hard. I was on Medium and couldn't hack it there. Reluctantly I tried - and got twice as far. On drums, Easy and Medium are just too slow. But Hard and Expert have too many notes. There are some good reasons why I can't play the drums right that have to do with my hand-eye coordination and other mental capacities, but part of that also has to do with a hastily-designed difficulty setting. How about letting the player choose the frequency of the notes and the speed they're delivered? The learning curve could be lowered quite a bit without sacrificing gameplay.

6. Better vocals!
This one's below the belt, because until voice recognition technology advances quite a bit, singing in any music game is not going to be tracked accurately at all. It's been said by quite a few on ScoreHero and other Guitar Hero and Rock Band communities: "Either I can sing the song correctly, or I can get points". Some songs require you to scream, others require you to wail, sometimes when the singer himself - or herself - is doing no such thing. Take "21 Guns" by Green Day - does Billy Joe whine and scream? No, he doesn't - it's a very calm song. Yet, you've gotta make yourself sound like a pissed-off Bob Dylan to sing it. It's flippin' stupid. Guitar Hero is far behind Rock Band in vocal tracking, but that's little consolation when Rock Band's sucks to start with. Still, they made a game that incorporates singing - it's on them to make it work right. As opposed to just sweeping it under the rug and letting people just "deal with it".

7. Music video mode and MP3 export
You can actually hack this together in Rock Band 2 with a couple cheats (game modifiers). Turn on No Fail Mode and Performance Mode. Enter Quick Play as a vocalist, and pick your songs, make a setlist. Choose whatever difficulty, it doesn't matter. Start the "game", then go into the pause options and take out the crowd noise, turn the mic volume all the way down and the vocal track all the way up. Resume, and the game will play the songs you've chosen as mock videos. But this should be available from the main menu as "Music video mode" or "Jukebox mode", and rather than letting you choose the difficulty (which means nothing), it would let you choose the arena, and configure other options as well. I mean, iTunes charges $0.99 in the US for songs. The Rock Band Store charges $2, $1.01 more. It's not a lot to be able to jam along with the song, but it should do a bit more, I think. I also think it should export songs you buy - if you like - if you have a 20GB hard drive, you might not prefer this - to the console's hard drive, so you can listen to them in other games. At $2 a song and considering you can't get music off the console, why not?

8. Rock Band Online
What's really hurting Rock Band right now is the fact that, not only is it not a bestselling or top game (program), but not everyone gets online with their game console. But above all that is the fact that Xbox 360 players cannot play with PlayStation 3 or Wii players. None of the three work together on their own networks. So to make online play work, Harmonix needs a central server to play games on. The only problem is that that is not free. Good online play vs. what I hear is shoddy online play is the difference between paid online gaming (Xbox 360) and free online gaming (PlayStation 3). Not dissing Sony, but a lot of people say that. Regardless, Harmonix aren't gonna do it out of the kindness of their hearts at a loss, and we shouldn't expect them to. A nominal fee is reasonable. And this fee would let you play online, not just with owners of the same console as you, but with owners of the other two, as well. I'm not at all sure Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo would support it, though, but it's something worth suggesting. But being able to compete with owners of other consoles wouldn't support the makers of the other consoles, specifically, but would in fact make all of them better. Just ask Activision why they didn't continue their policy of "you can only use OUR hardware" that they used in Guitar Hero 3. It's like the representative said, "How many drum controllers should you need?" (or something like that). Such limited interoperability can only benefit them.

All that being said, while Guitar Hero never attempts to be more than just a music game - and it's a pretty good one, at that - Rock Band is much more - it's a music platform. And I cannot reasonably say that it is "pretty good" at that. Much more than Guitar Hero, but as such, it should strive to be so much better than it is.

So here's my open challenge to Harmonix: Stop competing with that silly little guitar game and shine on your own as something much better.

No comments: