Sunday, September 6, 2009

Playing Rock Band on the computer

Anyone who's been reading this blog any amount of time knows I like Rock Band, and to a lesser extent, Guitar Hero. I love music, and for someone who doesn't have that level of personal connection with music that many people have, I do enjoy listening to music as much as anybody. Though I've never felt the inclination to pick up a guitar/bass or drumsticks, and the less said about my showering and driving singing the better, but there's something about the simulated playing these games offer that I like. I've always liked puzzle games, particularly Tetris and its variants. Manipulating blocks in certain ways to clear them. There was one cool Tetris knockoff for the Super Nintendo that came with the Super Scope - Nintendo's bazooka-looking gun controller, circa 1993 or thereabouts. You got so many shots per block - like 2-3, and if you didn't use all of them, they rolled over. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are kinda like that. You have to destroy the blocks or spheres that come at you - and sure enough, they burn up (GH) or explode (RB).

But a question that has always puzzled me is this: Why can only home video game consoles play these games? Rock Band 2 is available for the PlayStation 2, as well as the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. Scaled-down versions of Rock Band are on the PSP, and coming soon (December, I think) to the Nintendo DS. A PC is many times more powerful than a PlayStation 2, to say nothing of the PSP and Nintendo DS. (In fact, while no PSP emulator to date has been made that plays commercial games, there are a couple DS emulators out there, so the DS version will be playable on the PC, albeit... less than legally.) All either Guitar Hero or Rock Band are doing is this: They draw models of four main characters, which are fairly detailed. The crowd is kind of in the dark, it probably takes less to render the entire crowd than it does to render the four band members. Then you have the stage, which is relatively complex at times, but it's still no more advanced than a sports game. (Nothing against sports games, but they don't work as hard to draw characters as shooters.) As for the actual... action, you have a multi-channel Ogg Vorbis file playing, with one or more channels tied to each instrument. There's a backing track that always plays, and if one instrument is not being used (e.g. nobody is singing) then that track plays uninterrupted through the whole song, but missing a note causes that track to mute for a second, and failing causes the track to mute until the failed player can be saved. This is all very simple to do behind the scenes. Then it draws the note highway, and colors the fret board for various events. When a bassist reaches a 5X or 6X multiplier or a guitarist is doing a solo, the board glows blue. When anyone's in overdrive, an animated yellow border is applied. As complex as it sounds and as pretty as it looks, the fact remains that the PlayStation 2 can do it, which boasts a mere 300MHz processor, or the equivalent of a mid-range Pentium II. Its other specs pale in comparison to average PC specs as well. So the evidence of the PlayStation 2 clearly states that any PC manufactured in the last six to seven years should be able to run Rock Band 2 without a hitch - if it were compiled for Windows, that is.

So why isn't it? The reason is pretty simple. Video game consoles have copy protection and digital rights management (DRM) PC manufacturers simply cannot get away with. Microsoft and IBM have both tried to force DRM on consumers, and the backlash both times was pretty overwhelming, to the point where they pretty much just gave up. Digital music stores, such as iTunes, are giving up DRM for freely-copyable MP3 files their customers are demanding. Consoles have always been so protected, and gamers have never complained. Console game piracy is very low compared with PC game piracy, though it does happen. The Nintendo DS is probably the easiest to do, as all you need is a microSD (memory card in cell phones - not the SIM card, the other one) to Nitro (Nintendo DS cartridge) adapter. The adapter looks like a DS game but has a memory card slot. Put ROMs on memory card, put memory card in adapter, put adapter in DS, and pick your games from a list. Couldn't be easier. PlayStation 2 hacking requires taking the unit apart and sautering. It's risky, it's tricky, and a lot of people don't do it. Xbox 360 hacking is very tricky and very risky, and all it lets you do is play burned games. However, the Xbox 360 has a killswitch Microsoft can trip remotely that fries the console. Better yet, they'll know why it's broken if you send it in, and won't fix it for you. So it's very much not worth it. So while people do pirate console games (and I have seen Rock Band 2 on torrent sites), it's a minority. Downloadable content, on the other hand, has never been stolen. Not once. DLC for Rock Band 2 is encoded and protected. There is no way to get it for free. If Rock Band were on the PC, hackers would find a way to crack the DLC and share it. Simple as that. Harmonix pays more for these master recordings than Apple does to license simple MP3s and AACs, so they need to protect their investment.

Still, the desire to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band on the PC has not escaped some hobbyists. The most common way to do that is by using Frets on Fire, which is free and open source. There is even a portable version which will run from a flash drive over at Frets on Fire is no Guitar Hero, let alone Rock Band, but it really doesn't try to be. By itself, it's more a parody of those games. They instruct you to hold your keyboard like a guitar (keys facing away from you, backed up against your chest) and use F1-F5 as the fret keys, and Up and Down as the strum bar. Other keys activate the Overdrive/Star Power, and serve as the whammy bar. Trouble is, some songs have power chords (two or more fret buttons must be held while you strum - like red and blue, or blue and orange) and many keyboards can't process more than two keys hit at the same time. You hold F4 and F5 in preparation for a blue-orange chord, and when you go to strum... oops, it doesn't register. Sorry about your bad luck, Padre. The solution is rather amusing. You get a Guitar Hero controller for the Xbox 360, one of the old ones that plugs in via USB, and you plug it right into your computer. Windows will recognize it for what it is and will download drivers from Update, and then the guitar will work as a standard controller. You can even play other games with it. Then, just configure Frets on Fire to work with a joystick/gamepad, and set it up.

Still, Frets on Fire is ugly as sin, but that is not hard to fix. With the FoFix mod, actually a fork of Frets on Fire (it replaces FoF entirely), you can add themes that change how Frets looks and feels. With the Rock Band 2 theme, it tries very hard to look and feel just like Rock Band 2, to the point of being eerie. It should be noted that this is illegal as hell, because it violates Harmonix's trademarks. It uses the Rock Band 2 logo (hell, it uses the whole damn title screen) and much of the graphics. When you're playing, it looks almost exactly like Rock Band 2. I think somebody reverse engineered the PlayStation 2 or Wii version. It's not the game and contains none of the RB2 game code, just the graphics.

Songs are tricky to find as well. Many forums that carry them require you to register, so they can track what you download. You can bet your ass that if they get busted, they'll sell you out in a heartbeat - why else would they make you register? You can probably find some free songs for it, for example Jonathan Coulton is a recording artist who releases his songs under a Creative Commons license. Last year or the year before, he released a song a week for a year. It's silly humor, but it's pretty good. (Check out "Re: Your Brains" - it's coming to Rock Band next week - "Skullcrusher Mountain" is already there.) Anything he's done would be legal to use in Frets on Fire. Other artists... not so much. Some songs come with just the notes, and you supply your own MP3 file. If you hit up torrent sites, you'll get complete tracks. But Frets on Fire doesn't use master recordings; like Guitar Hero, it just mutes the entire thing and/or belches/buzzes at you when you miss notes. Problem is, Frets doesn't un-mute the song after the missed note has passed, as Guitar Hero does. With FoFix and the Rock Band 2 theme, this isn't a problem.

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