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Friday, July 31, 2009

Rock Band Vs. Guitar Hero

Yesterday I sold off Guitar Hero World Tour and picked up Rock Band 2.  I asked around and people told me that Rock Band 2 was definitely different than Guitar Hero, but I didn't quite know how different.  What I found is that it illustrates perfectly the gap between the way games should be and the way they are.

A week or so ago, we had a Guitar Hero party.  We had a bunch of friends over to play, and everyone had fun, but the evening was not without frustrations.  For instance, some songs were way too long, and people got bored with them.  That wasn't the worst part, though.  The worst of it was the constant threat of failure that hung over everyone's heads.  I was afraid to try Hard mode in front of everyone because if I failed the song ended.  We were afraid to take on more complicated songs because we were afraid that the less experienced players would have difficulty getting around in them.  We ended up sticking to the same couple of songs because if we strayed outside of that zone we'd get knocked back pretty hard.  It was fun, but not as much fun as it could have been, and one of the party who had Rock Band at home continually lamented that it wasn't very helpful.

Last night, we hooked up Rock Band 2 for the first time.  Using the same instruments and the same difficulty modes, we tackled a bunch of new songs.  At this point, I can pick up just about any Guitar Hero/Rock Band song and blow it away on the first try, but I was working with two people (my wife and her sister) who are fairly uncomfortable with the instruments and games in general.  Both of them played much, much better.  Nobody failed, and while they did get a little lost and get cases of the giggles, both of them had much higher completion percentages than Guitar Hero.  The weird thing is that Rock Band's drums seem to ask more of the player than Guitar Hero did, and yet because they have you using one less drum and don't let you fail as easily it helps the player succeed in a way that Guitar Hero doesn't.

It highlights the difference between how games should be and how they are.  For instance, Guitar Hero keeps on adding more features.  They have a tap-wah feature and pressure-sensitive drum pads.  They have the ability to play four sets of drums if you choose and new digital fret bars for sliding your hand up the neck of the guitar.  The new Guitar Hero 5 has more realistic graphics and achievements as well.  They have all this extra stuff when all people want is to have a good time with their friends.  Getting high scores is just a bonus, and as far as I remember no one ever cared about our score when we played Guitar Hero.

Once again, this underscores the issues plaguing gaming.  The HD twins are at times suffering under a "more is better" philosophy, when many times more is just more:  More headaches, more learning curve and more frustration.  The Wii is letting everyone get in on the fun with positive reinforcement being the order of the day, like New Super Mario Bros. Wii making it more difficult to fail, and they're extremely successful.  Rock Band still lags behind Guitar Hero in overall sales, but that can be linked to Guitar Hero's improved brand awareness, marketing and two-year head start.  The point still holds.  An inclusive strategy for gaming is helpful.

As core gamers, we grew up with negative reinforcement being the standard for gaming.  You had to make the right move or you'd fail.  There was no other option.  Our attitude therefore is one of "It worked for us, why doesn't it work for them?"  We get upset when Nintendo puts in Super Guide because it's such a copout.  The new player should have to learn the way we did, by trial and error, continually falling off a cliff and getting impaled on spikes until they don't fall off the cliff anymore.  Then they'll be ready to take on the next game that adds in a gust of wind that pushes them off the cliff, and so on.

The problem is that not everyone handles negative reinforcement in the same way.  Oh sure, they'll except negative reinforcement when it's for something important, like learning a language or a new skill in the workplace, but games aren't that important to everyone.  It's just a fun diversion, and no one wants frustration when they're trying to have fun.  So while we may be used to getting manhandled by a game before grasping the reins, we're alone in that sentiment.  The hearty reception for Rock Band is proof.