Friday, July 4, 2008

I Asked Harmonix about Note Tracking, and Here's What I Learned

When I visited Harmonix's studios earlier this week, one thing that was really impressed on me by the office itself is the fact that its employees are musicians and lovers of music first and foremost. Aside from the music memorabilia strewn everywhere, I also saw a mandolin, several real guitars, and an electric violin. There's a boom box in the bathroom tuned to college radio. In every Harmonix game to date there have been bonus tracks by the staff members' bands. This dedication to musicianship, I found out, also factors in an important aspect of the game's development: note tracking.

Note tracking or track authoring is the process by which recorded music is translated into the rows of glowing gems in the game. I've always been curious about the process, because I've always thought that tracking plays a huge role in how fun a song is to play. It's kind of hard to articulate this quality, but some ways of realizing notes in a game are just more fun to play than others; you notice it when you play the same track in multiple games, like Cherub Rock in Guitar Hero III and Rock Band. I didn't know if the game's designers had some special insight into producing the sense of satisfaction that comes from navigating a tricky set of notes and chords.

I talked with a Harmonix staffer about the process, and I was surprised to learn that the most important factor in the process is musicianship. The people responsible for note tracking, she told me, aim to reproduce the way that the song is played on a real guitar to the greatest extent possible within the confines of the guitar controller's limited repertoire of moves. If, in the real guitar, you would produce a sequence chords by keeping your index finger planted on a higher fret and moving your fingers on the lower frets, the note-trackers will mimic this hand movement on the guitar controller using the fret buttons. The same goes for passages that call for a guitar player to slide his hand up and down the neck of the guitar. She also told me another detail: the various chords on a guitar often have more than one set of fingerings, and a guitar player will usually choose among them based on the chords that surround them in that chord progression. The same line of thinking informs making the tracks in-game when the audio team works up a in-game note chart.

She finally emphasized that the key to making Rock Band fun and making fun note charts is the choice of music. If the song you choose is just a monotonous repetition of a few chords, it won't matter how it appears in the game, it won't be fun to play. (J'accuse, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s, an actual product.) It's not just a matter of choosing songs with needlessly virtuosic solos either. (Here's where I thought Guitar Hero III went off track: it seems to have been designed, at points, with a mind towards offering the player difficulties to surmount. It makes the whole experience more game-ey, to the detriment of the music itself.) The library of songs for Rock Band, which I praised yesterday, reflects a curatorial esteem for musicianship above other factors (even popularity), and I am happy that this viewpoint also makes for the fun of playing the songs in-game.


This also means, by extension, that the real fun to be had out there is playing real guitar. Alors.

54 comments:

Ben Abraham said...

Hey there IP,

Great write up of your visit - do Harmonix let just anybody into their studio if you agree to an NDA, or did you have some other super special secret way in? ;-)

To save commenting on all of the posts, I thought I'd let you know that I'm really enjoying your application of philosophy to videogames as it's very close (in spirit) to my own work. Keep 'em coming!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

thanks ben!

I checked out your blog as well, I hope you enjoy what I'be been working on.

The Harmonix folks are currently working on the difficulty balancing (making sure the difficulty ramps up at a fairly-regular pace) and so they're asking playtesters to come in and give feedback.

Ben Abraham said...

I can imagine that getting the difficulty curve just right is rather critical for games like Rock Band - I've only ever played Guitar Hero 3 and one of it's common criticisms is the difficulty ramp up being too steep (which I totally agree with! Why must 'hard' actually be hard for once?).

I'm also jealous that you live so close to a game developer - there's maybe 2 big name developers in the whole of Sydney...

Karmakin said...

The big irony of all this I found, while I prefer Rock Band overall, the notable songs that are in both GHIII and Rock Band (Cherub Rock and When We Were Young), I think are about the same or better in GHIII.

Cherub Rock in GHIII is actually very similar to Suffragette City and Gimme Shelter in RB, at least in terms of fingerings (This is a plus), where the RB version actually feels more GHIII-ish, relying more on difficulty and fast fingering than feel.

When We Were Young, is almost exactly the same.

But I agree with the general idea. Rock Band is better for that very reason...that it's Harmonix as musical curator.

Sghoul said...

I would LOVE to hear more about this process. I feel very passionately about how well HMX seems to pick games and make pretty much every game fun to play. I really do feel like I am playing guitar when I play. And as you said, GH3 feels like playing a video game.

Elrond Hubbard said...

This is interesting. I had never really thought of GHIII as anything more than a game you played with a guitar. I mean, it's a simulator, the way that all games are, designed to make the player feel more powerful than they are in real life.

But the growing consensus seems to be that Rock Band is more "pure," and I think this is going to devolve into the same hard-liner B.S. to which we've all become accustomed in video game reporting.

When the average person can only afford one thing, the other thing must be considered flawed beyond repair. Expect it to get nasty.

I bet that we will hear reports of payola from certain "news sources" in the near future.

Kal said...

The points you made were good, but I think GHIII's tracklist was infinitely better than Rock Band's. There's a good handful of songs that I just absolutely hate to hear ever, let alone repeatedly (the way Rock Band tends to subject you to), compared to the one or two songs that I dislike in GHIII. As long as that's the case, I can't prefer Rock Band, no matter how much love they put into their note sequences.

Lix0r said...

Rock Band guitar will always be unplayable until Harmonix implements 2x speed, period. Its exclusion is simply inexcusable for a modern rhythm game.

robyrt said...

Great writeup - that was really the deciding factor for me, as I've played through both on medium, hard and expert difficulties. While Guitar Hero is more difficult, it doesn't make me feel like I am a musician.

It's notable that for drums and vocals, the smooth difficulty curve and natural tracking isn't as apparent. Drums are pretty faithful to the real drum tracks, but the difficulty is full of spikes, while singing on Expert is merely an unnatural constraint on your voice. The drum issue could easily be fixed with a second tutorial or a better ordering of songs, though.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@kal: I actually agree with you up to a point: if you take away all the rest and just compare the rock band disc to the guitar hero III disc as guitar games I think guitar hero might have the edge with song selection and note tracking. ("The Seeker and "Welcome to the Jungle" are probably my two favorite guitar tracks ever.) However, when you include the DLC I think this changes the equation, especially since the note charts on some of the more recent DLC have been really excellent.

@elrond: I agree with you that the Rock Band versus Guitar Hero wars are just heating up. While I took issue with Neversoft's handling of the series (the art style and boss battles were bad moves) I don't think they did that bad of a job with it. I think for those who are not already committed to one franchise (and I am, because I already own a set of instruments) the content creator for the new GH will play a huge, and yet undetermined, factor in deciding between the two.

Android8675 said...

@lix0r: Gawd, go back to your Bemani dude, no one here is interested.

If you need more of a challenge above what expert brings, try closing your eyes or facing away from the TV, then the notes can fall as fast as you want them too.

When I heard Harmonix left, I had a fairly good idea that they'd come out with something great, and I love them for everything except the controller flaws (I've been through 3 broken whammy bars, and 2 broken tilt sensors so far). I can almost forgive them because the EA replacement system is top notch, speedy, and is just great. yeah.

Blackhat said...

I find the biggest flaw with the Guitar Hero (as of Neversoft's intrusion) franchise, in terms of notes, is that they simply add notes that aren't there. For some reason you'll suddenly be playing music when no musical equivalent is going on.

I think it was an attempt to make long songs more 'fun' by adding stuff to do. It fails, because you end up not even playing the song itself.

Lord Moon Vydeo said...

Congrats you lucky dog. Sounds like you had a enjoyable time. I envy you.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@lix0r:

Check out my post today about "not playing it right," and also the Shawn Elliott article it links to!

mendel said...

someone pointed me to this entry, nifty that you got to see the inside.

If you ever go back there, maybe i can humbly suggest that you plant my idea into their ear.

Ken said...

@android8675: 2x mode makes things easier, not harder...anyone asking for 2x mode wants a crutch because they can't hack it at actual speed.

Johnny Walker said...

Very nice article there. I would have loved to have seen a fair comparison with the Neversoft offices, but that's probably asking too much :)

To Elrond: I think it's pretty unarguable that GHIII was more "corporate" and soulless than Rock Band/GH2.

The reasons are many fold: The music selection isn't just about "ooh, I know this one!" (as in GH3), but a much broader spread of music styles and unusual songs. (It's more of a "musos" game in that respect.)

I list many more of my gripes on my blog (if you care to read them).

But the thing is, I WANTED to like GH3. In fact, I STILL DO. I still pick it up from time to time thinking "well, it can't be THAT bad". But invariably I always come away feeling removed from the music I've listened to, instead of feeling like I've been involved with it.

While GH2 and Rock Band most certainly just video games you play with fake instruments, they are also more than just that. They're musician simulators and you actually get a buzz feeling as though you're playing the music (which, in the case of drums and singing on Expert, you are!).

Now, whether Guitar Hero: World Tour will improve on this, I don't know. In a way, I have to admit, I don't want it to. The reason is simply, as you put it, because I'm invested in a brand now... Plus, Neversoft have had their shot - They came up with "Boss Battles" while Harmonix redefined the genre (in the same space of time, I might add).

But I guess you're right: A war is possibly coming. The question is: Will anyone take Guitar Hero's side? :)

Jesse said...

I'm probably going to pick up both RB2 and GHWT. I have a feeling that Rock band will be more fun to play, but there are bands mentioned to be in World Tour (mainly, dream theater) that make me need to play through them. Also, Even if Neversoft doesn't get the make your own music part work to it's potential, it will at least set a format for other developers to work on, improve, and perfect.

I can wait for Harmonix to perfect it, still doesn't mean I don't want it right now.

Anonymous said...

Insert "Guitar Hero" where Rockband is in this meaningless post. its the same shit people. One company is trying to smoke and mirrors you with "we're musicians" but not going to steal you for all your money, while the other is just more direct. Atleast you know you wont get stuck with. Its like the car salesman, do you want the guy who promises all this crap and your stuck with rust proof doors or do you want the guy who tells it how it is...

Anonymous said...

Yeah it's glaringly obvious you don't play guitar. Keeping true to how it's played my ass, Harmonix has charted piano as guitar before. They regularly turn chords into single notes.

The intro to ride the lightning for instance is supposed to be chords, but it's all single notes.

So basically, don't buy Harmonix' bullshit just because they are in bands. They underchart like crazy, and neversoft charts fairly accurately. They both take liberties.

So stop the bias.

Iroquois Pliskin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Iroquois Pliskin said...

@anons: Although I usually like to fan the flames of hatred, as I mentioned above I thought the note charts on GHIII's disc were pretty great and fun to play, maybe moreso than the same charts on Rock Band. If that's the only thing you consider I think your choice is clear. I can't speak to the question of the accuracy of the charts against how they are played on real guitar; I am led to understand that the folks at Neversoft approach making note charts with roughly the same mindset as Harmonix's, and I don't know how much fidelity is essential to the fun.

Kamran said...

In my opinion, I found a lot of tracks on GHIII that I wish were on Rock Band, but I don't own GH3. My girlfriend owns it on PS2.

I love Rock Band because of the DLC. I mean, Screaming for Vengeance was fricking amazing and I love playing that whole album through. I used to play guitar almost exclusively, but now I've switched to drums because I'm almost better at them. Still, guitar is one of my favorites.

Some songs on GHIII from some of my favorite bands like Dragonforce and In Flames were crazy hard... and I would eventually give up trying to beat, whereas in RB I still can't beat Green Grass but still try to because it's so much fun to play.

What I also like about RB is the range of music. I never really appreciated Blue Oyster Cult until I played the music and now I'm a fan. Same goes for a lot of the bands in RB. I've found it helps me break down the barrier of "Oh this genre is better than this genre" and instead helps me appreciate different kinds of music.

Sometimes I wonder why HMX picked a certain song from the many good or even better songs from a band, but they still prove to be a lot of fun and even surprising (Constant Motion by Dream Theater, didn't expect it to be so fun). I mean, when I think Megadeth, Symphony of Destruction comes to mind but instead they had Sleepwalker. I got it anyway and still find that song to be hard and fun.

All I know is that I will pick up both games because the only excuse not to is if you don't want to pay for both games. Now that I can use my (preferred) Rock Band guitar, I will definitely play GH:WT because I hated their guitar with a passion.

I guess I just don't understand the split sides, considering both games are for the music and experience, and both look pretty good.

Kyle said...

The Guitar Hero III comment towards the ending is pretty silly. I enjoy the difficulties presented in GH3.

With Rock Band, I beat every song first try; it's not as interesting when it's too easy. On the other hand, Guitar Hero III had some pretty difficult tracks that I couldn't beat first time around. Sure, the game should be fun. However, it can't just be catered to mediocre players leaving the more skilled players to go play StepMania.

Daniel said...

The only problem I really had with Guitar hero 3, was the fact that I felt it left too much room for error.
But, for most of the songs, you needed that unless you were already a really skilled player.

And, as for it. Charting something like Chords to single notes, are for gameplay.
They arnt trying to make a simulator, as much as they are trying to make a -video- game.
Yes, they'd love it to be as close as they can, but it can't always happen.

I chart my own songs, for Guitar hero 3, using frets on fire, and I always look at tabs (Unless I know how the songs played, because I play guitar, and have no life.) sometimes, for flow you have to change it up.

Hoess said...

@Daniel: Yeah, Frets on Fire is amazing, and I actually kind of prefer their outlook on never actually "failing" a song a lot better than RB or GH, but that's neither here nor there.

I both play guitar and write a lot of music myself (Mostly Progressive Metal/Jazz/ some Orchestral and Techno stuff occasionally), and I staff a lot of it into Frets on Fire. Most of my Metal songs are ungodly difficult, but since you can't fail a song in Frets on Fire, I usually write exactly what the guitarist would be playing, or at least as close as I can get with the game's limitations.

As for RB and GH, I actually prefer if the Expert difficulty is staffed in exacting detail, and chords remain chords as opposed to single notes and all that razz, because if I can't play it on Expert, there's always the option to move down to a lower difficulty. I certainly am not good enough to beat any song with 5 stars on the first try, but when I finally do beat a song, I'd like to think that the song was pretty true to the source material.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a gamer, and not a musician, I've quite enjoyed the Guitar Hero franchise. I'll admit here to being biased, I've never played Rock Band.

But Guitar Hero has done two very distinct services for me that I wouldn't have had otherwise: It exposed me to a new way of playing a game and exposed me to new music.

Several people here have made comments that the games are too easy or too hard... For those people I state that both games are just that: games. They're not designed for musicians looking to play video games in their spare time nor for people aspiring to be musicians. Personally? I suck at Guitar Hero. I can manage Medium difficulty, I'm learning hard.

Let me re-iterate that comment: I'm LEARNING Hard mode. Just like I had to learn Medium. I've had to work to establish the limited skill I have with the game. And for that, true to the fret-work of the actual songs or not, I'm grateful.

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