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.