Endless Possibilities Part 3: The Rock Band Network

23 Jul

Rock Band Network 1Lately I’ve been finding myself faced with creations, both artistic and otherwise, that suggest never-ending possibilities. Websites, video games, music applications, mash-up art… the more I see this stuff, the clearer it is that, thanks to the ubiquity of high-speed communication, an age of endless user-generated content is upon us, and it’s growing, growing, growing, with no escape in sight. Mwa ha ha.

Part one covered an online music mash-up called “In Bb,” and part two discussed the upcoming Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts.

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Last summer, as the release of both Harmonix’s Rock Band 2 and Neversoft’s Guitar Hero World Tour approached, much hay was made about the differences between the two games.  Both games featured guitar, drum, and microphone controllers, but GHWT had raised cymbals on their drum set!  Both setlists featured tons of famous, great tracks, but GHWT had Tool songs!  Okay, so there weren’t really that many differences.

Though actually, there was one – the Guitar Hero Music Studio. Neversoft included the possibility to sit down with an in-game “studio” and author your own tunes for playing in GHWT (and uploading to their servers to share).  In theory, it was a game-changer – this would allow people to upload their own music, opening up the tracklists for the games to independent, creative musicians, and making GHWT a truly interactive rock band experience.  The press ate that shit up – from an October ’08 RB vs. GHWT comparison in IGN:

The biggest difference between the two is probably the fact that World Tour has a Music Studio. This really does elevate World Tour to a whole new level, and is Neversoft’s acknowledgment that people that want to play music probably also want to create it. Whether you just want to muck around or you want to create full songs, it’s a pretty impressive inclusion, allowing you to create bass, rhythm and lead guitar lines, as well as keys and drums, then sequence and edit them. We think it’s a brilliant inclusion, and we’re also stoked that it has heaps of electronic options too. Sure, you can create a full-on thrash track, but you can also create a house track or an old-school rave anthem. And even if you don’t use it you’ll be able to download other people’s creations, so it opens the game right up.

Gosh, sounds pretty promising!! I was a Rock Band fan to the core at the time, but even I was excited.  And then… the game launched, and reality happened.  The studio’s interface was impossibly clunky, the tones were limited and weak, the note tracking was inaccurate, you couldn’t add vocals to your tunes, and copyrighted material was completely off the table.

To my mind, there are two groups of people who would’ve wanted to use a feature like this in the first place: 1) Goofy dudes who want to re-create their favorite jams and novelty music and 2) Real bands/musicians who want to put their tunes into a game and play with their friends.

GHWT Music Studio Sucked

Ugh.

GHWT’s studio failed both groups – the first because they couldn’t share the theme from Mega Man without having it ripped from the servers for copyright infringement, and the second because the game’s interface was so clunky that the process of re-doing one’s music using plastic, five-button controllers is a prospect so nightmarish as to be unthinkable.  Also, maybe I mentioned this, but you can’t add vocals.  What the hell.

So, GHWT’s music studio was a flop.  To my mind, Rock Band 2 was easily the dominator of the two games (though I believe that GHWT may have sold more, just based on the guitar hero name).  The game caused me to write a lavish, painfully optomistic portrait of music gaming to come, and I even put RB2 in my top five games of last year. So, when Harmonix was asked about doing their own user-generated music studio, it wasn’t a surprise that they responded “There’s something in the works, but we don’t want to rush it, we want to get it right.”  When when I read that, I thought it was perhaps a bit of sour grapes at GHWT for beating them to the punch, but it turns out they were working on something – Harmonix recently announced the Rock Band Network, which looks to be a hell of a thing, possibly a knock-out blow in their ongoing battle with Guitar Hero.

Here’s how it works: In these games, single note bars stream at you down the screen, and you play the corresponding button or drum on your instrument when it reaches a line at the bottom.  The bars line up with the riffs of the tune, and when played correctly, give you the feeling that you’re controlling the music.  Okay, right, you’ve played these games, you know this.

Rock Band 2 Gameplay

They're just sexed-up MIDI notes.

The process of creating these colored bars and syncing them up with the music is called “Note Tracking.”  A couple of my friends are note trackers – one is working on Guitar Hero: Van Halen, another works for Harmonix in Boston.  Here’s how it works – each tune is opened up in a master session, which is to say, it’s the actual recording session from the album.  So, when you’re note-tracking “Enter Sandman,” you’re working with a big recording session that has separate tracks for Lars’ snare and kick, James’ vocals, Kirk’s guitar, etc.  You then go through and line up as many different notes with single coded note values using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), assigning five notes for the guitar, five for drums, and various notes for the vocals.  Once you’ve got the MIDI coded, you then transfer the information to the game’s proprietary format, most likely using some sort of exporting codec (you know, File>Export>RockBandData or something).

Once you’ve exported your MIDI data, you can open it up in an “audition mode” of the game, sort of like a lite version of the console’s Software Development Kit (SDK), at which point you sync the MIDI data up to a compressed version of the master audio session.  By then, the game knows which notes go where, and has access to the various individual tracks in the master session, so should you biff a note, it can mute the track and give you that dreaded “*click*” sound that anyone who’s learned one of these games has heard a billion times.  Add in a few extra sounds (the big cymbal crash at the end of a fill, the whammy-mod for whenever you want to bend a note), and you’re pretty much all set.  Then, play-test the song a ton of times to get the timing and note placements right, and wham-o!  “Enter Sandman” is ready to rock.

I’m sure I could have done a better job of describing how it works (the full Harmonix spec is here), but the upshot is that, musically speaking, it’s not brain surgery – any band that’s recorded and mixed its own music (and that’s a LOT of bands) should have no problem going into their Pro Tools sessions and assigning MIDI values to their songs’ notes.  And that’s what Harmonix is counting on with the Rock Band Network – the first part of authorship is allowing bands to use Harmonix’s own proprietary plugin in the REAPER Digital Audio Workstation (which is compatible with Logic and Pro Tools) to code their tunes into MIDI.  That’s a big step, and a surprising act of faith by Harmonix. In essence, they’re saying that they trust their musician users to know what they’re doing, and are allowing them programmer-level note-tracking software to use to make their own tracks.

Rock Band Network 2Now, obviously, there’s more to it. The thing that makes me think that this idea could really work is that Harmonix has added three more steps of quality control.  After uploading one’s track, it becomes available for anyone with a “Creator” account (which will initially include only the game’s programmers and other Harmonix employees but, I’m guessing, will quickly expand to include all manner of musicians) to play and give feedback on.  Once you’ve gotten feedback and tweaked your track, it’s submitted again, this time for peer review, at which point everyone else on the network can play it and offer their own feedback. Once you’ve got it tweaked to everyone’s satisfaction (including your own), you can publish the tune to the Rock Band Network and even share in “a cut of every sale” (whatever that means).

Wow. I could go on at further length about how fantastic I think Harmonix’s implementation is, but if you’ve made it this far, you probably already get it.  One of the biggest problems with user-generated content is quality control, and it really looks like by 1) making the process technical enough to keep out random n00bs and wankers and 2) inserting two steps of QC into the publishing process, Harmonix has taken great steps towards addressing that problem. What’s more, I almost can’t believe that Microsoft is allowing them to release an opened-up “audition mode” patch for the Xbox 360 (which really does sound like the cousin of a full-on SDK) – it’s an unprecedented act of faith in their users, and it is also cool as hell.

This is a variation on some of the predictions I made in my (admittedly rose-tinted) “Future of Rock Band” post from last year – while initally the RBN might not work perfectly, man, it certainly looks like a damn good start.  Good enough, in fact, to make me want to code a couple of Squaretape tunes (Everybody Wants You! The Wall’s Gonna Break You Down!) into the game once the network launches.

It would appear that by thinking through the ramifications and saving their launch for when they were truly ready to kick ass, Harmonix is set to vault years ahead of Guitar Hero, creating the first truly great user-generated music gaming experience. Rock the hell on, guys.

Rock Band Network Review

One of these guys needs to be holding up a sign that says "UR GAY" but other than that, this looks pretty accurate.

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