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‘Rocksmith’: Inside the Do-Or-Die Development of the First Real-Guitar Video Game

Elfi Chester

Ubisoft’s new interactive trainer Rocksmith, which lets you plug in any real guitar with a standard quarter-inch jack and strum on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, strikes a novel chord by teaching mastery of actual instruments. But as creative director Paul Cross explains, the origins of the unlikely debut, launching this week at a low point for music games and looking to address criticisms that rhythm gaming doesn’t promote real-world skills, are equally improbable.

Rewind the clock to 2008 and Cross, who’d contributed to popular racing series Burnout, and fellow producer Nao Higo, a collaborator on quirky Asian import No More Heroes 2, were unknown grunts working for UbiSoft’s San Francisco office. Spending most of their time overseas in Japan licensing new products and telling other developers how to make games, the pair felt creatively stifled, and dreamed of helming their own original studio and amusements. Despite seeming like a fantasy for the largely unproven duo at the time, back on the West Coast, fate was conspiring in their favor courtesy of little-known software maker GameTank.

Just another anonymous developer hungry for a publishing deal, the company swung by UbiSoft’s executive suites, looking to shop around a unique music game prototype. Buoyed by Guitar Hero and Rock Band‘s recent success, but inspired by their lack of authenticity, the firm had created a technology demo that recognized a standard guitar, had scrolling tablature and allowed users to play songs as in real-life. “With all due respect, when the team first swung by, we were like, this is really cool… but really ugly and kind of boring,” laughs Cross, recalling seeing the genesis of Rocksmith for the very first time. “After those guys left though, we thought, hey, if we could just find a way to make playing songs fun for longer, it would be amazing.”

Ironically, what neither party knew was that several of UbiSoft’s top executives including president Laurent Detoc and third-party executive producer Xavier Fouilleux just so happened to be closet guitar enthusiasts. Moreover, these key decision makers shared the belief that if players could learn the handful of buttons it took to score goals in sports simulations like FIFA Soccer, they could do the same to learn an instrument. Intrigued by both the early-stage software and then-burgeoning music game market’s potential, they later stepped in and bought not only the technology, but GameTank itself.

By October 2009, Cross and Higo, who’d been begging their bosses to let them setup and lead a new studio, finally found themselves the recipients of an unexpected offer. The pair was given the green light to do just that, so long as they could commercialize the technology. Just one problem, says Cross, who confesses the title wasn’t exactly the dream opportunity he and his cohort had mind. “As I explained in no uncertain terms, neither of us knew how to play guitar,” he sheepishly admits. “But obviously we weren’t going to say no – it was a take it or leave it scenario. Besides, our general philosophy is that you can make a good game out of anything. Just look at the movies and how filmmakers make the most mundane activities seem interesting.”

Leaning heavily on the expertise of GameTank’s staff, which included a number of musicians, the pair nonetheless committed themselves to the task, and set an ambitious goal – revolutionize the entire music game genre. “At the time, we knew the industry climate was shifting,” Cross explains. “Most games were rehashes of previous efforts, and were simply [versions of early guitar game archetype] GuitarFreaks resurrected in different disguises. We knew we had to do something spectacular… What we decided was to address the fundamental problem of just how hard it is to actually play guitar.”

With a mission statement in place and proverbial fire burning beneath the then-miniscule and yet to be fully-funded team’s rears, the project soon faced its first hurdle. Six weeks were provided within which to assemble the blueprint for a full-scale game product which illustrated that the concept could work, with a final deadline of December 18th, 2009 defined. The challenge was readily met despite having a severely tight window in which to conceive an entirely new intellectual property, devise its interface and take the project from rough sketch to working title.

Crediting tight focus (“we didn’t try to cram features in or experiment with random crap”) for the team’s luck at foregoing sleep deprivation, he also cites real musicians’ presence on the team as being vital to early prototypes’ success. Actual performers’ contributions included defining key elements that would come to be core draws, e.g. dynamic difficulty that assesses players’ ability to meet challenges based on how phrases work and considers how real-world skills truly build. Early sample songs such as “Smoke on the Water” and “In Bloom” (among Cross’ personal favorites) only seemed to validate the team’s beliefs that vital gameplay concepts could work once implemented. Nonetheless, Cross admits one key failing of this initial version: “Back then, we had one artist,” he laughs. “It was ugly as sin.”

Still, core game dynamics quickly proved themselves, and UbiSoft’s corporate brass was duly impressed. “My boss had never played the guitar before,” Cross recalls of the fateful presentation, which he says quickly took a unexpected turn for the positive. “We left him with the game for an hour, playing ‘In Bloom,’ and when we came back, he’d scored 94,000 points… meaning that he’d got 94% of the song’s main chords right. Then, with the game turned off, he played the core riff. Needless to say, the reaction in the room was pretty much ‘holy shit – this really works.’ At that point we basically had our ‘we’re gonna be OK’ moment.”

But at the time, no one could have predicted the seismic challenges that would soon rock the video game business. In 2009, the music game market was busy tanking to the tune of a 46% sales drop from the year before, leaving the industry largely cold to acoustically-inclined outings, including even the most novel new acts. Likewise, game sales were starting to slow across the board, and UbiSoft found its bottom lines growingly besieged.

Thankfully, says Cross, management bought in early to the idea that the game could capture a sizable audience by appealing to a perennial core of dedicated enthusiasts and lifelong musicians. “As a pure representation of music, we told them it’s not likely to do monster numbers,” Cross confesses. “Think of it as Forza Motorsport for guitars.” Happily, most decisions were made before Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, seen as commercial disappointments and downward turning points for each franchise, arrived. “At the time, it wasn’t sales we were worrying about,” he reveals. “We were mostly shitting ourselves that someone would come out with a similar concept first.”

Given the thumbs up to proceed, Cross, Higo and Co. quickly stepped up the pace and swelled the team’s ranks to roughly two dozen, a fraction of the manpower typically devoted to today’s retail titles. With help from crews in Shanghai, Los Angeles and China, over 70 people would ultimately touch and shape the game over the next year and a half. But more difficult than the interminable weeks of 12- to 15-hour days (“I didn’t take paternity leave,” Cross laments) was the need to quickly close soundtrack licensing deals, and record execs’ unforeseen apathy.

“Throughout 2010, we kept finding ourselves in meetings with record industry leaders looking sideways at us while busy twiddling on their BlackBerries,” he sighs, confessing that the title was initially a hard sell. “At the time, music game sales were dwindling, and the field had been [oversaturated with developers] pitching games and concepts… you could tell they’d heard it all before. But the second we pulled a real guitar out of the bag, there was a sudden change in attitude that was stunning. The BlackBerries would inevitably hit the table, and agents would go from ‘I don’t care’ to ‘When can I get a copy?'”

Choosing music for the game wasn’t a simple task either, as the team needed not just to have a coherent set list, but also a good balance of new and recognizable tracks, entry-level and challenging compositions. Cross personally claims to have listened to over 10,000 individual songs as research, describing his Zune play count as “astronomical,” saying it jumped from 8,000 to more than 38,000 tracks in a relatively brief period. Not helping matters were artists who’d previously signed exclusive deals, been burned by prior interactive duds like Power Gig: Rise of the Six String or, in one case, demanded $4 million for a single track.

Finally though, the team managed to put together a relatively diverse lineup, featuring music by the likes of The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, Soundgarden, Radiohead and Silversun Pickups. But just as light began to emerge at the end of the tunnel, disaster struck, as video game sales tanked along with the economy in 2010. UbiSoft, which had lost money for only the second time in its decades-long history, had begun to cut projects, and Cross feared that Rocksmith, given its unique concept and troubled niche, was destined for the chopping block.

“At [annual industry tradeshow] E3, [company founder and CEO] Yves Guillemot asked to try out the title,” Cross says. “We had a feeling he’d come to can it.” Sweating bullets, the team did its best to demonstrate the product, but was suitably disheartened when Guillemot was suddenly called away in the middle of the meeting on urgent business. Luckily, the noted French entrepreneur apparently liked what he saw: According to Cross, it turns out the project was indeed destined for death, but its brief, eye-opening performance saved it from an untimely demise. Literally crying as he recounts the tale, the relieved developer simply says “that was a beautiful moment.”

From that point on, crunch time truly began in earnest, as the game barreled towards its eventual release date of October 18th, 2011. Having tested 50-100 entry-level guitars before choosing the Epiphone Les Paul Junior as an optional pack-in ($199.99), all appears to finally have come together for the title, whose success or failure now ultimately lies in players’ hands. Even more so, perhaps, given that its key feature (the ability to teach participants’ real-world musical skills at their own pace), while impressive, stands at direct odds with category leaders, which favor pure escapism.

Retailing for $79.99 with included attachment cable ($20 more than typical console game products) and launching in an unstable market, Rocksmith not only makes an interesting case study. It also comes at a pivotal moment for music gaming, which is increasingly going social, digital and online. Nonetheless, Cross believes the interactive outing won’t go down as a dismal failure or soar to one-hit wonder status, but rather remain a predictable, steady seller for generations of aspiring headliners with an axe to grind for years to come.

“As many guitars as are sold each year or are sitting out there collecting dust in people’s closets, all the research suggests we’ll do just fine,” he laughs. “For roughly the price of a single lesson or two, we give you everything you need to learn the fundamentals. Besides, guitar playing is pretty well-defined by this point… we’ll still be as relevant next year as we are now. Then again, I don’t expect we’ll do Avatar numbers the first weekend.”

Rise or fall, a fascinating experiment at rendering the process of making music more mainstream, industry watchers wait with bated breath to see if it’s the future of hands-on learning, or the last requiem for a supposedly-dying genre.

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