ROCKSMITH and the victory over gamification

ROCKSMITH is a videogame developed by Ubisoft San Francisco and published by Ubisoft for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purposes of this review. It was directed by PAUL CROSS.

Gamification is a sexy buzz word. It was born from the assumption that people value the things they struggle to obtain more than the things they freely receive. And so, the behaviorist wizard assigned points and levels to everything. His spell dictated that we would become more motivated if we became aware that every level passed or song beaten was a stepping stone, an achievement.

It was under the lure of this magic man that I purchased Rocksmith, a rhythm game you play with a real guitar and whose goal is to teach you how to play it. Perhaps now, with the ethereal motivation provided by gamification, I would be finally able to switch from the G chord to the C chord without having to stop and mentally command my fingers to do so. It was an impulse buy to be sure, but one that ended up being my most played game of 2011.

And here is the twist: gamification didn’t do a damn thing.

Rocksmith does indeed walk with the gamification wizard: it has achievements, progression bars, leaderboards and lots of points; it has rewards and medals. The spell, however, doesn’t hit home. If you asked me, I wouldn’t be able to tell what level I am. Meanwhile, the game’s rewards do a better job advertising Gibson products than actually holding inherent value. It so happens, however, that this gamification wizard is not unlike the Wizard of Oz: an ordinary man operating some futuristic machinery.  Behind the curtain, the engineer is the star. It’s the game’s amazingly clever suggestion algorithm and its mastery of ergonomics that do all the motivation. In fact, Rocksmith’s engineering went beyond motivating me; it got my trust.

Screenshot of Rocksmith

Now, the challenge Ubisoft faces with Rocksmith is to convince people to buy an actual guitar before trying to gain their trust. It’s very likely that Rocksmith will become a niche game, given how high its entry-barrier is. Interestingly enough, that’s also the last thing the game seems to be is worried about. Just look at how confident that cover is!  There are none of the festivities of the Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes covers. There is just a guitar! It basically says “This is what this game is about. This here. The guitar. The real guitar. Oh? You don’t have one? Then fuck you.” So uncompromising!

Actually, the entire presentation never compromises. It’s very sober: there is your studio, where you toil alone over the songs you are going to play at events, and there are the events themselves where you perform all the songs you’ve practiced in a row. Whereas other guitar games would be set as a string of events one following the next, in Rocksmith, you spend most of the time playing alone in the studio. This is coherent to their proposal: it’s not about selling you the idea, the lie, of being a rock star, but simulating an environment for learning.

The consequence is that the events gain a certain gravity. They are populated by a 2D real-like crowd and while the number of clones in the audience is spookily high, they are not the generic 3D models provided by the Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands, they have faces. The camera, instead of flying all over the place and delivering sexy angles of your band, remains fixed on first person perspective – always looking at that audience, always looking at those faces. The result is that you will begin to notice them. Deliver a poor performance during an event and the Rocksmith audience is likely to go quiet – and you will notice that. It’s the time when you’ll start to think “oh shit, they don’t like me!” followed by the realization you actually care about how this virtual audience reacts to your performance. In fact, I actually cared more about the performance than the collection the points on the screen. It was about that time when I started to recognize Rocksmith for something special.

Rocksmith is not just about “passing” a song or being awarded five stars. There is no silly story mode or any other noise either. There is an audience, you and the guitar.

It is, therefore, very reassuring that the game does a fairly good job tracking the notes you play on your guitar. Still, despite the fact my mind is still blown away for the game’s ability to track guitar chords from monophonic input, it does have a few technical limitations, like being unable to distinguish exactly when you use a hammer-on or how to differentiate a slide from a bend. Frustrating? Not really, for these limitations make the game easier to cheat. But the question is, would you even want to? Rocksmith works like a devious teacher. It replays each song back to you after you finish rehearsing it. That time you’ve cheated? This means you are going to listen to it and while you may have fooled the game’s ears, there is no fooling yours. What feels clever when playing is certain to sound lame on replay.

Screenshot of Rocksmith - Guitararcade

If there is one thing in common among Rocksmith reviews is that they all start with a brief summary of the reviewer’s own musical background.  It appears to make sense as most of them appraise the game based on what they are expecting at their current level of proficiency. Well, Rocksmith may not teach anything about music theory, but it does make you play better. It helps you develop muscle memory, it offers mini-games that make something as boring and as important as scale practice into something more bearable, and it kept me motivated long enough to finally get how to switch from a G to a C chord as well as doing barre chords. As far as Rocksmith’s initial value proposition and my expectations are concerned, the game passed with flying colors. It’s the most satisfying rhythm game I’ve played – and with the benefit of acquiring transferable skills. It’s genre great.

And again, this is all algorithms and ergonomics. Rocksmith is that kind of game the user interface makes so much sense, one only needs to look at a screenshot to know what they are supposed to do. The commands come sliding directly towards a “fence” of sorts. It doesn’t take too long looking at your guitar to realize this “fence” is actually the guitar strings and the thing you are looking through is supposed to represent a transparent guitar neck. Once this abstraction takes place, what must be done next becomes evident. Unlike tablatures or musical notation, the Rocksmith notation is interpreted practically effortlessly, regardless of skill.  This is all the more interesting when the game throws new techniques at you for the first time, without explaining how they work, and even still you are able to understand what to do.

After that song, however, the game will recommend one of its Technique Challenges for you to perform so that it can properly teach you about that technique. This may fly in the face of game design, but not so with learning theory. It is mixture of action learning (having the experience first and then reflecting upon it) with adaptive learning (adapt the learning to the student’s necessities).

In fact, the game’s recommendations are so useful that they are the only thing on the main menu. Having trouble locating notes? No problem! Rocksmith will not only highlight that segment of the song for you to practice both its speed and its complexity, but also recommend you to play one of its mini-games designed specifically to help players locate notes on the guitar neck faster. Even the songs themselves have their complexity dynamically altered on the fly, according your performance – though every player starts the game at the most basic of levels.  At the Master Level, all the training wheels are removed and you must play the song from memory.

All of this, from the intimate environment of the studio to how the game always seems to acutely know what you need to train next makes Rocksmith a incredibly personal experience.

Screenshot of Rocksmith

There is a moment in Rocksmith, after the game has already showed you all the songs it has to offer, when you are asked to perfect a given song in order to continue. The last time you’ve played the bar was set much lower. Basically, what Rocksmith is asking you is: ok, so you know the song by now; let us hear you play it perfectly.

Oh shit.

But then I remembered. The recommendations were never wrong before. It’s a game that gives the impression of being tailored exactly for you. So I’ve tried, and after one hour trying I finally beat the damn song.

Few are the games able to deliver an intimate experience, particularly in the frivolous universe of rhythm games. Even fewer are the games you can say you trust.

And I trust Rocksmith.


  1. toymachinesh

    “Not really, for these limitations make the game easier to cheat. But the question is, would you even want to?”
    Nailed it

  2. JeevesGodfrey

    @crossieRS @nitemaremodenet wow. It’s like he read the Rocksmith Recommends design doc. Thanks for sharing

  3. Pingback: For there shall be no rip-offs: talking with Rocksmith’s Paul Cross | Nightmare Mode

  4. Peter4000

    Hi Fernando. This is, by far, the most well-written, accurate, to-the-point review I have read. And I have read a LOT! You nail the feelings off a large population of Rocksmith “gamers”.