For there shall be no rip-offs: talking with Rocksmith's Paul Cross
So I was kind ecstatic to find the game on E3 this year! And, as a bonus, game director Paul Cross was there as well!
So we asked him questions!
…and he answered them, which was super nice of him! 😉
NightmareMode: Hi Paul! First off, I would like to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. The goal of this interview is not only to talk about Rocksmith (but of course we are going to talk about Rocksmith!), but also to find out more about the Cross-ian way of making games. That said, why not allow the unsavvy ready to discover, from the horse’s month, who Paul Cross is. What he does, what games he likes, his philosophy in game-making, etc.
Paul Cross: When kids are bad we say blame the parents – well when it comes to work I think of the same thing! I worked for a TV company doing basic editing and tape dubs before joining Acclaim in 1998. I got to see how the publishing side behaved, what they were looking for and how they talked. It was a warm up. The real magic happened when I went to work at Criterion Games on 2000. Alex Ward and Fiona Sperry had recently taken over and I was brought in as a junior producer/designer. Honestly, I didn’t know my knee from my elbow and it took me a while to find my feet; I knew games, I knew what I wanted but hadn’t developed the communication skills to ask/get them made. Luckily I was surrounded by incredibly talented people who helped me and after finishing Airblade I joined Burnout Team (SRC as it was known then). I quickly got to grips with how to edit the car handling and set off on a 3-month odyssey balancing my first in-game car: Burnout 1‘s Roadster. Burnout changed a lot of things in my life – Criterion was a very strict environment (I’m sure it still is!) – if work wasn’t good enough, it gets redone or cut and the team proved time and time again they were capable of excellence. And that’s the key – having an excellent team – it’s my role now to Direct, not to come up with all the ideas, but to shape all the teams ideas into something great.
By Burnout 3 I was made Lead Designer – I owned Racing, Aggressive Driving (Road Rage, Takedowns AI) and online whilst the other Lead Designer and original Burnout member Chris Roberts owned his baby, Crash Mode (you want to thank someone for Crash Mode, thank him ). The team at this point was over 70 people all young and keen to show the world how good they were. And they did – it was an uncompromising assault on the senses, something so visceral that people who “didn’t like racing games” would play it and love it. It embraced every issue (Aggressive Driving was born to counter the fact that people online would just try to take each other out!) and looked amazing thanks to the awesome back-end pushing 60 fps no matter what our art team delivered – you hear I’m gushing now – it was incredibly hard work (months of late night and weekends), but wonderful to have been part of it.
I left Criterion in 2006 when I had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and experience some of the other EA studios including Blackbox in Vancouver. There I saw how the now-disbanded NFS and Skate teams worked as well as getting some design time with the Skate guys. They had a fantastic attitude – they really wanted to make something new and special and I had huge respect for that. In 2007 I joined Ubisoft here in San Francisco California working as a 3rd Party Design Expert – basically a design consultant sent by the publisher to try to get projects focused/on track. I spent time working with all manner of products most notably No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle.
It’s very hard to go to someone else’s development studio and tell them how to make their game (even if you are the publisher/bill payer) – I think I found this especially hard because I hadn’t made MY games yet, so I was trying too hard to steer instead of guide. Realizing this, my producer, Nao Higo, and I pushed to get our own small dev team started up. The response was that they, like us, trusted us and think we’d do well, BUT we would need to take this prototype of a product called Guitar Rising and use that as the basis for our project. Not the shooter we imagined…
Now, with Studio SF, it was back to basics – we had a team of 6 people – 1 designer, 1 audio, 2 engineers, 1 artist, 1 producer and delivered our 1st Rocksmith prototype in around 2 months. It was an amazing feeling – I had never played guitar before and now I was playing a video game, with a real guitar, and learning as I was playing. It was like Burnout all over again – small team, excited people, cool product. Studio SF is now growing – we have 27 people and an award-winning product that pays the bills. We all got to learn so much from making Rocksmith – we made a few mistakes that we have tried to rectify through patches (lives in Riff Repeater, no set speed/set level) and some breakthroughs (Dynamic Difficulty, Guitarcade, the interface). As we look to the future, Nao and my team will be sure to be looking at how to deliver products littered with innovation and quality.
NM: I’ve seen some early concepts of the game that used a normal 2D tablature template instead of the current 3D one that is currently used. Given that tablatures are still widely used for guitar learning throughout the world, how was the decision to make the shift made? What other obstacles did your team faced during development?
PC: Yes, Guitar Rising had the typical scrolling tablature seen in many web sites and apps. This was an easy decision for me – Tablature was not designed to be moving across a screen – screen didn’t exist when tab was invented – I simply cannot read that many numbers let alone translate them to what my fingers were supposed to be doing in that interface – and many people who tried it felt the same – so I devised a whack-a-mole system. Here’s the fretboard, here’s where your fingers go and here’s when to play – that’s basically all the information you actually NEED to play the guitar.
The great thing here is that we still adhere to many of the tablature conventions – numbers on the lanes, notation symbols and other elements are all borrowed from tab, so you will recognize them if you load up some tab or buy a book. One of my main principles in design is that just because it’s been done like this before doesn’t mean we have to do it the same. You have to do something new. That doesn’t mean that the idea can’t be as old as time, but your execution has to have something new, unique or special about it. Rocksmith is not the first guitar teaching software, but it is the first to reconsider how you look at the music and use the hardware available to push things forward, not just replicate what has gone before it. Dynamic Difficulty changes the way you approach playing a song – once you have the basic knowledge you can dive into anything and start playing.
NM: Rocksmith came out right when the traditional guitar games were already losing their steam and others were beginning to flirt with the idea of a guitar game with transferable skills, like Power Gig and the latest Rock Band. How was the first pitch to make Rocksmith? Where did the idea come from? What did you think the game’s biggest challenges were going to be back then?
PC: The idea was brought to Ubisoft by a company called GameTank – not that the idea was new – but what was new was that their technology actually worked. Others had said they could do it (and continue to say it) but in practice the detection was messy and imprecise. GameTank’s Guitar Rising was actually impressive!
Rocksmith was then the first game to commit to a real-guitar only setup. Rock Band 3 had some amazing features, an immense amount of modes and polish, something we will strive for in future products, but it had to support all the legacy features (7 players, plastic instruments etc) so it would have made adding a 22-fret real guitar very challenging. We were able to do anything we wanted – we had no user-base or community to keep happy, there was no-one to alienate and no-one who had already invested so we could just look at the problems and say “how do WE solve this”. Interface was made 3D so that you could see the flow of the notes and you didn’t have to learn anything to be able to use it, Dynamic Difficulty was born because it was boring to play a 6 minute song on easy and frustrating to play on hard and the Guitarcade was created because practicing Scales in front of the tv could surely be more exciting!? (Yes, it is now, thank you Scale Runner!)
NM: We want to know more about the Bass DLC that’s coming out! Bass is a completely different beast from a guitar. Should we expect new technique challenges (e.g. slapping)? How are you planning to make players unlearn “guitar vices” (e.g. relying on a pick)? What was the biggest learning experience in adapting a guitar game to include basses?
PC: Bass is indeed a different beast – it’s definitely worth spending time with the videos and technique challenges getting a handle on how to handle the instrument and keep an eye on the instructions for when to finger pluck and when to use a pick, which of course are included per song.
Bass is essentially everything that was in Rocksmith 1, but for Bass 😉 That means Technique Challenges, Videos, Guitarcade Games and of course Bass arrangements for nearly all of the songs in the game (a couple actually don’t have any bass guitar…). One of my favourite features is actually something we call Emulated Bass. This means you can actually play all of the bass content with your regular 6-string guitar, but you’ll sound like a bass guitar! We really want to make this content accessible to as many people as possible lowering the cost of entry by removing the extra hardware. The biggest learning? How good multiplayer is when one person is playing bass ( (or emulated bass) and one is on guitar… even throw in a singer if you have a USB mic for a real band experience.
NM: Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of your work? Given your story, Paul, I’m very interested to know what is kind of game you want to work with in the future!
PC: At Studio SF we have a small, versatile team that we can turn to basically anything – the key is that whatever we do, we’re going to do it our way: that means we’ll never ship a Call of Duty clone or Forza rip-off, it’ll have a unique twist, just like Rocksmith does. And, of course, given Rocksmith’s success we’ll continue to support and expand on the franchise.
NM: Thanks for doing this interview, Paul! And let me allow you a closing statement, or whatever you like.
PC: Thanks for this – hope you enjoy the game and I look forward to sharing all our future plans with you next year.