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INTERVIEW: The Black Flag Meets Rocksmiths Creative Director Paul Cross

Back in December I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of groundbreaking authentic guitar game Rocksmith Unlike other guitar games currently on the market, Rocksmith differs...

Back in December I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of groundbreaking authentic guitar game Rocksmith Unlike other guitar games currently on the market, Rocksmith differs in that you actually plug a real guitar into your games console or Windows machine and instead of playing random highlighted notes,  you actually learn how to play the guitar!

From the moment I started playing this game I was totally hooked. It really is unlike anything else on the market. The fact that its the only review I’ve ever given a 10/10 to speaks volumes. Two months down the road and I’m so obsessed by Rocksmith I’ve now spent a fortune on new songs to strum away to, to the point where as soon as a new DLC pack is released my poor credit card is istantly taking a battering. Rocksmith has become my number one hobby and as such, I wanted to learn all I can about this revolutionary game.

I caught up with Paul Cross, Creative Director behind Rocksmith, to learn more about the development and technology behind the game that is slowing taking over my life…..

The Black Flag: What inspired you to create an authentic guitar game?

Paul Cross: In early 2008, Ubisoft started talking to a company called Game Tank.  These guys had a tech demo that allowed a player to plug any real guitar into an Xbox or PS3 and the software would tell them if they were playing the right notes at the right times. In the words of Victor Kiam, Ubisoft liked the tech demo so much, they bought the company!  That was the easy bit. We then needed to create a game interface that would allow it to be accessible to someone who didn’t play guitar. And so Rocksmith was born.

TBF: Could you tell us what advantage Rocksmith has over other guitar based games?

Paul: You can’t beat playing a real guitar – that’s the first and most obvious difference to anything that currently exists, but it’s the interface and dynamic difficulty that really make Rocksmith special.

Interface-wise neither Nao Higo (Senior Producer) or I had ever played the guitar, so tablature was completely alien to us. Also tab numbers being fired from right to left might be fine in “Very Easy” mode, but damn near impossible to interpret in real-time on anything higher. Our goal was to make a genuine real-time learning experience and also something that was intuitively accessible to non-players, like ourselves, something that didn’t require prior knowledge.

The main problems we found with a scrolling tablature interface were:

– You have to learn what it is – you can’t just figure it out by looking at it – it’s a language, not a visual clue system – it’s not hard to learn, but you still have to do it!

– It’s very hard to read numbers when they move quickly

– They do not show the flow of your fingers or hand position so there’s very little anticipation which means it’s ok if you already know how to play the guitar and how to play the song, but no good if you’re learning

With the help of Nicholas Bonardi (Senior Audio Designer) we determined that using a 3D interface would be the way forward and set to work designing how this would behave. You can see the birth of this idea in the attached sketch from my notebook. But the whole system is still based on the fundamental note progressions you will find in tab and chord charts: just presented another way.


Dynamic difficulty came from the desire to phrase levels independently depending on how you’re performing, because this game isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about being challenged and pushed to play guitar to the best of your ability without being frustrated by instant complicated solos – that awkward moment when the “hard section” comes up and you fail and it’s game over.

TBF: How long did the game take to develop from concept to finished product?

Paul: The underlying technology for note recognition had been worked on for nearly 5 years at the time of Rocksmith’s release.  The interface and structure took a little over 18 months with plenty of overtime!

TBF: How is it possible to actually plug a guitar into a games console? What’s the technology behind that and how does it function?

Paul: The cable converts the analogue signal from the guitar to a digital signal that can be read by the console – this is not entirely new, the main difference in what we have done is spent the time to balance the gain and control the signal to reduce pops and crackles so it’s as clean as possible.

TBF: You state that with this game ‘anyone can play guitar and bass’. How easy would this game be to somebody who’s never picked up a guitar before?

Paul: Around half of the development team had never played a guitar before when they started working on the project, including myself.  The software was designed specifically with that in mind – if it required you to have prior knowledge then I think it would have been a waste of time.  I had to laugh in some of the reviews where a reviewer would complain that it’s not the way they learned – it’s like complaining that Rosetta Stone isn’t good cause it’s not the way you learned your native tongue!  Yes, yes it’s not… Rocksmith is a new approach developed because if all the ways of learning that were made before, were perfect than we would have all already learned to play guitar.

TBF: Tell us about some of the features in the game. Such as mini games, multiplayer, the shop etc.?

Paul: Outside of just playing songs, Rocksmith has a number of other modes – it has Technique Challenges that teach you how to do all the articulations with videos and interactive elements, it has Riff Repeater that allows you to isolate a section of a song and then practice it at slower speeds until you get it right and it has multiplayer that, if you have a 2nd cable, allows you to plug in another guitar or bass and play songs together.

There is also the Guitarcade.  There are a number of “mini-games” that take the guitar as a controller concept to the extreme – play notes to shoot ducks, chords to shoot zombies, perform bends to hit a baseball, use slides to match blocks or even use harmonics to defuse a bomb – all sorts of fun (with leaderboards) to help you practice those essential guitar skills.

TBF: The game contains so many excellent tracks. How difficult is it to get the license for a track to use in the game?

Paul: Licensing is a tricky beast.  The hardest thing for us was striking a balance of music that would appeal all over the world and have a good curve between easy to master and hard to perfect… you can’t please everyone!  Our aim, made a lot easier now Rocksmith has seen so much success, is to continue to expand our downloadable library with everything from Foo Fighters and The Strokes to Pantera and Megadeth.

TBF: What’s been the feedback about the game so far?

Paul: Incredibly positive.  We have exceeded many people’s expectations and have learned so so much in the process.  I can’t talk about exact sales figures, but let’s just say the lights are still on at Ubisoft Studio SF J

TBF: I’ve been playing Rocksmith for less than a week and I’ve already learnt more about the guitar than I ever did when I played back in school. Are you marketing it as a teaching aid?

Paul: Fantastic!  It’s always wonderful to hear another satisfied customer 😉  and yes…  Rocksmith is not really a game – it just happens to be on consoles and contain game design elements.  There was some talk of how we wanted to “kill guitar teachers”, but really that’s nonsense – what we want is for teachers to use Rocksmith as a practice tool for their students so that they can progress much much faster.  If you have a friend who already plays asks them to help with your posture or the way you hold the guitar, additional physical tips and tricks that obviously we can’t detect… and have fun!  Music, playing guitar is supposed to be enjoyable, not a painful school like experience.

TBF: You’re constantly releasing new tracks and packs that players can download. What big name artists can we look forward to as more downloadable content is released?

Paul: Our dlc library has everything from Radiohead to Avenged Sevenfold, Stevie Ray Vaughan to Queen.. something for everyone.  We’re gonna continue to bring big name artists in 2013 – I can’t say specifics at the moment tho I’m afraid.

TBF: How about other instruments? Is there a possibility of a keyboard, drum kit etc. added to the Rocksmith collection at some point.

Paul: In some ways I think we’re still just scratching the surface with guitar and bass.  I know even after 3 yrs of playing regularly I still have a long way to go before I can really say I’m a good guitarist, so I’m not sure I’m ready to start on keys or drums yet.  Yet.


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