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Rocksmith: Guitar Hero Gets Real(er)

<p>Paul Cross, creative director of Rocksmith, plays the game at a demonstration event in San Francisco, Calif.</p>
Kimihiro Hoshino
AFP/Getty Images

Paul Cross, creative director of Rocksmith, plays the game at a demonstration event in San Francisco, Calif.

Music-based games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which let you play along to popular songs with fake instruments, once ruled the video game industry. They raked in billions of dollars in sales in 2008, when their popularity was at its peak. But such games have since lost their luster, and sales for both have plummeted. Now the French video game publisher and development company Ubisoft is hoping to revive interest in the video game genre by adding a new twist — the ability to use a real guitar.

Four years ago Ubisoft acquired and adapted technology that allows gaming systems similar to Guitar Hero and Rock Band to recognize and process the notes you play on your guitar. Paul Cross was charged with incorporating this technology into a new video game — which meant first learning how to play a guitar.

In the end, he and his team came up with a game they call Rocksmith that turns learning how to play a guitar into what Ubisoft hopes will be fun challenge. But Cross and his team's goal wasn't just to make an instructional video.

"I don't know if you're a big fan of watching learning DVDs but they're pretty scary," says Cross — they can be intimidating. "We make video games and they're not meant to be scary in anyway shape or form."

So for those of you who have an electric guitar in the attic, this game could be the reason to dust it off. Ubisoft designed Rocksmith so that you can plug your guitar directly into your Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, give it a strum and the game will handle the rest.

To start, it will automatically sense that the guitar is out of tune and teach you how to tune it — a first step for every beginner — you just tighten and loosen the guitar pegs until a meter on the screen hits zero.

Rocksmith's lessons break down the guitar components of popular songs: a color-coded system for each string indicates where to hold each string down while strumming a chord or picking out a solo, all while the song plays in the background.

The game also adjusts itself based on its assessment of your skill level. Depending on how well you are playing a given song, the game will simplify the note structure or make it more complex. Cross says the game even notices when you keep having a hard time on one particular part of a song. If you're struggling, he says, Rocksmith will "suggest a challenge to take for that section so that you can get better and better and better."

Theresa Sawi — a guitarist who performs under the name A Girl Named T — and another guitarist, Garrin Benfield, were invited by Ubisoft to check out the game. They both found that it made them anxious, even though they both have been playing for years.

"The thing that's most challenging, I found, having played guitar for all these years, is it's asking you to stare at the screen and go, 'OK ... 9th fret ,'" Benfield says, "and you're sort of accustomed to glancing down at the guitar; not just staring at a screen."

Rocksmith might teach you how to play along with Rocksmith, but will the lessons stick once your guitar is unplugged from your Playstation? Sawi thinks not.

"It doesn't have any note names. It has fret numbers," she says. "No, I wouldn't use it to teach — unless it had scales or something. That would be fun."

It doesn't have scales, but it does teach various guitar-playing techniques. It has little mini games where you master bending the strings and palm muting. That was baffling to Klaus Flouride, who plays bass in the punk band The Dead Kennedys.

"No. No. No," Flouride says while struggling with the game. "It doesn't tell me what the heck that was about. Help me. What did I just not do? Oh boy."

Rocksmith also has a rehearsal space where you get get better at your songs before going on stage. The game's space has a nice leather couch and an oriental rug. Flouride says it isn't exactly what his rehearsal spaces look like — for one, they're aren't any empty beer bottles. "There's usually three bands sharing 'em and there's piles of amps all over the place," he says. To him the game looks like a sterilized version of rock and roll.

Rocksmith is a game. You win by getting better at playing the songs, which leads to bigger and bigger audiences — all girls — until you're playing stadiums filled with girls. Flouride has played actual stadiums before, but he says in real life the foot of the stage is usually filled by guys.

Flouride isn't winning the game. "I'm gonna flunk it," he says. "I can play this song, but I can't follow their instructions." The game ranks him as an amateur.

But if you don't play guitar and you haven't played big clubs — and that is most of us — it's kind of fun to imagine, to finally get some use out of that guitar that's been hibernating in the attic. According to the National Association of Music Merchants about 2.7 million guitars are sold in the U.S. every year. Ubisoft is counting on the people who bought them to be more into pulling one out for a game than they would for an instructional DVD.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.