In the past, my habit has been to only write my main post about a game when I stop playing it. That makes sense for the vast majority of games that I play; but for games that I play for month after month, that I would play in perpetuity if a sequel wasn’t released, that policy perhaps makes a bit less sense? Which brings us to Rocksmith.
But: what to say about the game? The problem with living with the game for so long is that nothing feels fresh any more: every thought that I’ve had about the game I’ve had dozens of times. And, of course, I have written about Rocksmith before, in fact at some length.
So, to be brief: it’s a great game. It’s a great way to learn guitar, it’s a great way to experience music. It’s a first iteration, a proof of concept, and that shows: there are usability problems and outright bugs, and I’m very glad that it sounds like the developers are focused on usability issues for Rocksmith 2014. But the first game very much proves the concept, and the usability problems are in no sense a significant barrier to enjoying and getting a great deal out of the game; there’s no point in talking about them further here.
What really fascinates me about the game, though, is its approach to learning. So, even though I’ve already discussed that at length once, I’m going to take another swing at it.
Because there’s so much going on here, and I don’t pretend to have it sorted out. I’m a much better guitar player than I was when I started playing Rocksmith, no question about it; but it is similarly certain that, in the grand scheme of things, I’m still not a very good guitar player. Which is an entirely reasonable state to be in a year later; how has Rocksmith helped, how has Rocksmith hurt, how have my habits helped, how have my habits hurt?
And, stepping back a bit, is my goal really to become a better guitar player? No, or certainly not exclusively: I’m playing Rocksmith because I enjoy it, and I have not committed to focusing on guitar excellence as a goal. All things being equal, I would of course prefer to be a better guitar player than a worse guitar player, and it is fortunately the case that, in this instance, doing what I enjoy is not completely incompatible with improving my guitar skills, but those two also aren’t completely aligned either with each other or with playing Rocksmith.
But, honestly, I don’t always know to what extent Rocksmith‘s behavior is aligned with learning. Take, for example, one of my favorite aspects of the game: the fact that its default mode is to present you with setlists of songs together with a target score to reach in each of them. This is an experience that is completely foreign from anything a human teacher has ever asked me to do (though, these days, when I sit down at the piano I generally pull a random book of music off the shelf and start playing, instead of focusing on a song); it’s also something I really enjoy. If we think of the goal (or at least a goal) of the game as to present a different way to enjoy music, then, for me, being asked to play through a random collection of songs meets that goal well.
There is something that’s at least potentially missing from that goal, however: learning to play those songs well. That’s not completely absent: the game does present you with a target score to reach, and there are times when that target score stretches you just enough. But a much more common experience is that the target score is low enough that I can succeed on the first try of a given view of a song (the target score caps out at 90,000 points, which is nowhere near perfection even on a “correct note” metric for most songs); I probably improve my playing of that song a little even when I’m doing that, but not very much. And there are also times when the target score is too high (which is especially frustrated when the song in question is one that I don’t enjoy listening to and/or playing); the game gives you an out when that occurs, lowering the target score, but the process isn’t always fun or didactically helpful.
When the target score is an appropriate stretch on a song I like, though, it’s great. That happened a lot during my first few months with the game: I had a lot to learn about playing the guitar at a basic level, so I was always below the 90,000 point level, and every time I played through a song I felt like I was getting at least a little bit better. And it still happens sometimes: the game will present me with a target that is higher than I can currently perform at but not outrageously so, I’ll play through the song a couple of times to get a feel for it, and then I’ll pick a section or two to focus on in “Riff Repeater” mode. After going through those sections 15 or 20 times, I’ll be noticeably better at them, at which point I’ll return to the song and be able to play it better than I could before, as measured by both my ears and by the score.
Stepping back a bit, one question this raises is: how does the game compare to a human teacher? A good teacher is doing a few things:
- Presenting an appropriate challenge: knowing when to push, knowing when not to.
- Giving focused advice about what you are doing well and what you aren’t.
- Modeling good performance.
- Connecting on a human level: sharing your enjoyment of beauty and of success, sympathizing with difficulty.
Rocksmith does a surprisingly good job on the first, but it has trouble beyond a certain skill level. Though even there it has some advantages over human teachers: human music teachers that I’ve worked with choose songs based on the overall difficulty of the entire song, and I think Rocksmith‘s ability to not only present stripped-down subsets of the song but to strip down the subsets more in parts of the song that give you more trouble is a really useful tool. (Especially given that this is rock music, where solos can be dramatically more difficult than the rest of the piece.)
Rocksmith isn’t great about focused advice. (Though this seems like at area where the game could improve; judging from a preview video, I’m optimistic that Rocksmith 2014 will do better.) It will give you feedback both via an overall score and by telling you which specific notes it thinks you got wrong, but beyond that, you’re mostly on your own. It does give you minigames based on specific techniques, if you want to work on them; I haven’t spent too much time on them, and I think there are problems with the implementation of some of them, but it’s a potentially promising idea? Ultimately, though: the game only models so much about playing well: you can play a song in a way that barely manages to hit all of the notes, managing a sort of sloppy lifelessness, and the game will still give you full marks.
Though there too there’s an aspect that is good: if the game is ever unsure about whether to give you credit or not for playing something correctly, it always errs on the side of thinking you played correctly. This is very important, and something that Rock Band 3 got wrong (at least measured from a didactic point of view): there is nothing more frustrating than doing something correctly and being told that you didn’t. I hope the game improves in its ability to correctly say that you’ve done something wrong, but there will continue to be a gap.
And there will also be a gap in another thing that human teachers do in this vein: suggest that you work in a specific area. The game currently does this to some extent: it will not only suggest songs for you but it will also suggest technique drills for you, and will even suggest subsets of songs to focus on. What it can’t do is suggest that you think about playing the song in a different way or in a different style within the range of correct possibilities; that sort of higher-level conversation can be really valuable with human teachers.
In terms of modeling good performance, the game does one big thing right: you don’t play a song alone, you play it along with the original band’s performance of that song. There’s room for improvement there, but that’s something I really like about it. Still, it’s always fun to play with actual humans listening and reacting to each other in real time. Then again, the game’s multiplayer mode allows that as well; I’ve only done that once, but it was a lot of fun.
You’d think that connecting on a human level would be completely absent: this is a machine, after all. But it’s not: part of the game giving you challenges to overcome is setting up a celebration when you’ve overcome those challenges, and I like that. (I’m not a fan of points as extrinsic motivators, but points as feedback is entirely different, and to me points setting up goals setting up celebrations is subtly different.) Also, the game’s forgiving nature, its tolerance of mistakes and willingness to see the seeds of correct behavior, is a personality of sorts, and one that I think is very helpful.
This next bit is mostly a digression, but: it’s interesting to see Rocksmith‘s take on memorization, given my interest in that. The game does try to encourage you to learn songs: once you’ve demonstrated that you can play a song adequately, it unlocks a “Master Mode” for that song, where you don’t see the notes for the song. (And you get double the points, if that matters to you.)
Which I liked at first: partly as an acknowledgment that really learning a song is a good goal, and partly because it opened up a rather effective way to memorize a song. Because what I would end up doing is practicing a song with the notes visible, and then practicing it again in master mode; that would then reveal how many parts I felt unsure about. And, if you don’t exit at that point, the game will then replay your performance for you; but this time it shows you the notes. So I could pay attention to the parts I missed, and next time I would do better.
That’s all well and good; the problem that selecting master mode isn’t always optional. When you finish playing through a set, the game throws an encore song at you; and, once you’ve mastered a few songs, the encore song is almost always a song that you’ve mastered, and you’ll be forced into master mode. And, if you don’t actually have that song memorized, you probably flounder and won’t enjoy the experience. So there turns out to be a disincentive to unlock master mode on songs; which in turn means that, as I buy more DLC, I sometimes almost regret buying easy songs not for musical reasons but because I’ll be forced into master mode against my will. (Sometimes after playing through the song as little as two times: really, being able to sight read an easy song is a very different things from having it memorized!)
So they made some bad interface choices there: there should be a way to never inadvertently be forced to not see the notes for a song. Having said that, I’d like to see a game that takes memorization further, using spaced repetition ideas: the game is already suggesting songs to me and paying attention to how well I do, it would be pretty cool if it could combine that with techniques to help me memorize songs.
Which I doubt will happen! But I am curious what Rocksmith 2014 will do with master mode: based on the previous videos, it will do that on parts of the song instead of being an all-or-nothing thing, and it will drop out of master mode when you mess up, both of which sound like good things.
We’ll see how that turns out. The main thing that I’m worried about, is being in a situation where I am playing a section well but I don’t know all of the notes, and the game doesn’t offer to show me the notes unless I intentionally mess up. Still, no sense worrying about that in advance.
Kathy Sierra recently posted an interesting series of tweets about becoming highly skilled. They’re light on detail, but still: something to put next to how I’ve been behaving with Rocksmith. (Setting aside the obvious fact that Rocksmith isn’t designed to turn people into experts at all, it’s for much more basic learning than that.)
Take, for example, her claim that “It is nearly ALWAYS far more effective to take 1 tiny useless-on-its-own subskill at a time to high reliability vs. pile of mediocre skills”. I suppose Rocksmith‘s game modes are compatible with that, and maybe the riff repeater focus on sections?
She followed that up by saying that that’s “Counter-intuitive for most as it means postponing ability to practice the whole thing while working on seemingly disconnected bits…” So, if I’m focusing on getting good at guitar, spending so much of my time playing through whole songs is probably not a great idea.
The thing is, though, I’m not at all sure that that is my goal. Don’t get me wrong: all things being equal, I’d like to get better, and I’m reliably putting in time practicing. Having said that: I’m playing because I enjoy it! So if what I enjoy is playing songs, I should embrace that on its own terms.
But I really do like playing songs well, and I like the physical act of having my fingers develop their dexterity. Even when I’m working on a single song, I enjoy focusing on sections of it that are giving me trouble and improving at them. So probably the balance of how I’m spending time is a little off.
Anyways: it’s been a great year; I’m looking forward to spending my next year with the next iteration of the series.
This post has not been revised since publication.