Pro guitar mode in Rock Band 3 turns out to be totally fascinating: I’m still going through the songs on Easy, and I’m amazed at how much there is to learn and think about even on that setting. In particular, last weekend I decided that I would stop looking at my left hand while playing songs, focusing instead on the feedback that the screen and the feel of the instruments provide, and it turned into a much richer experience: I had to learn the locations of the seventh and twelfth frets, the distance between the two of them, I had to think harder about which fingers of my left hand to use when, and the patterns in the notes (reflecting underlying patterns in the music) became a lot more important. And, best of all, I didn’t have to be perfect at any of this: it turns out that the onscreen guide gives enough feedback to let you adjust fairly well in real time (at least if you’re playing with as few notes as Easy throws at you), much more so than Pro Keys does.

I was going to write a long blog post about how special this sort of focused practice in games is, but then I realized that I’d already done so. But since blog posts have a way of being forgotten quickly (even by their authors, it would seem!), I’ll just repeat the ideas here. The game is providing me with a short but meaningful challenge: meaningful in the sense that I have to work a bit to succeed at the challenge, and also meaningful in the sense that, by succeeding at the challenge, I’ll also gain something else that matters to me. (Listening to music, and learning something about the music while doing so.) The challenge is surprisingly rich, containing quite a bit more “depth on demand” (as Randy Smith puts it) than is apparent on the surface: I can decide whether or not I want to look at my hands, I can decide how much I want to think about where my hands should go, I can decide how much to think about the underlying musical issues that inform the challenge, I can decide whether my goal is to finish the song with no fail on, to finish it with no fail off, to finish it with five stars, to full combo it, to do better than my friends who are also playing the game (answer: no, given that Dan Bruno is on my Xbox Live friends list!). The challenge spans a single song, so is over in less than five minutes and can be repeated several times without trying my patience should I so choose; but that challenge is one of seventy-odd songs in the game in a carefully graded progression difficulty, and I have three more tiers of increasing difficulty coming from increasing inherent richness waiting for me once I’m done with those songs.

That is wonderful.

And also rarer than it should be. Some of which is my fault: if I spent more time playing multiplayer FPSes or fighting games, I would see more such focused challenges. They wouldn’t be crafted nearly as well towards my practice, towards improving my craft as Rock Band manages; but those genres also allow improvisation and creation far beyond Rock Band, which is a huge strength. (Hmm, maybe I should spend more time placing racing games: mastering a track provides a focused challenge, while the other racers provide unexpected stimuli to react to.) But I’d love to see a competitive game that comes with a series of prescriptive katas to help hone your skills for use in subsequent improvisation. (Or at least I think I’d love it: I’m not sure I’ve jumped at the learning modes (“virtual reality missions” and the like) in games that have tried to provide them. I did like the graded bot challenges in Perfect Dark, though…)

But it’s not all my fault. Too many games throw repetition at you for the sake of repetition, typically using the promise of narrative advancement as a lure to get you to put up with the repetition of the challenges. (And, sadly, the narrative is as threadbare as the challenge, more often as not: super wonder meh twins unite!) Admittedly, I could change my approach towards such games—when confronted with narrative games, I tend to dial down the difficulty level rather than embrace the challenges at the expense of prolonging my progress through the narrative—but there’s no need for games to force me to make that tradeoff, or to present me with two unsatisfactory choices rather than two tantalizing choices.

And I do need to improve my skills for thinking and talking about challenges in games. One of my favorite parts of working at Playdom was having excuse to play board games every week (with really fascinating company): those games focus much more on their mechanics, they’re fascinating, but I haven’t talked about them here as well. One of my favorite games over the last year was Flight Control HD, and right now I’m going through Tiny Wings: again, both focus on the mechanics, and Tiny Wings also does a rather good job of giving you focused challenges to help you see more of the ramifications of those mechanics. If that’s what we’ll find in this new world of cheap iOS games, then there’s a lot of good to be found there.

But also a lot of good to be found beyond there. Just put together the focused learning of Rock Band 3‘s pro modes with the improvisational possibilities of our best competitive games, and find a way somehow to couple that with narrative that reinforces and is reinforced by the mechanics. And do it all while mercilessly removing padding. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?

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