Posts by Tag / GAME: Guitar Hero (3)

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Muse Dash Trims The Fat

Muse Dash is a rhythm game with a simple control scheme. Aside from menu navigation, the actual rhythm gameplay only requires two buttons.

The player character is on the left side of the screen, running constantly to the right. Threats come from the right side of the screen in one of two lanes - at ground level, or above it. When the threat reaches the player character, the player is supposed to hit a button to “knock back” the threat - one button for threats in the top lane (by default, any button on the left side of the controller will do) and a second button for threats in the bottom lane (right side of the controller). There are various twists and complications laid on top of this - threats that require hitting both buttons at the same time, or holding one or both buttons, or mashing the buttons repeatedly, and so on - but they are all dealt with using just two buttons.

(This is how it works on PC and I assume on Switch as well. Probably on mobile you tap either the left or right side of the screen instead?)

My gut reaction to seeing this was to assume that Muse Dash must be simple and easy, but there’s no actual reason this has to be true. In fact, Muse Dash gets quite difficult in most of the standard ways. Reducing the number of buttons used changes very little. After all, thinking back on all the rhythm games I’ve played it’s rare for the player to be required to press more than two buttons at once. Consider two scenarios:

  1. In Muse Dash, a threat comes in the top lane and then one comes in the bottom lane.
  2. In Hatsune Miku, there’s a prompt for D-Pad Left and then one for Circle.

The actual actions taken by the player here are very similar.

  1. Read the on-screen cues.
  2. Recognize you’ll want to press a button with your left hand and then one with your right hand.
  3. (Miku only) Remember the controller layout and move your thumbs over the correct buttons.
  4. Press with your left thumb and then with your right thumb.

The only real difference here is that Muse Dash doesn’t quiz the player on the controller layout or force them to move their thumbs. Lanes correspond directly to hands - top lane threats mean pressing with your left thumb, bottom lane threats mean pressing with your right thumb.

Personally, I’ve been taking rapid-fire quizzes on the PlayStation controller layout since 2000, so the extra step of remembering which button is where doesn’t trouble me much and I barely notice it. But to someone new to the controller and its apparently-arbitrary arrangement of buttons, this step makes the game far less approachable. They have to memorize the controller before they can be effective at the game. There’s an extra source of difficulty up front, and it isn’t the thing that makes the game interesting. The player has shown up to feel the rhythm and before they can do that they must perform rote memorization.

Now, this might be worth it. Guitar Hero on Easy or Medium is much like Muse Dash in that the player doesn’t have to move their hand and the colored notes correspond directly to fingers. Hard and Expert difficulties use more fret buttons than the player has available fingers, so they have to move their hand. Accessibility aside, I’d argue that the game is better when it forces you to move your hand because the game is about pretending to play the guitar which in real life also requires moving your hand. It’s extra effort and difficulty that isn’t strictly required - the game easily could have been designed to use only four frets - but it’s directly tied to what makes the game interesting, which is the fantasy of being, well, a guitar hero.

But what about Hatsune Miku? Your actions in this game are abstract and not a metaphor for anything specific except music itself. What matters is that they are rhythmic and flow-inducing. So what benefit is gained by adding controller memorization to the challenge?

I’m not ready to conclude that controller memorization adds no value to Miku-like games, but maybe trimming it out as Muse Dash does is just letting the interesting part of the game be the hard part.

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Guitar Hero Misled New Players

Guitar Hero is played with a guitar-shaped controller. The main inputs are the five differently-colored fret buttons and the strum bar. With one hand, the player holds down the fret buttons indicated by the differently-colored on-screen notes (in a simplified approximation of holding down the right strings at the right frets on a real guitar) and with the other hand the player presses the strum bar then when the notes scroll to the right point (in a simplified approximation of strumming the strings on a real guitar).

There are five fret buttons, but if you hold the guitar controller the standard way real guitars are held, your fretting hand wraps around the guitar neck and your thumb is stuck on the back. You’re thus left with only four fingers for the five fret buttons. This is presumably intentional - it forces you to move your hand up and down a little on the neck to press the correct frets, as you’d have to do with a real guitar.

But! This is only true once you get to Hard or Expert level play. On Easy, only the first three fret buttons are ever used. Medium increases it to four, and Hard finally uses all five. This means that the entire time you are playing on Easy or Medium and learning the game, you don’t have to move your fret hand. You are trained that red notes mean pressing your index finger, green ones mean pressing your middle finger, and yellow ones mean pressing your ring finger. (And on Medium, blue notes mean pressing your pinky.)

Then you start playing on Hard. Most songs don’t begin with an orange note, so you play the first several notes the same as you used to, and then an orange note appears. You slide your hand down one fret to press the orange fret button with your pinky. But then when a green note appears, what happens? What you should do is press with your index finger, because you’ve slid your hand one fret down. But you’ve been trained that green means middle finger, so there’s a good chance you’ll press with that instead even though it’s currently over the yellow fret button and you’ll play the wrong note.

For me and for the folks I’ve talked to, by far the hardest part of Hard mode wasn’t the increased density of the note charts or even moving to hit the orange notes. It was unlearning the habits taught by Easy and Medium so that once we had moved to hit the orange notes, we didn’t use the wrong fingers to hit the other notes. It was re-training ourselves to associate note colors not with fingers but with frets so that we could figure out which finger to use based on the fret and the current position of our hand. Once this was done, going up to Expert was comparatively simple.

I remember thinking at the time that while it was obviously correct to keep the note charts sparse for Easy and Medium, all five frets probably should have been used from the beginning. (And I think this is what later games ended up doing? I don’t know - the guitar skills transfer pretty well between games so I haven’t dipped back down to Easy or Medium in a long time.) And I’ve been thinking about this again because I’m on a bit of a rhythm game kick lately and have been seeing how different games treat their difficulty levels.

Guitar Hero’s error (if you consider it an error, as I do) was in treating two kinds of difficulty the same when they were actually very different. The first kind was density of the note chart, which is commonly tied to difficulty levels in rhythm games. This makes sense - a denser note chart requires a higher skill level, so as players get better they need denser charts to maintain flow (which I argue is the point of rhythm games).

While it may seem like the variety of different notes used is another source of difficulty that should scale similarly, I think this is a mistake. Learning the inputs and how they correspond to the game’s cues is most of learning to play the game. Guitar Hero withholding some of the frets from you at the start means it’s training you on an incomplete version of the game. That’s not inherently problematic, but you have to be careful about it or you’ll teach bad habits (like “color = finger” instead of “color = fret” in this case). Much like adding the double-jump in Runner3, adding the orange notes and forcing the player to move their hand doesn’t technically change the meaning of the other color notes, but it does mean that the simplest strategy for dealing with them and thus the one the player has likely internalized is now often incorrect.

The increased challenge of the denser note charts which more closely matched the real song being played and the forced fret-hand movement which more closely matched the hand motions of a real guitarist was good - this added challenge increased flow and immersion. This is a case of what’s hard about the game also being what’s interesting about it.

But challenge that comes from the fact that the game taught the player bad habits isn’t interesting in a game like Guitar Hero. It’s frustrating. You just deal with it until you unlearn the habits and the game can be fun again.

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Real Games Have Curves: Welcome to the Competence Zone

Let’s make a graph. The horizontal axis is player skill. On the far left is no skill - just random button-pushing. On the far right is perfect video game godhood, always doing exactly the correct thing at the correct time in the correct way. The first time you play a game, you’ll probably be somewhere in the middle - farther right if you’re a veteran gamer, farther left if you’re a novice. As you play the game, and learn its mechanics, you’ll trend right as you get better.

The vertical axis is performance level. At the very bottom is complete failure - game over as quickly as possible, not achieving any of the game’s goals. Farther up is the passing line, separating failure below from success above. The line itself is a performance level of just barely passing a challenge - surviving the boss fight with one hit point left, clearing the race course just before the clock runs out, and so on. And at the very top of the axis is absolute perfect performance - winning by the largest margin possible.

Now we can chart the performance levels achievable with a particular amount of player skill: the “skill curve” for a given challenge.