Rhythm Games - Part 3: The Interface of GH2 and EBA
Part 1: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Part 2: Establishing My Rhythm
Guitar Hero II is a hit. Reports say that it is the 3rd best selling game of 2006, something I would have never expected. The first game sold very well as well, but did not garner the same sort of attention that Guitar Hero II has been given by the media. The critical praise the second installment has received is astounding. And anyone who has ever touched a Red Octane guitar marvels at how intuitive the gameplay is and how much fun it is.
But of course, this all brings up the question of why Konami didn't decide to put out GuitarFreaks in America. Were they afraid it wouldn't have succeeded? Did they make a huge mistake in letting Red Octane steal their thunder? I mean, after all, they made up the game first, right? Red Octane basically stole Konami's idea and made their own version of it. The only thing different about the gameplay is two extra buttons and a whammy bar. But otherwise, it is the exact same interface: hold the appropriate fret buttons down and then strum on the "strings" switch with proper timing. Did Red Octane pull a fast one here?
A few people have reacted negatively to the praise heaped upon the original Guitar Hero. Yes, I too originally felt a bit bitter at those who treated Guitar Hero as some sort of revolutionary game. I had known about GuitarFreaks for a long time already and it seemed silly to me that people talked about Guitar Hero as if it was the first of its kind. In a way, I was a bit resistant to Guitar Hero for this reason. But I finally caved in (and just relaxed a bit) and gave it a real shot, particularly when Guitar Hero II was released.
While it is debatable whether or not Red Octane stole the idea of the guitar controller from GuitarFreaks, I vehemently believe, after playing Guitar Hero II extensively, that GuitarFreaks would not have succeeded at all in America if it were released here before Guitar Hero (and this isn't even taking into account that the home console controller made for GuitarFreaks in Japan borders on pathetic... it's more like playing UkeleleFreaks). There are several factors that contribute to my belief and as I proceed through each of the five areas that make a great rhythm game -- Interface, Approachability, Song Selection, Learnability, and Presentation -- I will discuss each of these factors. But first thing's first: the interface.
So what's the interface difference between GuitarFreaks and Guitar Hero? Again, just two more buttons and a whammy bar. Is that enough of a difference to make one game a bust and the other a hugely popular breakout hit? It may seem like a subtle thing, but adding two buttons made the world of a difference. One button wouldn't have even cut it. It had to be two.
The reason is that it adds one extra layer of complexity. See, with just three keys (as the original GuitarFreaks had) or four keys, the player is allowed to keep their hand stagnant while managing the "frets." Thus, to learn to pass the difficult songs, all you would need to do is gain the proper reactions to read and press the necessary button combinations. There is little movement. I know it's an exaggeration to say this, but think of playing Dance Dance Revolution with only two arrows, so you never had to move your feet much.
By adding a fifth key, a whole new skill is added. Now, you cannot keep your hand in one place. You cannot "assign" a finger to a button and grow comfortable with it. Because you only have 4 fingers and 5 buttons, now you are forced to learn to keep in mind whether your hands are in the upper position (fingers on buttons 1 through 4) or the lower position (fingers on buttons 2 through 5).
So why is this such a big deal? Sounds like this added difficulty might actually make the game more frustrating. Wouldn't it be more fun without this extraneous complication? Well, anyone who's ever seen a guitar being played knows that no one keeps their hands steady when playing a guitar. So by forcing players to shift their hands up and down from time to time, there's something that just feels more authentic about it. As a "guitar simulation" game, there is definitely more of a simulation here.
Also, it adds a similar level of intimidation that actual guitars have. You've read comments like the one by an anonymous reader in the first post of my Rhythm Games series: why not put down the controller and pick up a real guitar? I truly believe that no one would have ever said that about GuitarFreaks. But just because of that fifth button, it's not shocking at all to hear comment aimed at Guitar Hero because it now has a perceived necessary "talent" that one must possess to play the hardest difficulty. And this adds a level of credibility to the game.
And speaking from experience, once you learn how to play with that fifth button, there's nothing quite like it (outside of playing a real guitar). Anyone who can play Hard Mode well with all 5 buttons can easily tell you how exhilarating and fun it is. It makes you feel good... it really does. When you hammer out a particularly difficult sequence while shifting your hand up and down flying through all 5 buttons and manage to combo the whole section, it's a gaming high unlike any other. With only three or four buttons, it feels almost rudimentary. But when your hand is jumping up and down, it's fantastic.
It may not have seemed like that important of a decision, and it might have been something argued over by the creators when first designing the game, but Red Octane made an extremely wise and keen decision to really amp up the difficulty by adding that fifth button. Playing the actual guitar is such a revered talent because everyone who can't play a guitar believes that it is one of the most difficult tasks one can partake to learn. And the fifth button makes a game version of that same revered talent.
This of course is all contrasted by a game like Elite Beat Agents. Whereas Guitar Hero's appeal is solely based on its perceived difficulty (but surpringly intuitive interface), Elite Beat Agents' appeal is derived mostly from its simplicity. There is no skill to learn in this game. You look at the DS touch screen and literally tap circles in numeric order with your stylus with the right timing. Nothing could possibly sound more mundane.
But it isn't mundane. It's actually one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played on the DS (well, to be fair, I got hooked on Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, the original Japanese version of the game. So I'll be referring to Ouendan rather than EBA since both games do have the exact same interface, and because EBA actually hasn't quite managed to acheive the same level of addiction from me, but I'll discuss that more in detail in future posts). So how did they manage to make something that sounds so boring so much fun?
The reason why this interface works so well is simply because we've never had this type of interaction before. With buttons, you can only have a one to one matching rhythm game. But with a touch screen, you have such an analog interface that a circle to tap can appear anywhere opnscreen. This removed a huge restriction that all other Rhythm Games have. We've never had this type of freedom before. Okay, maybe we did with PDAs, but no one was smart enough to use touch screens for hardcore gaming until Ouendan was born.
All right, I'm calling it out right now: Ouendan is a nothing more than a light gun game. Things pop up on the screen and you are told to "shoot" it. Aren't we just playing Point Blank or Virtua Cop? Light gun games have always been a lot of fun, so is that why Ouendan is fun?
Like a fifth button being added to the guitar controller, Ouendan's secret is not that it is a light gun game, but a supremely accurate, easy hand-eye coordination light gun game. The challenge of a light gun game is that it's actually hard to aim for things. But have we ever played a light gun game where hitting the targets is a foregone conclusion? So with that difficulty removed, how can we keep it challenging and fun? Easy: by making the hardest light gun game you canpossibly imagine.
In most light gun games, you just have to shoot a target before you are shot first or before the target disappears or something. It doesn't matter when you shoot it as long as you do so before your time expires. In Ouendan, not only must you "shoot" the target, but now you have to shoot it with a specific timing. And we're not gonna throw two ducks on the screen for you to deal with. On the hardest difficulty levels in Ouendan, there are times where there are 20 targets you must hit within the span of 5 seconds. But this isn't a problem because of the complete simplicity of the touch screen + stylus interface. So rather than making it hard due to aiming issues, you just have to deal with timing and quantity now.
And then slap on top of that the part that is pure genius: set it all to music. That makes the tapping of the stylus automatically intuitive. And the designers also had another stroke of genius by making sure the targets to tap came out in logical patterns. I'll get into this a lot more in a future post, but the thing to note that is relevant to this topic is that the lack of randomness makes the target tapping very appealing and addictive, and allows you to get into a real zone. And, as hinted at before in my initial post, nothing helps you get into a zone better than music.
So what was it that I said before? You look at the DS touch screen and literally tap circles in numeric order with your stylus with the right timing. Nothing could possibly sound more mundane. And in truth, this game could have been as boring as watching paint dry. But because they realized the strengths of their interface, they were able to create something insanely enjoyable. And, more importantly, something that could not exist on any other medium.
Next up: Approachability
(Note: Edited the first paragraph a bit to give more accurate numbers and information regarding the sales of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II.)