Rhythm Games - Part 4: Approachability and Learning Curve
Part 1: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Part 2: Establishing My Rhythm
Part 3: The Interface of GH2 and EBA
One of the hardest things about rhythm games is that they are typically intimidating. Most people who see someone play Guitar Hero (who are not typical gamers) seem scared to give the game a shot. Another tough thing to deal with regarding rhythm games is that the difference in difficulty from beginner levels to expert levels is usually staggering. The songs rated 1-star in Dance Dance Revolution, for example, are so far removed from the 10-star Dance Dance Revolution song that it's almost like playing a whole different game. That even further adds to the intimidation factor for casual viewers: when someone good plays in front of someone who has never seen the game before, it looks all the more impossible to learn.
This is one of the biggest obstacles in designing a good rhythm game: how do you make sure your game is approachable? And even if you can get people to play it, can you adjust the learning curve well enough that the average, non-rhythm-games-playing player can pick up the game and become better and better through inherent, casual playing? You don't want to force people to dedicate their whole life to the game in order to learn it. Approachability and learning curve are the two most important aspects of making sure your rhythm game can be a success, aspects that creators unfortunately seem to forget about after time.
Guitar Hero II is approachable, that part is covered. It gets high marks for being intuitive and easily understood. Though it can be intimidating upon first viewing, I can't imagine a soul on the planet that hasn't wished at some point in their life that they knew how to play a guitar. Thus, the draw to actually give Guitar Hero a shot is huge. Though players may not be good at the game at all when they first try it, the concept of what they are supposed to do (hold the appropriate keys down and strum at the right time) is something everyone can pick up almost instantaneously. So, yeah: Guitar Hero II equals intuitive... yes. Check. Now how about learning curve? How are we doing there? Hmmm... Apparently not so good. As it turns out, Guitar Hero II has one of the worst learning curves in rhythm game history, mostly due to two flaws.
The first flaw, shared by its predecessor, is that Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II have two distinct skills to be learned in order to master the hardest songs. The first skill is fingering: learning how to hold chords, learning how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs, and learning how to play guitar solos. The second skill is learning how to play with 3 keys, 4 keys, and finally, with the biggest jump in difficulty, 5 keys. And, sadly, you cannot learn either skill independently of each other.
The problem is that the difficulty levels in Guitar Heros I and II determine the difficulty of both aspects. Hard Mode, in other words, is tough on fingering and on learning how to play with 5 keys. If you want to find a song that you can learn how to effectively use hammer-ons and pull-offs in fast guitar solos without necessarily trying to learn how to play with 5 keys, you won't be able to do so easily. If you want to learn how to adjust to having a 5th key but don't necessarily want to suffer through insane guitar solos or playing a bunch of chords in rapid succession, you won't be able to do that either.
And then there's the second flaw, exclusive to Guitar Hero II alone: they really did not take enough care to make the songs progressive in difficulty. Think back to the first Guitar Hero. On Hard difficulty level, the first two songs you run into are "I Love Rock N' Roll" and "I Wanna Be Sedated." The first song, if I recall correctly, didn't even use the fifth fret. The second song used it only in a key transition, where you shifted your hand down and it stayed there. These were excellent ways to ease you into playing with all 5 keys. In Guitar Hero II, however, the first song on Hard is "Shout at the Devil." But unlike the first game, "Shout at the Devil" turns out to be one of the tougher songs on Hard Mode! In fact, I only had a tougher time passing 2 of the next 19 songs! What happened to easing players into Hard Mode?
The problem is that Guitar Hero II is suffering from "Rhythm Game Sequelitis." They know people loved the first game, they know people got really good at the first game, so they figured that they need to amp up the difficulty so that veteran players will find it worth their time to buy. The problem is that you begin to alienate the novices. No game is a better example of this than Dance Dance Revolution. I've been playing the most recent release, Dance Dance Revolution SuperNova, and songs rated an 8 in difficulty in that game are harder than almost every 9 in the older Dance Dance Revolutiuon games. And quite frankly, as a result, the game just isn't as fun anymore!
Back when I played Dance Dance Revolution obsessively, I managed to get a ton of my friends hooked on the game. And they all got hooked on 3rd Mix. Every time I got new mixes, I tried to get my friends to move onto those, but they continually wanted to stay on 3rd Mix. And I understand why: 3rd Mix is just fun. The hard steps are hard, yes, but in a way that is enjoyable (except for "End of the Century..." grrrrrrr....). Even in DDRMax2 -- not that many iterations ago -- songs like "So Deep" were tough, but in a way that it made sense with the music and in a way that was still very fun. As I play the steps in SuperNova, I realize that most of the steps are just erratic, written specifically for the sole purpose of being hard.
Guitar Hero, as a franchise, is still in its infancy. I do not want to see it fall into the same traps as Dance Dance Revolution. Hopefully, Neversoft (who apparently bought the Guitar Hero name just recently) will avoid this pitfall. I mean, they already have an "Expert" difficulty for veterans. Leave Hard Mode as a way for novices to acclimate themselves to the more advanced aspects of the game.
And, more importantly, take a page from BeatMania IIDX. Beatmania IIDX has two modes: 5 keys and 7 keys. But each mode has their own set of difficulty levels. Do the same thing with Guitar Hero, please. Have an Easy Mode (basic strumming and key reading), Medium Mode (more chords and plenty of simple hammer-ons and pull-offs), and Hard Mode (crazy guitar solos and fast-paced note playing) for 3, 4, and 5 keys. And save the Expert difficulty level only for 5 keys. This allows for players to learn at a more controlled pace, being able to focus their practice on the particular areas they need work on.
Fortunately, Guitar Hero II added two things to really aid in the learning of the game: Training Mode and Cooperative Mode. If you want to learn how to play with 5 frets, but Hard Mode is kicking your ass, do yourself a favor: play only Bass tracks on Hard Mode for a while. Do so in Training Mode or, better yet, find a buddy to play Cooperative Mode with (Cooperative Mode being the best thing about Guitar Hero II).
By the way: none of these problems apply to Elite Beat Agents. The game is about as intuitive as you can get. Only the most uncoordinated people will have a hard time understanding how to play EBA when they first try it out. It's definitely not as approachable as Guitar Hero (at first glance, it doesn't look quite as fun even though it is), and as a result, it has very little chance of becoming a breakout hit like Guitar Hero.
As for the learning curve, this game does a great job of that. Well, again, I believe Elite Beat Agents does a good job of it, if it is similar enough to Ouendan. I've played all the way through Ouendan, but have not gotten far at all in Elite Beat Agents (the gloves will be off in a future post, you can trust me on that one). So in Oeundan, the early songs in each level of difficulty are much simpler than the later songs. And as the difficulty level increases, you never feel a drastic jump in difficulty, making the slow progression from Easy Mode to Insane Mode feel completely natural.
In fact, the only thing that makes Insane Mode harder than Hard Mode is something completely fabricated. It has nothing to do with making the notes harder to tap out. If you observe carefully, each difficulty level has the notes you tap appear later and later. So in Easy Mode, you see the note on screen for a day and a half before you actually need to tap it. Then, suddenly, in Insane Mode, the notes appear a fraction of a second before you need to tap it. It definitely makes the songs a lot harder, but it's still a fabricated difficulty. The parallel in Guitar Hero would be if they decided to scroll the notes down faster and faster with each difficulty level.
But the amount of notes to be played and the more syncopated rhythms that get used do make the harder levels more challenging, but it never subtracts from the fun of the game. I must say that the group that made the game, iNiS, did a fantastic job of making sure the learning curve was perfect. As I progressed through the game, it never felt like the next step was a huge leap over the previous one. And last helped keep me addicted enough to play through Ouendan from start to finish.
Next up: Song Selection
(Note: A few people may be thinking to themselves: how is this a review of Elite Beat Agents when all he does is talk about Ouendan instead? As I hinted at, don't worry, I'll address this topic head-on in a future post. And the fact that I can only talk about Ouendan probably is a good indication of where I stand with Elite Beat Agents currently.)