Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Design Brilliance And The Timing Window

I mentioned in the previous post that Guitar Hero (and Rock Band succeeding it) is almost a perfect game.

Here's one more example of the tremendous sophistication of the design.

I'm a decent drummer in Rock Band, even playing with the Ion kit and using cymbals (which is more difficult than just using the pads). I can play more than half the songs on Expert, I can five-star a large number of songs on Hard, and in general, I can hold my own with 95% of the people who play the game. That other 5% can absolutely kick my ass, but I'm not an embarrassment.

My Ion kit has been heavily modded over time--Roland PDX-8 snare, PD-8 toms, Pintech cymbals--hell, the only thing left of the Ion kit was the rack and the controller.

That's when I realized that I basically had an electronic kit, and all I needed to complete it was a "brain" (a module to translate all the inputs into sounds, essentially). I found a used TD-6 brain and realized that now I could do something I've always wanted to do: play to the Rock Band note charts outside the game.

In other words, I'd be playing real drums to the Rock Band note charts. I could pull up a song in training mode and hear the music, but the drum sounds I'd be hearing would be the actual sounds I produced while playing my Frankenstein kit.

I decided to start with an old favorite: Gimme Shelter. It's one of my favorite songs in the game, and I usually play it at 99% accuracy on Expert.

So I start the song, I start playing, and in about two minutes, I realize that I SUCK. I can basically follow along to the note chart, but my timing is slightly off quite often, and there are patches where I just fall apart.

Here's where design genius comes into play.

The timing window is a sleight of hand that is unbelievably elegant. Even though I know better, when I'm playing the drums in Rock Band I feel like I'm hearing what I'm playing.

That's not true obviously--what I'm hearing is the actual drum line recorded by the song's drummer, and I'm triggering those sounds by playing notes within the designated timing window. And that timing window, even on Expert, is quite a bit more generous than real life.

It's the difference between truly playing a beat and merely invoking a beat. When I play Rock Band, though, that difference is camouflaged so subtlely and so well that I never even notice.

That's a beautiful bit of design, isn't it?

That's the kind of elegance that permeates Rock Band and the first two Guitar Hero games (common element: Harmonix).

For Tony Hawk to succeed, that's the kind of sophistication they need to duplicate, because otherwise, that skateboard is just a novelty controller. And it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to create that kind of magic with such precision and style.

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