Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rocking the Periphery

LEGO Rock Band Screenshot

I dove back into the rhythm music genre recently with Lego Rock Band. I just haven't gotten around to The Beatles Rock Band but I'm sure I will eventually. It's been several months since I've played Rock Band 2 seriously, probably closer to a year, and I'm rediscovering why these games are so fun. I haven't played a Guitar Hero game since the third outing, so I don't know how they do things these days' but I've really been impressed by one particular aspect of this latest Rock Band: how it conveys information to the player. This might all be obvious to some people, but I still think it's worth pointing out because it's done so well.

Different types of games have different requirements for letting the player know what's going on around them. Shooters typically need to show how much ammo and health a player has. They may also need to show where mission objectives are located and where enemies are located. Rock Band needs to show:
  • The player's or band's current score and how many stars have been earned so far
  • The current score multiplier
  • How much Overdrive energy is stored up for each player
  • How well the player is doing overall
All of this in addition to the note chart itself. Most other games can present information to the player however they want with their HUD as long as it's clear and readable. The player can easily glance at the various indicators on screen and deal with that information accordingly. With the current crop of rhythm music games, though, the player's focus is almost entirely on the note chart. Especially on higher difficulties, taking your eyes off the note chart is a very risky act. So how can Harmonix tell the player things he or she needs to know without causing them to miss notes? They do it through sound and peripheral vision, and do it in such a way that both beginner and advanced players get something out of it.

For most players, the actual score is probably not the most important thing they need to know when playing a song, especially when playing that song for the first time or two. However, the number of stars earned are used to unlock new gigs and venues when playing the World Tour mode, and earn more fans and money for buying things to customize the player's character, so it's helpful to know how close you are to earning all five stars. As each star is earned, a glittering jingle plays. Its volume isn't that high, so sometimes it can be missed while concentrating on playing the song itself. When the fifth star is earned though, the jingle is louder and slightly louder. It's pretty obvious when it plays no matter what the song is. At this point you can relax somewhat and just focus on making sure you and your bandmates don't fail out before the song ends.

To earn those stars, it's important to keep the score multiplier high. The current multiplier is displayed at the bottom of the screen and a small CD icon fills up fills up for each multiplier, but they don't stand out and are easy to overlook. However, getting the maximum multiplier changes the multiplier display to a bright blue that can can be seen out of the corner of the eye while playing. Bass players also get a shimmering blue background behind their note chart, but in either case a player can easily know when they've maxed their multiplier. This of course plays into when Overdrive energy should be deployed.

Everyone I know still calls Overdrive by the Guitar Hero term Star Power. Whatever you call it, Overdrive doubles the current multiplier and is essential for earning high scores and getting gold stars on expert difficulty. Playing glowing white notes successfully fills up the energy meter by a quarter, and when it's halfway full the player can deploy the energy to get the score boost. Since looking away from the note chart to see if the meter is ready can be dangerous, Harmonix adds a large pulsing yellow glow when the meter is halfway full. Again, it can be seen in the peripheral vision without having to look away from the note chart.

An interesting situation emerges for more advanced players. Players can deploy their energy when the meter is halfway full, but experienced players know to let it fill up all the way for longer multiplier boosts. Once the meter starts pulsing, it doesn't change when it fills all the way up. The player who wants to use the full meter needs to either mentally keep track of how much energy is stored after the halfway point or take the risk of glancing at the meter instead of the note chart. For these players, the higher scores are usually worth the risk if it can be pulled off.

Finally, Harmonix uses several methods to provide an overall indicator of how well a player or band is doing. The crowd will begin singing along with the band once a high enough note streak has been hit, and of course everyone is familiar with the jangling of missed notes, boos from the crowd, and blinking red note board when failing out is imminent. A crowd meter is also shown on the left side of the screen. At first I wasn't sure how much this adds to the player's knowlege of what's going on, but I think it ends up being useful for when multiple people of varying skill levels are playing together. A more advanced player can quickly look at this to see how well everyone is doing and decide whether they should use their Overdrive energy for a score boost or hold it in case someone fails out.

All of these add up to a highly effective way of communicating some of the most important information to the player while minimizing the risk of breaking the player's concentration. While things like attempting to activate Overdrive or overly frenetic animations in the background can cause a player to lose the beat, it's pretty easy for a player to know how well they're doing at any particular time, and I'm sure Harmonix iterated a lot on those methods of communication while developing the game. It's also fairly easy to track the improvements in this aspect through the course Guitar Hero 2, Rock Band, Rock Band 2, and Lego Rock Band. So good job, Harmonix. It's not something that most people notice, but I know it takes a lot of thought and work to get something like that right.

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