In 2011, Ubisoft announced Epiphone as the official instrument maker for the Rocksmith experience and together Rocksmith and Epiphone have helped over a million people around the world take the leap into the world of guitar and bass. That Epiphone and Rocksmith managed this feat in an age where there is intense competition for what little free time we have remaining says something how important a role music plays in everyday life. Epiphone.com recently spoke with Nicholas Bonardi from the Rocksmith design team about Rocksmith 2014, discovering Epiphone, and what’s coming next.
Thanks for speaking with us Nicholas. Tell us about making Rocksmith 2014 and a little about your background.
I am the Lead Audio Designer at Ubisoft in San Francisco. I went to Berklee School of Music, and came from a strong background of music tech. The technology for Rocksmith was actually acquired from a small company called GameTank. I started working as the third member of the GameTank team in 2008. We made a solid prototype that featured our note detection technology and the basic idea of playing a video game with a real guitar.
After the game was picked up by Ubisoft, the creative director--Paul Cross--and myself sat down to design the Rocksmith experience proper. At that point, I had been playing guitar for 15 years, but I had never designed a game before. Paul, on the other hand, had shipped a collection of top notch game titles, but knew very little about guitar. Through many a mind meld session, the team eventually created what would become the core experience of Rocksmith.
How did Epiphone become the official guitar of Rocksmith?
Rocksmith had to be the whole package, and that meant including a guitar, and a brand, that would be right for beginners as well as seasoned pros.
I remember heading down to Guitar Center with the EP, Nao Higo, and filling my VW Golf to the brim with guitars to test. The office was a proper zoo with nests of shredded cardboard and plastic bags everywhere. Out of the lot, the Epiphone Les Paul Jr. stood way in front. We were very impressed by the quality. They’re incredibly solid while remaining very inexpensive. On top of that, we felt the simplicity of the design was perfect to not overwhelm beginners.
Was it difficult to perfect the technology that would enable a player to plug in their own guitar?
Musicians love their instruments, so it’s always been very important to us that players would be able to use their own guitars with Rocksmith. This meant supporting any guitar and/or bass, which is not as straightforward as the RealTone Cable makes it seem. The construction of the guitar, the wood used, the pickups, the strings, the electronics, the playing style--everything has a dramatic affect on the analog signal we end up having to decode for note detection.
The issues compound when you factor in the hardware associated with bass. Bass
more frequently features active electronics, which can have an extremely high output when compared to their passive electronic cousins. All these things combined posed a solid challenge in maintaining a consistent experience.
One of the great things about Rocksmith is that it teaches guitar the way that people want to learn--through the music they love. How did you go about building the Rocksmith learning/performing process? For instance, did you talk to guitar teachers, or hang out with pros?
Music is inherently fun, and right when we started developing Rocksmith, we knew creating an experience where players could instantly participate with the music was paramount. This required removing as many of the hurtles to playing guitar as possible.
The RealTone Cable removed the need for a complicated technical setup. The intuitive interface removed the difficult learning curve behind reading music. Dynamic difficulty was made to constantly change the difficulty of the song so that the player is never overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Tone Designer, and our lexicon of modeled amps, cabinets, and pedals, automatically cue up the perfect tone for every song. On top of that, Rocksmith charts your progress and provides guidance based on your goals.
Combine all these things and you have a system that get’s people connecting with music faster than traditional methods.
Tell us about the feedback from Rocksmith 2011. What did people love and what did you want to improve?
Players of Rocksmith have been overwhelming supportive, and have been eager to share their success stories as well as their feedback. Through examining the experiences of our users, as well as our own, we learned so much about what our players want, and ultimately, how people learn.
First off, everyone learns differently, and with Rocksmith 2014, we took that lesson to heart and opened up modes like Riff Repeater to have near debug controls. While playing a song, players can instantly enter our practice mode called Riff Repeater, highlight individual sections to loop, control the difficulty level, and even adjust the speed of what they want to practice.
We also prioritized eliminating loading. Turns out that nobody likes loading screens… so we killed them. This was no small task, but it’s very important when you consider that a player can only learn as fast as the tools they are given.
Rocksmith also teaches open tunings DADGAD, open D, G etc. (Check out Epiphone's Masterbilt series for a superior DADGAD experience!) Since those kinds of tunings require very subtle techniques, how did you translate those techniques for Rocksmith 2014?
Rocksmith takes a goal based learning approach and puts the player in-charge of choosing their motivations. When a player selects a song, Rocksmith is listening, and adjusts the recommendations and the gameplay to help you complete that song.
Building on this song based perspective, alternative tunings are taught by focusing on the specific techniques the song offers. The result is two fold in that the player learns the skill set of the alternate tuning while learning how to play the song. Rocksmith 2014 features 13 different alternate tunings.
Let's talk about some of the new features. What are some of the advancements in game technology since the launch of Rocksmith 2011 and how were those changes incorporated into Rocksmith 2014?
After we finished the first Rocksmith, we started to kick around ideas of how we could make it better. One thing that wanted to tackle was something that taught people how to improvise. The problem is that you can’t really teach people improvisation. Trying to teach improvisation ends up in rote memorization, which is the polar opposite of the goal of self-expression. It would be like teaching someone how to explore. Any method is contrary to the fundamental concept. Lucky for us, people are natural explorers, and all you have to do is provide the tools, and the place.
That’s Session Mode. With Session Mode, you are in control of your own reactive band, but unlike a lifeless backing track, or static drum machine, these are AI musicians that actually listen and react to how you are playing. Creating the AI musicians of Session Mode was a huge leap forward for us in audio tech.
Getting a new guitar is such a personal choice. You talked about the Les Paul as being the ideal candidate for Rocksmith. Is there any other Epiphone in particular that you found sounds especially great with the game?
With guitar, the quality of your sound needs to be accounted for at every step in the signal chain. In order to create those iconic guitar sounds, you need to have gear that matches your goals. Epiphone guitars especially have so many interesting and iconic sounds available to them that it became more important that ever to be able to represent them properly.
Tone Designer is extremely flexible to meet these expectations. Not only does it feature hundreds of pieces of gear, but you can spend hours tweaking knobs, moving sliders, adjusting microphones, and even changing the order of the signal chain to be able to capture that perfect sound.
What's the feedback from the pros?
Support from performers, artists, educators, and other music professionals have been widely positive. On top of loving Rocksmith as a tool for applied learned, Rocksmith provides experiences that are not found outside of the game.
For me, before this project I was in a rut with guitar. Rocksmith breathed new life into my playing, broke down my arbitrary walls, and made me appreciate what I had been taking for granted. My personal library of campfire hits expanded 10 fold, but more importantly, I fell in love with the instrument again.
If you want to see for yourself, we recently released a video called “Expert Opinions on Rocksmith” featuring Jerry Cantrell (lead vocalist/guitarist for Alice In Chains), Brendon Small
(creator of Metalocalypse and Dethklok), and Marty Schwartz (#1 online guitar teacher Guitarjamz.com). (These are just a few of the pros that have come out to talk about Rocksmith.
Did any of the featured bands in the library pose unique challenges to the game?
Brian McCune leads our team of extremely talented Note Trackers. They are all accomplished multi instrumentalists that own pairs of the best ears I have ever worked with. This is important because accuracy and authenticity of the transcription of a song is second to none. On top of meticulously review and buddy checking, we also acquire video evidence for absolute verification.
Working from perfect transcriptions, the challenge, then, lies in progressing a player to the full transcription. Music is nothing but exceptions, and in the end, each song develops in it’s own unique path. After much crafting, and musical puzzling, the result is a fun experience that doesn’t just teach the song, but also imbibes the player in the headspace of the artist.
Where do we go from here? Might there be a band specific Rocksmith in the future like for The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, or Jimi Hendrix?
While Rocksmith 2014 is a huge game with a massive amount of content, our studio here in San Francisco is actually very small in comparison. I never take for granted that I work alongside incredibly talented people that pour countless hours into the work they love. Band specific releases are not in our plan, but Studio SF intends to make DLC or downloadable content in the foreseeable future. Currently we are releasing DLC on a weekly schedule.
Brian McCune and I got the chance to attend Epiphone’s 140th anniversary in June 2013 at their new office in Nashville where we demoed Session Mode in an unfinished build of Rocksmith 2014. We had a blast. It’s nice to work with a company where everyone in the office comes from strong musical roots, and really understands what Rocksmith is trying to do for players.