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Lessons On Game Design From Rock Band

Trying to derive from benefit from my recent Rock Band binge, I examine the gameplay mechanisms that make Rock Band fun.

This post is from the author's blog, Think Small.

Historically I wasn’t a bit fan of music/dancing games. I had a lot of friends who played DDR and it was fun but I never really got into it. When Guitar Hero came out I played it a bit but being so different from the actual guitars I’m used to, it alienated me.

This all changed when I visited a friend of mine who had just purchased Rock Band. Drums? This is new. It seemed pretty novel, actually. I was just beginning to learn how to play real drums so I decided to try it out and see how the “fake drums” worked. It’s worth a shot right?

I don’t think I ever played any other Rock Band instruments again, save maybe singing once or twice. While I could play some songs on Hard, I could play all songs on at least Medium. That didn’t matter though, and we played the Endless Setlist that night, a 58 songs epic bender that ended with us passing out on the couches. It made me never want to play the game again, but of course that didn’t last long. After a few more months of real-life drum practice, I’m now able to play many songs on Expert and almost all songs on at least Hard.

So in any case, in my most recent playthrough I noticed something about Rock Band. While it’s incredibly fun, it’s not entirely a game since you don’t have a terrible amount of choices to make. One of my patented Four Elements of fun is choice. The game has no shortage of challenge, eye candy, and gratification, but ultimately it’s a game about doing exactly what the game wants you to do. Or at least this is what I thought until I learned a bit more about how the mechanics of the game work.

In Rock Band (and many other similar music games) there are small sections of the game that, if played perfectly, can be used to boost your “energy.” Then at other times in the game you can choose to release that energy to increase your score. The one and only real choice that a player makes while playing a song is choosing when to activate your boost energy. When I realized this I came away with a small sense of wonder at how Harmonix managed to pack in so much fun relying almost entirely on the other three elements. I think it comes down to the fact that the power boost mechanism is so simple and well executed. If there were much more choice then the game could get too cluttered, and there’s more than enough fun in the other areas of the game that too much here would hurt more than it would help.

Naturally there are other choices a player can make, but they don’t happen during the playing of a song. Players can choose which songs to play, which of course is big. Sometimes the game offers players a choice: If you get five stars on the next song you can earn double the fans, but otherwise you’ll get nothing. It’s a classic double-or-nothing tradeoff and it usually prompts debate between band members. There’s also the decision of what difficulty level to play at, if anybody is playing on Easy then the band will get zero fans. You get more fans and money if you play on higher difficulty levels, which creates a risk-reward mechanic.

I like Rock Band a lot, hopefully it won’t drain too much of my spare time over the next few days. Maybe I should just replay that 58 song set list to get it out of my system?

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