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Needless Complexity: The Classic Performance Trap

Needlessly complex products often fail to appeal to both casual and advanced players. One example is the recently announced Z-1 Hybrid Guitar for Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Back in October, I wrote two related articles on the decline of music simulation games titled, Too Much of a Good Thing: Explaining the decline of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and Explaining the Decline of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Both articles generated significant discussion on Wired.com and numerous other websites. One article by Joe Rybicki of Plastic Axe focused on this observation from my original posting:

"Some companies are trying to compensate by adding more peripherals and more sophisticated game play. That is a common mistake. The target market of these types of games wants simplicity and adding more features will actually have a negative effect on sales.”

“Can this be right?” asked Rybicki. “Would players actually like Guitar Hero 5 more if it didn’t include the new Party Play features and competitive multiplayer modes?

The answer is yes and no. Complexity does not need to be a barrier, as long as the complexity is invisible to new users. If the game does not become more difficult to pick up, then additional complexity can be used to your advantage through unlockable levels designed for more skilled players. Casual gamers would still have access to simplified controls and gameplay.

The entire concept of music games was to make music accessible to non-musicians, people who had neither the time nor patience to learn to play a real instrument. Real guitar players will tell you that Guitar Hero is nothing like playing the guitar, yet numerous rock stars have enjoyed playing the game in its own right, recognizing that it is a form of entertainment and nothing more. I used to know several Air Force pilots who enjoyed playing combat flying games on a regular basis. None had the illusion that the game provided them with actual training. Instead, it was an escape from their regular drills.

Some product developers seem to have forgotten the purpose of games when they create needlessly complex peripherals that attempt to provide more detailed and realistic experiences. These products are not only barriers to new players who feel intimidated by the control scheme, but also to skilled players who want to escape and have fun. We provide several examples in our forthcoming book, such as the NES "game" Miracle Piano Teaching System by Software Toolworks, a piano simulator aimed at helping "players" learn to play a real piano.

One new product that was announced at CES 2010 epitomizes the classic trap that some developers and engineers fall into. It is the Z-1 Hybrid Guitar by San Diego-based Gambridge. The $200 guitar controller for Guitar Hero and Rock Band has dozens of color coded buttons designed to simulate real guitar notes.

Gambridge Guitar Hero / Rock Band Controllers GamBridge Z-1 and Baby Z guitars at CES 2010

Like the Miracle Piano, the Z-1 is intended to "[bridge] the gap between real guitars and plastic ones."

The problem is that when the controllers become overly complex, they become obstacles, not only to new players, but also to experienced players who play for “fun” rather than “realism.” Meanwhile, those who are motivated to learn to play a real guitar will likely do so the traditional way. Miracle Piano was never successful because it required the same learning curve as a traditional piano, but at the same time, it lacked the feel and sound of a real piano or even a quality digital keyboard. Kids who hated piano lessons hated Miracle Piano, and were dismayed by their parents' efforts to turn their beloved game console into an educational tool. In fact, games like Miracle Piano helped kill Nintendo's once unassailable monopoly.“We got stuck with the reputation that we were the brand parents wanted their kids to have, which is the kiss of death,” said Nintendo's George Harrison in 1994.

In reviewing the Z-1, Technologizer contributor Jared Newman made this insightful observation.

“The ability to use these guitars as instruments in Garage Band sweetens the deal if you’re an actual musician, but if I was looking to teach a Guitar Hero enthusiast how to play, I’d probably opt for a cheap starter electric guitar instead.”

Of course, a “real” musician has plenty of advanced midi guitars to choose from and can even turn a regular guitar into a midi controller with the proper adaptors and interface.

In short, the Z-1’s needless complexity will not appeal to casual gamers, while professional musicians and advanced amateurs will continue to use dedicated instruments.

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