Stairwell Philosophy – Easy Mode or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love No-Fail

They don’t make games like they used to. Back in the day you’d see the first quarter of a game about a million times and the rest only if you were lucky (or had enough time to get a good gaming zen going). We ran out of lives and got kicked back to the beginning of the whole game and we hit start and got right back in there to try again. It was the way of things and it was good.

But then came games with a new way of handling difficulty. Games with no ‘game over’ screen. Games where they just hand you the ending if you keep playing long enough. In some cases the game will effectively play itself and you just watch it like a movie. Where has the challenge gone?

Thing is, back in the day there was basically only one type of gamer to appeal to. Everyone had their genre tastes but it was pretty easy to make a game with universal appeal in a universe so small. Plus there were other good reasons to build a nice steep hill to victory. Arcade games don’t make good bank if the player can win it all on a single quarter, and stretching gameplay out with a few hours of game over screens made console game prices a little easier to justify.

Every so often you need to step back and take a look at why you do what you do. Does brutal unforgiving difficulty make this game more fun? Does it help draw you into the narrative? Does it serve some artistic purpose?

An easier difficulty setting can certainly be handy for the older gaming crowd. I for one usually play on the normal difficulty (assuming it’ll be the most balanced of the selections), but I’ll turn it down to easy if I just want to see the story or know I won’t have a lot of free time anytime soon. As real-life responsibilities build up over time I find I’d rather sacrifice some of the challenge in return for getting to see two or three levels tonight rather than playing one stage over and over and maybe having to play the same part again tomorrow night.

Another case for dialing back the difficulty of a game is accessability. Nintendo blazed a rather profitable trail with the Wii by making games with a much lower barrier to entry than was common to gaming at the time. Yet I think it’s a mistake to assume accessability and difficulty are automatically opposing forces.

Your mileage may vary, but for my part I like my difficulty best when it requires me to think. I enjoy comprehensible rules and systems, especially when an understanding of them allows one to achieve victory through superior tactics. By contrast I tend to lose interest after awhile in games whose challenge is predominately in execution, when the goal and method are quite clear and the difficulty is in performing the required actions with sufficient speed and precision. I do enjoy a good reflex challenge now and then (I have two drawers full of the games that coined the term ‘Nintendo Hard’), but I tire of them when it’s nothing but.

You can arguably have a bit of both in games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the various descendants of Lego Star Wars. There’s virtually no barrier to hacking your way through all of the game’s content and seeing the big finale. If you like to get all the extra shinies it’s gonna take a little more work. L.A. Noire approaches interrogations in a similar way. If you totally bugger the investigation the story will still muddle through, but if you’re dilligent in clue-hunting and good at reading people you get a better score and a more satisfying narrative.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero also straddle the line (as referenced in the title): both provide great execution-based challenges, but if you just want to rock out with your friends you can flip on the no-fail and not worry about getting kicked offstage if someone’s not getting the groove.

One might even say the same of Prince of Persia ’08, the game that inspired this ramble. Ubisoft has often toyed with weaving a game-over into the narrative. In the first Assassin’s Creed you got ‘desynchronized’ if you sucked too much, and the Prince in Sands of Time had to start his story over on occasion if he misremembered one of the hundreds of alternate timelines where he fell to his death. In both cases when the player fails to complete the game’s challenges it’s explained in such a way that the narrative can logically continue (as opposed to most games where you just die and go back to the last checkpoint because that’s how it’s always been done).

For those not in the know, in Prince of Persia ’08 there is (almost) no game over screen. Early on in the game you team up with a sidekick character who generally fixes things with magic. If you’re about to fall to your death due to flubbing a jumping puzzle sequence she teleports you to safety. Likewise if you’re fighting a boss and about to die she blasts it back and bamfs you out of the melee, though this gives it a chance to regenerate a big chunk of its health.

I’ve heard complaints that the game is too easy because you can’t lose. What’s actually going on is that failure is redefined.  There’s more than a few faults keeping this PoP from standing tall amongst its brethren, but in my book this new method of handling difficulty isn’t one of them.  It’s true that if you set the controller down the game will go on an endless cycle of the boss nearly killing you and the sidekick rescuing you for all eternity, but look at it another way.

Method a) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, die, loading screen, title screen, select load game, loading screen, select proper save file, longer loading screen, try again from the last checkpoint when the boss was at 75% health.

Method b) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, sidekick bamfs you to safety, boss recharges to 75% health, get back in there.

You may notice one of these methods has you able to try again after a wait of maybe 3-5 seconds. The other makes you wait half a minute, maybe a full minute or two inbetween attempts. Time spent looking at loading screens and menus and reminding yourself that you’re faffing about with an electronic toy and not actually experiencing a thrilling adventure about space marines or wizards or whatever. And that’s if you’re lucky and the developers were kind with checkpoint placement. If not you’ll also have to spend who knows how long running through preceeding jumping puzzles or re-watching cutscenes or driving around town listening to repeated dialogue or whatever.

Older and wiser heads have gone into great detail at how it’s far easier to learn something you can keep trying at right away than to have to successfully compelete other tasks first, especially unrelated ones. Imagine for example you wanted to learn to play the trombone, but every time you wanted to practice it you had to go pass your driver’s ed class first. And then watch a music video that might be about trombone players, or might not. And sometimes sit staring at the trombone case for a while. Something like that.

To wrap things up, I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of experimentation in the future. By recognizing the differing applications of difficulty and accessibility we can create games that pose the kind of challenges that make old gamers and new want to press start to continue.


Five by Five – Rock Band 3

Since their founding in 1995, Harmonix has always been an innovator in linking music and interactive entertainment. Their early console cult hits FreQuency and Amplitude in 2001 and 2003 respectively were some of the first and very few games in which a player’s gaming skill was rewarded with music while also allowing for a modicum of creative input. From there they pressed onward with their goal of making games in which a non-musician could experience something akin to playing an instrument, and in 2005 was born Guitar Hero. After a sequel and a half Harmonix had ideas of going even farther with the idea, not just guitars but a full band with drums and vocals as well, and in 2007 we saw the first release of the Rock Band series. A sequel a short while later showed a handful of small but much-needed interface updates, but rode mostly on its backwards compatibility with all but a tiny fraction of the songs from the first game. The third iteration of the series is now upon us, and packing a bit more than just a new paint job. Time for a reunion tour.

Killer Riffs

Something Bigger, Something Brighter: The gameplay of the Rock Band series is about the same as it’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. Hit the right button at the right time to make music come out, but with an increasing focus on recreating the feel of playing real music via the new pro mode (which has its own easy-medium-hard-expert settings, and on average easy pro is a step above standard expert). The game can be played with the same guitars, drum, and microphone you’ve always used, but now there’s more options. Vocals as always are just regular singing, but now with the addition of two- and three-part harmonies on select songs if you’ve got extra mics. Drums can be played with a standard four-pad set, but if you shell out for the triple cymbal pack you can step up to pro mode for a seven-part drum set. As always, guitar and bass physically play something like a one-string guitar, with two- and three-fret hits representing power chords. The hurdle to pro mode is greatest here, requiring one of two new peripherals. The less expensive version has a hundred and eight buttons to cover all the possible string/fret combos, while the ‘deluxe’ package is an actual Fender Squier guitar modified to have controller parts inside. The new addition to the team is the keyboard, equipped with 25 keys across two octaves and a midi-out jack. Standard keys let you play like a keyboard or as a keytar with only five buttons to worry about, while pro keys gives you the real deal. Training modes are included to teach one how to play the various instruments, but be warned that the road to true musical skill is a long and difficult one.

I Love Rock & Roll: The music library for the Rock Band series now totals over two thousand songs, with a few more added every week. The selection covers a massive variety of tunes, a majority of which were chosen because they give every band member fun stuff to do, but also including songs for folks who want a steep technical challenge. Backwards compatibility continues on with almost every track from almost every previous Rock Band title, so even if you don’t get into the DLC the exported tracks alone can bring your library into the 100-200 song range. The set on the disc also does a fine job of showcasing the new instruments, featuring lots of support for keys and vocal harmonies throughout. The Rock Band Network (created to help with the bottleneck of internal track production) has been merged with the regular marketplace, and the rating system now works with all songs. Handily, the rating system affects how often (or not often) various songs appear in random setlists, as well as using the data to make marketplace reccomendations. The old ways of sorting and scrolling are also vastly simplified with the new filtering system, an absolute necessity if you’ve been regularly stocking up on DLC since the first game. I recently hosted a Rock Band party for my church people and the filter made it exponentially easier to find the right music for the right people. With just a few clicks I could filter it to only show songs that supported all instruments, family friendly tunes, modern tunes, classic tunes, stuff with harmonies, and even which game a tune was exported from. A few quick clicks on multiple filters and you’ll have just the right tunes.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World: The new overshell system also severs to keep things moving quickly. Any player can hit start to bring up an individual menu for adjusting things like difficulty and lefty flip and no-fail, all without having to jump out to the main menu. If halfway through a song you find that you should have turned the difficulty down you can pause, switch, then keep going with the rest of the song (though your score only counts if you restart). On a side note, they also nicked the bit from Guitar Hero where when you pause and continue it rewinds the song a few seconds so you can keep your groove.

Get Up, Stand Up: Drop-in drop-out multiplayer has come to Rock Band 3. Now if someone has to take a phone call in the middle of a song you can just kick their instrument out and then they can jump back in after with the song still going. There’s also now an option for all-instruments mode, which has the mics active without being attached to a controller. In this mode the vocals don’t count for points or build up overdrive, but it also doesn’t negatively impact score or band health if nobody feels like singing the current tune. With all mics always active you can also make your own backup vocals (or just shout incoherantly in amusing ways).

Good Vibrations: I really like the new presentation. Though I’ll miss the rock trivia, I dig that you’re never sitting looking at a static loading screen. Your characters are always walking around doing stuff, reinforcing the feel of you and your friends being roving rock stars. Customizing said characters is also quicker now, as you no longer need to save up cash to have a diverse wardrobe; you start with a sizeable selection and unlock more by doing the new road challenges (which replace the old world tour mode). On the plus side I like the little cutscenes you can unlock showing your current roster getting into shennanigans, and the assorted tour locations do far more to incorporate your entire library than the old way of visiting an assortment of cities to play through all the disc songs. My only complaint here is that the challenges are entirely devoid of the flavor found in the previous installment. Instead of stuff like ‘do a free benefit show for the fans’ or ‘add a tough drum song to impress a record label’, it’s just generic ‘deploy overdrive a whole bunch of times’ or ‘get a long note streak’.

Off Key

20th Century Boy: Be warned that the value of this game depends quite a bit on whether or not you’re into the online music store. If you only have offline play you’ll have just the several dozen tracks on the disc to amuse you. They’re quite good, but no match for the experience had by folks who’ve been with the series since part 1 and have been steadily stocking up over the years (my library is soon to reach its 600th song).

Get Free: Feature upgrades can be just a little bit costly. Alas there doesn’t appear to be a plan to patch harmonies and keyboard support into old songs. Instead, you’ll see tracks on the marketplace marked as the Rock Band 3 version. Then for an extra dollar you can ‘update to pro mode’ for guitar/bass. I wouldn’t mark this as too big of a complaint because it does take quite a bit of work to make a Rock Band track, and then on top of that to re-create it for the pro guitar with accurate fingerings and strums across six strings, but we always wish we had more free stuff.

Killing Loneliness: It’s been said elsewhere and it’ll be said here that some songs only bring the keyboard in for ambiance. Though there are some great key-centric tunes, there’s a few where you’ll just be playing a fairly basic pattern over and over or only tapping away for a tiny fraction of the song. Keys can also sub in to play the note track for guitar or bass, but you can’t have two people playing the same note track so only tracks with specific keys support can bring in the full band.

Imagine: And now for assorted interface nitpicks. I wish that on tracks where your instrument only plays for a small part of the song the note track would fade out and then fade back in when you’re maybe two measures away or so. I wish it was possible to change instruments between songs in a setlist, so if I start on keys and then go to a song with no keys I can keytar through a guitar track. I wish the marketplace had an option to sort by price. I wish I could still use the stage kit in all instruments mode. I wish the instruments shot lasers and magically summoned mosh pits when you use overdrive. Well, we can’t have everything.

Need You Tonight: This last bit isn’t actually Harmonix’ fault, but still I lament that Beatles: Rock Band is still incompatible with standard Rock Band. You may have noticed that there’s no drum fills and no guitar effects in the Beatles game, which is because as part of the lisencing agreement the players are not to be allowed to modify the way the songs play. This unfortunately seems to mean that the Beatles will forever be segregated to their own game, unable to mingle with the grand library. Hopefully they’ll reconsider someday, as I’d rather like to see them added to the library with keyboard support.

The Final Word

If you already have Rock Band 1 and/or 2 chances are you already snagged 3 on launch day. If you’re already entrenched in the Guitar Hero series it’s a harder sell, since you’d be starting over with a new library. In my opinion the Rock Band library far outdoes the Guitar Hero one in both volume and variety. As for which to grab if you’re starting completely fresh on both franchises, well that’s a bit bigger question. If you prefer a more metal-focused on-disc track list, higher technical challenge, or guitars that click, Guitar Hero may be your thing. If you want to build a custom library with a great variety of fun party tracks, aren’t terribly picky about a challenging experience, or prefer the wider flat guitar frets for easier sliding up and down the neck, Rock Band is the way to go. For my money, Harmonix is still the king of music games and Rock Band 3 is a must-have for fans of the genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go play Sister Christian again as loudly and awesomely as possible.

Rock Band 3 was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. An alternate version is available for the Nintendo DS that uses the design from Rock Band Unplugged for the Sony Playstation Portable. The console version released at $59.99 for the stand-alone game or $129.99 for a bundle that includes the new keyboard controller. The ESRB has rated this game T for Teen for Mild Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Use of Alcohol. Rock Band 3 is developed by Harmonix and Backbone Entertainment and published by MTV Games. All game and music copyrights property of their respective owners.