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Ubisoft's Rocksmith music game: Will it be in sync with consumers?

March 15, 2011 |  9:00 am

Rocksmith on Xbox 360 While Activision Blizzard is running away from music games by shutting down its once booming Guitar Hero business, Ubisoft is diving headlong into the category.

The French-based video game publisher on Tuesday announced plans to release Rocksmith, a music game "with benefits," in September.

The chief benefit is that the game promises to teach people how to play a real electric guitar. Players can either plug in a guitar they already own or buy a version of the game that will come packaged with an entry-level guitar from a major guitar manufacturer.

"You will acquire the skills of a guitar player, and you won't even know it," said Tony Key, Ubisoft's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "We call it gaming with benefits."

Sales of music games plunged 46% last year, the steepest drop of any game category, to $1.06 billion, according to market research firm NPD Group. With Activision out of the Guitar Hero business and Harmonix being reorganized after its fire sale last year to a private investor, the genre is expected to have another rough year in 2011.

That doesn't seem to phase Ubisoft, whose Just Dance franchise sold 5.2 million copies in the U.S. last year, making it the best-selling title in the music genre.

In fact, Guitar Hero's absence may help Rocksmith by reducing competition on store shelves this fall. One company, Optek Music Systems, which makes the Fretlight interactive guitar, claimed that sales of its product surged 18% after Activision announced it would bail on Guitar Hero.

It may also help that Rocksmith is much different than previous music games in which players try to press buttons to match the rhythm, said Colin Sebastian, analyst with Lazard Capital Markets. 

"In concept, this game has the potential to have broad appeal because many people want to be able to play the guitar," Sebastian said.

One wild card is the game's price tag. Ubisoft is still debating how much it will charge for the game, which will come with a special cable that plugs into a standard electric guitar on one end and to a PC or a game console such as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 on the other.

Some musicians including Prince have openly snubbed music games. He said in a 2009 interview on PBS that he turned down an offer to have his song on Guitar Hero. "I just think it's more important that kids actually learn how to play the guitar," he said.

That's what Rocksmith plans to deliver. "In most of these games, you were just pressing buttons on a cheap plastic game controller made to look like an instrument," said Paul Cross, the game's creative director. "We wanted our game to be the real thing."

For more details on the game and how it teaches users to play the guitar, click the continue reading link below.

Paul Cross Rocksmith

Ubisoft's upcoming Rocksmith title aims to make rock stars out of its players. Well, at least turn them into amateur guitar players.

It does this by turning the basics of playing a guitar into a series of games. The game starts off easy, getting players to strum a handful of notes in a song, then begins to layer more notes as the player gains proficiency.

Most music games come in three or four modes: easy, medium, hard and insanely hard.

But Rocksmith breaks each song into dozens of bite-sized phrases and keeps track of the sections in which the player stumbles and the sections they breeze through. It uses the data to dynamically adjust how difficult to make each phrase, ramping up the areas that players find easy and making up mini-tutorials on the fly for sections in which the player has trouble.

The game also comes with mini-games aimed at teaching techniques, such as note-bending (where a player plays a note that turns into another note) and sliding (a trick often used by blues musicians to create a wailing sound).

Players who master the game will find themselves able to play the actual guitar parts of the 40-plus songs included in the game.

There's no shortage of "how-to" software promising to teach music. Rocksmith, however, is among the few that turns the whole affair into a game. It rewards players with medals and achievements, and by unlocking new features, classic tricks used by game designers to entice players into increasingly challenging levels.

"It's not school," Cross said. "But you do get to learn."

-- Alex Pham

Top Photo: Any guitar with a standard plug can be plugged into a game console. Credit: Ubisoft.

Bottom Photo: Ubisoft Creative Director Paul Cross demonstrates Rocksmith. Credit: Alex Pham / Los Angeles Times.