Ubisoft launched its Rocksmith guitar-learning game in 2011, just as the faux guitar video game craze started by Guitar Hero seemed be at its end.

Rocksmith 2014 uses real guitars.

Above: Rocksmith 2014 uses real guitars.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

But Rocksmith, which combined a Guitar Hero-style video game with a real guitar, sold more than 1.5 million units. That was enough to justify the sequel, Rocksmith 2014, which debuts on Oct. 22. Ubisoft’s San Francisco studio has refashioned the game to make it much easier to learn how to play a real guitar, said Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft North America, in an interview with GamesBeat.

Detoc noted that an independent national study by Research Strategy Group found that Rocksmith is the “fastest way to learn guitar,” partly because it tells you what you did wrong in a song and allows you to learn the way you want to learn. But the game also has some entertaining mini games that are much more like traditional gameplay mechanics than boring guitar lessons. Detoc talked about balancing both fun and learning in the new version. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Rocksmith 2014 game screen

Above: Rocksmith 2014 game screen

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: What’s your view of the state of the music market right now?

Laurent Detoc: It’s in need of a rebirth, so to speak. The reason we got into Rocksmith to begin with was because, seeing all of these instruments made of plastic being played, and having a few guitar players among us, we were thinking about the power of this. What if you could just hook up a real guitar and have people make better use of their time? Not that having fun with a plastic guitar isn’t a good use of your time, but you can make better use of it if you can have a fun product that also leaves you with a real-life benefit. You’ve learned how to play guitar or improved the skills you already have.

So the state of the music market is that it used to be enormous and then it went away. People decided that, beyond having fun with plastic toys, there wasn’t enough there. Yet the appetite for being a rock star exists. It’s always been there. That’s why Guitar Hero and Rock Band did well. I would hope that the improvements that we keep making to Rocksmith – both as a brand as a method for helping people learn the instrument – can take us to a point where we’ll be the natural evolution of those games on the same scale. We’ll still cater to that market of people who want to be rock stars.

We did well last time. We sold 1.5 million units of Rocksmith. It’s not like it didn’t do well. It’s a solid-selling product, solid enough that we know we can continue to make iterations of the game. That’s what Rocksmith 2014 is about. A lot of improvements have gone toward making what the game was intended to be — something that helps you learn. We were worried about that at the beginning. It was like, “You can’t say it’s a learning tool.” Because we didn’t want to pull people away from thinking that this was going to be fun, just like the other music games. In the end, though, 90 percent of these players have been saying, “No, it’s an awesome way to learn.” 95 percent have been saying, “I really did learn something.”

Laurent Detoc, head of Ubisoft North America

Above: Laurent Detoc, head of Ubisoft North America

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: So the learning market actually could be the bigger market?

Detoc: The learning market is the market. If you make it fun enough, learning becomes interesting, as opposed to being a chore. I have two kids who both play piano. There are some interesting moments in how they’ve been progressing that define the difference between a chore and having fun. It’s still the same piano with the same lessons and the same perseverance and practice that’s required. There’s no mystery. If you don’t practice you don’t get better, whether you play the piano or a plastic guitar or a real guitar. It goes for anything. But how do you make it painless, so what you’re doing is fun?

I can see little moments with the piano. My son started to toy around with the piano, and the next thing I know he’s creating an entire sequence. He kept playing it and playing it and playing it, and at some point his teacher is going to say, “Let’s try to make it into a real piece.” That’s maybe two years ago. Now he’s a nine-year-old kid who’s been composing his own music. Of course, it’s a nine-year-old’s piano piece – nothing to go on the radio with – but he practices and he plays and he feels really good when he does that. Playing that piece and developing it isn’t work for him.

Likewise, when you play the guitar more and more and see and hear yourself play along with a four-minute piece and it sounds good, the energy that comes out of that is fabulous. We see that with the 60-day challenge in Rocksmith. We take people with no particular knowledge of the guitar and say, “Bear with us. It’s not that complicated. Play an hour a day for 60 days.” After 60 days, we’ve seen some amazing videos. With a little bit of commitment, every person who’s done that challenge and stuck to it has made enormous progress. You can see them just light up as they go.

You supply the guitar. Then plug it into your game console.

Above: You supply the guitar. Then plug it into your game console.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: When did you do that challenge? Was it over the first year?

Detoc: Yeah, we just did that this year. We started some of them with the first Rocksmith game, but now we’ve switched them to Rocksmith 2014. It was interesting. The people in the early rounds were commenting on how much better the new product was. They were learning faster. You can go back to a specific section that you want to improve and practice. And we don’t make it painful for you to do that.

GamesBeat: Is there a possibility that you might do your own music social network? Smule recently launched their network, Smule Nation. I don’t know if that’s something you guys have thought about.

Detoc: The level of strenuousness that we need to have is very important as far as maintaining the credibility of the product. If we do create a network of some sort, it’ll still have to be based on the methodology of how people learn through Rocksmith. That needs to stay in the background. Of course, because the world is more connected every day, we have people learning from one another. They’re posting their own music and others try to reproduce it. Whether we could build on that is a question for other people than me.

When you see how the songs are being created and adapted for easier learning—There’s a team of people inside the Rocksmith team that tries to bring the songs to a level where they’re easier learn. Could we eventually give those tools to the community, so that they can do that with the songs that they create? Again, so long as it stays credible, I think that would be okay. But we’re not quite there yet.

Rocksmith mini games include Star Chords

Above: Rocksmith mini games include Star Chords

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: With Guitar Hero giving way to the dance craze, everyone seems to assume that’s where the interest in music games went: from guitars to dancing with Just Dance (a Ubisoft game). The numbers associated with dance right now are very high. What does that mean as far as this comeback for the guitar goes? You have 1.5 million now, but you see tens of millions of dance games being sold.

Detoc: We’re not looking at the same products. There’s the route of wanting to rock, like in the Guitar Hero products. But I think Rocksmith is more comparable to something like Wii Fit. The analogy to Rock Band or Guitar Hero is all in the style – it’s that promise of being a rock star that ties them together. What you really want to do with it, though, is improve yourself. As I say, there’s a real-life benefit at the end. So I wouldn’t compare it to Rock Band or Just Dance so much as Wii Fit.

GamesBeat: It seems like one of the benefits of not having a direct rival right now is that you can take your time getting the game right. You don’t have to do a new version of the game every six months. Is there a benefit to the market being in the state it is now? If the expectation as far as sales were 20 million per year, you’d be in a very different place.

Detoc: Maybe, maybe. Also, though, the way people consume Rocksmith is not quite the same. We’ve sold a lot of songs, just like Rock Band did. You get the game and then you consume additional content afterward. It’s by far our best-performing title as far as add-on content. And that grows with the installed base.

If we changed the game too often, we’d run the risk of sending the wrong message. People would get the impression that our method isn’t really set. Rocksmith 2014 improves on Rocksmith, but the base method is the same. It just makes it a little more friendly, with better reward systems and more flexible navigation. You have the session mode, which is an advancement in technology.

Rocksmith 2014 game and guitar

Above: Rocksmith 2014 game and guitar

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: If there is a larger mass market waiting for this, what do you think it is? Is it an education market, a pure entertainment market?

Detoc: It’s both. That’s the thing. Our media today are so flexible and powerful that we’re able to let people do things they couldn’t do with media before. If you take classes on the Internet, you can get a degree now. People are going to have to figure out how to deal with that now, because watching MIT courses online probably isn’t the same as going to MIT, but what’s fascinating is that now we can think of all these different possibilities as a result. Think of a brilliant kid in Nigeria with no real way of going to MIT. He can still go and sample those classes. The world of media and connectivity gives people access to new ways of doing things that are different from what we’ve been doing for many years.

Another example might be the Kinect. What if you could learn how to drive in your living room? You immerse yourself in front of the TV. It recognizes when you turn the wheel, when you look up in the rear-view mirror. This might be a silly example, but one at a time, these things are going to demonstrate new ways of doing what we used to do before. Rocksmith falls in that category. Today a piano teacher comes to your house. But you could also take piano lessons from YouTube now. Rocksmith gives you this additional step where the teacher is in your TV, because the program adapts yourself to how you’re doing. Can you do that with any other media? Not really.

Your Shape and the rest of the fitness genre works in the same way. We used to go to fitness classes at the gym. Then Jane Fonda came along with TV and the VHS tape and you could do it at home. Now comes Your Shape, and it’s interactive. When you’re holding your arm at 45 degrees and you’re supposed to be at 90 degrees instead, the program tells you. It’s another step in that evolution.

GamesBeat: It seems like you’re bringing the guitar teacher into the living room.

Detoc: Sure, we’re bringing the guitar teacher home. Or even better in some ways, because it’s available 24/7. And it costs a fraction of the money, of course.

Bass guitar game screen

Above: Bass guitar game screen

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: Do you see it as a way of gamifying guitar lessons? Is Rocksmith itself a gamification exercise? Some of that seems visible in the mini-games. If there’s a technique that’s hard to learn, you make a mini-game around it. But also, if there’s something people want to reach, a goal, you build a meta-game around it.

Detoc: We’re just trying to make something fun, so that’s enjoyable for people to go about the learning experience. I go back to the piano teacher, with my kids, because that’s an easy example for me. We’ve had several piano teachers – some good, some not so good. The one we have now is awesome. He’s a better teacher because he makes it interesting for the kids. Is it because he makes it fun, or makes it personable, or makes it convivial? I don’t know. But in the end, they like it better, and I think it’s because they like him and the way he teaches.

That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to say, “We’ll teach you guitar.” But instead of going online and downloading some tablature and just trying to decipher it on your own, we curate for you, and we make it interesting in an interactive way. The mini-games—I’m not sure that’s gamification so much as just a way for us to make some of the practice fun.

“Gamification” is a dangerous word, I think, because it takes away from the seriousness of what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to have a little computer on your fridge that lets you know you’re out of milk. There’s a lot more depth to it. A lot of skilled teachers have thought about how to go about these interactions, and a lot of skilled engineers have created the technology behind them. The algorithms that have been built and refined adapt the game to you, the player. That’s the teacher inside it.

Rocksmith 2014 practice session

Above: Rocksmith 2014 practice session

Image Credit: Ubisoft

GamesBeat: There is that concept in education of adaptive learning.

Detoc: Absolutely. We use it in regular games, like where the difficulty of gameplay adjusts itself. We’ll continue to use it more and more. With games being connected, we’ll be able to know a lot more about what a player wants and needs.

GamesBeat: You can come up with a different measure for results now, too. It’s not purely sales. It’s how many people are actually learning. Some research has shown that this is the fastest way to learn guitar, I think? Are you guys exploring more ways to measure how successful you are?

Detoc: That, I think, is the best promise we can give. People have been telling us that they learned and that they made progress quickly. So we thought, well, how can we claim that we’re actually the fastest way to learn guitar? You can’t just say so. The FTC regulates that. I forget the exact number, but we had to have a large enough sample, with enough people validating the claim. This was all independently run, of course. In the end, we qualified to say that we’re in fact the fastest way to learn guitar.

An hour a day can seem like a high level of commitment. It’s a decent amount of time. But again, it’s only for 60 days. Once you’ve passed that hump, you can change your pace. I’m trying to remember the statistics exactly, but the number of households in America with guitars is extremely high. A lot of people play a little bit and then stop. Rocksmith covers the entire gamut. It goes from people who’ve never touched a guitar to people who already play well. The big market is in between. Of course, the larger market happens when people say, “If this is the fastest way to learn guitar, this is the one I want to try.”

Learn a song screen

Above: Learn a song screen

Image Credit: Ubisoft

I’m rebounding on your question a little, thinking of something different. If you’ve been looking at what the ESA has been studying, there’s research backing the notion that brain surgeons who play video games are better surgeons than ones who don’t. You and I understand that because we’ve played games for a long time. It’s that practice-makes-perfect thing. If you’ve played 10,000 hours of video games, you know how to find your way out of mazes better than a guy who hasn’t played all those Zelda games and whatnot.

The cognitive improvements that you can get out of practicing with games can translate into other things in real life. Rocksmith is more narrowly focused on one skill, but I think this applies to better reflexes and better cognitive skills in general.

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