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The next epic video-game battle starts this week, but it won’t be fought with laser guns blasting away at frog-faced aliens. This showdown is all about the music. Starting Tuesday, the popular Guitar Hero franchise will be facing a new rival, Rock Band, which lets players not only live out their fantasy of playing hot licks for an adoring audience but do it in a four-piece group with their friends, whether they live down the street or on the other side of the planet.

 

At $170, Rock Band will cost more than Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which hit stores last month. But adding bass, drums and a karaoke mike to the mix takes the concept to a new level, and the new game’s playlist, featuring groups ranging from the Who and the Police to Radiohead and the Strokes, may have a wider mainstream appeal than the metal-heavy Legends of Rock.

 

And make no mistake, mainstream is what it’s all about.

 

The rising popularity of music-related titles, which build on the “rhythm game” model of Dance Dance Revolution, is part of an even bigger explosion in so-called casual gaming. The industry used to cater to a hard core of geeked-out teenage boys, but now it aims to please their sisters, parents and even grandparents with games that tap into common fantasies and explore real-life issues.

 

Sure, there still are plenty of popular shoot’em-ups, including Halo 3, but recent releases include such titles as Imagine: Fashion Designer (make your mark on couture), Pimp My Ride (style and status in the ‘hood) and Baby Pals (virtual child-rearing).

 

In short, gaming isn’t just for gamers anymore.

 

That’s certainly true for Guitar Hero fan Shannon “the Shan-Man” Hernandez, a DJ at hard-rock station 98 KUPD (97.9 FM), where the entire staff reportedly stayed up until 3 a.m. playing an advance copy of Legends of Rock.

 

“I’m just fascinated with the game, (and) I’m not really a big gamer,” Hernandez says. “For me, it’s the music. It gives a person the ability to feel like a rock star.”

 

There are many who would scoff at that idea. After all, the basic game – players follow color-coded cues on the screen to “play” notes by hitting one of five “frets” on the guitar controller – is only one button more complex than Simon, the follow-the-blinking-lights game from three decades ago.

 

But watch someone learning how to play Guitar Hero. First they’ll fumble a bit with the controller, trying to keep up so the pre-recorded guitar track doesn’t fade from the mix in the speakers. As they get the hang of it, they’ll start nodding along with the beat. Before long, their entire body is pumping like a piston, just like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page pounding out a monster riff.

 

“It’s the same buzz,” says Dan Teasdale, senior designer for Rock Band at Harmonix, which also developed the first two Guitar Hero games before a corporate merger sent that franchise to another company. “Regardless of whether you’re playing on a stage or on (a TV screen), the feedback is the same.”

 

That’s not just hype, says Philip Tan, head of the games-research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Everything from the shape of the guitar controller to the roar of the crowd is designed to turn a game into an experience.

 

“It makes you think you’re a rock star by giving you little hints that maybe there is an audience out there cheering for you,” Tan says.

 

“The interesting thing about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that the direct predecessor, which is GuitarFreaks, doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t try to give you any illusion that you’re someone else or you’re living another life. You’re just doing really well hitting these buttons.”

 

The value-added escapism of Guitar Hero has taken rhythm games out of the arcade and into bars, as an entertainment option to karaoke. It even has become an obsession for a number of real music stars, ranging from industrial rocker Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the country band Rascal Flatts. Apparently, the game not only reduces the learning curve required to play a real instrument, it distills what’s fun about being a rock star while eliminating all the mundane details that make the music biz a business.

 

Speaking of which, Rock Band expands on the fantasy with such elements as hiring roadies or playing benefit concerts (less money, more adulation). But the big twist is that it simulates the experience of playing music with other people. Guitar Hero has always had a two-player mode, but adding in bass, drums and karaoke-style vocals – players are scored on pitch as well as timing – turns it into a team sport.

 

“There are more games that are taking on social aspects,,” says MIT’s Tan, “learning from the social-networking sites, places like FaceBook and Second Life,” which is key to the growth of casual gaming.

 

“Online technology has gotten to the point where people are able to do what they’ve always wanted to do, which is to play with friends.”

 

Science-fiction writers once envisioned a time when cyberspace would be a place where people from across the world would interact in an immersive virtual reality. Even without the 3-D goggles (or hardware jacks implanted directly into the brain, for that matter), that vision has come to pass on such Web sites as Second Life, where residents choose an “avatar” to represent them and spend digital currency on digital real estate.

 

But far more people seem to be attracted to living a “second life” in the context of online gaming.

 

Forget the Sims and other obvious examples. Even sword-and-sorcery fantasy games, such as the hugely popular World of Warcraft, have evolved into complex social spaces where people not only fight monsters but also develop professions and create a thriving virtual economy.

 

Games have been more successful in bringing the idea of virtual reality to fruition because they offer a structure of tasks and rewards that offers instant gratification and easy entrance into the larger world of the game. And that’s why, even as developers are expanding on the social aspects of gaming, social sites are looking to gaming for ways to attract users.

 

“We’re trying to introduce more game-play elements into the world,” says Michael Wilson, CEO of There.com, one of the first virtual- reality social sites along the lines of Second Life.

 

“We have found that people can entertain themselves, but they really want to find what we call compulsion loops, or things to do.

 

“The first time you teach your virtual dog to do a trick, it says you’re now a Casual Dog Trainer. And you say, ‘That was cool. I wonder if I can level up?’ “

 

The music-game sector is not the most socially complex in the industry, but with Rock Band, it’s clearly moving in that direction. There’s also plenty of room for it to develop ways to let players exercise some creativity, rather than just following along with a melody. Yes, video games have come a long way since Pong, but they clearly have a lot more evolving to do.

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