Games vs. Instruments

I’ve spent the better part of the past 5 years focused on answering a deceptively complex question: What are the best ways to adapt the art of music-making into compelling gameplay?  I’ve explored systems focused on performance, composition, mixing & production, so I use the term “music-making” broadly to refer to any activity associated with creating music

On the surface, it can appear to be straightforward.  If you’ve played Guitar Hero once or twice, it seems like such an obvious idea that it’s easy to overlook how much thought and attention went into arriving at that particular design.  Creating a game is about making choices.  A designer decides what he wants a player to do, how he wants it done, and how a player should feel while it happens.  There needs to be a clear definition of success and failure.  Playing a guitar satisfies none of these conditions; playing Guitar Hero satisfies all of them.  The difference between them is the difference between an Instrument and a Game.

An “instrument” is an open-ended system, with infinite possible outcomes, no specific rules, and no judgment placed on the end result.  By this definition, I consider a ProTools recording rig to be as much of an instrument as a guitar.  It’s a blank canvas; you bring to it whatever you have, and you get out of it whatever you want.

A “game” is the exact opposite – a closed system, with a limited number of outcomes, governed by a system of carefully crafted rules.  The entire point of a game mechanic is to place judgment on your actions.  That was bad… that was good… this is better… A game needs to make these decisions instantaneously and communicate them to the player clearly.

I consider this to be a linear spectrum, with “game” on one end and “instrument” on the other.  Every design choice you make moves you one direction or another along this continuum.  Rarely – if ever – will you be able to make a decision that moves you in both directions at the same time.  It is a fairly binary choice between open-ended and limited systems.  It’s important to keep this in mind as you design your game; you need to be aware of the way each choice affects your location on the spectrum, and you need to know where you want to end up.  I’m usually trying to arrive somewhere in the middle, but your target may vary based on the experience you are trying to deliver.

One final thought… Adapting music-making to gameplay involves passing judgment about the right and wrong way to make music.  This can be an uncomfortable process.  We know that in the “real” world there are all types of music, and what sounds great to one person may be awful to another.  But games aren’t real.  Nothing is more contrived than a game, and as a designer you are the master of your game’s universe.  Don’t be afraid to make the tough calls.


I’d love to hear your thoughts…

    • Ben
    • June 27th, 2011

    Does trying to have a hit single constitute game play?

    • That’s way more of a loaded question than you may think.

      In a figurative sense, you could consider the music industry as a game to be conquered (although I don’t think many would agree on the rules governing that particular system). This would be much in the same way that people consider themselves to be “gaming the system” when they find a bargain online or a shortcut around a traffic jam.. and related to the push to “game-ify” everything in our life (a la Foursquare).

      But as it more directly relates to my post, I have worked on game systems that allowed people to write/create music. Again, its about making tough choices and imparting some sort of objective “taste” on the evaluation system. It may be daunting to picture of a way to evaluate any possible song output as being a “hit” or not, but if you start to break things down it becomes easier. If, for example, you are focusing on a system that allows you to write rock songs… you could start to look at things like typical chord progressions, song structure, etc… draw generalizations about the way rock “usually” is, and use those generalizations to draft rules that you can measure any potential song against.

  1. This reminds me that I wanted to ask you what you think of Ubisoft’s upcoming title Rocksmith.

    • DISCLAIMER: I haven’t been able to try the game, and I know a few people involved with it. But that’s never stopped me from expressing a half-formed opinion before…

      I think that Rocksmith is the inevitable next step down the development path of the “band game” sub-genre of music/rhythm gaming – and that is good and bad. Purely as a technical achievement, I find it really interesting and impressive. I know from experience that the ability to accept audio input and do all the conversion and detection necessary to get it into the game console quickly is non-trivial. And it seems that it’s as close as we’ve ever come to seeing a game console experience that can teach you to play guitar. That is cool. But, from a game design perspective, it seems that they are landing quite close to the “instrument” end of the spectrum. No matter what you do, a guitar is still an open-ended system, and there’s no built-in way to control what sounds the player produces with it. This seems like it will appeal to people that already have an interest in learning guitar (and that may be a large market) but there’s nothing that I see that will draw in others and give them the ability to feel skilled and larger-than-life. I tend to favor experiences that simplify the interactions and let you “feel” creative (eliminating a lot of the required knowledge, work, and complexity and focusing on the payoff). Ultimately, I think that broadening the types of experiences associated with a music game is the path towards the ultimate survival and flourishing of the genre, as opposed to continuing to narrow our focus.

      I don’t want to take away anything from the Rocksmith team – the game looks really well executed, and I’m excited to try it out. And any step forward is a positive step for the industry.

      • From the marketing that I saw, it really seems like they are positioning it as a guitar trainer. I got to try it at E3 and it is the real deal. One thing I particularly like is adaptive difficulty… I put it on the super-easiest setting and I was only playing one note every four bars or so. By the end of the song I was starting to get the hang of it, and it started throwing an extra note at me every few bars.

      • +1 for adaptive difficulty. That’s a great feature that I hope will show up in more music games. It’s also nicely tied to how a real musician would play a song live… starting out simple and establishing the main riff, and then beginning to embellish and fill in space as the song progresses.

  2. There’s a team in my office that is actively trying to reconcile the two:

    They’ve got some interesting ideas on the intersection between learning guitar and playing a game that you should check out.

    • Ha! Alex just baited into an uninformed, arm-chair critique of Rocksmith (see my previous comment). I know how complex of a problem this is to solve, and from what I can tell it looks quite impressive. Looking forward to trying it out for myself!

  3. Reading this, and recalling all of our prior discussions, and the years of working on these problems, the idea that learning to play an instrument is just as structured as most games is becoming more and more rooted in my mind.

    I believe playing the instrument once it’s been adequately learned is more in line with the idea of an open ended expressive experience.

    In an attempt to illustrate this idea, I present the following:

    The process of learning to speak or write a language can be held akin to the process of learning to play an instrument.

    Teachers provide students with a flow of feedback, teaching children which sounds, syllables, and words are correct and which are incorrect.

    Over time, and with enough practice, students can use the language they’ve learned to better express themselves using more and more complicated techniques and messages, eventually resulting in open ended expression using all the rules learned.

    Learning a language can be hard. Students take a risk every time they attempt to test their knowledge of the rules, just like a game. If the student/player succeeds, despite the risk, they are elated and relieved at having won out over the possible loss implied by the risk.

    I believe the same can be said for learning and instrument.

    • Thanks Gian. I completely agree that the process of learning an instrument has meta-game elements, and your language analogy is spot on. I’ve heard many people say that the Rosetta Stone language learning software is game-like. In my analogy I am referring to the potential of the instrument, not the method. A guitar can be learned in a traditional style, or it can be self-taught. An expert can pick up that same guitar and shred, then he light it on fire. The guitar isn’t telling you what to do with it. That’s up you.

      It was fun tackling these challenges with you. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the process…

  4. It’s a tough one. I think that as long as there is openness and freedom to create whatever sound you want and assemble it in any way then its not a game anymore. Take it further and make something that will actually teach people to make music, then you have an educational tool. Games are games, they’re about scoring, doing something the right way, not losing, competition, etc… Music and games are related in some ways (they’re fun, there are rules) but music differs greatly from games because its deepest goal is expression, creating art, giving the listener more abstract experiencies, and hyping them up for dancing or headbanging – something that no other art can do. But I say this as a person lucky enough to have been indoctrinated into music making by Mario Paint when I was younger. That ‘tool’ forever sparked a creative interest in actually putting things together (and not just being a spectator) that probably made me the artist I am today. It also taught me how to use step-sequencers and to the day there is no music game I’d like to play because I know how to use computer programs and virtual synths to make songs. I think if there was a game that was about creating sounds, and making little songs, I probably would stop playing real quick because I’d want to get back to the ‘real’ tools.
    I think I’m fortunate enough to have that bias,but there are probably many people out there that would get their creative lightbulbs turned on if there were games that taught the basics of composing, of synth-modulation, beat making and so on in a fun way. I usually think of 3 options – a somewhat educational-tool, an instrument/composer (mario paint), or a game.
    In any case, I think the market is somewhat limited when you don’t tout big bands and super popular artists and a formulaic gamey-feel. A lot of people that play RB, GH in my experience have no interest in any kind of creative endeavor – they just like to play games. I think whenever you give people the chance to be creative you are narrowing your market to those that actually enjoy the ‘jump into the void’ feeling; and as far as games are concerned, I think the main market is really in it just to play games; people don’t want to ‘think’ too much; they want to relax and shoot a few things. And then the games that are just visual psychedelic rainbow madness that matches to the songs you play in your computer.. sigh. I’d rather load up ‘tempest’ and blast some psy-trance and I’d probably have more fun.
    With all the knowledge, ideas and talent you have about music, you should just do what you think is awesome. Not worry about it being a game or not, or if the game industry is going to embrace it. Make a tool/game/instrument that you think is meaningful and honest, that makes sense to you. Forget about what people are expecting. Take it to the next level man, make something that will actually change our perception of music!

    • haha… I replied to you thinking you were commenting on my more recent post. my bad.

      Totally agree with you about the difficulty between balance “gameplay” and “open-endedness”. I think there are lots of ways to make games around the way we listen to music, share music, etc. that don’t even touch on the traditional moment-to-moment experience of being inside music that you’re talking about. And thanks for the kind words… I’ve got a few different projects in the works that I think are pretty cool and unique… looking forward to releasing them out into the wild soon…

  5. Nice, totally did not think about it in that respect (being ‘outside’ the music) – There you go, people get stuck with certain perceptions and then its hard to break away from those monolithic concepts. You’re latest entry is awesome too, really digging the ideas you’re throwing around here.

    • Yeah there are a lot of different ways to conceptualize the problem. I think some fresh perspective is what we really need. Thanks for the feedback… I’ll definitely keep throwing my thoughts out there. Keep on commenting… I love the dialog… great way to work out ideas.

  6. I just realized I pulled a “you’re” when it was supposed to be “your”. *facepalm*

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