Like an MC spiking interest in an upcoming album with the unexpected release of a mixtape, the game developers who last brought gamers "Guitar Hero II" and were thought to be on the verge of releasing "Rock Band" later this month surprised the industry Wednesday with the stealth launch of a little iPod music game called "Phase."
Such is the launch of products on Apple systems. Suddenly, there it was — a new game from Harmonix, the rhythm-game experts behind "Amplitude," "Frequency" and some of the "Karaoke Revolution" games. (Full disclosure: Harmonix is owned by MTV.)
Yet, as surprising as "Phase" was, it marks a significant step in the efforts of Harmonix, both a realization of a long-term goal and a hint at where things could go. After all, it suggests a day when future editions of "Rock Band" could be made by the game itself, something one of the game's developers admitted was possible.
"Phase" is a music game that ships with seven songs but is designed primarily to be played with music the player owns. A rhythmic series of cues stream down the center of the screen, as they do in games such as "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band," but instead of tapping buttons on a guitar or drum controller, players have to tap the edges of their iPod wheel or trace their finger in semicircles. The more in sync players are, the louder and longer the song plays.
"Years ago a bunch of us at Harmonix had this hope that someday we could make a game that, instead of [us] choosing music for a game, the player could choose music for the game, " Harmonix producer Kasson Crooker told GameFile in a phone interview. They wanted to free players of a company-issued track list by designing a game that would morph to each person's music. Company-programmed song lists are "always so limited," Crooker said.
The concept of a music game that can shape itself to any piece of music isn't new, but it hasn't become standard either, appearing here and there in projects like 1999's PlayStation game "Vib-Ribbon," a recently canceled PSP game called "Traxion" or as an extra mode in last month's Xbox Live Arcade title "Every Extend Extra Extreme." Conventional rhythm games still mainly offer players several dozen songs that are programmed by developers. Those developers encode the songs so that their notes and melodies are triggered and played in rhythm with specific presses of buttons on a guitar controller, a DS or some other gaming instrument.
The Harmonix concept would allow a game to interpret songs on its own, processing beats and rhythms into a sequence of required button presses that would be fun for the gamer to input.
Crooker began working with a small team at Harmonix on developing the idea a year and a half ago. They worked with Eric Metois, an MIT-educated technology consultant whose personal Web site reveals that he first worked on a concept like this for Harmonix in 2003, before delivering revised technology in 2006. Crooker said he spent a summer throwing music at the tech. He had heard "Vib-Ribbon" struggle with really fast music. But not even speed metal could cause the Harmonix program to stumble. (Only a lack of rhythm did: Audio books weren't fun to play, nor was an hour-long stand-up comedy routine.)
The project didn't have a specific game attached to it early on, Crooker said. He described the endeavor as "pie in the sky," but admits that the team considered DS and PSP applications of the technology before settling on the iPod. The difference, Crooker reasoned, was that's where many people have their music saved and ready to be injected into a game.
The iPod wasn't made for games, and the basic wheel control forced Harmonix to simplify "Phase." The team tried several different control techniques involving different types of movement (tapping versus pressing, for example) and placement of "buttons" along the click wheel. "The button presses [on the iPod] are not super-great like they are on our guitar or drum controllers," Crooker said. But he feels they are good enough, when coupled with the required finger sweeps around the iPod wheel, to make a fun game. The liability of the finger sweeps is that "you lose some of the rhythmic connection" to the music, he said, pointing out that only by tap-tap-tapping along with music can players feel their songs. All in all, he's fine with the compromises and proud of the little $5 project.
"Guitar Hero III" launched last month with nearly 70 songs. "Rock Band" will launch with close to that number. "Phase," though launching with far fewer is essentially playable with millions more. So if "Phase" can make a game out of any song, couldn't that same technology be used to greatly expand the musical roster for "Rock Band" or any other Harmonix rhythm game? Does this mean future rhythm games wouldn't need to be programmed by Harmonix humans because Harmonix tech would do the work? "It would be technically feasible but there's something special about having a person involved," Crooker said. "The people we hire are musicians themselves. When they open up a guitar track [to program it into the game], they can really make good music."
Essentially, Crooker said, man is currently still more artful than machine. And there's a second limit in place for now: "Phase" technology only analyzes a new song's stereo recording; "Rock Band" requires analysis and gameplay programming for each instrumental track in a recording.
Crooker couldn't say whether Harmonix has more iPod games coming or any other handheld efforts. "I would love to continue making these kinds of games," he said. "We're excited to see how people pick up on it."
"Phase" is available through the iTunes music store for all iPods that play video.
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