Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Case Study: Guitar Hero

This is the fourth in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Skill Players vs. Tourists."

A game doesn't get as loyal a following as the Guitar Hero series has unless it appeals to people with different tastes. We've tended to think that hardcore gamers and casual players have taken to the game in equal measure -- but, as stated in part two, those labels aren't specific enough for us to embrace. Instead, we'll look at how a Skill Player's approach to the game might differ from that of a Tourist. And we'll speculate as to what each player think he's accomplished afterward.

If you were to look at the screen during a game of Guitar Hero with the sound muted and the player out of sight, you'd see what appears to be a purely skill-based experience. Multi-colored gems stream down the screen in irregular patterns and need to be destroyed as they pass a static point. You'd quickly discern Guitar Hero's precise timing requirements, but from this perspective, it's hardly different from Space Invaders. Even if you weren't acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the guitartroller, you'd guess the game required good hand-eye coordination, as well as manual dexterity. Even more so, you see the goal of the game to be detonating every single one of those gems. You're seeing the game through the point of view of the Skill Player.

Now imagine a different scenario: the sound is on, but your back is to the television and you're watching the Guitar Hero player. Exactly what he's doing when he holds down the buttons and hits the strum bar isn't quite clear, the one thing you can say for sure is that his actions drive the song you're hearing. Now he performs star power. You don't realize it's multiplying his score -- you just see him tilting the guitar like a rock star. The cause and effect relationship that you observe is the guitar controller producing rock and roll music. Things like the high score and the difficulty level are irrelevant here. Now you're looking at the game from the perspective of the Tourist.

It gets tricky when you're the one playing the game. Now, you have to synthesize visual stimuli (the streaming gems), digital manipulation (fret buttons and strum bar), and aural feedback (the song). The distinction between playing as a Skill Player and as a Tourist is harder to define, because their disparate motivations result in interlocked results. For a Skill Player, accurately detonating the gems makes the song sound correct. For a Tourist, playing the song well will naturally result in a good score. These two people may not realize they're playing for different reasons -- even if they're playing cooperatively!

How might we differentiate between Skill Players and Tourists in Guitar Hero? The intention of this piece is to suggest a better framework for talking about games, not to try to pigeonhole gamers, so I offer these suggestions only as a place to start -- to show how people could derive equal enjoyment with entirely different goals in mind. (It's also possible that someone could exhibit traits of both the Skill Player and the Tourist; in fact, I imagine most people do.)

Characteristics of the Skill Player in Guitar Hero:
  • Plays on expert difficulty, or strives to
  • Activates star power with the select button instead of tilting the controller
  • Uses practice mode
  • Pursues a five-star ranking in every song, even the terrible ones
  • In multiplayer, prefers face-off or pro face-off
Characteristics of the Tourist in Guitar Hero:
  • Plays on whatever difficulty they've mastered (this could still be expert)
  • Activates star power by tilting the controller
  • Learns songs by playing them
  • Disproportionately plays the songs they like
  • Prefers co-op multiplayer

Defining people simply by these traits may be problematic, because to do so is to attribute motivation to action after the fact. But if you know that you fit more comfortably in one category, you may be able to apply that perspective to other games where the dichotomy is less obvious.

The question now is whether we've taken this to its logical conclusion. I think there's further still to go.

Next: Skill Players: Drilling Down


WJUK said...

I'm kinda a mixture of both, I strive to play on expert difficulty but I'm stuck on the last tier of Hard difficulty songs. It sucks, it's like a major bump up from the previous tier of songs. And yet, I cba with Practice mode, because I'm the kind of guy who thinks: 'Pft, practice. Like hell I need that...' and get my ass whooped by Cliffs of Dover on hard. I also tilt to activate star-power. I prefer pro-face-off. And I play all songs. I've played every song on medium difficulty already and got mostly 4 stars on them, I think.

Mitch Krpata said...

Exactly, practice mode just seems so antithetical to the idea of the game. Real guitar players practice. I'm trying to play a game here! For myself, I only moved up to hard once medium got to seem too easy. Still haven't reached that point with hard.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can beat everything on expert except for a couple of songs (a couple 8th-tier ones and the last couple bonus songs)... However, I think that tilting the guitar to activate star power is a characteristic of a good guitar hero player, hitting select is kind of a cop-out way for people that aren't able to tilt and still keep streaks going...

Mitch Krpata said...

That's a good to way to look at it, which I hadn't thought of. My thinking was that hitting a button to activate star power, and more embarrassingly that I still find myself unable to tilt the guitar without messing up my multiplier. But you're right, there's something to be said for the skill component of hot-dogging with the guitar, such as playing it behind your head (which an expert friend of mine does with abandon).

Mitch Krpata said...

Er, missed some words. Should have read "My thinking was that hitting a button to activate star power is just faster, and more embarrassingly..."

DJH said...

Anonymous hasn't seen what the very highest level of play looks like. Players competing for top scores can hit all the notes perfectly. In order to eke out those last few points, they'll activate star power as late as possible in the timing window for a given note, so that it lasts long enough to include an extra note at the end, a practice known as "squeezing".

That kind of precision requires hitting the button instead of tilting.

WJUK said...

@DJH: I guess. But that's exactly the point, I play for fun (like it should be done for) and tilting is so much more awesome!

And when I play on medium (or easy) I can mess around too. Like, one time, in my friends attic. We were playing GH3 while jumping around the room, it was frickin awesome.

@krpata: Your friend can play the guitar BEHIND HIS HEAD?! OMFG. I've got to learn to do that...

Johnson said...

@wjuk: Playing GH behind my head is probably the most painful video game practice I've come upon, with the possible exception of DDR while smoking, though it's well worth it when you're at a party or a bar.

WJUK said...

@Johnson: Yea... I know now... I tried it. I managed to play through most of the songs on medium with the guitar behind my head. It batters the arm like no tomorrow. But it makes you look so awesome.

Obviously, you've never tried to play DDR with just one leg... or just your hands (while doing handstands).

Jakarta said...


"But that's exactly the point, I play for fun (like it should be done for)..."

Saying this implies that competing for the top score or playing for skill isn't fun. I think this what Krpata calls the "tourist." I play a 2D fighting game called Guilty Gear competitively.

Now, I'm not the best, but I put I put a lot of my time into studying the game and how it works just to be better. I've spent countless hours in practice mode and fighting the computer just to improve my execution a small amount.

Some players may see this is a boring or a waste time, but if you try and compete against the best in the nation, than you're going to need it. The other gamers I play with are of different caliber than those who play casually. I've had the experience of playing both in one gathering, and you can tell the difference.

There is a certain seriousness and passion that the competitive gamer has that the other doesn't. Both of them can enjoy the game, but they do for different reasons. Winning even a local tournament or even competing at the level gives you a sort of thrill that you can't get when playing alone or casually with your friends.

Well, I guess that was a lot to say, but my point is simple: Playing games to be the best is fun; however, it is not for everyone.

James said...

Part of what is going on here is the divide between how much free time kids have vs. adults. Adults rarely have the time to master a game like guitar hero or Rock Band drums to expert level. Sure some do, those who are find the experience extremely fun and endlessly interesting, but for most the novelty will wear off before the reach that level.

I've noticed that younger players invariably seem to have more appetite, patience, whatever for their games. They are willing to pour hours and hours into a game even if it isn't one of their favorite games of all time. I used to do this myself. But these days the only games that get more than 10 hours or so of playtime are the one or two best games of the year.

I think this goes for most adults, especially those like myself that like to try all the best games that come out. There simply isn't enough time to master any of them when you've only got one or two hours a night to play and several new games every month. Some people will just stick with Halo, or Madden, or WoW, or guitar hero and do achieve mastery in that game, but I think people who love games generally want to play more than just one or two.

Andrew said...

The "tourist" fits me like a glove. That is why when I played Brawl competitively for about a year, studying the game and exploiting your opponent's moves with frames of animation in mind, I didn't get far because all I wanted to do was kill my opponent the coolest way possible instead of 'playing to win' (Sirlin anyone?).