Garrett is as Garrett does

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'Garrett is as Garrett does'

Rock Band: It’s not a game, it’s a freakin’ lifestyle choice…

March 24th, 2008
by garrett

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Discussion over, consensus reached. I picked up the ‘Special Edition’ version for my Xbox 360 today at a local Target. It isn’t cheap – $181 with local sales tax – but it does come with a lot of crap:

  • Large, 4-pad drum kit* with bass kick pedal and real drum sticks
  • A slightly scaled down replica of a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar *
  • Fairly rugged microphone
  • Cheap USB hub w/wall wart
  • Normal game disc (case, instructions, disc)

* = is considered a controller by the Xbox 360

The wife and I straightened up so we (I) could set up the drum kit et. al. Please note that nothing is wireless in the kit. After 30 minutes of set up, it looked like a cable factory threw up in the living room. USB cords running everywhere.

Once the hardware is set up, next come the in-game setup. One of the cool features is that you can customize your avatar in a lot of different ways. Unfortunately, players can’t create one avatar to play all three positions. The game requires players to create 3 different avatars (each with their own name, no duplicates allowed) – one for each instrument. That’s bad enough, but for the Xbox 360 version you have to use the instrument you want to associate the avatar with to create the avatar. There is no choice for using a normal game controller, then assigning a instrument. That would be too . . . I don’t know . . . simple, intuitive, intelligent. At this point, players are already playing musical-chairs with the instruments, but my version has an additional complexity. Xbox games require you to ‘sign in’ to access personalized content, even if you don’t subscribe to the Xbox LIVE service. I understand that they are associating an avatar with a Gamer Tag, but the constant signin and signout is really annoying. Yet the pain doesn’t stop there.

Calibration is another barrel of joy. The instructions aren’t clear on how or why to do it, only mentioning that if things seems out of synch, “Try calibration!” Joy. Why Calibrate? Well, first a little bit of background. Here’s a complete loop of generic gameplay:

  1. Game sends data to the Xbox 360
  2. Xbox 360 coverts data as needed and sends data to Receiver
  3. Receiver passes the data to the Output Device
  4. Output Device converts the data into information for the user
  5. User perceives information
  6. User reacts to the information
  7. User provides input to the Controller
  8. Controller sends input to the xbox 360
  9. Xbox 360 sends input to the game
  10. Game sees input
  11. Game reacts to input
  12. Back to step 1

Ideally the only variable in the gameplay is steps 5, 6, and 7. Those have to do with the player and minimizing that is a skill that is required any game.

Rock Band, as a music/visual rhythm game, needs to show a player when to react by using both sound and visual cues. Issues crop up when the player hears when they are supposed to strum the guitar, but the visual cue for strumming the guitar won’t occur for another fraction of a second. How is the player supposed to tell when to strum the guitar? Which cue is correct? Having both the audio cues (the music) and the visual cues (the notes) synchronized is critical.

In a perfect system with no technological limitations, both cues happen at the same time. However, the technology isn’t perfect. The visual and audio cues are processed and delivered differently, thus are susceptible to becoming out of synch. Let’s look at each cue (and its path) to see what Calibration is supposed to do.

For video (with my setup), the generic steps above are fairly simple:

  1. Game sends visuals to the Xbox 360
  2. Xbox 360 converts the visuals to a 1080i video stream and sends it via component cables to the Receiver
  3. Receiver switches 1080i via components to 1080i via HDMI and sends it to the TV
  4. TV decodes the 1080i signal, applies any ‘cleaning’ or ‘sharpening’ to the signal, then displays it to the user

5-12 are the same as the generic loop. Step 2 adds some very minor delay to conversion from the internal resolution to 1080i output. Step 3 is pretty minor as well, no change in resolution, just moving it from a component input port to a HDMI output port. Step 4 is the biggest source of delay, especially if the TV tries to clean up the signal at all. It’s not noticeable when dealing with one-way information flow, like watching a TV program or movie. When the on-screen display needs to change based on the viewer input, the delay can mean the difference between making and breaking your performance. Step 4 is the primary source for any video delay, which is why if your TV has a ‘GAME’ setting you should use that and/or disable any video effects ( like Digital Noise Reduction, etc. ).

For sound cues, things are a bit nastier.

  1. Game sends sound data to the Xbox 360, depending on in-game settings:
    1. Sound sent as plain stereo or
    2. Transformed into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound format
  2. Xbox 360 converts the incoming signal to another digital format and sends it via optical cables to the Receiver
  3. Receiver coverts digital format over optical cable to full Dolby Digital in 5.1 surround sound format and drives each of the 6 speaker separately to create a sound field
  4. Speakers transmit sound to user

Again, 5-12 are the same as the generic loop. But notice that there are a lot more major conversions, especially when it comes to creating sound fields. These delays stop being minor and can be up to 75 ms – up to half of a normal person’s reaction time. I suck enough as it is, now I have half the time to react? Ugh.

The theory is that by delaying the visual cue so that the audio cue (with all its extra processing overhead ) appears at the same time to the user, the game can compensate and not feel out-of-synch. That what Calibration is supposed to do. I tried some standard presets as well as goofing around to find something I can handle, but so far, resonable synchronicity has eluded me. I’ll try more rigorous calibration methods on Tuesday.

Like I said, this isn’t just a pick-up-and-play type game…

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