Learning from Rock Band

Rock Band is a video game phenomenon. One enthusiast I know calls it the greatest in-person multiplayer game ever. Over the holidays, I played it three times in a week at three different apartments, and played it some more at our company retreat last month. So what makes Rock Band a great game?

First of all, it’s just fun. Almost everybody wants to pretend they’re a rock star, so being able to rock out with friends is a great experience. Everybody gets a prop (guitar, bass, drum set or microphone for vocals) and if you play the game on a big screen and hooked up to a stereo, it’s like starring in your own rock concert. They’ve done a good job of selecting songs with catchy tunes that most people know (who of my generation doesn’t enjoy rocking out to Bon Jovi?). But I think the design of the game is exemplary in other ways.

Rock Band enables people of different skill levels to enjoy playing with each other. This sounds minor, but imagine the experience of a novice playing a first-person shooter game such as Quake 3 with somebody that’s an expert. The expert kills the novice repeatedly, and it’s not fun for either player as the expert is bored and the novice gets no chance to improve. Compare that to Rock Band, where one player can select Easy and the other Expert, and both will be presented with game material challenging for their skill level. Everybody has fun, and when they make it through a song, they can celebrate together.

Rock Band also does a great job of continually challenging players. When playing Rock Band for the first time, you choose the Easy skill level of an easy song. As you get more comfortable, you can try harder songs at the Easy level. Once you can master the hardest songs on Easy, you realize that you can handle the easier songs at the Medium level, and start working your way through the songs at that skill level. The game offers a well-designed continuum of challenges so that there is always a next step just out of reach, so that if you try that song one more time, you might get through it. This continuous incremental achievement is gratifying and I think it is why many of my friends are so addicted to the game.

The game keeps players working towards improvement by offering excellent feedback. At the end of each song, each player is given a percentage grade showing how well they did at matching the patterns given to them. The grading is dependent on the skill level; the game is much more forgiving of being a split second off (or of being out of tune when singing) at the Easy level than at the Expert level. With the numerical grade, one can chart one’s improvement even when playing the same song repeatedly, and when combined with the range of game material discussed in the last paragraph, that offers players the challenge of always improving themselves.

The one area in which Rock Band could improve is in offering direct competition with others. While we were on the company retreat, we split up into two teams of four with roughly comparable skill levels, and took turns playing the same song to compare our scores (although we spent all of dinner arguing over what the proper way to compare scores would be). This turned out to be remarkably fun and each of us probably played our best when we were doing our battle of the bands because we were so focused. I imagine something like this is possible with XBox Live, but I’ll defer to others who would know better.

The interesting thing to me is that all of the design choices that make Rock Band excellent can be applied to management.

  • Having fun is important. It may be difficult to quantify, but I believe that employees that are happy at work are more productive.
  • People want to feel like they’re contributing regardless of their skill level – they don’t want to be on a team where the expert does everything and everybody else watches.
  • Jobs should be designed so that they are always stretching employees’ capabilities. When they master one set of skills, introduce some new element that challenges them to continue learning.
  • Consistent feedback is vital to employee satisfaction and improvement. When they know how they are doing, they have a target which they can aim to exceed moving forward.
  • Competition is good. It gets people to push themselves harder than they would otherwise, and achieve results they would not achieve by themselves.

P.S. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a month, but life has been crazy. This is only the second weekend I’ve spent in New York since mid-December, and the other one was when I had class from 9 to 5 on Saturday and six hours of reading to do on Sunday. I have several posts I want to write, including catching up on my backlog of book reviews, so please nudge me if I don’t start writing more often.

One thought on “Learning from Rock Band

  1. I had this exact conversation with Roopa this past weekend. I even compared Rock Band’s reward/challenge system (and generalized “gamey” reward systems) to the workplace. I enjoy my work the best when I am doing something that is just a bit harder than I can do, but not insanely out of my reach. Feeling like putting in a little more time can result in massive progress really spurs me on to keep on working. When things are too easy or too hard, it’s pure drudgery.

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