If you ask the folks behind Rocksmith+, the first thing they want to clarify is that it’s not a video game like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Yes, the software is usable on video game consoles, but rather than being an arcade-y plaything, Rocksmith+ is a subscription service designed to teach users to play an actual instrument. As such, you’ll need both an actual guitar and either the Rocksmith+ app or a special cable to be able to do anything with it.
As the Duolingo of guitars, Rocksmith+ is looking to pick up where its 2011 and 2014 predecessors left off. The title provides a massive library of tracks from artists across a variety of sizes and genres (rather than the expected classic rock tracks) with more to come through updates — and multiple options for difficulty levels for beginners and experienced guitarists alike.
SPIN spoke with Jay Cohen, Ubisoft’s vice president of executive publishing, to learn more about the new program.
SPIN: For someone who’s interested in learning guitar, why should they be looking at Rocksmith+?
Jay Cohen: We developed Rocksmith+ not just for the daydreaming air guitarist or the beginner, but also somebody who wants to improve their skills. The timing is right for self-learning. Online music learning is soaring, driven by both technology and the pandemic forcing people online for ways in which to entertain themselves. It’s really been a gateway for unleashing the potential of one of the fastest-growing segments in the music industry. Online music learning is headed toward being a billion-dollar industry, and Rocksmith+ is playing upon its history of proven efficacy as one of the early starters of the self-learning revolution over the past 10 years. We’re trying to really be where the learners are today and give them what they want, which is learning your way, at your pace, where you want, when you want, and a teaching program that adapts to how you learn at your pace. It’s got adaptive difficulty, which is essentially like “It’s going to slow itself down if it doesn’t see progression and then speed up as you achieve more.” It’s the gamification aspect of learning, but we certainly don’t talk about Rocksmith+ as a game at all. It’s a legit tool.
Is the key to the success of Rocksmith+ providing that accessibility where it doesn’t require a super high-end PC or fancy digital interface, but can just be used on a regular video game console with a phone app?
I think that’s where we really see our superpower, if you will, in terms of UI and UX design. We’re coming from decades’ worth of interactive entertainment, gameplay experience, and enabling and adapting to different users. You could look at features like the recommendation engine, for example, where we’re not going to take a beginner player starting with those early basics and start recommending more advanced, high-octane type of tracks. Whereas for the more experienced learner, it looks at what they’re choosing and is like “OK, we’re going in that direction now.” For the more experienced player, there are also features like note detection, which tells you the accuracy of your inputs. It’s about the balance and the progression between the newer learners and the more experienced players.
How do you decide what songs go into the library for Rocksmith+?
That goes back to figuring out a way to meet players and learners where they are today in a world where everything is on-demand — games, film, television and music. People want to see what they want to see, they want to play what they like and what interests them. You have to have a really broad selection of tracks available. We’re not a music listening or streaming service, but we’ve got some great long-standing relationships with major [labels]. The trick was to figure out how to onboard new songs efficiently and continuously, so figuring out a model to do so was complicated. We’ve spent a lot of time developing the engineering side to allow artists to quickly say “Yeah, I want to release my stuff onto Rocksmith+.” There’s a process when it’s with the major labels, but we wanted to find a way that indies can easily and simply get themselves onboarded with just the click of a button. That helps with discovery for indies because, depending upon the type of tracks and the complexity, we feed that right into the recommendation engine.
It seems like you’ve really put an emphasis on mixing up genres rather than the expected classic rock staples this time around too.
Yeah, that was a major focus for us in a couple of areas. One was going global with international artists and offerings. We’re [bringing in artists from] the Latin markets, Italy, Germany, Spain and more for the global approach that we’re taking this time. The other thing we’ve seen a huge improvement and focus on is addressing the needs of the female market and looking at it holistically. By doing so, the catalog goes way beyond rock and blues this time. There’s pop, gospel, jazz, even hip hop. We want players of all types to have that “holy shit” moment, like “Wow! There’s a lot here for me.”
Did the fact that everything seems to be available on demand as a subscription model influence the decision to make Rocksmith+ a subscription, unlike its predecessors?
The team looked at the value equation, because when you think about the way we were before — with the core SKU and then adding DLC — we were successful, but the pace at which we could iterate and evolve was really slow. We were dropping quarterly DLCs that were like 10-15 songs each, so up to 50 new songs throughout the year. Now, between the live service model and the commercial onboarding we were just talking about, we can do that so much more rapidly now. Also, when you think about the value of it, you would normally pay $50 for a lesson with a teacher once per week — which is a couple hundred a month and close to $3,000 a year. Our service is such a value add and such a great deal for people to think about even as an adjunct to what they’re already doing, like “I’m looking for free stuff, but now I have access to something that is following me, tracking my progress, and giving me real feedback.”