Call to Arms entry 04: Sellout

JP LeBreton, a designer on BioShock and now lead level designer on BioShock 2, shares a musical take on the conflict between Pragmatism and Romanticism: Sellout.

Sellout is played with the Guitar Hero / Rock Band guitar controller - you could extend the concept to include an entire band, but I wanted to keep the focus small and personal.

Sellout puts you in the role of a busker on a populated street corner. Over the course of a session, different people will pass by who value very different qualities in the music you play. The core loop of the game is about choosing what sort of audience impulses you cater to.

Unlike Guitar Hero et al, you’re not playing an existing song and trying to hit the right notes at the right time. Instead, you’re improvising. Improvising has some objective quality metrics that you must hit to keep from being booed off of your corner entirely, such as playing in rhythm and in the key of your bassline, both provided by your computer-controlled backup band.

However this requires only a basic level of skill. One of the most difficult parts of playing a real guitar - navigating the huge number of possible fret configurations and playing coherent melodies - is handled for you. You can change keys with the Select button on the controller, and the normal fret buttons play notes on a pentatonic scale that harmonizes with that key. This isn’t really any kind of technological/musical alchemy at work - a huge amount of Blues guitar solo work, and by extension modern rock music, is all about doing just this.

The point of all this is to free up the player to focus primarily on the melodic patterns they’re playing, because again the game is all about deciding where you sit on the continuum between Pragmatism and Romanticism. So here’s how that plays out.

Some passersby want to be challenged by art. They want to hear something surprising and distinctive, and they’ll lose interest if you begin repeating yourself. The struggle for you becomes how to continually reinvent your style, to constantly produce novel melodies without falling into a rut. If you succeed at this, “artsy” passerby will stop to listen, and draw more closely as they enjoy themselves more. If you succeed in moving a particular person for an extended period, a glow will appear around them - you have touched them deeply.

However, these people will leave little to no money in the hat you’ve placed out in front. Maybe they’re all scruffy, penniless art students. They appreciate what you’re doing, but money isn’t how they want to or are able to express that. Maybe if you’re a Romantic, you don’t care about this.

On the other hand, you have passersby who want something familiar and safe. These people want to hear minor variations on something short and catchy. You’ll bore them if you play the exact same riff over and over again, but you’ll also alienate them if you mix things up too much. The challenge here is to stay in a groove, where you can hit the same notes with reliability, occasionally throwing in a well-chosen minor deviation.

When these sorts of people - possibly well-dressed business types or tourists - like what you’re playing, they’ll drop some money in your hat and move on. No glow, no lingering adoration, but a dollar amount in one corner of your screen goes up. You haven’t moved them deeply, but you’ve earned some scratch - a fine outcome, perhaps, if you’re strongly Pragmatic.

It may be possible to alternate success along either axis, playing something unconventional and weird for a while, then switching over to something that brings in the money. But the nature of the pattern-frequency-polling algorithm that lies at the heart of the game, in effect a systematization of the conflicting audience motivations, means that you can’t please all the people all the time.

It’s quite likely that the musical output of this game will not be what most people consider good music. Even when you’re playing “well” by one metric or another, it will probably sound like wanky noodling. That’s fine because Sellout is not about wish fulfillment. You are not a rock star being worshipped by a cheering arena, you are a struggling performer trying to please an amorphous mass of strangers. With no single explicit success metric, it’s up to you to navigate this philosophical continuum.

To bring this idea the rest of the way from game mechanic to game, you could divide play sessions into days and add a survival imperative that problematizes the “pure art” play style. At the end of each day, your earnings are tabulated, and you can spend that money on food. You need a certain minimum amount of food each day to survive, otherwise you die in the gutter. Do you earn just enough to get by, do you play money-earning music for a short time each day to live comfortably, or do you go for maximum earnings but get sick of playing the same hits every day? I’m not sure this mechanic is essential or adds much, it depends on how important you think it is to contextualize the player’s choices.

The next step for this game would be to start exploring it in a prototype - the pattern detection code isn’t anything crazy but it would take some work to get just right. I’d use a USB adapter to get the controller working on a PC, and probably PyGame for the programming. Sadly, I’m too swamped between the day job and Purity to be able to justify jamming on this, but if anyone else is interested in running with the idea, I’d be happy to share my notes and give feedback.

-JP LeBreton


Steve gaynor said...

This is a really intriguing approach to the question, "what else could we do with a guitar peripheral besides rotely simulating guitar-playing?" The way it addresses Pragmatism vs. Romanticism is unique but familiar.

It's my natural bent, but I picture a slight social aspect: maybe if you take a break from playing while you've gotten a passerby to glow, they'll walk up to you and start a conversation (perhaps suggesting obscure musicians you should check out, or just asking where you get your inspiration,) whereas catering to the money crowd might cause a suited dude to offer you $5 to play a request for him (more workmanlike, but hey, it pays.)

While I'm sure it's placeholder, the title seems to make a value judgment on the player's approach to the central conflict. Does that matter? Is the game trying to take sides?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I like tying orthogonal alternate rewards into what sort of people you cater to. Art kids let you crash on their couch, but they feel burned if you go on to make money ("You chaaanged, man!")

I like the idea of doing requests for people, though it implies completely different mechanics. There's something interesting about trying to play something well specifically to make someone in the game happy... somehow a very different motivation than "Get A High Score" a la Guitar Hero.

Title is indeed placeholder. I default to punky, one-word game titles. Maybe you flip the box over and it says "Starving Artist" on the other side? I think that was considered clever game marketing circa 1996.