Interface Shredding: How Rock Band 3′s Menus Reinvent the Game

Now that the Kinect has been released and is presumably sitting in at least a few of your living rooms, I’m glad to hear gamers are starting to take notice of user interfaces and menus for once. Whether we’re talking control-free or not, a well-implemented front end can make all of the difference between a good game and a great one. Rock Band 3 definitely has a great one. We talked a bit about the amazing career goals on the podcast, but I’ve since come to further appreciate the refinements that the third game makes over its immediate predecessor. The leap between RB2 and RB3 should serve as a textbook example of menu design done right, and I only wish that Harmonix had read its own manual while making Dance Central.

Now that’s account linking is ready, you can create new playlists wherever you go. You can set up your post-work jams and share with like-minded bandmates.

From the very moment I booted up the game, Rock Band 3 told me that it’s all about the band. While RB2‘s tentacles and familiar tiger had a certain charm, none of those trappings ever screamed rock to me. RB3‘s start-up screen, on the other hand, features my custom band — The Earnest Hemenways* — strutting down the street, itching to play at their next gig. I was able to create decent stand-ins for my girlfriend and I, which instantly creates a sense of ownership missing from RB2. I could do without the repetitive loading screens, but it’s great to see my virtual Angry J flipping through his record collection or visiting the drive-thru. The pre-made, too-hip performers in Dance Central couldn’t hope to match my character’s charm.

*Thanks, Shawn!

In order for my band to climb the charts, I’ve had to spend hours in the career screen completing goals. Rock Band 2 made strides away from unlocking songs one-by-one, but RB3 pushes that concept so much further. The collection of goals on hand is simply staggering. On the show, we’ve talked about meta-gaming and achievements, but this game does an even better job of showing players the myriad ways to play.

Some of the goals are incredibly basic — calibrating your guitar, logging in to, sharing a setlist. They highlight modes that could very easily be overlooked otherwise. Other goals are more what you’ve come to expect from the genre. Players are encouraged to play through all of the tracks on the disc across all difficulties, and there are a few “100% Expert” epic challenges thrown in to humble ordinary strummers like myself.

However, what I love about the goals is that they actually encourage you to return to previous titles and DLC, too. From AC/DC Live to Lego Rock Band, all of the previous games in the series are represented here. Players would be fine just importing old tracks and letting them sit on their harddrives, but Harmonix’s bonus challenges offer new incentives to revisit. As bummed as I am about “legacy” DLC pricing, it was also a cool gesture to create goals specific to certain bands or genres not prominently featured on the retail releases. Suddenly, owning groan-inducing Boston DLC doesn’t seem as foolish. (You heard me.) I find myself playing tracks I downloaded a year ago, which is something I could never say about RB2. Besides time constraints, I can’t figure out why Dance Central would return to such pedestrian game progression.

There’s so much more to appreciate, such as how well Harmonix handled metadata sorting, the easy instrument swapping, or the potentially cool (but early) web-enabled set list creation. All that really needs to be said is that the new presentation of information might have an even more significant impact on the longevity of the franchise than any of the new plastic instruments. As the Move and Kinect take off, developers need to remember more than just how long a player needs to hold his hand above an icon. Smart organization and an inviting interface will be what keeps audiences, both new and old, rocking out.

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