GC 10: InstantJam: playing a guitar game in Facebook

What the hell is InstantJam? The short answer: a Guitar Hero clone on Facebook. Nuff said.

The long answer is a social game with serious new technology driving it: it’s the first music title running on the  InstantAction 3D graphics engine, a system that drives games like the web-based Secret of Monkey Island port and Instant Empire: Legions. Instead of rendering crummy graphics in your browser with Flash it utilizes your PC’s hardware — and it does this without relying on cloud-based techniques like OnLive. You may remember them as IAC-acquired GarageGames, the company behind the Torque engine.  I had a chance to play it and it’s not vaporare — it works! The technical aspect of their presentation was among my favorites at the GDC booth, Crysis 2 included.

We also had an opportunity to speak to game creator Louis Castle about his new role in the company and find out more about the tech and this noisy social game was about. Read on!

First of all, just because it’s a Facebook game don’t assume you can’t play with your beloved plastic guitar. For InstantJam can communicate with any existing guitar peripheral to play it (with the exception of the Wii guitars for licensing reasons). The 360 guitars can be booked up by adding a USB RF-adapter to communicate with it. The PS3 guitars can be hooked up via Bluetooth. USB peripherals just work. If you don’t have a guitar, you can just use the keyboard. While the default keys seemed to be ASDFG, you will be able to remap the keys to pretty much whatever you want.

It’s all about the notecharts

InstantJam works by having a list of ever growing notecharts, which run in the thousands already, that can be used in conjuction with any music file that is recognized. Castle said that they used the Billboard Top 100 songs from the past 20 years as a starting point, so most people will be able to find something they recognize and like. InstantJam can also scan your computer for music files, which are then imported into a playlist. No data will be sent over the web, so you don’t have to worry about your pirated mp3’s as Castle doesn’t want your privacy compromised in any way. Of course I had to ask him if you could just pirate songs and play those, and you can as long as they are the right length. Even if it has a couple of seconds before or after the song that are not officially part of the song, other tech can see through that and still recognize the song.

Users will be able to share the standard Facebook wall-cancers as well as challenge friends to beat their score. A ghost can be recorded to play against, although that is still under development and currently you could only play against your friend’s score on a song. Another ridiculous feature was being able to create embed code so you could just post InstantJam on your blog.

Players can also create their own notecharts. If you have a ton of Frets on Fire notecharts yourself, it shouldn’t be too hard to get the hang of copying those notecharts to the InstantJam format although you can’t just import them for logical reasons. If InstantJam would become a success, that would mean that players can have access to tens of thousands of songs over time.

Micropayments for tunes and threads

While browser-based gaming has changed drastically over the years, some companies still have the model of using a portal for users which then eventually become customers, leading to revenue. Game creator Louis Castle believes that instead of portals (but not instead of thinking with portals) viral is the way to go and that networks of users should access the content directly and then create revenue. If you look at the last two years of social gaming on Facebook, there is little to disagree on that front. His proposed business model is to get users to discover and share, then play free to play content, which then leads to revenue. What better way to explore that model than to put your game on Facebook?  

InstantJam follows this model, which is not exactly the same as Zynga’s, in a number of ways, starting with the way it looks and works on the back end. With the rising popularity of Facebook gaming it makes perfect sense for InstantAction to reinvent themselves with the times. Piggybacking their game on InstantAction gives the game a few technological marvels: By having the processing part done on your computer, and the music files stored on your computer, InstantJam only has to send a minimum of data and note charts to let you play what is basically Guitar Hero with thousands of songs on your computer.

An interesting concept is that you can buy a song from Amazon or iTunes via InstantJam and you will get more credits in return than the song is worth. So if you buy music on Amazon or iTunes, you might as well buy it through InstantJam and get credits in the process. Which then means you are already playing the game or will probably keep playing it for a while, or that you might buy more music through Amazon or iTunes. Castle was anxious to see how the music industry would react to all of this if his game becomes a success.

You can buy skins for your guitar with in-game currency, but you can also buy things like special new guitars, which give you bonuses to fans and in-game currency per song, for credits that cost money to buy. Or buy special buffs that for instance compensate for when you strum too fast. You can trade credits for in-game currency as well and all that jazz; the usual Facebook game currency and payment system.

The man behind the game

Louis Castle worked in roles of programming, art direction, accounting, licensing, to being a compensation specialist and a visionary in development structure. So what would make one of the more interesting but largely unknown Louis Castle move from over 20 years of experience in the game industry and being a creative at EA to a company that makes free to play web games? To understand that, you first have to understand Louis Castle. He firmly believes you have to continuously reinvent yourself as a person and to always seek out those things that challenge you, instead of just being content with reaching a certain level in life and staying at that level.

Castle asked me what kind of music I wanted to play. Unfortunately, I mostly listen to awful euro dance musical art so that really didn’t apply, so I played Riders on the Storm on Expert for a bit. It wasn’t too hard but it was around the difficulty of Hard for a game like Guitar Hero 5. Castle persisted in asking me euro dance artists just to see if he had it in his collection of 1500 songs on his laptop. I asked him if he had Scooter, which he never heard of. He did have Lady Gaga though! And not just that, he had around 20 songs of Lady Gaga. Because he grew up in Vegas, I chose to play Poker Face on fullscreen mode.  Many mah mah mah maos were made. This was good.

InstantJam is currently in beta and is available on Facebook right now.

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Maurice Tan
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