Thursday, April 11, 2013

PAX East 2013 & Dance Central player survey

After a long blog hiatus, I thought I'd get back in the swing of things with some notes from PAX East. I could only get up to Boston for a few hours (on March 22, 2013), so I spent all my time hanging out at the Dance Central booth on the exhibits floor and attending the "Rock Band Behind the Music" panel. The Harmonix folks posted their own Dance Central PAX recap, including some fantastic cosplay photos. I didn't take too many pictures, but here's one great crew in action.

I was struck by the diversity of the players who chose to get onstage (and who waited in line for quite a while for the privilege). They were diverse in terms of conventional demographic categories like age, gender, and race/ethnicity, but also things like sartorial style, dance expertise, and prior knowledge of the Dance Central repertoire. I saw several pairs of dancers in which one person knew the choreography cold while his/her friend was mostly freestyling along, without any concern for earning points. A toddler who clearly had some DC experience was having an awesome time at the edge of the stage; her mother was waiting in line to dance, and told me that at 17 months, her daughter already knows some game moves. A tween boy gave an incredible solo performance, starting with striking a pose with his back to us -- he reminded me of the Guitar Hero virtuosos who play with their backs to the TV. (He danced solo by his own request; usually people without a dance partner were joined by a friendly Harmonix staff member.) A late-middle-aged, conservatively-dressed white couple stood out from the crowd in this context; as they were preparing to go on stage, the husband (I assume) said it would be the most humiliating three minutes of his life, but he got up there anyway. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on my #dancecentral twitter feed, and caught some related commentary.

A few more observations:
  •  a couple turned to orient themselves toward each other (away from the screen) during freestyle
  •  most people seemed to have a favorite avatar, or at least took the trouble to change characters before they started (hard to know whether they were making choices on the spot or had a go-to choice established)
  • a few people were singing along or lip-syncing along as they danced
  • there was some evidence of minor confusion from learning moves from two-dimensional images: for instance, actually holding one's elbow with the opposite hand during the lasso moves in "Gangnam Style" vs. just keeping arms close to that position (I can't say for sure whether this was based on visual confusion; it could also be an effort to self-constrain the arms into the angles that will earn credit for the move). I've observed a similar issue for snapping fingers in some songs (you can't hear the finger-snaps in the game, so some people just register it as a way of holding the hand). 
  • PAX players also exhibited the extremely common DC practice of keeping their heads up and eyes oriented toward the screen, even when the on-screen dancer is doing otherwise. "Gangnam Style" offers a prime example of this, too, especially for the down-on-the-floor section -- see for example this excellent player in Brazil:

After spending an hour or so at the Dance Central stage I headed up to wait in line for the Rock Band panel, which was popular to say the least. Here's what the hallway line looked like, from maybe 3/4 of the way back (and 20 minutes before the start time).

The panel was all about copyright and licensing issues for the Rock Band song repertoire, which is a fascinating, incredibly complex, and legally sensitive topic; they asked people not to record/tweet/blog the details of the presentation, apparently because there was some concern about somehow making trouble with artists/labels who could be important partners in the future. I counted the rows of filled seats and estimated at least 800 people in attendance. (I think my own academic talk audiences have maxed out at 200 at the very most -- thanks, Texas A&M! Always healthy to get a reality check in terms of who's doing the work of educating/influencing the public on issues like intellectual property and how licensing works.) In accordance with the wishes of the panelists, I won't give more details on the panel, except to share the incredible stats that over the life of the Rock Band franchise to date, there have been over 130 million song downloads and over 23,766,000 gems authored by the audio team (the "gems" in Rock Band notation tracks are the equivalent of individual notes on printed sheet music -- most of them are hand-placed, based on painstaking listening and transcription work). My takeaway from the panel was that Harmonix wanted to give players a sense of the incredible amount of work (legal, musical, coding, etc.) that went into producing the Rock Band repertoire, explaining why "we're not a short-order cook", i.e., why they couldn't immediately license, produce, and distribute all the specific songs requested by players over the years.  The audience seemed appreciative, and not a little wistful, since this was all coming shortly after the announcement of the end of Rock Band DLC releases.

In other news, I've been working away on my Dance Central research project and just put together a player survey. Web-based surveys played an important role in my previous research projects on Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero/Rock Band, and I'm hoping to learn a lot from this one as well. Please spread the link around to anyone who might be interested in sharing their experience. This isn't really about making a claim to "hard data" or reaching a statistically significant sample of DC players (though that would be cool). Instead, it's another way to learn about the diversity of player experiences, and to check my own ideas against as many other sources as possible.

Happy spring to all!