Instant Jam Preview

Instant Jam Preview

A Guitar Hero-like music game on Facebook: not an unfamiliar idea, but a big one. And until now, an idea that hasn’t been addressed on quite the same scale as Facebook’s 500 million-strong userbase, let alone the countless millions of songs these people listen to and own.

Instant Jam, created by browser gaming specialist InstantAction, is an attempt to live up to this vast potential. Launching in closed beta today, it allows you to play songs you own on your hard drive (with your Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar or keyboard) through a 3D interface in your browser, plugged into your Facebook friends list.

So, not a new idea as such, but one that hasn’t been fully tackled by previous attempts such as JamLegend and Acclaim’s RockFREE, which closed down only last week.

And like many big ideas, Instant Jam isn’t fully formed as yet. But its song list already numbers 2000 tracks, created by a team of designers which includes members who worked on Guitar Hero: Van Halen.

"We believe strongly that there’s a big difference between note charts when human beings and designers make them," says Louis Castle, now CEO of InstantAction having previously co-founded Westwood Studios. "They feel right; they have nuances. They can make an easy song which just has this tricky little riff in it that’s just at the right time. So we believe they have to be made by human beings, and the 2000-plus tracks we’ll have at launch will be made by them."

That list is made up of top 40 guitar-based hits from the last few decades, tuned to appeal to as wide a swathe of Facebook users as possible – note the lack of ‘rock’ in Instant Jam‘s name. And the plan is that by the end of Instant Jam‘s first year, its song list will number in the hundreds of thousands.

Before you wonder quite how Instant Action could possibly achieve this, we should explain how it works. The game works through InstantAction’s native browser plugin, Java or a cut-down 2D flash interface if your system can’t handle the game’s simple but effective 3D graphics, or you don’t have the access privileges. But Castle claims it works smoothly using a netbook-standard Atom processor. It will also be embeddable anywhere on the web, just like YouTube videos can be, not just in Facebook.

The game initially scans your system for songs and matches them to its notation library. If you have a song that the game fails to pick up, you can link it; the first time anyone does it for a particular song, it’s set for all. "Millions of people will ease any problems – we use the consumers to identify music because headers and tags associated with files won’t be perfectly consistent."

Louis Castle – his link with Westwood is (potentially) apt – it’s the studio which created Dune 2, which didn’t create the RTS genre, but fundamentally established many of its main features

In legal terms, Instant Jam is rather clever, too: it disconnects the game from the music so you can play notation from one song against another. That means that the game has no licencing issues. "The only thing that we’re doing is allowing people to play music while they play our game, so the game is independent from the music," explains Castle. "That means that we don’t have these licensing issues. It’s that simple." But not simple to do. "It’s very difficult – like building a Shazam service at the same time as a music game."

The side benefit – at least according to Castle – is that you can also create weird little mashups by mixing and matching Billy Jean against Feels Like Teen Spirit. "They’re surprisingly good, as long as they’re on the same beat." But he warns against using scrubbily ripped MP3s, because they tend not to match up with the notation so well.

Naturally, you’ll be able to buy music through Instant Jam using iTunes or Amazon, a process which has the game find your song in their catalogues and open a browser tab on their site to allow to perform the transaction. The song then instantly appears in your song list.

The resulting affiliate remuneration, five cents a time, is part of Instant Jam‘s business model. Like most browser games, it’s free to play, but you need a stock of ‘plays’ to do so. You can buy them, but Castle is adamant that most will never need to. "Truly, this is a game you can play almost infinitely for free, if you don’t want to experience all of the things in the game." You earn plays by, for instance, inviting friends to play, issuing them challenges, which comprise its multiplayer, or buying a song. If you run out of plays, you get a dialog which explains all the ways you can earn plays so you don’t need to buy them, as well as the option to buy more.