Since its original North American release in the winter of 2005, Guitar Hero has completely taken over the lives of rhythm-action obsessives, rock aficionados and surprised first-time music game players alike. Fresh from the enormously successful worldwide release of Guitar Hero 2 on the Xbox 360, RedOctane co-founder Kai Huang, who has been an integral part of the series since its very inception, talks to us about the series' move from veteran music game developer Harmonix to Activision's golden boys at Neversoft, downloadable content for the Xbox 360, and most excitingly, the future for the series in preparation for Guitar Hero 3's multi-platform release at the end of this year.
Pro-G: What made you take the risk to decide to publish Guitar Hero in the first place?
Kai Huang: It's been something that we at RedOctane had wanted to do for a long time. When I co-founded RedOctane in 1999, one of the first things we were well-known for was video game peripherals, and in particular dance-mats, initially. So we've been in the music gaming space on the peripheral side for many, many years, ever since 2000. And so in 2004, we finally had the opportunity to actually be a publisher, to publish a video game. We knew that there was a tremendous amount of success for these music rhythm games in Japan and Asia, but [that success] had never really made its way to North America or Europe, except for Dance Dance Revolution.
There was a real opportunity there, but the games themselves, we felt, really weren't fit for the Western marketplace. In particular it was the music, the selection of music, that wasn't going to fit. We thought that we wanted to do a rock-based game because that's the music that we thought would succeed here, and if it was going to be a rock-based game, then it had to be guitar - that was the natural option, right? So we actually approached Harmonix. They were one of the best music rhythm game developers in North America, and we approached them and said "We want to do a guitar game, and we want to do it with you guys." And that's really how the project started, how it got kicked off in 2004.
Pro-G: Why do you think that Guitar Hero succeeded where others failed in the West? Was it really just the music selection?
KH: I think that's definitely one of the reasons. You know, the music is such an integral part of the game that it really does have to strike a chord for people to really, really get into it on a mass level. Dance Dance Revolution was a great game, fantastic game, and a lot of people in the West loved it, but it just doesn't strike the same chord that Guitar Hero does, and I think that the music is one of the key reasons why it's so successful.
'... it's very easy to learn, to pick up, but very difficult to master. It's so simple and so elegant that most people don't even think about it.'
The second thing that I'd say was key to Guitar Hero is that it's very easy to learn, to pick up, but very difficult to master. It's so simple and so elegant that most people don't even think about it - they just pick it up, and within a few minutes they're playing. And yet, you could spend hours and hours, tens or hundreds of hours playing this game trying to master it, and so I think that's the beauty of the game: great music that people can connect to, and also the really elegant way that it's designed and played.
Pro-G: What about the social aspects of the game? Guitar Hero is probably the first overtly social rhythm-action game - do you think that contributed to its popularity?
KH: I definitely think that's one of the reasons it's so successful. When we created Guitar Hero, we knew that we wanted to appeal to the typical core game market, but we also knew that this was the type of game that could appeal well beyond that, almost to anybody out there. And so, when we designed the game and the peripheral, everything was created with that in mind - OK, it's going to appeal to the core gamer, but we want it to be a game that everybody can love. And when we launched it, you never really know if people are going to embrace it in the way that you thought that they would.
And in fact, they didn't - more people embraced GH than even we thought would have, anyone between 5 and 65, men, women young and old, everybody picked up GH and it was so simple that they could pick up and play and enjoy it, and they do that in a social environment. When you go over to a friend's house or a friend invites you over or you're having a party, Guitar Hero is almost always the first game that gets brought out. People have so much fun with it in a party environment.
Pro-G: Going back to the first Guitar Hero: I take it that licensed tracks weren't a possibility? What would you say to those who bemoan the cover versions of the game's songs?
KH: It was certainly a possibility, but there are costs involved with using the originals versus re-recording, and so with Guitar Hero 1 we chose to use re-recordings. That was one reason - financial - but another reason that we chose to use re-recordings is that it actually makes the gameplay more fun. You can adapt the songs. Some songs, for example, are a little too long - if we're including an 8 or 9-minute song, we have to cut it down - and some songs may have sections where the guitar riffs are pretty dead for a while, so we actually go in and add a guitar part in there so that it's a bit more fun.
It takes a lot of tuning of the music to make it fun for Guitar Hero, which is one of the things that your typical fan would never know about. But that's what adds to the whole experience. For Guitar Hero 2 and future versions, we have started to use original tracks, and we will actually use more originals in future versions, but I think it will be a balance; if the track's not going to be as fun as we hoped then we will probably have to re-record and tune it up a little bit, and if the song works perfectly by itself then we will end up using the master track.
Pro-G: Some fans are a little bit concerned that Harmonix is no longer handling the series for Guitar Hero 3 and beyond. What would you say to comfort us?
KH: The first thing is that we're working on the next version of Guitar Hero right now with Neversoft, and I can tell you that the game is looking absolutely fantastic. We've really taken things to the next level. Once you guys get a chance to see that, I think you're going to agree. Harmonix and RedOctane and Activision have a great relationship, and they've obviously done fantastic games for us in the past; we are now moving Guitar Hero into an internal Activision developer, which is one of the best Activision developers that there is, if not one of the best developers in the world. They've had a tremendous amount of success with the Tony Hawk's franchise, and I think that they've demonstrated with those games that they really have an understanding of the music and the lifestyle and the culture [behind Guitar Hero], so we're very excited to have Neversoft working on the next version of Guitar Hero.