Jamie King was one of the co-founders of Rockstar Games and is the now the president of 4mm Games, the studio that's developing Def Jam Rapstar. We caught up with the man himself to talk about inter-console rivalry, naughty words, and the political power of hip-hop.
Q: It's been a year since I ran into you at gamecom. What's been the biggest development with Def Jam Rapstar over the past year? What are you most proud of?
Jamie King: I would say aesthetically I'm very proud of it - it's come very close to our original vision. I think getting in the range of music... I'm very proud of that. I forget, and then I scroll through the song select and I think, "Oh, this is actually good!" And then there's the community. I can't quite I'm proud of that yet as it hasn't gone live. It's very daunting, there's a lot that can go wrong, and at the same time this will our first time putting the game out on a live server. It was very challenging to think about the meta game, the community and hosting content. How do I actually have gaming experiences online, how do we have a promoter role, how do we have a performer role, do we let people be a fan - and the underlying dynamics that allow the stuff on top. It took quite a lot to work out and it's very challenging, so we will be very proud - if everything goes right and the servers don't fall over!
Q: Yeah, I'd imagine that's a big deal.
JK: It is. And then there's also the marriage between the Xbox and the PlayStation, in terms of the community. There's a very fine line between what we're allowed to do... [and what we're not.]
Q: Is there crossover between the two?
JK: Well, they sort of sit side-by-side. There's still got to be that differentiation, because the two platform holders like the separation. I think we're really on the tightrope.
Q: Is that a shame? I know it's nothing you have any control over...
JK: I think we would always feel like it is, from a consumer point of view. We understand from their perspective why, they have their own walled gardens. But I think looking at the way things are going, all barriers are being torn down. I think the way we've done it is very elegant, in the sense that they still have their own identity, we're still falling in line with their standards, but at the same time it's more of a "this is the console crowd" [feel]. We're giving them the chance to kind of come together and be as close as possible.
Q: So does that mean you're shying away from the idea of platform exclusive content?
JK: No, I'd always be interested in that. Neither one has come and asked specifically. I'm sure everyone's waiting for the game to come out, see the take community take hold, and then I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the opportunities we've conceived start appearing.
Q: But you think exclusive content is fair game? It's the kind of thing that annoys a lot of gamers.
JK: Well, I think it's good to have your loyalties. I'm a Chelsea fan, but I'm also a Giants fan in New York! I think it's good to have your tribe and your crew that you sign allegiance to. I am curious to see... I'd love to see the Xbox crowd and the PlayStation crowd throwing down. Like, beyond "We've got our crew and we're in America!" or "We like this stuff!", to be actually console-to-console. That would be brilliant.
Q: Is there a way you can arrange that?
JK: I don't know, I suppose inadvertently. It'll be interesting to see if we can start going in to the metrics on... "The Xbox 360 crowd are on 81. What are you going to do about it?"
Q: Obviously a big part of this game's appeal is going to lie with the online communities and people uploading their own freestyle tracks. How is the moderation going to work? A lot of rappers like to insult their rivals or cover fairly controversial subjects, so how much of that are you going to allow?
JK: I fundamentally believe that our audience and community are very good at self-policing, and extreme behaviour would not be construed as valuable, and would quickly fall by the wayside. We obviously have a moderation process in terms of content that is uploaded - it's moderated before it then comes back down to the communities. I think we do need some wacky behaviour. We all want to see, "Oh my God, that guy's crazy!". I think people who are extreme in terms of explicit language, or derogatory viewpoints and commentary that wider society deems unacceptable, will very quickly lose traction should they slip through the moderation. And then you as a user have the option to block or complain about stuff. And I do believe that our wider community will be very quick to stamp out inexcusable behaviour - extreme political views, that kind of thing. I think excessive or gratuitous use of crude, offensive language never gets anyone very far these days, and what comes through in freestyle is wit and smarts and wordplay. The bigger the community... it's absolutely certain that you'll get extreme ends of behaviour. And I'm sure that snippets of that will come through and there'll be comments on it, but I really don't think it'll last for very long. And at that point, if that's happening, it means we've got a very good-sized community, who I would expect to say "That's at the margins; that's not what we're about."
Q: So what if someone wants to make a track like NWA's F**k The Police?
JK: Well that gets into very interesting issues of freedom of speech, because what NWA were saying at that time was very relevant to their community and how they grew up. There was a fine line between... how else does a man on the street get to express his frustration with what he considers to be aggressive behaviour? How does one speak up to the governing bodies? I guess that's what freedom of speech is. You can say your bit. "You're going to criticise us because we're in authority, and we're going to allow you to say that." We're talking about an entertainment medium. Back in the day it was books, poetry. Comics are still a sensitive medium. And so I think there will always be dialogue and lyrics and spoken word and written word that goes against the grain, that goes against the ruling bodies or conventions and laws of society. And there has to be an opportunity for them to have that freedom. It's very clear, though, when it's really unnecessary. It'll be interesting to see if content like that causes such consternation within ruling bodies and groups that action has to be taken.
I'd like to think that there's very strong political, social, economic commentary coming out of their heart, in terms of what they're rapping about. And again, with NWA it was not just mindless. For me, it wasn't - and that is why they were the band they were, why they had the appeal they did. It was a necessary commentary to come from that part of California, which had a lot of issues at the time. We have had singers and songs were it's pure "hate hate, kill kill." That's always seen as the extreme, radical, marginalised thing that it is. We definitely won't tolerate hatred.
Q: But if aspiring rappers using the game want to make tracks that are "touchy", for want of a better word, will that be welcomed?
JK: I think that's always very healthy. If you look at the some of the video game companies that have been the poster child for, "Oh they're corrupting moral fibre!" No they're not. What they've done is promote a debate, at a wider level, that has now led to a very good rating system. Now every parent has a very good understanding of video games, the ratings, and what they're 18-year-olds are engaging with. Sometimes you get to a point in society where you need that provocative commentary, and even if it kick-starts a much wider outcry at first, it actually then gets sensible people involved in healthy dialogue that ultimately leads to furthering our society. So I'm definitely fine and expecting that. I think there's nothing wrong with a bit of... God, if you don't have a bit of controversy, what's the point? It'd be vanilla. And I think it'd be very clear to us, and if not us then the governing bodies, if there was something truly offensive that is going to jeopardise the wider enjoyment happening. And we'd respond to that.
Q: So, what will the guidelines be for the people monitoring the content?
JK: There are a lot of existing templates for that, certainly in terms of "this is considered racist, this is considered sexist," - all the stuff that is considered unacceptable in terms of day-to-day language. Then there's obviously the rules about anyone under 18, with sex and things...
Q: But you're okay with swearing?
JK: Well, swearing only gets you so far. If someone is just swearing gratuitously, that comes across quite quickly and I don't expect that to be rewarded. Obviously we've got the rating system, and this is rated Teen, so if you use language that would contravene the ESRB and the other ratings, it's going to get moderated and your video won't get posted. You'll get a message saying it got moderated. If you continue to post stuff that gets through moderation but that constantly gets complained about, or if you get moderated two or three times for trying to post truly unacceptable content, you'll get banned. I feel confident that we have enough in place, and if we don't we'll find out very quickly - and we'll get to clean up afterwards.
Q: In terms of where this is going, how much have you thought about the future of Rapstar? Would you like it be like Rockband, where the core software is surrounded with a lot of DLC updates, or would you rather follow the Guitar Hero approach?
JK: What I don't want to do is just give more tracks with the existing mechanics. There are very compelling reasons why [you would say] "Let's have another version out in a year's time," which doesn't leave us much time, on the creative side, to really innovate. I don't really like that, the idea of doing all the same mechanics but with more tracks. There's generally room and opportunity to iterate the core content, in terms of gameplay mechanics. I look at Move and Kinect, and I know what I'd want to do. And I think there's some really cool stuff you can do. It definitely opens up a whole wider element. I think there are a number of genres of music, beyond the rap style of hip-hop, that could maybe work. And I definitely want to push the underlying gameplay mechanics so that it isn't just more of the same. I'm happy with the number of tracks. There's always a fight with the economics of things. Hook or by crook we raised independent money on this, which has been great, but that's always the challenge: balancing the business needs. I would consider us to be failing a bit if we just give more of the same.
Def Jam Rapstar will be released on November 5 on PS3, Xbox 360 and PS3.