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.
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.
Pro-G: Is it different working with Neversoft? Is there a clear vision for where you both want the series to go?
KH: I think the great thing about Neversoft is that they're going to add a new perspective to the game. We've been working on Guitar Hero now for several versions, and we have some ideas at RedOctane about what will work and where we want things to be with this franchise in the future; one of the great things about Neversoft is that they bring in a different perspective, a fresh perspective, because (again) they have a great understanding through Tony Hawk of the culture, lifestyle and music. We think that they are adding a tremendous amount to the game. Again, we haven't been able to show anything yet, but once we do finally show something I think you guys are really going to see that there's nothing to worry about!
Pro-G: Did Guitar Hero start off slow, sales wise? Is that why it took so long to make it to Europe?
KH: Guitar Hero started off slow, almost intentionally. The reason is that we launched in America first, and we had a very limited number of guitars that were available, because the guitars of course had to be manufactured in Asia, and so it's difficult to get those products here on time and in the quantities that you want exactly on the day that you want. We really had to pick our battles, if you will, and so we decided to launch in North America first. We had a limited number of units, but they sold out almost immediately, we had 120,000 units on sale for that first Christmas in 2005 and as soon as we released it, it sold out almost immediately, and it had been a catch-up game ever since. In Europe, we launched Guitar Hero 1 in April of the following year, so about six months later - although we had to rush that product out, unfortunately, in terms of marketing. But with Guitar Hero 2 I think we've had more time to plan for a very strong launch and I think you're seeing the effects of that. We had a tremendous launch in America, and with the 360 version, a tremendous launch worldwide.
Pro-G: Speaking of the 360 version, why particularly did you decide to bring Guitar Hero 2 to the Xbox 360?
KH: We have always wanted to bring Guitar Hero to every platform available, and whenever we think those platforms are viable we will do that. We've wanted to do a 360 game for over a year, and of course, Guitar Hero 2 360 has been in development for a while. The great thing about the 360 is that it offers a lot of features that the others don't right now, the biggest one being online, being able to have leaderboards and download music. I think that's probably the one feature that both we and fans are so excited about: being able, as soon as you're done with all the songs in Guitar Hero, to download some more.
Pro-G: Do you see the Xbox 360 version of the game as a stronger product than the PlayStation 2 version?
KH: I think that the 360 definitely offers some very different capabilities, especially online, but they both have their own different advantages and features, and so we're excited to have Guitar Hero on both platforms.
Pro-G: Why is there no online two-player in the Xbox 360 version?
KH: There are several reasons why we haven't built that into the game yet. First, we weren't able to do it from a development side yet; because of resources and timing of the game, we would have had to do that in a very, very short time frame. Secondly, there are technical issues like lag that really affect the game experience, and we don't want to release a game with a feature that isn't going to meet consumer expectations. With Guitar Hero 3, we're working on that now; the game is expected to launch at the end of this year, and it will be fully online and have online features. You will be able to compete or play co-op with your friends online.
Pro-G: There have been a lot of questions about the downloadable content - is the three songs, 500 points strategy fair to you, any do you plan to continue with it?
KH: We're constantly evaluating the different models and different ways that you can download music, whether that's one song or three-packs or even more than three-packs. The reason that we started with the three-pack is that we did a lot of research to determine a competitive price, and we think that [500 points] is, based on the content that's already out there. A typical game might offer a level [for download], and a three-song pack, in our view, is equivalent to a whole level of a game and so you'll see that the pricing is equivalent to that. There's also a lot of work that goes into the songs and getting them online - it's not as simple as liking a bit of music and then putting it online so that people can download it. We of course have to go through the entire licensing process again, we have to re-record the music in most cases and then we actually have to track the notes - for all of the difficulty levels, we have to go in there and put in all the notes. So there's a significant amount of work that actually goes into each of the songs for download.
Pro-G: Is that equally true for the songs that you're porting from the first Guitar Hero?
KH: There's definitely some work there to do. Some of those pieces might have already been done, but there's always work in porting them onto a new platform, onto the Xbox Live platform. With the original songs from GH1, we had to go in - remember, in Guitar Hero 1 there was no bass mode, for example, or different modes like co-op - so we actually had to go in there and re-do all the songs. It's not as simple as plugging it in and then it works, and that's part of what goes into the pricing. What we wanted to do with the three-pack was, instead of selling them separately for a higher price, we wanted to lower the overall price of each of the songs, and we could do that by pricing them as a three-pack.
Pro-G: Will original content, in the future, be more expensive than Guitar Hero 1 content?
KH: What we are going to try to do is keep them all the same price. We feel like we had to redo a lot of work for the Guitar Hero 1 songs, for the new songs we're going to have to do some additional work there as well, but that's the pricing that we want to maintain. And we think that that's fair, and that's a fair price. With that said, we're always listening to our fans, and if there's a lot of discussion as to whether that's the right price point or not, we're certainly active and open in listening to what they say.
Pro-G: Did fan input have a lot of influence upon the differences between Guitar Hero 1 and Guitar Hero 2, like the improved tapping techniques?
KH: We definitely took in a lot of fan input. When you're trying to make a game that the fans are going to like, you have to listen to that, right? And that's what we do. We think that one of our strengths is that we really do interface really well, and that we listen to the fans, and we take that back and bring it into the game. That's the only way that we think that we can make the best games, games that the fans are going to like.
Pro-G: Do you feel that Guitar Hero has paved the way for more music games in the Western market?
KH: I think that Guitar Hero has definitely paved the way. Guitar Hero didn't create the music gaming genre, it certainly wasn't the absolute first game of its sort that came out, but I think that it has defined the genre; Guitar Hero is now THE reference point for music games, and it is certainly responsible for almost all of the growth in the past year in the music-game category. So I think that there are a lot of publishers and developers who are excited about this genre now and how successful it can be, and hopefully we will see more companies, publishers and developers, get into this genre so that it can expand as a whole.
Pro-G: A last cheeky question: How do you feel about Rock Band?
KH: [Laughs] Well, for me personally, I was very excited about it, because Harmonix is the developer, and Harmonix are great at what they do - they're great at music rhythm games. We have a great working relationship with them, we have a tremendous amount of respect for their level of talent, so I know with Rock Band that they're hopefully going to make a great game. With the introduction of more companies and products to this space, that will help the entire space as a whole to grow, and it's going to bring more awareness for these types of games out to more people, so I think that's a very good thing for the space and for the industry as a whole!
I can't comment on their product, but I can comment on Guitar Hero, and as I said we've got a lot of feedback from fans, we've got a lot of great ideas. They're all in development now, and when you finally get a chance to see Guitar Hero 3, you're going to see them take it to the next level. There's a lot of great stuff going into that game.
And given the incredible impact of the series so far, we've got absolutely no reason not to believe him. Keep an eye out for more Guitar Hero 3 news on Pro-G the very instant we can sniff it out - in-between practicing Jordan on Expert, that is. That Achievement shall be ours!