Moving from skating games to rhythm-action might not be the most logical progression, but in spite of the uproar when Harmonix left its Guitar Hero brand behind, Neversoft has silenced critics and continues to produce top-notch music titles. Keen to learn what the future holds for both franchise and genre, we tore ourselves away from this year’s many Hero titles to chat with the series’ producer you’re now approaching the fifth Guitar Hero game, how hard is it to find new ways to innovate?
We always start each game with a ton of ideas, but obviously we don’t do them alt. It is hard, though. We only have so much time to get the game done and we want it to be polished. We don’t necessarily want to introduce new hardware every year and we don’t want to completely re-invent the gameplay just for the sake of doing it when the game is obviously fun to play already. Some of the things we’ve done this year are things that came out of those times when you’re playing with your family or playing with people that have never played before. That was where Party Play came in – we need this to be dead simple and fun. We work on the game so much that we don’t get that much of a chance to sit back and just play it in a more casual setting.
What have been the challenges in selling the idea of six Hero-branded games in one year?
The philosophy is just to give people what they might want. If you’re a Metallica fan, you can buy the Metallica game and that’s cool. Greatest Hits has a little more variety to it and is filled with classic tunes, so if you like that side of it you’d buy that. I don’t know how much crossover there is. There’s some, obviously, with Guitar Hero fanatics who just buy everything. But then they might just be these separate islands, so that’s what we’re doing this year – testing the water and seeing what people want. You don’t have to buy these things. They’re almost like CDs in a store – I don’t buy every CD I want that’s out there. There are some I’m just not as interested in as others, but if there’s one I really like I’ll buy it.
Do you agree that Guitar Hero has had or will have a similar effect on the music industry as iPod? I’m not going to say it’s that revolutionary. It’s a videogame, right? I think it’s definitely had a significant impact on the music industry – an industry that’s been searching for new revenue streams since probably the iPod. Labels have been really slow to embrace these new channels, but some of them have been really wise and instantly saw Guitar Hero as a new revenue stream and a way to potentially make more money so they latched onto it early and decided to see where it took them. Some of them were more resilient and didn’t quite get it, but by the time Guitar Hero Ill came out, most of the major labels were working with us quite well. We have a partner in Universal – they have something like 30 per cent of the music out there so it’s really helped those guys a lot just as it’s helped us get some deals done for Guitar Hem. Personally, I’d love it if we could create channels for smaller labels and artists to get on board and get their music out there. It all comes down to playability, though. If only five people Like a new band we put out it’s great if you’re one of those five people, but for the other millions… not so much.
And obviously it’s not as easy as just dropping a song into the game… No, it’s a lot of work. First of all, we need nine streams for all the audio. Then everything gets note-tracked. And just for one guitar track, it can take a guy a week. He starts with Expert then he has to do all the difficulty levels below and all the Lightshow stuff, all the cues, and breaks it into practice sections. Then he has to get the tempo mapped, and depending on the type of music, this alone can take half a day. If it’s a metal song, or one where the tempo varies wildly, it can take even longer. Drums are a little more straightforward and vocals are slightly simpler still, but it all takes time. Then the animators come in and they spend a week on a song, putting in all the animations and doing the camera. So it pretty much takes a man-month to get one song done. That’s why the songs don’t sell for 99 cents, right? Because then we have to pay the first-party and pay the labels – there’s a lot of work involved. When all’s said and done, $2 for a track isn’t such a bad deal, but obviously you get it even cheaper when you buy the band games.
Will this be the last disc-based game as downloadable content takes off?
We’ll continue to do DLC and as far as the band-specific games and greatest hits-style games that come out, I don’t know that DLC will definitely spell the end of that. Those give you better value for money than downloadable content, because you’re getting 40-50 songs for $60 or whatever. It also gives the real fans of that band what they want.
If you look at Metallica, we have a lot more in there than just the songs. There’s the animation of the characters, the Metali facts and a lot of fan club-type stuff in there. It’s a deep dive into the band and more than you’d get from seeing it as DLC with just Axel and Judy on stage. And right now, you just sell so much more at retail than you do with downloadable content – pure DLC wouldn’t be a viable business model at this time. So many people just go to Walmart to buy their games – they don’t necessarily know about the ability to download, and won’t get PC games from services like Steam. There’s something about just having a physical box. I still buy vinyl. I don’t like buying songs off iTunes, it feels like a more vapid experience for me. I like holding the vinyl in my hand, pulling it out, looking at it, putting it back and having it on my shelf. There’s still something to be said for having a physical medium.