It's been a long time coming, but guitar games have finally made their triumphant return. This year sees the release of not one, but two guitar games on the PS4 and Xbox One, as Rock Band 4 goes head to head with Guitar Hero Live.
We sat down with Jamie Jackson, the Creative Director at FreeStyle Games, who hail from good old Leamington Spa in the UK, a mere hop, skip and a jump from Everybody Plays towers to talk about the new game. Well, technically it's more of a hop, skip and a jump followed by an hour long train ride, but you get the idea. Covering everything from the new guitar and gameplay to how they made the game's huge crowds, we ask all the burning questions:
So I guess the first thing to say is that Guitar Hero went away, and now it's come back. How did you decide now was the time?
So, basically, it did go away for a while...
Well, unceremoniously dumped is possibly a better term, basically being scrapped after Warriors of Rock...
Well, you know, everyone's got their own thoughts and opinions about what happened and why it did. I mean, we made DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2, which you may have played as well, and you know, stuff happens and we had to go away and rethink the game. We always said at the time, and I'm pretty sure [Activision CEO] Eric said at the time too, that when we've got some real innovation, when we've got a real new game to bring back, we're going to bring Guitar Hero back. It's one of the most well-known brands around the world - there's some crazy stat I got told where it's like, fifth in the world for brands behind like Coke and Mario and stuff. It's just insane! So many people knew it and played it and so many non-gamers played it too because it was just that great a social, fun music experience. So yeah, we always said that when we'd got something that we feel is real innovation and something meaningful to bring back, then we would. And that's why now - we feel that we've got that innovation. We changed the gameplay, and you guys have been playing it - I dunno how you found it. Were you big Guitar Hero players before?
I mean, how did you guys find it?
I'd say it's pretty much like picking up Guitar Hero for the first time again, that sort of new feeling, where it's all totally fresh (which, incidentally, is pretty much how we described it in our hands-on preview). Kind of mind-blowing and a bit intimidating, getting your head around the new black and white notes especially. In the solos - that's the worst part. With the chords and stuff I can just about manage it, and I've got enough time seeing it coming down the note track to realise 'Oh! I've got to move my finger down there', but when I'm doing a solo I'm like ahhhhhhhhhhhhh ha ha ha it's broke my fingers.
I guess you were expert players before?
So… hearing you say that makes me really happy, right? Because if we'd just made the same game, you'd have walked in there, you'd have played it exactly as you just played it and nailed it, and there'd have been no challenge for you. There'd be nothing for you to try and come back to and practice again. I mean, to get to expert before, you probably put a lot of time in, right?
I mean, I never got past medium myself. This finger [holding up his pinky] is basically useless to me. I could literally chop it off right now and my life wouldn't be any different. So, it makes me kind of happy to hear you say that, because I think that you're going to come back to it… We've got a much broader setlist this time, but we're also releasing with a lot more music than we ever did before as well. So to me, this means you guys are going to come back and have got a challenge that's gonna give you that need to go back again.
I was impressed at how quickly I picked it up again actually! I was expecting my mind to just be blown, and not be able to do it, but I got up to… what was it… the one before expert… or maybe the one before the one before expert... advanced?
Oh really?! Wow! That's good!
It was only on Fallout Boy though, so it's not exactly anything complicated.
Yeah, it's a lot of power chords, but still!
That's good right? And as I say, that was a big challenge for us - well, I say a big challenge, but it was more of a goal. Because we knew we had players like you guys, that were expert players. And the goals of those type of players is like… can I 100% it? Leaderboard chasers and that kind of thing. But we also knew there was a huge casual gamer element to it, who kind of play together with a big group of friends - they weren't necessarily up for trying to beat leaderboards or trying to compete with each other in the living room, and that kind of stuff. That was where we kind of tried to reset the gameplay a little bit. And what we actually found when we looked at the data of people who'd played Guitar Hero in the past, the greatest portion of players were medium players. And when we looked into why, we found it was the pinky, right? Some people just couldn't use it, you know. I mean, you're playing like this [demonstrates], and you stretch for the highest note, and you look down then you're out, right?
It's been five years, which is aeons in gaming terms, and that means we're going to have a bunch of kids that never probably played Guitar Hero and are now in their teenage years. They're about to go out and go to gigs and they're getting into music; they're discovering music and it's a big part of their lives. So we wanted to give them something where they can get in really easily. We wanted to give our medium players depth, because it's a lot easier to go up and down at medium rather than higher and lower down the neck, and sort of change the finger position. And we wanted to give our expert players a completely new challenge, because once you're expert, you're kind of expert, you know? I think that's just how it is. You can maybe go and try and find new songs that are completely, ridiculously fast,
[laughs] Like Through the Fire and Flames?
Exactly! Well, if that's you're only route, you're going to run out of space quite quickly. We wanted to give this whole new reason for people to come back and play. Plus it means you can play songs you love but have never played before, or you've never played in this way. So it gave you a lot of gameplay reasons - that was really important to us. But we also kept the familiarity. We didn't change anything here [gesturing to the body of the guitar], because this works really well, it was great, it did the job, it made you feel like a rock star. And then the visuals.
When we first started, we sat around in a room and were like 'ok, what is it about Guitar Hero, what was it that was so cool?' and pretty much everyone was like 'it makes me feel like a rock star'. It's like, so many people can't play instruments but love music can pick it up and feel like a rock star. I mean, my dad is the same. My dad doesn't play games, and one Christmas I took Guitar Hero II round, and was like 'Dad, check this out', and he's kind of like [skeptical look], but then he hits a note and he's like 'oh my god!' and that was it. We were all like 'Dad! Dinner's on!' and he's just still there.
Yeah! We did the same - parents and grandparents!
Yeah! Everyone's up for playing it, right?! I mean, that was a big deal to us. How can we further that experience of feeling like a rock star, and we thought well, instead of looking at your band on stage, lets put you on stage so you can actually look at the crowd, and perform to a crowd and get a reaction from that crowd. So that's where we first started to think 'lets turn the camera round', and then we were like 'we're in a unique position with this with Guitar Hero', because it's not like a Call of Duty or anything where you have to run around the level, the level is sort of secondary to the note highway. So we thought, 'well, that way we could film it?' and have this real crowd reacting to you through a song. And we have it switching between good and bad crowds if you start to screw it up, and the background changes and you've got the crowd going 'urghhhhhh' and throwing stuff at you. And we found when we did it, it actually gave people a little bit of stage fright - people said '[intake of breath] I feel a little bit nervous' - but then when you nail it, it feels so good. And, you know, we've crafted the audio in Live to have a live feel - we call it live-ification - we want to make it sound like its on those stages, and you know, you can hear the crowd singing back at you when you're getting into the choruses and you're doing really well. We have to kind of… treat the way the music comes out to make it feel like it's in that venue. So it has a slightly different quality to it. So that was all part of trying to, you know, give you this experience of feeling live. And we hit that and we were like 'wow, this feels really good', we were really like 'this is a great way to do stuff'.
And then we started to think a bit about how we do DLC, how do we give people content quickly and as often as we can. We thought that, if you think about five years ago, we probably all still bought CDs, some maybe bought mp3s, but if you fast-forward to now, I bet so few of us buy DVDs, right? And we get our movies on demand, whether it's Netflix or whatever it is we use, and whatever music service we might subscribe to - we do that to get our music. So everything is more 'I want it now, I'm going to get it now. I'm not even going to get off my arse and go to the shop, I just want it now'. And we're like, we can deliver that now. Five years ago we were less than 40% connected consoles, whereas I think today, overall consoles, it's more like 80% connected, and on some consoles it's over 90%, which is incredible. For us as a developer, that's really exciting, because it means we can reach our Guitar Hero fans and give them new content, and that's what spawned GH TV, you know. That was where that came from. It's a place where we're going to be able to give new content. Previously, if we wanted to give new content we had to build a new disc or a new game, you know, and that has it's challenges, right? Whereas GH TV, we're going to be able to deliver you content with a really fast cadence.
Does that mean there's not going to be a second Guitar Hero game then?
Right now we're really kind of set on this year's release. I think we said at launch we're don't plan on releasing a boxed product next year. We want to launch with Live, and we want to just keep giving content into TV, which you're not going to have to pay for. There's going to be other ways in there you can spend money, to kind of advance more quickly and do different things. It doesn't mean you're a better player, it just means you've got access to content quicker. You don't have to spend money at all. And we're going to be launching with hundreds of songs on GH TV and we're going to keep adding stuff there that you're not going to have to go and download, you know (for more on GH TV, check out our recent preview). As long as you're connected, you just go on and it'll be there. You're going to be able to earn more plays, so that you can play things on demand, and you'll be able to unlock skins; there's going to be premium shows, where the new content's going to come in too, and you're going to have challenges to get in there. So within TV there's a whole like, progression game system with challenges as well. Because, going back to those hardcore players that want the leaderboards, who want to win everything, there's a whole bunch of that in there for them. But for a causal player, they can just go and play music. They can just go and enjoy new stuff. Plus it means we can look at what our fans are playing - what the broader Guitar Hero community are playing - and see what they really want. Because we have a very vocal community, who are very vocal about the music they want to see, and that's great. But this means we can not only listen to them, but we can also look at what people are playing, and if people are into a certain type of music, we can go and get that. And we can get it to you really quickly, rather than sitting on it and trying to deliver another disc year on year or something.
And you're moving away from full bands to just guitar?
Well, we've got the two guitars and microphone. We've got singing as well. And you know, there's a couple of ways you can do singing - singing with a microphone, and there's also going to be an app you'll be able to download and use to convert your phone into a microphone as well.
So it's a three player experience now, rather than four?
Yeah, that's right. For now it's a three player experience.
What was the sort of average group size actually?
It was between two and three. The people who played in a group of four was quite unique.
Now that you've said that, we were a three.
Yeah - we found most people were. And we also found that drums was the one that came out the least, with mostly the guitar being focussed on, followed by vocals.
I guess it could also be because it was the most awkward one to set up too!
Yeah, I mean, I f*cking love drums. I've always wanted to be a drummer, but I never went to lessons, I never did anything. So when we added drums to Guitar Hero in the past I was like 'this is great!'. But you're right you know, with a guitar you can just plug it in, and you're ready to go, same with a microphone. So yeah - two to three was definitely how most people did it. People playing two we found were mostly competitive, like two guitarists trying to beat each other.
Is it two guitars in this one, rather than guitar and bass?
Two guitars, yeah. We wanted to really focus on the guitar - I mean the bass was good, but gameplay in bass, being more of a kind of rhythm instrument, it got a bit repetitive. We wanted to really make sure we made the best guitar game we could. But vocals were such an easy thing to add, and we've also changed the way the vocals are scored a little bit too. So you get scored on your pitch, as you'd imagine, and you also get scored on rap notes, so it can detect when you've got a song that's a bit more rappy, where its not so much the pitch of the notes but more the rap. But now you also get scored on your singing quality, so your kind of projection - it doesn't mean shouting, but it means your actual… I've never scored very well at that because I'm a f*cking terrible singer, but if you watch Stevie or Peter out there [who were demoing the game on stage], they've got some really good voices. When they're really projecting, it's scoring even more for them.
That's something that's never really been done before either.
No! I mean, we looked at singing a lot when we did DJ Hero, and we looked a lot at rapping and how to detect that, because a lot of the songs on DJ Hero were mash-ups of rap songs and various things. So we started to look at it back then, and it's something we've always been interested in, and how we could add depth to the singing thing, but not make it this crazy barrier for people to get into. So that's where we ended up.
In terms of expansion and stuff, with Guitar Hero TV and DLC, will there still be proper downloadable songs coming out for it, or will it all be done though TV?
The idea is that's all going to come through TV. I mean, there'll be various ways you can get access to things, but, you know, we wanted people to be able to play whatever they wanted to play. And you can do that by using 'plays', which you're going to earn just by playing GH TV. If you run out of plays, you can actually spend real world money to buy more if you want, but you don't have to. And then just playing on the channels - like this is the one we're on now - if you come in, and you want to play, you can play, and it'll matchmake you against all the other thousands of people who are playing online, so there's a competitive side to it online. But also if you want to play two player and a microphone at home, and have a group of you playing at home, you can do that as well.
So you can choose to play individual songs off TV as well then?
Yeah, so if Calvin [Jamie Jackson's glamorous assistant] goes over to 'new music' - if you jump into here, that is a list of the new music that's been added to the channel since you last logged in as this user. Basically, I can jump in and see all the new stuff, and then go 'oh man, I really love…'. Why not pick a song! Whatever you want!
Ok erm… how about Sex on Fire - that's a nice easy one, isn't it?
Sex on Fire? There you go! So let's say we've just come back, it's shown us Sex on Fire is there and the TV channels are playing in the background - now we've selected it, if you want to play it, you go 'play now'. If he does that, he's now playing the song, on demand. And this'll still allow him to hit the leaderboards all the time, all the scores work the same - you're not just hitting leaderboards in the channels, you're actually hitting leaderboards whenever you play it, however you play it. And as you can see [gesturing to the side of the screen] there's all the ghost scores that people have already set on this, so you can still see your competitiveness as you go through.
And you can build playlists as well, so say you come back in and it's Friday night, and you want to build your playlist, you can go and add all of those to a playlist, and it'll run and take your plays with it, deduct however many you want to play away.
And you earn those just by playing GH TV?
Yep, just by playing GH TV.
There's a couple of things we're going to do as well - I mean we know we have people who like to play party play, and maybe they just want access to everything. Maybe they want to play any song on demand for a fixed period of time; maybe you've got friends coming over and you're like 'right lets buy a 24 hour party pass'. You buy that pass and you can play whatever you want on demand, as much as you want, for as long as you want.
Will you still be able to buy traditional DLC so you can have unlimited goes on a song that way?
That's a TBD. We may add that feature.
Because, I think, that's probably how I'd rather do it - I'd rather pay for the song and 'own' it as it were. If that makes sense?
Yeah, it does, it does. It's an interesting kind of thing; it's like we know there's people who are so used to having them in that form. But then, what's interesting is that, if you look at how often you actually might play that song, where's the better value?
Yeah, I know what you mean. Especially when you find you can't actually do it once you get on it! As we found with a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song once...
Exactly! I mean, we really took that on board when we made this, because you can try a song first. You might really love a song, but then when you try it, you find you can't do it - but with this, you've tried it, you've not spent any money, and then you can make that decision.
So, there's going to be over a hundred songs on the disc so far? Or are some of those not on the disc?
At launch there's going to be hundreds of songs.
Are these on the disc or through Guitar Hero TV?
They're going to be TV, and then you've got the live songs on disc. So yeah, across both.
That was the thing you see - when Guitar Hero was first announced, I was wondering how you were going to do DLC now, because, I imagine, having the real crowds and characters will take up a lot of storage space to download it?
Yeah - you're absolutely right. And that's what kind of made us think that we wanted two different ways to do this. We wanted a mode that gave you this feeling of being a rock star, and then we wanted another… I mean, for me, seeing music videos again is amazing - I love watching music videos! And we wanted a mode where we could get you new content really quickly. So if you think back to old Guitar Hero, there was an amount of work we had to do for the visuals, and we had to mark up the track too. For GH TV, all we've got to do is mark up the track, so our ability to get content to you guys is really quick, you know. We're working with artists to be able to get content to you almost simultaneously with that content coming out - so you may even find yourself finding a new track on GH TV before you've actually heard it anywhere else!
Is this going to be ad-supported, or is this going to be more of a micro-transaction style thing?
We don't plan on having ads, and on TV you'll be able to play it and not spend any money, and it's not going to, you know, hurt you. There are going to be opportunities to spend real money if you want to.
I imagine there's going to be royalties and such you'll need to cover?
Yeah, I mean, we work with the labels, and have such a great relationship with the labels and we wanted to be able to get content to you. And it was a great relationship to try and figure that out. As I said, if you want to spend money there, you can, but all it'll do is get you access to things quicker.
So is stuff locked off then?
It will be, yeah. But it's not locked off behind a paywall - it's locked off behind a level progression. So, for example, when everyone starts, you're all going to start off at level zero, right? And as you progress you'll start to unlock opportunities in the game. The first one you unlock is premium shows, and premium shows will be exclusive content that's new - so that'll be content that's not yet on the channel. And to get into that content, you've got a couple of ways - you can either play and complete three challenges that we set you, so in the examples we can show you in a minute, that would be 'get three stars or higher on any difficulty' on the songs we've challenged you to do.
So this is the Black Veil Brides premium stuff we've got. Now this is some of their live concert footage we've marked up [with a note track], so if we can clear those three challenges there - the Green Day, Sex on Fire and Red Hot Chilli Peppers - then we get access to that show, and we'll be able to get in. Now we can either wait for those songs to come on rotation or we can use one of our plays to play it, or we can skip it completely by using real money so we can jump straight into that. But when we go into it, we actually give you prizes for being in there, so if you're in a premium show, depending on the level you play it at, you're going to increase your level quicker because we give you bonuses for doing it that way. We're also going to give you highways [note track designs], and you'll actually win that highway in this show, and this is the only place you can win that highway.
So when you say premium show, it's not like there's going to be a cost to play it - it's more you get more rewards?
You get more rewards. The entry is you either complete the challenges or you can pay to get in.
Any difficulty as well?
Is that going to be the case for all of them?
Potentially. I mean, some of this is stuff we're still getting the balancing in - it might not be three stars, it might be like… hit all the hero streaks on these songs, or it might be… you know. It could be anything, that's the thing. We've got this super neat back-end system where we can make the challenges and they could be different all the time - it might be five star it, we might set a difficulty, or do it with vocals - that kind of thing. It could be all kinds of challenges, so it's not the same challenges all the time; we want to give you something different each time you play it.
On GH TV, is there a way to skip songs, or have you got to sit through it, or does it cost plays?
No. TV is just like TV, you know. You go in, and it's there. We've got two channels, so if you go into one channel and you don't like that song you can jump to another channel and see what's on there. If you don't like that you can then use your plays to build a playlist and play it yourself. So, what we tried to do with TV is just give you a huge amount of choice and try not to restrict you too much. We didn't want to put too many barriers in the way of you playing it how you want to play it.
And it's all free as well, so you can just jump straight in and play?
Just jump in and play, yeah.
And there's going to be a fairly substantial single player part outside of Guitar Hero TV then?
Yes, yes. In GH: Live, it's set over two festivals - you've got Sound Dial, which is a UK festival, and then we've got Rock the Block, which is our American festival. They both really embody the flavour of those two countries and how they approach festivals. So Sound Dial's set in the English countryside, Rock the Block is set in the American cities, and your backdrops are skyscrapers and bars, and you know, different feel, different vibe. Basically what you do is you take on the role of the guitarist in one of ten bands, and you play a whole set as the band. That could be a three or four song setlist, or maybe six or seven. And what we wanted to do, rather than have this rags to riches story we've kind of told before, we wanted to give you these almost kind of episodic moments where you can just be your inner rock star in that band, and just have fun within those little episodes.
How did you actually film the crowds? How did you actually put it all together?
Giant f*cking robot camera! And sh*t tons of green screen! [laughs]
So we actually developed all of this ourselves. I saw a talk about how they filmed some of the scenes from The Hobbit. They used a mocom camera - it's basically a robot arm that builds cars, but it has a camera on the end of it. What they did with The Hobbit was they built a human-sized Hobbit house and they built a miniature Hobbit house, and they put all the Hobbits in the human-sized one, and they put Sir Ian McKellen in the mini one, so he was all crunched up like this [does an impression]. They motion-tracked the camera, and had them set up next to each other on the same sound stage, then they called action. And they filmed it so these cameras were doing the motions and it was exactly the same. Then they can live edit, and all of a sudden you've got big Gandalf and the Hobbits in the same room together, and you can see how it looks.
So I looked at it and was like 'that's exactly what we need to do!'. We need to be able to switch, in a frame, from positive to negative, as seamlessly as possible. And the most jarring thing for that is if your camera's not in the right frame. So I was like, ok, let's do that. And then I started to look at how a lot of CG movies are made, using digital cameras, and we were going round the actors in the mo-cap suite - what they actually see in their camera view is like an early pre-render. So I was like, if I do that, and use that data to drive the camera, then I've got a really human motion, when on a robot camera it's always going to do the same thing - it's never going to change, take after take after take. Plus we can stitch multiple takes together if you put cut points in. So even though we were filming each of the songs - maybe the first part of one was good, and the middle of another, and the end of another, we could then stitch that seamlessly. So what you were seeing today - that could have been from ten different takes, and you would never know!
It sounds really complicated!
It was! My brain exploded trying to think of it, but we got there, and it was really cool!
Did you really have thousands of people in the crowds?
200! For the big stage we had 400. We basically had them in rows, and we'd film it with the band and the front row crowd, maybe two or three rows deep - we'd film that. Then when we were happy with all the positive and negative, we'd get the band off stage, clear the stage, and we'd dress the crowd differently and move them back, swap their positions, film it all again. Then do it again. And we just kept multiplying it.
So here is our Sound Dial stage, and to here [gesturing a few rows deep] is real people, and we turned 400 people into about 8000. If you look at some of the footage we released the other day you'll see some of the behind the scenes stuff - the green screens, you can see the robot camera.
This was all in a huge sound stage found in Essex.
That's crazy! You can't tell!
I know - it's not real. I mean, I got so used to watching this against a green screen - just the raw footage, but then as we started to comp it and get it in, I look at it now and I'm just like 'yeah, that's what we filmed'. My brain almost says 'yeah, I remember being there!', in the building we were in.
I'm just glad that music games are coming back really - they went away for way too long!
I don't know if you noticed, but as you said 'way too long' as they sang it's been 'way too long' - that was the most epic timing I've ever heard!
I mean, we make music games - we've done it for a long time, and it's nice to be back here, talking to you guys and showing you what we've been up to. We hope you guys like it and I hope you enjoy it!
Guitar Hero Live hits the Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 tomorrow - and we'll be bringing you a full review soon. With it's brand new spin on the traditional musical rhythm action-ness we've grown accustomed to, we're glad it's making it's return, finally!