The rhythm game landscape -- which was so bare only a few years ago -- faces a climax of sorts this holiday season. In one corner is the reigning champion--the Guitar Hero series -- and in the other is the new up-and-comer Rock Band. CNET.com.au spoke to one of the key driving forces behind the Guitar Hero juggernaut, RedOctane cofounder and chief operating officer Charles Huang, about all things Guitar Hero, how important the guitar peripheral was to the success of the franchise, the upcoming DS version, and how Rock Band will fare in the market.
CNET.com.au: Guitar Hero wasn't the first rhythm game to use licensed music tracks. What is it about the Guitar Hero series that has captured people's attention?
Charles Huang: Like a lot of things, it was a combination of features a lot of other games had used before. So I think it was the licensed music tracks -- classic rock, metal music -- that had a lot of appeal to people. One of the big things we focused on was the illusion of being a rock star, and so everything from the guitar controller to the music just gave you that illusion. It wasn't a music simulator per se -- a lot of people thought this was a guitar simulation, but our perspective was it wasn't a guitar simulation as much as it was an experience of making you feel like you were a rock star.
CNET.com.au: Guitar Hero, perhaps more than any other rhythm game, has pushed the genre into the mainstream, particularly to Western markets. How big a role do the peripherals play in further growing the audience?
CH: From the game experience standpoint, I think everyone who plays Guitar Hero should try at least once playing the game on a DualShock. You'll see immediately how different it feels versus playing with a guitar controller. I would say that probably [in] 99 percent of all the video games out there, all the experience and the illusion of the game takes place on the screen. And by holding the guitar peripheral in your hand, you take that experience off the screen and into your hands, and really, into your living room. I think for that reason, when you look, a lot of people don't so much play Guitar Hero as they do perform. I think part of the success of Guitar Hero was to bring it offscreen and put it in your hands and really make you feel as if you're part of that experience and the illusion. I think part of the magic of the peripheral, and why it appealed to so many people, is that the experience was now this total sensory experience rather than just seeing what was going on onscreen. But then again, that was all made possible by the feel of the guitar controller because you don't feel like a rock star playing a DualShock -- you feel like a rock star when you hold something that feels like a guitar.
CNET.com.au: Microsoft has been closely guarding its wireless peripheral IP, and Guitar Hero III will be the first third-party title to feature a wireless controller that uses its proprietary technology. What were some of the hurdles in the certification process? Did they hinder the game's development?
CH: [Microsoft] came up with a proprietary wireless solution, which actually from a technology perspective is a fantastic solution. It actually works beautifully -- almost no lag -- it works very, very well. I believe originally they may not have had plans to license it out, and when we approached them, they viewed it [the Guitar Hero controller] as a whole different animal because it doesn't compete with the other wireless controllers that Microsoft itself makes. But I think early on, they knew there would be some challenges and a lot of support involved. So from a Microsoft standpoint, they really had to believe in the title and that the title was going to make a difference for them to support peripheral development with the technical resources it was going to take. From the beginning, we had been working very closely with Microsoft. They have sent engineers to our offices and flown engineers to China to help us with getting the entire production set up. We've been working with people from all over the world. from Denmark to Redmond, on this project, so it was fairly extensive from an engineering point of view to get this into production. On a software side, it has been mostly transparent to the development because they've been testing and developing with wired controllers. And I will say one thing: When we did finally bring in wireless controllers, almost universally, the developers, testers, and everyone who touched it fell in love with the wireless controllers because we've done some things with the shape and ergonomics on the guitar. The buttons and the strum bar have been improved ergonomically.
CNET.com.au: Guitar Hero III's guitar peripheral features some physical differences from the previous model. What are the changes and why have you've made them?
CH: Right after Guitar Hero II came out on the PS2, we did a lot of consumer research to find out what people liked and didn't like about the game and the controller. The top of the list for what people wanted was wireless. And also close to the top of the list were more designs and more customisable features. We got that through consumer surveys. We also saw it online with people who would hack their own Guitar Hero controllers, giving them different looks and colours. Those were right up at the top of the two features we wanted to put in the controllers, so we had to design them from scratch. Besides giving it its shape -- the Gibson Les Paul -- we really focused on the wireless gameplay, and this time around you saw the customizable faceplates. That's part of the experience I was talking about, the illusion of being a rock star. Every rock guitarist has his or her own look, and this takes you a step closer to the illusion. Finally, we went and did a lot of gameplay testing and research into the ergonomics of the guitars. We'd gone through two models with the SG on Guitar Hero and the Explorer on Guitar Hero II, and we were really looking at taking some of the best ergonomic feel to the strum bar and trying to improve on those.
CNET.com.au: Players will be able to skin the GHIII controllers. What are your plans to offer skins? Will there be user-customisable blank faceplates?
CH: We do plan on making many different designs; different designs for different territories, possibly different designs for different platforms, [skins] that can cater to different demographics, different territories, and different age groups. I think Guitar Hero as a game has a fairly broad appeal, both in age groups, genders, and in many other categories. So what we wanted to do was to be able to give different players who are the normal and the stereotypical hardcore game demographic a way to feel like this game belonged to them as well. We have a lot of different designs. As far as players being able to design them themselves, we are trying to find ways to do that. And hopefully, we'll be able to find something that will allow people to at least do some customisation. You may not be able to do super fancy, multicolour prints, but hopefully, we'll be able to find some way to let people do some very individual customised faceplates as well.
CNET.com.au: Is that with a blank faceplate?
CH: Printing directly on the plastic can be difficult and challenging for that. But there may be ways to do, for example, a kind of sticker that can be put over the top of those. There are various ways you can try to do that. Whether or not that can be done in a mass market with mass production is something we're trying to research. Also, whether or not it can be done affordably is another big issue.
CNET.com.au: What can you tell us about the wooden guitars we've been hearing about?
CH: We have looked at it, we are looking at, and we continue to look at it. Mostly what's happened is it has taken time to get all the guitars on next-generation platforms and get wireless into them and the customisable features. So it's not from lack of desire, it is lack of bandwidth mostly. Hopefully, we'll be able to continue pushing forward with those after we get our Guitar Hero III guitars into production and manufactured in time for Christmas. We wish we could've done them, but unfortunately, a lot of the next-generation consoles -- especially the wireless technology -- took up a little more of our resources than we expected. Hopefully, we'll be coming out with some new, innovative guitar controllers next year.
CNET.com.au: Why have you gone with the Gibson Kramer Pacer for the PS2 version of Guitar Hero III, but no other platform?
CH: We originally selected the Les Paul for all of Guitar Hero III, and one of the primary considerations for [selecting] the Kramer for the PS2 was that we wanted to introduce a broader range of Gibson guitars. Because there are a lot of great Gibson guitars, and we thought we could bring one more to market, we thought keeping Les Paul for all next-generation [consoles] clarifies things. From a consumer standpoint, if you think about it really simply -- and perhaps this is oversimplification on our part -- but Les Paul means next generation. It's a great product, but we sort of kept it Kramer so that people can easily understand Les Paul is for next generation. If you get a PS3, it's Les Paul.
CNET.com.au: What can you tell us about Guitar Hero III DS?
CH: We are working on that. We're exploring a lot of things. We're hoping to really bring the experience to the DS and to do some very, very different approaches. We're working through a lot of engineering issues with Nintendo. I actually came from a set of meetings with them last week about this. While the technical path hasn't been set yet, we intend for this to be a very unique experience just like Guitar Hero was on consoles. This will play probably unlike any other DS game that has come out, and at this stage, that's all I'm afraid we can talk about until we have the engineering paths laid out with Nintendo.
CNET.com.au: Are there any plans to have a custom DS peripheral?
CH: That is definitely one of the options we're exploring. The DS peripheral is very intriguing to us. It's an integral part of the Guitar Hero experience, so as much as possible, we would like to keep it within the experience as long as it makes sense and it plays well. And we can do it on the DS where it not only makes sense for the title, but also for the way people like to interact with the DS. It needs to be affordable and it needs to fit within the environment that people normally play DS games in, but central to it all, we are exploring ways to get peripherals on a DS game.
CNET.com.au: The rhythm game genre isn't new. But until now, you haven't really had to fight for a foothold in the mass market. How do you think Rock Band will change the market landscape (including user's peripheral expectations) and how will you attempt to maintain an edge?
CH: Rock Band has been getting a lot of attention. I think there are a couple of things that are interesting about it in the marketplace. For one, it's always kind of irked me personally the association with EA. Everyone likes to call it EA's Rock Band, but it doesn't make any sense to me because it's a game that's developed by Harmonix, and published by MTV, and distributed by EA. So as far as I can tell, their biggest contribution to it really is just shipping these 20-pound boxes. They're not developing, they're not publishing, so they don't have any of those rights. So calling it an EA title, I've always felt, was kind of misleading. In North America, the most famous title distributed through EA partners was Final Fantasy, and you wouldn't call Final Fantasy an EA title. Everyone assumes it's us against EA, but in my estimation it's misleading. They are setting some very interesting precedents [with Rock Band]. I think the biggest thing for me is this price of $200 we hearing floating around for the ensemble. That's with a wired guitar and if you want a wireless guitar, the price floating around is another $80 dollars on top of that. If they went above $200, and possibly to $280, at $280, you're approaching the price of the Wii console, at least in North America. Those kinds of price points will be very, very interesting to watch. If the PS3 launch proved anything, it's that in my opinion price does matter to video game consumers. It'll be interesting to see how much consumer acceptance it has, especially for something billed as a casual game, which will be $300 US dollars, or $280. [That] seems to be awfully high for a casual game, but we'll see. As far as in your territory, Australia and New Zealand, I have two predictions: One is I don't think it will actually ship this Christmas in Australia/New Zealand, and secondly, I think if it does, the retail price of that will be at least probably A$275, and it'll be very interesting to see. We worked with Harmonix for years and they've always done a terrific job helping video games -- there's no reason to expect they wouldn't -- but I think you're getting into unchartered territory. This is probably the most expensive video game of all time, and for a casual game, it'll be interesting to see how well that gets carried off.
CNET.com.au: Why do you think it will be delayed for the Australian/New Zealand territories?
CH: Well, I don't think it'll actually just be for Australia. We've had many, many years of working with peripherals, and we know how difficult it is to produce sufficient quantities for a worldwide launch. I'm not singling out Australia; probably it will be multiple territories that will not see Rock Band this Christmas is my guess. It took us a tremendous amount of effort and a tremendous amount of time to increase the factory production. It took Nintendo a tremendous amount of time and effort to increase Wii production. Those things done by companies with years of experience are difficult, and to come straight out of the gate globally even on two platforms is extremely challenging, especially with all the technology that's involved with 360 and PS3.
CNET.com.au: Will Guitar Hero II Explorer guitars work with Rock Band?
CH: We don't know specifically because as much as I would like to get a copy of Rock Band, I don't have one. But I suspect they will -- that's what Harmonix is saying. Harmonix of course developed Guitar Hero II, so they know exactly how the Explorer system works, so I suspect if they're saying it will work, it will. If they want us to test it, they're always free to send us a copy of Rock Band [laughs].
CNET.com.au: If they do work, how do you feel about propping up your competition from a peripheral point of view when the genre is so device dependant?
CH: That's exactly one of the points. It has always been one of the barriers of entry for people to get into the music rhythm games. And traditionally, video game companies in Europe, North America, and Australia do not cross the line of hardware and software. You mostly get video game publishers who do only software, and hardware companies, like Logitech, who do only hardware. Very few companies are able to bridge the two, and it's traditionally been Japanese companies, like Konami and Namco, that have done that. We did it with Guitar Hero, and there was a tremendous challenge. To us, it's always been a competitive advantage that we could do both. We obviously believe it's a competitive advantage, and even if they can make it work with our previous guitars, and they're able to piggyback on the install base we've created, we'll be able to continue to innovate, continue to build new features into both the hardware and the software. And I think that Guitar Hero III and beyond to Guitar Hero IV will see the fruits of some of our experience being able to innovate begin to take shape.
CNET.com.au: Charles Huang, thanks for your time.