While it's exciting to document the inner workings of gaming genius or uncover some deep-seated scandal, most game game developer interviews feature a PR handler whose job it is to keep said developer from saying anything too cool/secret/incriminating. Thus, most interviews - especially ones that take place after a game is announced but not detailed - devolve into nebulous awkward silences. No matter what you ask, they give you some canned answer that doesn't tell you anything and you're stuck asking stock questions from the getting-to-know list your second grade teacher made you fill out.
Luckily, this wasn't the case with Guitar Hero: On Tour developer Neversoft. Producer Brian Bright was plenty able to talk about his game (since it's coming out October 26). So my only task in this interview was making it sound different from the two dozen the guy had already been through that night.
Hit the jump to see what I came up with.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that Guitar Hero's a step up from Tony Hawk. So I started by asking if we could expect to see anymore Tony Hawk games from Brian's team.
Brian glanced nervously at the Activision handler sitting in on the interview. The handler shook his head and muttered, "Can't say anything."
"Yeah, we can't say anything," said Brian. "Yet."
The handler made a warning noise and I decided to redirect.
Someone advised me to go into this interview and start with something along the lines of "Sir, go [censored]yourself. What do you say to that?" I can only assume this person isn't pleased that Brian Bright is working on Guitar Hero: World Tour, or maybe they just curse World Tour for a Rock Band copycat and think the developers should be verbally abused as punishment.
Whatever the reason for the spite, I related this to Brian and asked if he had any thoughts. He got a little wide-eyed and blinked a few times before saying, "They said that? Wow." He looked at the handler. "Maybe we should do another Tony Hawk..."
The handler coughed and we entered into the dreaded awkward silence. Loathe to fall back on stock questions, I got into the territory of stuff I could Google, but asked anyway. This tactic is safe, it's bland, and sometimes it's the only way to move an interview forward.
"What made you decide to keep boss battles in World Tour? They weren't all that popular in Guitar Hero III..."
Now Brian got excited. "[Battle mode]is the most popular online mode." Which is why they've kept it in World Tour, but it sounds like the dev team has learned its lesson. They've gotten rid of power-ups in battle mode (including boss battles) for World Tour - focusing instead on the riffs. "You play a riff, he plays a riff - and whoever plays better wins."
Jeez - shouldn't it have always been like that...? I remember one games journalist making a Simpsons quip about Legends of Rock: "You used to be about the music, man..."
I threw that into the conversation and Brian assured me, "Everything's about the music." Then he went on about how the dev team picked the songs and put together the set list just to prove how much music Guitar Hero is about.
Again, this is probably something you can Google - but actually watching a developer who's been pouring his heart into a game tell you about how he did it is way better than scrolling down a web page. It's like feeding on a piece of his soul and his soul is made of candy.
It all starts with a huge Excel spreadsheet. This is circulated through the team and everyone adds songs that they'd like to see in the game. World Tour had over 500 songs on that spreadsheet - stuff that didn't make it into Guitar Hero III, stuff they've done before but think they can do better, etc.
The song list was wheedled down by the preferences of the higher-ups and also by legal boundaries and availability of master tracks. Dealing with dead artists is especially hard, says Brian, because you're not talking to one person and his/her agent - you're dealing with an estate, and sometimes nobody even knows where to find the masters in all the dead artist's stuff. "Sometimes the band's broken up," said Brian. "And there's no one you can talk to you. It's just gone - out of the question."
A major concern for Brian in picking World Tour's songs was keeping the game guitar-centric. A good, dynamic drum solo - *cough* Tool *cough* - might bump up the priority of the song, but ultimately, they went with songs that had strong baselines and solid guitar solos. Vocals factored in the least, but a few songs made it under the wire on grounds that World Tour is a party game, so you've got to have songs everyone can sing along to (e.g. Eye of the Tiger).
These songs were then tempo-mapped so each piece of the dev team could take the map and work on their part of the game (without having to share the way you do in level-based games). The designers listen to each song, note tracking each song. They adjusted the note track for Expert and start scaling it down for the Hard, Medium and Easy difficulties. In this way, they build the set list from the ground up while the art, motion capture and gameplay mechanics were being built around the songs at the same time.
Brian was in a pretty chatty mood by now, so I felt safe enough to slide in another hard question: "Do you think it's a compliment or an insult to be compared to Rock Band?"
The handler raised an eyebrow, but Brian immediately said, "Of course it's a compliment." He glanced at the handler and continued, "We've got nothing but respect for the guys at Harmonix... they're great guys."
But for obvious reasons, Activision and Harmonix are not on speaking terms. Brian really couldn't talk too much about how his team feels about their rival, but he did say, "Rock Band is popular, but I think Guitar Hero's community [will trump it] ."
He's talking about the Music Studio feature, of course. In the middle of extolling its many values as a tool for creative genius, the handler quietly informed me that any tracks uploaded to the GH website that resembled covers of licensed music would be taken down. They want to support their fan base, but they don't want to break the law (and potentially damage their credibility with artists they might want to include in the next game).
Brian isn't afraid of having to win back any fans they might have lost to Guitar Hero III's bruising difficulty (he thinks Guitar Hero: Aerosmith has reassured those poor souls that Guitar Hero has come back from the Dark Side). Even if those players have gone over to Rock Band, there's room enough on everyone's shelf for two games; especially with the instrument compatibility. Moreover, Brian doesn't know of any artists that have exclusive deals with Rock Band or with Guitar Hero, so beloved songs will always be available to both factions.
Time was running out, so I wrapped up with a basic question you ought to ask anyone who works on a music game: "What's your favourite song to play?"
For drums, Brian likes Everlong by the Foo Fighters. As for singing, it's Obstacle 1 from Interpol because apparently he used to be a Goth. He's got two favourites on guitar - Van Halen's Hot for Teacher (which he can't beat on Expert) and The Joker from Steve Miller Band. And on base, Brian says he'll play anything from Bon Jovi.
Me? I'd kill for one or all of the following:
Total Eclipse of the Heart - Bonnie Tyler
The Jem and the Holograms theme
That Marilyn Manson cover of This is Halloween
What about you guys?