I've seen DJ Hero in action twice now, once at E3 and once at an Xbox event in Sydney, and both times I've been struck by how difficult it looks. Kevin McSherry, studio manager at DJ Hero developer Freestyle Games, agrees.
"Let’s be clear, DJ Hero is Hard... when played in hard and expert difficulties," McSherry told me when I mentioned my initial impressions. "We want it to be a challenge as it accurately reflects the actions of a superstar DJ while mixing records. GrandmasterFlash has created mixes for us in DJ Hero and while you are playing the game in expert mode, if GrandmasterFlash scratches forward forward back - or 'zigga zigga' as he calls it - then you have to scratch exactly the same forward forward back in exactly the same timing as GrandmasterFlash. Believe me, this is a challenge."
One of the development challenges Freestyle faced was how to embrace this complexity while at the same time allowing a mass audience to still enjoy the game. Focus testing obviously helped tune the difficulty, but just as crucial was the design of the input device itself: the turntable.
McSherry says the eureka moment came "when we realised that if we gave consumers two decks - like a real DJ - they would spend most of their time looking down at their hands to check their position rather than getting their information cues from the screen in front of them.
"We hit on the idea of creating one deck with two stream buttons which enabled the interaction with two records at the same time."
So, the three stream buttons on the turntable represent, from left to right: interaction with record #1, playing samples, interaction with record #2. You scratch by holding down one of these and moving the deck back and forth.
Mixing is handled by the crossfader, whose three positions reflect whether you're hearing only record #1, only record #2 or a mix of both. Another knob adds various effects to the mix, while the so-called Euphoria button works just like Star Power in Guitar Hero.
Sounds simple in theory, I suppose. But I think it's the sheer range of actions required from the player - pressing, holding, scratching, switching, turning - that lends the experience an air of impenetrability.
But the end result is: what it may lack in accessibility, DJ Hero makes up for in the depth of its interaction with the music. In Guitar Hero and Rock Band you're tapping buttons in time to music. In DJ Hero, there's a greater sense of feeling responsible for the creation of that music.
McSherry believes this is due to the way in which every track on DJ Hero was mixed for the game:
"With Guitar Hero at home you are playing along with a famous guitar track that was probably recorded before Guitar Hero even came out and that was created specifically with music commerciality or chart success in mind. The gameplay that comes out of that music track is directly related to how interesting and varied the original guitar line is.
"With DJ Hero, because we are mixing records together to create gameplay we have the power and the ability to change either. If the mix doesn’t sound right, we can make audio improvements. If the track doesn’t play well, then we simply change the underlying audio until we have satisfying gameplay in that mix.
"We recognised that one of the most enjoyable parts of gameplay was when there were obvious patterns to gameplay, repeating with minor variations – and if you think about it that’s the underlying formula to most dance, house and electronic music production."
I finished my chat with McSherry by asking if Freestyle has plans to enable players to mix their own music and get even deeper into the idea of creating music. Unfortunately, he was reluctant to discuss any design ideas the team is currently prototyping, he did say he was looking forward to being to answer it properly at some unspecified future date.
DJ Hero will be out in Australia on October 28 for 360, PS3, PS2 and Wii.
What's your take on it? Personally, I'm tired of the existing rock-based music games. DJ Hero seems fresh, in terms of its tracklist, controller and gameplay design. I just hope I don't find it too hard.