WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm Chris Lee, and I'm commercial director of FreeStyleGames.
WP: Tell us a little bit about how DJ Hero got started. Are you big Guitar Hero fans, or were you addicted to Konami's Beatmania back in the day?
CL: A bit of everything. We started developing this game almost three years ago, and it was developed as a completely independent idea, based on our own technology and our own approach, so FreeStyle, although we've been part of the Activision family for just over a year now, the first couple of years incubating the idea of a DJ game was just by ourselves. Really, the inspiration was the opportunity for us to bring music into a music/rhythm game that just hadn't been available before. You're looking at a whole range of genres of music, different artists, massively culturally relevant music that hasn't even touched a lot music/rhythm games so the opportunity for us to bring — whether it's hip-hop or dance or electronica or R&B or whatever music it was — the luxury of a DJ is he can pick and choose any record, any artist of any era and make it work. That's really the inspiration for us.
WP: Let's talk about picking the music: what you're going to hear when Paul Van Dyk is with Ministry of Sound versus going to a club in downtown Chicago and listening to Jay-Z. They're two completely different styles. How did you narrow that down to get a selection for the game?
CL: It's a long process. Just to walk you through how that works, we have a team of DJs who work at FreeStyleGames full-time, about 20 guys, very successful, famous DJs in their own right. One is a World DMC Champion, and another has a Radio 1 show, and Radio 1 is the biggest UK radio station. It's really an opportunity for them to have free reign, basically, at the beginning. Think of any music, any genre, any artist, and start to create what we call sketch mixes, a 20- to 30-second sketch of what we think may work, what tracks might work well together, what artists might work well together. Then we start exploring the gameplay mechanic that might go with that. We've licensed over 100 tracks for the game, and we've created over 90 unique mixes, but we've certainly looked at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different bits of music and hundreds of different combinations of how that would work. Obviously there's a gameplay consideration, there's a music licensing consideration, and then there's just a broad depth and breadth consideration to give a lot of variety to people who maybe like one specific aspect of music but don't like the other. We wanted to make as much of it available as we could.
WP: When you go to a club, a lot of DJs have the traditional mixing from one song to another, and what have become really popular lately are the mash-ups. Have you gone for the former, or is everything in the game more of a mash-up style, where you've got two tracks and you're bouncing back and forth?
CL: Every track in the game is a remix of fundamentally two tracks. We may have laid over some of the samples and created it, but fundamentally, we wanted to communicate that the art of a DJ is taking one record and cutting it and mixing it with another. That was kind of the boilerplate for DJ Hero, to approach in that direction. However, what we do allow people to do and pretty much everyone, as soon as they get into the game, they build a set list so they can actually build their performance. Even though they're playing what we've preordained as the remix, two tracks together, they can then just kind of dive into other music.
We've actually reused some of the licenses to create different mixes, which is really interesting, so you might have Dizzee Rascal mixed with the Black Eyed Peas in one track and then the same track, or a different Dizzee Rascal track is mixed with something else. You can build some really interesting set lists with artists that you like or with threads of genres that you like. There's a lot of diversity, and we want people to really feel as though this is an opportunity for them to pick their set list and perform, rather than this kind of passive setup where you have an MP3, stick it to the side of your room, and invite some friends around. That's not what music is. Music is about control, it's about interactivity, it's about performance, and I think that's what DJ Hero is going to bring to culture.
WP: In-game, you can pick your character and you can upgrade some equipment. Does that have any effect, or is that more of a visual dress-up for your DJ?
CL: It's a bit of both, really. Partly, people like playing different characters so you can play as Jazzy Jeff or DJ Shadow or AM or Z-Trip. What's super exciting is that these guys have also contributed mixes to the game so what we've been able to do is, you can play as the character and you can play their mix, which is exciting because when you get to the more difficult versions of the game, like Hard or Expert, the actions that you're delivering and the scratches and the cross-fading is exactly how they cut and scratch that record when they created the mix for the game. You're playing as the character, you're playing their music, and your actions are exactly the way in which they would have cut the record. We do try and bring that element of authenticity to it.
WP: Let's talk about the controller for a little bit. It obviously looks like it was inspired by the original Technics 1200, but what have you done to customize the basic idea of a turntable to really make it a game controller?
CL: That's a good question. Obviously that was one of the biggest challenges in the beginning of making the game: trying to bring the idea of a DJ turntable and all of the complexity — we've worked with people like the Scratch Perverts or Deaf Punk — and they could have eight different mixes, 16 different turntables, some CDJs, a whole bunch of monitors and laptops. Whoa, how do we bring that into a video game?
The big tipping point for us was boiling it down, so a single turntable, a single mixer, and putting the buttons actually on the turntable. That was a big tipping point when we just suddenly felt we've actually got something that's really interesting, that we've got a mechanic that's familiar. When you ask somebody, "What do you think a DJ does?" predominantly they think it's one hand on the ear and one hand scratching a record, and that's ubiquitous. Whatever age, whoever you ask, that's kind of what they associate with a DJ so we thought, "OK, we need the hand on the turntable, and we need them scratching the record." Ideally, we need the record to fully rotate 360 degrees so they can rewind it or they can have more expressive scratching or they can have directional scratching, and the faster they rewind, the more they rewind the track. There's a huge amount of interactivity and layer of complexity even on just the movement of the turntable. Then what we do is on Easy and the Beginner modes, all we expect you to do is play with the turntable. We don't bring in the mixing component until Medium, Hard and Expert, so people can kind of figure out, "OK, I'm hitting gems, I'm familiar with that action, I'm scratching the record, and now I can cross-fade, now I can start moving between 'em. So we take people on a journey, and we layer up the complexity.
WP: What about a freestyle option? People love to explore in music games. One of the things that's popular in Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour is the drum kit, so you can just plug in the drum kit and jam. Is there an ability in DJ Hero to turn on a mix and not really play but just jam back and forth and scratch however you'd like?
CL: There are a few things we do. We have a Party Play mode, where you can just switch a mix on and just listen to it. You can have the game running in the background, someone can come up, play it, and let it go. In terms of freestyle components, we have Freestyle Sample, so at various different points in the track, you can overlay samples onto the mix, and we also have an effects style, so that overlays real-time effects onto the music, the same way that a DJ would at different points in the track. That can affect the whole music, or it can affect a single track depending on where it's been laid over.
WP: What about the training mode? How do you convey the basics of DJing to someone who has never DJed before? Obviously the gem gameplay is expected with Guitar Hero fans, but this really is a new thing. What have you done for a tutorial?
CL: There's a really fun and interesting tutorial in the game, which people kind of dive into. It's a 5-10 minute experience, and it really gives you everything you need in terms of scratching the record, directional scratch, cross-fading, adding effects. We had various ideas of how we wanted to execute the tutorial, and we started to talk to Grandmaster Flash about his involvement in the game. He said, "If anyone is going to teach people how to scratch records, it has to be me because I invented it." So we got him in a studio, we gave him a script. He didn't read any of the script, he just made it up by himself, but he was so familiar with the game, so in love with the game, really believes that this is a critical point in time where people are going to really understand what it is to create music, perform music and scratch records. He was super-passionate, wanted to tell people in his style, his format, and we kind of just let him go, and we found the bits that made sense and pieced them together into a tutorial. It's actually a lot of fun. It's really informative and it gets you into the game, but it's actually laugh-out-loud fun.
WP: What would you say to gamers who see the DJ Hero name and think that it's a spin-off of Guitar Hero and isn't that different? How would you explain what the games have in common and how they're completely different?
CL: I would just encourage people to play it. As I said, for the first two years of its incubation, we were developing this in complete isolation. We're not trying to replicate the way in which Guitar Hero develops its gameplay or its visuals. I think people will be attracted to DJ Hero because of the music and then secondly, we've developed a very authentic, very desirable turntable controller. The gameplay mechanic is completely unique, and I really think the only way you can truly believe that or experience it is to get your hands on a turntable. We're going to do a huge amount of trials all over the world, predominantly this huge amount in North America, so get into a store, find out where a turntable is, and just go and play it. Make your own decision, but the people who have had some time with it, even if they've just played one or two mixes, they can see that we've done something that's very, very different and very unique.
WP: What about DLC? Do you have any sort of integrated music store, or any plans for future tracks?
CL: We've started working on that pretty much straightaway, so almost as soon as the game was finished, we moved straight on to DLC. What we're finding is artists are now approaching us, now that DJ Hero is becoming a bit more well-known. We're getting some artists that we didn't work with for the physical release, and that's really exciting for us. They see this as an opportunity to reach a wider audience, maybe a different audience to give the consumer the opportunity to actually interact with their music. So we got a bunch of DLC planned. There will be day one DLC, and then depending on consumer demand, we'll just roll it out as often as people are interested.
WP: Who's your dream artist? If you could have anyone in the world in the game, who would it be?
CL: Well, this is where it gets a little bit insane because when we originally thought of the game and when we started scoping out what was possible, we didn't even dream that we could get the kind of licenses that we've got. It's beyond belief, and it's very difficult to say that there's someone out there that we didn't get. The set list is something that we're very, very proud of. For me, to be able to work with people like the Scratch Perverts and DJ Yoda, they might not be globally recognized names but what they've done and the way in which they've created the content is really interesting. On the other side, when we announced the Jay-Z and Eminem relationship, that was huge for us. For those guys to truly connect with and understand what we were trying to do, and they see this as something that they have to be associated with and that they need their consumer and their audience to be associated with because they want to remain culturally relevant and totally cutting-edge. That was huge for us, for them to, without reservation or question , want to be involved with this game and want to be involved in the movement that follows this game.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
CL: I think we've gone into a lot of it. I think what's really interesting is the way in which we add up complexity, and again, it goes back to your question about Guitar Hero. We don't add additional streams. Otherwise, we'd have five buttons on the turntable, and it might get a little bit busy. Again, that's one of the areas of innovation where you have to think differently to connect differently. Every action that you do is the same as a real-life DJ, and the way in which we're asking you to exploit that game mechanic is exactly the way a DJ would do it, so that's something we're really proud of. Throughout the whole process, we've had the celebrity DJs, we've had our internal DJs, and we've even had the guys that we licensed music from, whether it's JRM, to actually look at the game, play the game, give us feedback, and every step of the way, they've just said, "This really as if it's the real deal. You've really managed to boil down the experience to something that's accessible and fun to play." Obviously the worst thing for us would to get into a situation where the people who are so much a part of this culture didn't feel as though it was authentic. That's the proudest part for me; they really believe that we've executed on something that represents their art form in a good way.
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