WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!
I'm Brian Bright, and I'm the Project Director at Neversoft for Guitar Hero 5.
WP: The Guitar Hero franchise has had quite a few titles since Guitar Hero 3, which is the one Neversoft worked on. How much involvement has Neversoft had in the secondary titles, such as Aerosmith and Smash Hits, that you didn't develop directly but are part of the Guitar Hero franchise?
BB: Neversoft's developed Guitar Hero 3, GH: Aerosmith, Metallica, World Tour, and GH5. The only one that's been out so far that we haven't worked on is Smash Hits, and Smash Hits was worked on by Beenox, and they used our code base. Essentially, the way that went down was we did GH World Tour and then Metallica improved upon the game, but still using the core technology. They improved a few technologies, like the vocals and stuff, and then Smash Hits took that code base and created their game.
We have a game engine library group and a tools and engine group, and those departments, along with the animation group, kind of supported Beenox more than any of our other departments in the company.
WP: One of the big complaints about Smash Hits was the fact that it couldn't use the World Tour DLC, even though it had the same engine. Now, with GH5, you guys have really opened it up. Not only does it share the World Tour DLC, but you've also enabled importing from GH World Tour and Smash Hits, similar to how Rock Band does. What kind of technical problems did that present?
BB: Well, it does present technical problems. Obviously between GH3 and GH World Tour, there were huge problems because we weren't a full band game. There are big leaps and bounds there. But with GH World Tour and GH5, they're both band games, but we did a lot of upgrades. We did animation upgrades in GH5. We didn't just want to halt the code base and halt the animation system and be complacent with what we did in World Tour. We wanted to push that forward.
We also wanted to add a few gameplay elements, so we added Band Moments to the game. Every song has numerous Band Moments, where you'll see the gems, they're flaming, they're on fire, they come down, everyone in the band hits them in time. The pyro goes off, the multiplier goes up big — those are actually physically added in, though, to every song at key moments.
We wanted to do that, so we actually had to go back to all the downloadable content — I think there are 152 songs in the store right now — we had to go back and physically add those to every song. We did it for any of the songs that you'll import as well; we call it franchise compatibility. We've added features to that to get you to experience those in GH5 and not really know that they're from a different game. All the same stuff is in there. That was a considerable amount of work.
There's a small patch file that you'll have to download for the downloadable content; it patches the animation data and remaps the game to use the newer and better animations and also puts in the Band Moments and all the other stuff. So there's a small patching process, but we felt it was worth it to do that, but it is tricky. When you start doing that, you have to think about, "We can't add stuff here or there willy-nilly because it has to work with the older content." You have to think about every decision more strategically.
WP: One of the big changes in GH5 is the ability to play with four of the same instruments — four guitars, four drums, four vocalists. Why has something like that taken so long to implement, and what was the impetus behind that?
BB: You just go to a social setting, like a party or a bar, or anywhere they're playing GH or other music rhythm games, and not everyone wants to play the bass. We did our best in World Tour; we added the open note. I think it's cool, it's a different addition and makes it more compelling, but it was always like, "What can we do to make people want to play bass?"
Well now, we found that guys don't always want to sing unless they're really drunk or it's a song that they really, really like, but girls usually will get on the mic. Girls usually won't play the drums, only some guys who know how to play the drums normally will play the drums because it can be embarrassing. But everyone will step up and play the guitar. We have a lot of guitars out there. We put quite a few games out there that have been bundled. People generally have extra guitars, so why not let them play it? We're making a fun game. Yes, you're playing music, but it's not a music simulator. We're not too highbrow to say that in this band, there's not actually three guitars, but you can play it. Why not just let people have fun and play the game they want to play it?
As for why it took so long, we innovate on yearly updates — GH3, GH World Tour, GH5 — those are our big, yearly franchises. Anything else that comes out in between uses those code bases and kind of done a deeper dive into a band, like Metallica or Aerosmith. We take the yearly titles as the time to really push new features and innovate. For me, it's only been one year, so it hasn't been that long.
WP: Obviously Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the two big music/rhythm franchises. GH works with the RB instruments; with the guitars and the mics, it's no problem, but with the drum sets, RB drums obviously have one less pad than you guys have. What kind of challenge is that? What went into supporting the RB instruments so that somebody who has that and buy your game, it still works seamlessly? Was it particularly difficult or easy?
BB: We did the drum compatibility back on World Tour, but we knew right off the bat that one of the things that we wanted to do with our drums was make it consistent so that you always know that the red is the snare, the yellow is the high hat, and the orange is the crash. We wanted to have that feeling of reaching out and hitting something to crash; we felt that was a compelling feature. Therefore, we have two toms that are dedicated toms. A lot of drum kits have three toms, but we felt that we could simulate that on two and get away with it. We really felt that keeping the red dedicated to snare, if you're playing as a righty, was important and not having that pad switch up to a tom from time to time or the yellow pad switch up from a tom. That was key for us, and that's why we designed the drum kit the way it is. You can close your eyes and play it if you know the song. You don't have to worry about how a note tracker might have transcribed it.
Now, as far as being compatible, we obviously want to be compatible with a competitor's drum kit because there are a lot of them out there. What we do is take the orange cymbal and map that to the blue pad, and if there's something on the blue pad already, a tom hit, then it's back to the green.
We automatically crunch it down. We did extra work back in World Tour. We continue on with GH5 to make compatibility with plastic drum peripherals that, umm, don't have as many pads. Let's put it that way. (laughs)
WP: Let's talk a bit about licensing. From a player perspective, licensing is always annoying. Can you give us a little insight about what goes on behind the scenes in licensing? What do you guys have to do?
BB: We have a music licensing group at Activision. We work with the Vice President of that group, Tim Riley, and his guys, and we have a group at Neversoft who tries to vet the best music. As we've gone through the past few years, we've streamlined the process, but now, internally, everyone picks songs that they think might fit for the game. We put all of those on a network drive. We have a spreadsheet. As you add songs to the network drive, you put it on the spreadsheet and you link it. Then we send it all to our lead designer guys and note trackers 'cause we want to vet it for playability. We have great songs that we like, we vet it through the leads, they tell us how playable the song is, they rate it (fun, really fun, really hard), and then we take that and distill it down. We want to have a good range of music. For example, we want to have a great range of endemic classic rock; modern, newer rock that's going to hit or going to be big this year — we want to be on the cutting edge; and fun party music like "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." Basically, we like something that you turn on and a smile is on everybody's face.
As far as the licensing process, once we get that list down, it might be 200 to 300 songs. This year, we're only going to have 85 in the game. We then rank it by what the consumers and players would like and what's the most fun, and then we just start contacting. Our music licensing guys go out, and they have relationships with managers and relationships with labels, and they ask people if they want to be in GH5. One of the artists, he said that before we even asked him for a song in the game, he was calling his manager to ask, "How can we get in these GH games?" When they got the call that Neversoft wants to put "Disconnected" in GH5, they immediately answered, "Heck yeah, let's do it!" It was awesome.
It works different ways. We do get solicited to an extent. The music guys probably get solicited more than us at Neversoft. I get free discs in the mail and listen to them, but I'm sure they get hit way more. That's kind of how the process works.
WP: Given the competition between the GH and Rock Band franchises, what did Rock Band 2 do really well, and conversely, what does GH5 going to do really well that is going to make the Harmonix guys stand up and take notice?
BB: I think franchise compatibility is a big thing. Our competitors did it; they came out with it in Rock Band 2, and it was something that we'd been wanting to do, and we finally were able to get all the licensing agreements in order. Obviously we took inspiration from that. It was something that we wanted to do, and we are finally able to do it and give it to the fans. It's not like we didn't want to do that. That was a big thing.
As far as when they sit down and play GH5, I think the ability to use multiple instruments is fun. There's no denying it, and I don't care how much of a music elitist you might be. It's fun as hell. Once that gets in anyone's hands, they're going to see that, and it's in Party Play as well. You can jump in and jump out. The freedom, the accessibility: Those are two big innovations that I'm sure that our competitors out there will at least have fun playing, if not take inspiration from.
Guitar Hero 5 is scheduled for release on Sept. 1, 2009.
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