We head back­stage­back with Har­monix as theth stu­dio tune­ses up for Gui­tar HeroH Live’s de­but ebut

Freestyle Games shows off its new ma­te­rial in Gui­tar Hero’s au­da­cious re­birth

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY NATHAN BROWN

Some­one on Ac­tivi­sion’s in­vestor re­la­tions team has a cruel way with puns. When, in 2011, the pub­lisher an­nounced that it was putting the Gui­tar Hero se­ries on hia­tus – and that around 500 peo­ple were los­ing their jobs, the ma­jor­ity as a re­sult of that de­ci­sion – it said its mu­sic game busi­ness unit was be­ing “dis­banded”. The pub­lisher had only it­self to blame. Ac­tivi­sion had re­leased 14 con­sole games bear­ing the Gui­tar Hero name in five years, had ported it to smartphones and the ar­cade, and spun it off into a band game. It was the sort of re­lease sched­ule that would turn even the world’s hottest band into its most hated. War­riors Of

Rock, the closing act in a se­ries that made Ac­tivi­sion some $2 bil­lion, launched in late 2010 to 100,000 first-month sales. The mar­ket had spo­ken – some play­ers lured away by Rock Band’s su­pe­rior party game, many more sim­ply tir­ing of a se­ries that had changed too lit­tle as the years had passed. Thou­sands of plas­tic in­stru­ments went up in the loft, or off to land­fill. Ac­tivi­sion Pub­lish­ing CEO Eric Hir­sh­berg said that Gui­tar Hero would not re­turn un­til a de­vel­oper could “gen­er­ate mean­ing­ful in­no­va­tion” in a se­ries that had be­come too set in its ways.

Four years on, he’s got it. Gui­tar Hero Live makes sweep­ing changes to the way Gui­tar Hero is played, pre­sented and de­liv­ered. Its con­troller has been re­designed, its per­spec­tive has swung around, and Ac­tivi­sion’s longterm plan is be­ing built on a 24-hour on-de­mand mu­sic video ser­vice. It is pre­cisely the sort of in­no­va­tion Hir­sh­berg wanted and the se­ries so des­per­ately needed. And who bet­ter to de­liver it than Freestyle Games? The UK stu­dio has been mak­ing mu­sic games ever since its in­cep­tion in 2002, was part of the Gui­tar Hero DLC pro­duc­tion line from 2008’s World Tour on­ward, and did more than most to in­no­vate in the plas­tic-in­stru­ment genre with DJ Hero.

Shrewdly, cre­ative direc­tor Jamie Jack­son un­der­stood that the only way to nav­i­gate 14 games’ worth of bag­gage was to sim­ply get rid of it. “When we started, I had a cou­ple of rules: on no doc­u­ments do we use the old Gui­tar Hero logo, and no flames or barbed wire,” he tells us. “We were try­ing to make a new Gui­tar Hero, and the only thing I wanted to start with was the name. Dave [Os­bourn, co-founder and de­sign direc­tor] and I were quite strong on that: ‘If we’re go­ing to do this, we need to take all the shack­les off, re­move all the his­tory al­most, and just keep the core of what it is.’ That, to me, is how you in­no­vate within some­thing that al­ready ex­ists.”

With this scant­est of briefs, Jack­son set a small team to work on ex­plor­ing what form a new Gui­tar Hero might take. Ac­tivi­sion gives its sub­sidiaries a cer­tain amount of lee­way when it comes to R&D, and Freestyle ex­ploited that free­dom to the fullest. “We had pro­to­types at the be­gin­ning where we didn’t even have a gui­tar,” Jack­son says. “We had air gui­tar stuff go­ing on with all the dif­fer­ent cam­era tech that was out there, where you could play notes just by play­ing air gui­tar. We had stuff go­ing on with touch­screen tech­nol­ogy; what if we stuck a phone in the gui­tar? What would that al­low us to do? It was a re­ally fun time. We were able to just try out re­ally dif­fer­ent, weird, strange things. It started to help us nar­row down what we wanted to do.”

Gui­tar Hero’s ap­peal, how­ever, lies in its con­trols. It is about a con­nec­tion be­tween the player and the mu­sic, and so its gui­tar – a phys­i­cal ob­ject with fret but­tons to press and some­thing to strum – is a vi­tal part of that con­nec­tion. There was no need to over­haul much of this setup – the strum bar, for in­stance, has al­ways been fully fit for pur­pose – but when the stu­dio be­gan to pore over the reams of player data that Ac­tivi­sion had amassed dur­ing Gui­tar Hero’s hey­day, it re­alised what needed to change.

“We wanted to know who played Gui­tar Hero,” Jack­son says. “It was one of the big things we wanted to know: was it just ex­pert play­ers, who wanted to play [Dragon­force’s] Through The Fire And Flames? Or was it a broader group of peo­ple? There were a lot of peo­ple, more than any other cat­e­gory, that played on medium [dif­fi­culty].”

In pre­vi­ous games, medium dif­fi­culty was, by and large, played on the first three frets, with the other two only re­ally com­ing into play once play­ers make the step up to hard and be­yond. Notes be­come more fre­quent as you move up the dif­fi­cul­ties, and that, com­bined with the need to move up and down the neck, proved too much of a stum­bling block for many play­ers. “We wanted to make a game that re­ally spoke to that group of peo­ple, but gave them more depth than the old con­fig­u­ra­tion did,” Jack­son ex­plains. “As soon as you had to use your pinky, or move your fin­gers down the but­tons, then re-find your po­si­tion… for so many peo­ple, that’s where it fell apart. I was one of them, def­i­nitely.”

With that in mind, Freestyle landed on a new lay­out quite early on: two rows of three but­tons. Staff mapped out pos­si­ble chord shapes and phrase pat­terns, and liked what they saw. They hacked to­gether a pro­to­type with some ca­ble trunk­ing and the in­nards of a smashed-up 360 con­troller, and marked up a few songs for this new con­trol sys­tem. “It just worked,” Jack­son says. And it does: while it takes time to ad­just, mov­ing a fin­ger from one row to the next feels nat­u­ral and or­ganic, and the tworow lay­out makes what is com­ing down the note high­way in the cen­tre of the screen feel like a more re­al­is­tic re­flec­tion of the song in the back­ground. Barre chords come into play in rock songs, power chords in metal, and open chords in indie or folk. It makes an aw­ful lot of sense.

Gui­tar Hero Live may of­fer those who play on medium a deeper ex­pe­ri­ence than games past, but while it may be the most popular dif­fi­culty over­all, Jack­son is well aware of the need to cater to the more com­mit­ted player. “It couldn’t just be a game for [medium]. We worked re­ally hard to en­sure that, although we changed the gui­tar, there are still those com­bi­na­tions of phrases that will give you the feel­ing of do­ing those five-but­ton runs, but in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way.”

“‘IF WE’RE GO­ING TO DO THIS, WE NEED TO TAKE ALL THE SHACK­LES OFF, RE­MOVE ALL THE HIS­TORY AL­MOST, AND J UST KEEP THE CORE’”

For us, the step up to Ad­vanced, the new name for hard, proves more than enough, with more notes to play and more fre­quent switches be­tween rows and chord shapes. We’ve seen Vet­eran, as it’s now known, and suf­fice it to say that those who see the new fret but­ton ar­range­ment as ev­i­dence of some kind of dumb­ing down are in for a hell of a shock.

They are also in for a stern telling off from tens of thou­sands of un­happy pun­ters. While the ef­fect of the pe­riph­eral’s re­design is sub­tle, and has to be played to be prop­erly un­der­stood, the im­pact of the shift to firstper­son play in front of a live-ac­tion crowd is im­me­di­ate, and enor­mous. And while the new gui­tar de­sign came to life in the back room of Freestyle’s Leamington Spa of­fices, the shifted per­spec­tive was born on the other side of the At­lantic. “We were hav­ing a chat with Eric Hir­sh­berg,” Jack­son says, “and he asked the ques­tion, ‘Have we ever thought about turn­ing the cam­era round, mak­ing it firstper­son, putting peo­ple on­stage?’ We thought it was in­ter­est­ing – we took it back to the stu­dio, and thought about it some more.”

It’s a sim­ple con­cept, in the­ory. It makes a lot of sense, too: why has a game that casts you as the Gui­tar Hero al­ways been viewed from the per­spec­tive of the crowd? But as soon as Jack­son started to think about the lo­gis­tics, it quickly be­gan to get out of hand. Show the ac­tion through the crowd’s eyes and all you need to make is a stage, some lights, a band and their kit. As con­fi­dent as Jack­son and Freestyle were in their abil­i­ties, even they didn’t fancy ren­der­ing a crowd of thou­sands and the world around them. “I im­me­di­ately thought, ‘I want to film this’,” Jack­son says. “’If we’re go­ing to truly make it look real, we haven’t got a fuck­ing chance of do­ing it in-en­gine.’ Could you imag­ine 100,000 re­al­is­tic peo­ple look­ing back at you in a game en­gine? It just wasn’t go­ing to work.”

So, ex­ploit­ing Ac­tivi­sion’s hands-off ap­proach again (“I’m a big fan of the ‘ask for for­give­ness, not per­mis­sion’ ap­proach for, well, life in gen­eral,” Jack­son says), Freestyle made con­tact with a cou­ple of pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies and went out film­ing. The ini­tial premise was for a sto­ry­line: you started out not as the ax­e­man but a roadie, only tak­ing to the stage af­ter the gui­tarist quits mid-song in a fit of pique, and it took half the song to get the scep­ti­cal crowd on your side. By the end, they were cheer­ing and singing along. It was a pow­er­ful mo­ment, and when Freestyle showed it to Ac­tivi­sion, it went down well. But it was also an iso­lated one. What if ev­ery song, start to fin­ish, was an on­go­ing battle to win over, and keep, the crowd?

It is at this point that it no longer sounds like Freestyle has been de­vel­op­ing a videogame. We are in film­mak­ing ter­ri­tory here. While the re­design of the gui­tar it­self was in­formed by pre­vi­ous Gui­tar Hero games, the cen­tral in­spi­ra­tion for the live-ac­tion com­po­nent was Andy Serkis, who spoke at an Ac­tivi­sion lead­er­ship con­fer­ence about ad­vances in mo­tion and per­for­mance cap­ture. Serkis ex­plained how, dur­ing the mak­ing of The Hob­bit, Peter Jack­son had shot in­te­rior scenes that showed Gan­dalf tow­er­ing over the rest of the as­sem­bled cast.

“On the same sound stage, they built a hu­man-sized hob­bit hole and, next to it, a child-sized hob­bit hole,” Jack­son tells us. “They put all the hob­bits and dwarves in the big one, then Sir Ian McKellen in the kid­die one. They had two robot cam­eras pro­grammed to be per­fectly in sync and do the same shot. They could very quickly comp that to­gether and Peter Jack­son could look at it, then di­rect them all as if they were act­ing to­gether. When I saw that, my brain ex­ploded.”

Be­fore long, Freestyle had its cam­era, a two-tonne robot that could re­peat the ex­act same shot time af­ter time. All it needed to do was film the crowd re­act­ing pos­i­tively for one shot, and neg­a­tively for an­other, and it could switch be­tween the two ac­cord­ing to your per­for­mance. It is an el­e­gant so­lu­tion to a com­plex prob­lem, which might as well be this game’s tagline. From each new idea or so­lu­tion spills a se­ries of new hur­dles; that’s game devel­op­ment, of course, but not many game-mak­ers find them­selves need­ing to tell a 400-strong crowd what to do. Few play pop sven­gali by au­di­tion­ing po­ten­tial mem­bers of the band they’ve just in­vented, look­ing for the right mix of act­ing chops, mu­si­cal­ity and chem­istry with band­mates.

So when we say that all Freestyle needed to do was have the crowd re­act pos­i­tively for one shot and neg­a­tively for an­other, we’re skimp­ing on the de­tails slightly. First, it had to get the cam­era’s move­ment right; when fully pro­grammed, it was too ro­botic, but when based solely on a mo­tion-cap­tured gui­tarist, it was too hu­man – a full-pelt run over to the drum riser, for in­stance, just wouldn’t look right. Scenes of the band and their en­tourage back­stage be­fore the show needed to be cast, writ­ten, re­hearsed and shot. Once those 400 ex­tras had been recorded do­ing their pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive re­sponses, they changed clothes, were moved back four or five rows and shuf­fled around, then did it again, and again, those 400 peo­ple some­times play­ing the roles of 5,000 be­fore CGI would take over and fill in the rest of the crowd. And when CGI did kick in, it wasn’t sim­ply fill­ing in the back of the arena, but the world be­hind it: one of seven fes­ti­val scenes de­signed from scratch by Freestyle’s art team, made up of as­sets of a higher res­o­lu­tion than any­thing they had ever made, then post-pro­cessed and lit by Lon­don-based post­pro­duc­tion com­pany Frame­store. There you go: you have a song. Now do it for all the oth­ers.

If you think all that sounds ex­pen­sive, you’d be right. “We’ve tried to make it ef­fi­cient as pos­si­ble,” projects direc­tor

Jon Napier tells us, his choice of words mak­ing it pretty clear that it cost a bomb any­way. “You’ve got to ap­pre­ci­ate the level of vis­ual de­tail that we’re go­ing for here. You can only re­ally achieve that if you’re go­ing to film it and do post­pro­duc­tion, and there’s a cost in­volved with that. It’s great for us to know that we have that level of back­ing and sup­port from Ac­tivi­sion. We wouldn’t have been able to do it oth­er­wise.”

“YOU’VE GOT TO AP­PRE­CI­ATE THE LEVEL OF DE­TAIL THAT WE’RE GO­ING FOR. YOU CAN ONLY ACHIEVE THAT IF YOU’RE GO­ING TO FILM IT”

“ARE GAMERS GO­ING TO GET IT? I RE­MEM­BER RED ALERT, AND THAT WING COM­MAN­DER WITH MARK HAMILL. I HAD THIS NAG­GING DOUBT”

In­deed, Ac­tivi­sion comes out of this quite well, con­sid­er­ing it ran the Gui­tar Hero se­ries into the ground and has a rep­u­ta­tion for rep­e­ti­tion. It was be­cause of that, per­haps, that Gui­tar Hero

Live’s an­nounce­ment was met with cyn­i­cism on­line. Both gui­tar and sound­track were ridiculed, while the live-ac­tion com­po­nent in­vited com­par­isons with old FMV games. Jack­son saw it com­ing.

“I al­ways, al­ways be­lieved in it,” he says, “but for a long time, I had this thing in the back of my mind: we’ve just filmed real peo­ple. Are gamers go­ing to get it? I re­mem­ber Red Alert, and that Wing Com­man­der with Mark Hamill. I just had this nag­ging doubt for a while. Then I’d look at it and just be, like, there’s no fuck­ing way peo­ple could com­pare it to that. This is com­pletely, com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

He’s right, but while it’s im­pos­si­ble not to ad­mire the thought, ef­fort and work that has gone into the cre­ation of this live-ac­tion com­po­nent, many play­ers will miss a lot of it. Th­ese games are de­fined by the note chart in the cen­tre of the screen, and when you’re strug­gling to keep up, your eye is not go­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the thumbs-down ges­tures of a grumpy crowd, or the sad shake of the head from a stroppy drum­mer. Jack­son hopes this will make sin­gle­player Gui­tar Hero more so­cial than be­fore, with spec­ta­tors more in­volved in the on­screen ac­tion now that there are so many vis­ual points of con­tact on the pe­riph­ery.

It’s cheesy, too, but then so is the rock-god fan­tasy. Af­ter just a few plays, those intro se­quences get a lit­tle repet­i­tive, but they’ll be skip­pable once you’ve watched them once. Most im­por­tantly of all, while it may have taken the lion’s share of the bud­get and an aw­ful lot of work, it is only part of the pack­age. Re­nam­ing the tough­est dif­fi­culty ‘Vet­eran’ is telling. This is the

Gui­tar Hero equiv­a­lent of a Call Of Duty cam­paign: a lav­ishly pro­duced, highly pol­ished, sin­gle­player com­po­nent that is, in the scheme of things, only a small part of the pack­age.

Gui­tar Hero Live’s long game is GHTV, a round-the-clock stream­ing ser­vice made up of genre-themed chan­nels and set not to live-ac­tion back­drops, but mu­sic videos. Songs will be par­celled up into 30- and 60-minute TV shows (though they can also be se­lected and played in­di­vid­u­ally). A Freestyle-de­vel­oped rec­om­men­da­tions en­gine will sug­gest other things for you to play later, ei­ther dur­ing idents be­tween songs or on an evolv­ing home screen. It is a sort of cross-pol­li­na­tion of ideas from YouTube, Spo­tify, MTV and Last FM, and can be left run­ning in­def­i­nitely, the player pick­ing up the gui­tar and play­ing along when some­thing they like comes on. Playable alone or in mul­ti­player – ei­ther lo­cally or on­line, with a real­time score­board rank­ing per­for­mances – GHTV may not be Gui­tar Hero Live’s head­line act, but it cer­tainly takes top billing in terms of stay­ing power.

Freestyle is re­luc­tant to go into too many de­tails, pre­fer­ring to hold back for E3, but we do know that it is reach­ing far and wide in terms of genre for the ser­vice: Gary Clark Jr’s smokey blues-rock and Skrillex’s di­vi­sive brand of EDM pro­vide the op­po­site poles on the slen­der list of artists an­nounced thus far. The li­cens­ing process is mov­ing at speed, too. Gui­tar Hero Live will, we’re told, launch with the big­gest sound­track of any game in the se­ries to date, and it will be up­dated con­stantly fol­low­ing re­lease. The stu­dio has plans to build GHTV chan­nels around cur­rent events, be that a fes­ti­val lineup or a ret­ro­spec­tive of a big band with a new al­bum com­ing out. An­a­lyt­ics data show­ing what is most popular will guide Freestyle’s fu­ture li­cens­ing work.

What­ever gets added to the ser­vice will be made, and made avail­able, in a far more timely fash­ion than in the DLC days of old. With record la­bels pro­vid­ing of­fi­cial mu­sic videos and sound­track stems, Freestyle’s role lies solely in turn­ing a stu­dio record­ing into a playable song. It’s not the sim­plest of pro­cesses, cer­tainly, but at least there’s no need for two-tonne cam­eras and a cou­ple of hun­dred ex­tras.

Yet per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment to GHTV is that it kills an old busi­ness model stone dead. “We’re build­ing a mul­ti­year ser­vice,” Napier says. “We have lots of things that we’re putting to­gether now for year one, year two, even year three. Rather than tar­get­ing the big hol­i­day re­lease win­dow, we can look at events. We’ll have a sched­ule, of course, but it won’t be Thanks­giv­ing, it’ll be Glas­ton­bury.” He speaks not only of new con­tent be­ing added, but new game­play fea­tures too.

He recog­nises, how­ever, that whether GHTV suc­ceeds or fails will be a ques­tion of sales. No band can play to an empty room for long, and with­out an au­di­ence Freestyle will strug­gle to li­cense new ma­te­rial and main­tain a team to make it playable. The re­ac­tion to the an­nounce­ment may have been cyn­i­cal, but it has al­ways been easy to pooh-pooh Gui­tar Hero un­til you hold the in­stru­ment in your hands and begin to play. It says much that Ac­tivi­sion let the public go hands-on with Gui­tar Hero Live at the flag­ship store of UK re­tailer Game days af­ter its an­nounce­ment. Much more of this will be re­quired in com­ing months.

Napier joined Freestyle three years ago, when the stu­dio was start­ing to think about what would come next af­ter it had de­liv­ered Wii U karaoke game Sing Party U. “It was a great com­pany,” he says, “that, I think, re­ally needed some­thing to get its teeth into.” It clearly did, tak­ing on its big­gest and most risky project to date, then mak­ing it even big­ger and riskier with each new idea. Never mind some­thing to get their teeth into; did Jack­son ever feel they’d bit­ten off more than they could chew?

“For me? Per­son­ally? Al­most con­stantly,” he says. “I would walk out onto a stage the size of a very large fes­ti­val that we had com­pletely cus­tom built. We had sev­eral thou­sand pounds’ worth of mu­sic equip­ment loaned to us. I looked at the band, check­ing over their wardrobe, I saw the gi­ant fuck­ing robot cam­era, then I turned around to see 400 peo­ple look­ing at me. I’m like, ‘Wow. We re­ally did this. We ac­tu­ally went out and did it.’” In­deed they did. Hir­sh­berg’s got his in­no­va­tion. Gui­tar

Hero has its new per­spec­tive, its new pre­sen­ta­tion and its new way to play. All it needs now is a crowd.

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