Interview: Jamie Jackson, creative director and co-studio head, FreeStyle Games
FreeStyle Games’ creative director, Jamie Jackson, has carved out a drastically different route for the studio’s first shot at helming the Guitar Hero series, but that’s little surprise. This, after all, is the company that gave the world DJ Hero when plastic guitars reigned supreme. Here, he tells us why FreeStyle went back to the drawing board for Guitar Hero Live. You’re clearly going for broad appeal, but are Skrillex and Eminem a step too far for Guitar Hero? Early on in development, I set rules for the team: do not use the old logo, barbed wire or flames. Let’s just try to start with a cleanish slate. So we went through a phase where we just tried marking up weird shit, and treated Guitar Hero as a rhythm-action game that happens to have a guitar controller. So the Skrillex track was just this one we marked up early on. And you’re absolutely right, there’s no guitar in it, but we came at it as, ‘What if you were playing some kind of synth guitar in this track? Could it be fun?’ I really enjoy playing that track. I feel quite connected to the music even though it’s not guitar, but it’s got a good groove to it and it creates a bit of fun at that point. If you hate Skrillex, it’s not going to do that. But I was at the launch thing in LA and I ended up playing the Eminem track against this girl who just wanted to go head-to-head. And we had a right laugh – it was really funny, and somebody else was trying to rap, which was even funnier. And what happened was there was this great Guitar Hero moment where you’re with your mates and trying to pretend you’re in a rock band. So that was what drove us to put it in. How did you go about balancing the powerups to allow different types of player to compete? We’re going to be launching new game modes into GHTV, which I can’t talk about too much yet, but they’re going to be reasons for competitive players to get into more competitive gaming. And the powerups are really going to come into their own there, because it will give people that edge. But a lot of the powerups were designed to allow people to build their own strategies in-game. The bomb one, for example: at my level, I can play Advanced and then some Expert, so I often pick the bomb when I’m playing Expert tracks, because I know I’m going to drop my note streak if I hit a guitar solo, but it allows me to protect my streak a little bit. Other times, if I know I can nail the song, I’m going to use the 2x multiplier. It’s all about letting players level up, have a metagame, and really feeding that competition for those who really want it. Were you worried about dropping the DLC model? Yes and no. The old DLC model, it didn’t really work for the entire fanbase, and that reflected in the amount of people who used DLC in the game. But at the same time, DLC as a pipeline for content is, I guess, the expected delivery method in the game industry at the moment. Or perhaps it was and that’s changing. Five years ago, [Internet]-connected consoles worldwide were about 40 per cent of the total, whereas today it’s about 90 per cent. Which is huge, and it means that we can get content to our players in a different way. For Guitar Hero, the content is music, and to be able to give people music quickly and efficiently was what was important to us. Plus, I guess we’re all of that age where we grew up on MTV and miss those days a bit. And it’s about music discovery, because I remember watching MTV as a kid, and that’s how I found my music; GHTV is definitely about discovery. High-score-chasing players are likely to want to replay tracks a lot. How did you balance the Play Token system to not penalise dedicated players? The whole premise of GHTV was to let people try stuff without spending money. If they really want to play [specific] things, they can spend money, but equally we’re going to give them free stuff as well. I feel that when people get into it, they’re going to realise that it’s been balanced pretty well. I think out of the box, you’re getting around nine hours of play what you want, how you want if you just play averagely. Which is quite a lot when you think that you’re averaging three minutes and 20 seconds a song. And you can keep playing and keep building those tokens up. I think that the people who want to ace the game, they’re also the people who will play it a lot more than anyone else, so arguably they’re going to build up a lot more in-game currency anyway. In the tutorial, your roadie refers to the lower buttons as “bottom strings”, whereas guitarists know these as top strings. How did you approach balancing realism with accessibility? You’ve picked the thing that caused the most arguments in the office, for exactly that reason! And this debate went on for months. I ended up becoming the mediator between our design team and everyone who plays guitar. And I ended up having to make the call. But everyone who plays guitar – and we’ve got quite a lot of them in our office – came to see me and was like, “You can’t do it this way; it doesn’t make guitar sense”. And then the design team’s like, “We know it’s not the right way, but everyone who doesn’t play guitar won’t understand it, because to everyone else up is up and down is down”. That debate raged for ages and we ended up going with… I guess what we feel is that we’re not making a guitar simulator, we’re making a rhythm-action game.
“I remember watching MTV as a kid, and that’s how I found my music. GHTV is definitely about discovery”