No more heroes

Sling­shot Car­tel is turn­ing its back on mu­sic ti­tles – and plans to change how games are made

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Why Gui­tar Hero Live’s cre­ators are turn­ing their backs on mu­sic

Freestyle Games is no more. The stu­dio be­hind DJ Hero and Gui­tar Hero Live lives on, al­beit scaled down, un­der new own­er­ship and the name of Ubisoft Leam­ing­ton. That deal only went through in Jan­uary, by which time it had al­ready been a year since co-founders Jamie Jack­son and Dave Os­bourn had de­cided it was time to walk away. Ac­tivi­sion, then Freestyle’s owner, put the stu­dio through a re­struc­ture, cut­ting head­count and hav­ing those who re­mained sup­port de­vel­op­ment of other Ac­tivi­sion ti­tles, rather than mak­ing their own. Freestyle’s Gui­tar Hero Live had sold in ex­cess of two mil­lion units. It wasn’t enough.

“For me and Dave to stay there didn’t make an aw­ful lot of sense,” Jack­son ex­plains. “We were too top-heavy for some­thing that wasn’t mak­ing games by it­self any more. You don’t need a cre­ative di­rec­tor, you don’t need a de­sign di­rec­tor. It wasn’t sen­si­ble for the stu­dio to carry our salaries, I guess.”

So Jack­son and Os­bourn – along with Freestyle’s art di­rec­tor Gareth Mor­ri­son, plus stu­dio man­ager Jonathan Napier – de­cided to strike out on their own, start­ing up new ven­ture Sling­shot Car­tel, with a man­date to do things dif­fer­ently. But there’s no bit­ter­ness at how their Freestyle story came to an end. In­stead, it’s the driv­ing force be­hind how this am­bi­tious new com­pany in­tends to func­tion.

Gui­tar Hero Live, like most games, was con­ceived by a hand­ful of peo­ple. By the end, 120 staff were work­ing on it, and there were of­ten hun­dreds more peo­ple in­volved dur­ing film­ing ses­sions for the game’s live-ac­tion com­po­nent. Yet while those mak­ing the game knew that, sooner or later, a re­dun­dancy sit­u­a­tion would ar­rive, the film crews worked with­out fear. “The movie in­dus­try knows,” Jack­son says. “It isn’t about re­dun­dancy. It’s about peo­ple work­ing con­tract, com­ing in at the right time, do­ing a job at the right time, and then mov­ing off.”

Sling­shot Car­tel is be­ing mod­elled in that im­age. The four co-founders, work­ing re­motely or in a shared cre­ative space in Freestyle’s home of Leam­ing­ton Spa, can work on a con­cept un­til they’re happy with it. At that point, they bring in the help they need on a con­tract ba­sis and, as Jack­son puts it, “pay them un­til they get it right”. It’s ob­vi­ously more cost-ef­fec­tive than keep­ing 100 staff on the books, but, cru­cially, it also ben­e­fits the game it­self, en­sur­ing that the right peo­ple only be­gin work on the game at the right time. “We know that, just be­cause you’ve got an art team, it doesn’t mean they’re con­cept artists; just be­cause you’ve got a bunch of guys that can make great mod­els, it doesn’t mean they can de­sign a great char­ac­ter,” Jack­son says. “When you’re just pay­ing a cou­ple of peo­ple to do con­cepts un­til they get it right, then you load in a team full of artists… It just makes so much sense.”

It’s early days for Sling­shot’s first game, cur­rently co­de­named The DRG Ini­tia­tive, though the progress the group has made is strik­ing enough that Ama­zon in­vited Sling­shot to show an early pro­to­type on its stand at GDC (Jack­son and co are us­ing Ama­zon’s Lum­ber­yard, a much-im­proved fork of Cry­tek’s CryEngine). Al­ready, it’s clear to see the po­ten­tial in the idea, a mul­ti­player, third­per­son sci-fi shooter that’s be­ing built from the ground up with an es­ports au­di­ence in mind. Jack­son points out that most suc­cess­ful es­ports have had their tour­na­ment and spec­ta­tor fea­tures bolted on af­ter the fact (“We were play­ing Counter-Strike when we were at Code­mas­ters”); Sling­shot, how­ever, is putting the viewer and the caster at the heart of the game’s core de­sign. Set 2,000 years in the fu­ture, The DRG Ini­tia­tive de­picts a Run­ning Manstyle TV show whose com­bat­ants are fol­lowed by drone cam­eras, which the caster can flick be­tween on the fly, and even take man­ual con­trol of. There are no respawns, though each player takes two char­ac­ters into bat­tle, switch­ing be­tween them af­ter death or in safe zones around the map. In shoot­ers such as Rain­bow Six: Siege and Counter-Strike, per­madeath means a slow, tense pace, but here the caster can nudge the tempo by call­ing an au­di­ence vote – award­ing health or ammo packs, for in­stance, for one team or the other. An­other el­e­ment, which the team isn’t pre­pared to talk about pub­licly yet, will see view­ers force the pace in far more dra­matic ways.

At Freestyle, Jack­son and co sought out chal­lenges like this as a mat­ter of course. They worked out how turntab­lism could be made into a fun game in DJ Hero, then re­designed the gui­tar con­troller and be­came film­mak­ers as well as game de­vel­op­ers for Gui­tar Hero Live. Here they are work­ing out how a live au­di­ence, and the pre­sen­ter, can be used as de­sign tools in a game, while also rewrit­ing the rule­book on how games should best be made. Busi­ness as usual, then – but this time, they’ll an­swer to no one but them­selves.

The DRG Ini­tia­tive de­picts a Run­ning Man-style TV show whose com­bat­ants are fol­lowed by drone cam­eras

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