Before sitting down to chat with him, Guitar Hero World Tour lead designer Alan Flores had one question for me: “Are you the guy with the loaded questions?”
“No,” I said, totally believing myself at the time.
Then we started talking. And as it turns out, maybe my question came off a bit on the “loaded” side. I didn’t even realize it while it was happening, either. It wasn’t until I went back later to transcribe the interview that I realized that while maybe I wasn’t the guy he was talking about, I might have come across as that guy.
I certainly didn’t mean to. I had just spent a good four hours playing — and rather enjoying — World Tour. Maybe it was my rowdy vocal rendition of Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” that had me all worked up.
In any case … Alan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. But thanks for talking to me about lessons learned from Guitar Hero III, cross-game instrument compatibility, and putting up with my repeated questions about the in-game store that may or may not exist.
How long has Guitar Hero World Tour been in development?
ALAN FLORES, LEAD DESIGNER
Well the drum controller prototype was being developed before we started working out Guitar Hero III; another Activision studio was working on a game that was going to be a drum game, you know, Drum Hero, Drum Villian … whatever they were gonna call it. They were working on that, but they didn’t make that game.
You know, when we were working on Guitar Hero III we couldn’t actually do drums and all that stuff; it was hard enough just getting the guitar done. (laughs) So when we finished Guitar Hero III then we incorporated the drum controller in to our game as well; instead of making a separate SKU we made it all into one game.
But as soon as we were done with III we started working on World Tour. Probably this time last year; must have been September last year, or October. That was like four games ago — I can’t even remember!
So, when you did work on Guitar Hero III, I guess you were kind of rushed into that. It sounds to me like they were just like “Here’s Guitar Hero III, get it done!” You guys had to start over with the technology, is that correct?
Well yeah, we totally rebuilt the game with our technology and our code. It was a challenge just to get up and running and make a rhythm game, and incorporate the hardware and do all that stuff. It was a pretty aggressive schedule, but we were able to get it done.
Is there anything you learned from making Guitar Hero III that helped you with World Tour?
There’s a lot of stuff [we learned or wanted to do] along the way. Like the open strum, for example — which is basically strumming without holding any of the frets down, which we added to bass groove in World Tour — we were almost afraid to put that in to Guitar Hero III. You know, lots of little things like that.
We learned lots of things about lag, about note windows and all of that kind of stuff, hammer-ons, and just a lot of little things.
Was there anything you feel that you kind of did wrong with Guitar Hero III that when working on World Tour you were able to address? I think, for example when III shipped there was no quick play cooperative mode; you know, areas where you’re too close to the project and can’t really see the forest through the trees.
Yeah, that was totally one of those things. Yeah, that was a mistake, but we tried to fix that as best as we could, you know with the title update. [Note: both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game had this update available by the game’s retail release date.] That was a weird one; we didn’t realize that coop career wasn’t it for everybody, that they would want to jump in and play coop quick play.
You know, the other thing — and people bring this up a lot, too — is just the difficulty. I don’t think it’s the difficulty as much as it’s the ramping up of the difficulty, and I think that the game got hard really quickly in Guitar Hero III, and I think there comes to a point where it’s a brick wall for a lot of people. We worked really hard on Guitar Hero: Aerosmith to kind of fix that, there’s a more smooth, linear ramp, and I think we addressed that with World Tour [as well].
About complexity, just in general — when you look at the first Guitar Hero, it was pretty much just “Here’s a guitar controller, follow the notes.” It was really, really straightforward; everything from the menus to the gameplay itself, it was pretty straightforward. Guitar Hero World Tour is a pretty complicated game; there’s a lot of stuff going on: there’s a music creator, there’s the open notes, there’s accent notes on the drums, character creator. At what point do you think a game gets too complex, and how do you balance that?
Yeah, that’s a tough one. I mean, I would agree with you there — there’s a lot of stuff in there. We try a lot of user-testing, we try to get a lot of feedback on a lot of things and try to make it as intuitive as possible. But there’s a lot of depth in the game, so trying to find this balance between complexity and simplicity and depth, it’s not always easy. Hopefully people won’t think that it’s too difficult to get in there [and play].
So, the instruments — the drums, the guitars — will supposedly be compatible across the board. Is that something that Microsoft or Sony came to you guys and said “This needs to happen”?
Well, it’s something that we wanted to do. I mean, we’re fans of the genre, too. We’re not just developers of the game, and it wasn’t really a PR thing — we wanted this to be done, we thought it was a cool thing. So we tried to work on it and try to get it going.
You know, it’s one of those things, it’s not really a no-brainer. It’s not “Alright, Rock Band drums, work on our game.” (snaps fingers) “Alright, done!” Our drums have three pads and two cymbals, so there’s a five-lane highway. When you plug the Rock Band kit in, we condense it down to a four-lane highway, and we had to do extra work, first of all, to get that to work. We had a QA process, things behave differently on the Rock Band drum kit as opposed to our drum kit. It was extra work for us, but we thought it was what people wanted, we thought it would be a cool thing.
You know, it wasn’t free. But hopefully it will be worth it in the end.
OK, so you’re saying that if do plug a Rock Band kit into the game, World Tour will recognize it and the game changes?
Yeah. It’ll take the five-lane highway and take the pad all the way on the right, which is the green one, and it’ll stick it over onto the orange pad. There’s something other logic too, I think if there’s already an orange note it will move it over to the blue note or something like that. I can’t remember the actual algorithm; it won’t actually modify the note track, it just modifies the highway so that someone with a Rock Band kit can play.
Because imagine if they plug it in [thinking] “Hey, it’s fully compatible!” and there’s a green pad there and they can’t hit the green pad … that’s useless.
Yeah, Mad Catz have cymbal add-ons that you can plug in to and expand the Rock Band drums. Do you know if that’s going to work, or is that something you guys haven’t seen yet?
We haven’t seen that yet — as far as I know, they map to the other pad, where the cymbal would normally be. If they follow their same specs I’d imagine it would work.
I suppose it wouldn’t be your job to test out your kit with their game. I mean, that’s all on Harmonix, right?
I would hope that it would work — it would suck if it wouldn’t!
It seems like the kind of thing where they’d have to remap their note highway as well.
Well I mean, you can use our kit in Rock Band 1 and it will work. It’s just that you’ll never be hitting one of the pads. There’s going to be four notes that come down, and you can use four of our pads to hit that. But I mean, we’ve never played Rock Band 2. They’re not like “Here’s a free copy!” So I don’t know if it works with Rock Band 2; I’d imagine that it would unless they’ve changed their whole drum spec which would be crazy of them to do.
Metallica’s Death Magnetic album just came out as DLC, and it works with Guitar Hero III and it’s forwards compatible with Guitar Hero World Tour. What about all of that other DLC, is that something you guys have considered being able to make forwards compatible, or is that just not possible?
It’s not possible; it wasn’t coded that way at the time. So no, it’s not going to work.
Speaking of DLC, how regular do you guys plan on releasing yours? The “other guys” are pretty regular with it weekly, so they have a pretty big head start. Are you guys going to come hard with that to play catch up?
You know, just the Death Magnetic thing is just a taste of things to come, I think. It’s brand new content debuting in our game, day and date with the album, so we want to do more with that. We want to do more great catalog releases, we want to singles and albums and packs … all that stuff. So we’re going to try to do a lot more this year.
Is there anything you can talk about or anything you want to hint at?
No. (laughs) Just some cool great stuff, man! Well there’s the Smashing Pumpkins single that’s going to be debuting in the game as well.
You guys talked a bit about the in-game “store” that would come in an update after release. Is that something you guys still plan on doing?
Did we talk about that? I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about that.
But you already said it’s happening!
I did? I said that?
Somebody said that awhile ago; it might have been Brian [Bright, World Tour producer].
Go ask Brian!
[Note: Back in June during a first-look preview event, Bright did mention that an in-game store would be coming in an update post-release, but didn’t go into details.]
In terms of the standalone games you guys have, particularly Guitar Hero Aerosmith, is that something you’ll continue to pursue? Because with DLC, the necessity for something like that would almost go away.
You think so?
Well, partially. I think it’s pretty smart to release a new game every year or even more frequently, from a marketing perspective. But at the same time, I think if I have the ability to download the album or a game or an entire pack for an artist, I’d rather do that than go out to a store and spend another $60. This is just speaking personally.
I find that kind of surprising because like, the Aerosmith game isn’t 40 new songs. It’s a bunch of songs, character animations [and] models. There’s behind the scenes footage of the band, there’s all sorts of cool little info there. It’s a lot more than new songs. And if you were to download the songs and pay whatever it is you pay for them, it would be more expensive that it would be buying a disc.
Also like [making] a disc, people like PS2 owners can go get it, [as well as] people who don’t go online. Personally, I’d like to do more of those, and I’d like to add more content to them so it’s not just “Hey, I’m getting 40 new songs.” More behind the scenes footage, more cool stuff like that.
So you feel like it’s a better value proposition for the consumer?
Yeah, absolutely. You’re getting so much more. You’re getting a virtual Aerosmith playing on the stage. If we can add more bonus content on there like behind-the-scenes stuff, how cool would that be? OK fine, we’ll just do DLC stuff! (laughs)
OK, well tell me more about the DLC store!
Alright, well tell me about the decision to keep the name Guitar Hero. I think it’s interesting considering the game is a full band game right now. But obviously, keeping the branding makes a lot of sense. Was there any internal discussion about using a different name?
You know, Coke doesn’t suddenly go “Oh, we’ll just call it … something else, ‘something’ cola” when they change the formula. They called it New Coke, then they switched it back to Coke. You can’t really abandon it … it’s Guitar Hero! You can’t really get rid of that.
So really, it was never even a discussion?
You don’t think people will be confused and just think maybe it’s just another guitar-only game?
I think not using it would be more confusing. They’d be like “What the fuck is this game? They’re trying to encroach on some new territory? Don’t they know that Rock Band already does that?” They’d be confused.
So moving from just guitar to full band, how does that sort of change the song selection? A song like, maybe a DragonForce song might be fantastic for a guitar, but maybe not so great for a vocalist.
Oh, it would be great for a vocalist! Have you heard that guy sing? (laughs)
OK, bad example. Maybe a Joe Satriani song might be the best thing ever for a guitarist but may not necessarily be fun for a four-person set up.
You didn’t play “Satch Boogie” out there? [Note: Satriani’s instrumental track “Satch Boogie” is included as a playable on-disc track in Guitar Hero World Tour.]
No, I didn’t! What does the vocalist do?
We kind of have a freeform thing where you can just do whatever you want. But yeah, ideally you don’t want to have a lot of songs like that. We have that song on the game, you know the game is Guitar Hero and Joe Satriani is a great guitar player … and that song is just ridiculous fun. It’s really mapped like it was made for a Guitar Hero game, the drums and the bass, too.
But yeah, you try to shy away from stuff like that and focus on stuff where the whole band could have a good time. Still, we got a lot of great guitar music in the game. It’s funny, most guitar music is just really great music that everyone can play. You have to pay special attention to it, though. You don’t want to pick a song that has no drums for 30 seconds, you want to pick a song that has no guitar for 30 seconds as well. Yeah, it’s a bit of a different process.
I think Guitar Hero III as a game is more about the solo experience. You know, the Score Hero guys are here, and for them it’s all about trying to eke the most out of every song, sometimes by themselves. Possibly in their basements … alone …
I’m kidding, those guys are all pretty awesome; frighteningly talented at these games — they know how to rock. But I do think that the full band experience thing is a little bit different. So I guess I’d argue that what you’re trying to accomplish should be a bit different. For example, you decision to have one person fail and then the whole band is done, it’s finished.
Well, the way that it works is that if one person fails, then he starts to drag the entire band down. So you don’t instantly fail if you’re sucking, it gradually happens. So if you keep sucking then that would bring the entire band down. And then everybody has the opportunity to boost him by hitting star power.
Yeah, you know, that’s kind of the mechanic we went with. We didn’t really want to do something where you saved the person, we felt that it sort of interrupted the gameplay and certainly it was done by someone else. But it really does have a very cooperative mechanic; if you’re playing, you can go “Hey man, he’s fucking failing! Star power!”
There’s been a lot of head butting between you and the competition, and a lot of shit talking. Is there anything positive you’d like to say?
Well, the first time that I met those guys was at the Spike Video Game Awards. We just talked to them for like five or ten minutes, and they were just totally nice people. I think if we were on the same side we’d totally get along, I think a lot of this is just a lot of PR posturing between two mega corporations, which is pretty ridiculous.
You know, most of those guys are musicians; we’re musicians. They make videogames; we make videogames. It’s all, like, common headspace, you know. I’m sure we’d just hang out and have a beer and it would be cool.
In the perfect world there could be four, five, or six full-band games and they could live together in harmony?
It would be fine with me. I mean, right now Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to co-exist pretty well. I don’t want to kill anyone, I just want to make a cool game, you know? And if their game is cooler than mine, then fuck! I want to make mine cooler.
That’s my motivation; I don’t want to stomp them, [but] I don’t want to be a slacker, I want to do something better!