A look at turning the tables on Guitar Hero
In Kevin McSherry’s own words, DJ Hero was inspired by the Guitar Hero revolution.
But developers FreeStyleGames don’t want their newest turntable title to be a mere epiphenomenon; the studio is doing everything it can to ensure that no longer will a plastic guitar dominate the living room, but instead a micro-sized DJ set that has ignited interest from the game community.
Currently Studio Manager at FreeSyleGames, McSherry tells Develop that, when our interview is over, he will return to the office to continue working on DJ Hero. “We’re in the crunch phase,” he says.
Before he departs, Develop sits down with him to talk about that new peripheral, the issue of licensing, and keeping a massmarket game simple.
From much of the footage that’s been shown, DJ Hero does look like a complicated game. How important a factor has simplicity been in designing the title?
It’s vital. We wanted to make an authentic gaming experience but we also wanted to make the game incredibly accessible.
We see DJ Hero as a party device, and we want it to be the life of the party. In order to do that, we have to make it easy and accessible to get into. When you start off playing the game, players don’t have to control the mixer part of the controller; you don’t have to do cross-fade, you don’t have to do effects, you simply have to control the platter.
To begin, players are presented with really simple tasks; starting a record, stopping a record, hitting a sample. We then move on from beginner mode to easy; this is where we actually introduce some of the scratching; we’re aware that scratching is the thing that most people think of with a DJ game.
Scratching is simply just pressing one of the buttons on the platter, and moving either back or forwards, so straight away players are going to be connected to the music and hearing your own scratches come back out.
From there, it’s about layering it up, so that players can move onto expert mode. Here, if we’ve created a mix with DJ Shadow, and he’s scratched 'forwards-forwards-back' in a certain time, we need you as the player to do that exactly that, at exactly the right time, in exactly the right direction.
That’s why it looks tricky when you see it in hard and expert.
Obviously one of the selling points of music games like Guitar Hero is how people don’t fear holding the controller when it’s passed around. Are you aiming to take the same approach with DJ Hero?
We need the controller to be passed around; we want it to be super-accessible; so the tracks do scale down to very easy.
Some of the tracks we’ve shown today have been really high-energy that uses a lot of inputs, but we’ve also created some mixes that are a little lower in energy, are a lot easier and have less input.
There’s the impression that DJ Hero will be more similar to a real turntable than Guitar Hero is to a guitar.
We manage a team of DJs, we have sixteen full-time DJs working in our studios in London and this is the first time something like this has happened. There are no other game developers in that studio; we don’t have programmers, we don’t have artists; it’s a music studio, we’re creating mixes for the game.
So the game comes from a very authentic source, and that means that the interaction that we give you is very affected to DJing.
In the same way guitar sales have gone through the roof as part of the enthusiasm surrounding guitar hero, we expect people will start getting into DJing as a result of experiencing this game.
Linking two songs together has the licensing issue of placing two properties into one product, how much is this a difficulty?
It’s been very difficult to commercialise mashups, but we’ve been inspired by that because there’s a fantastic underground community where people have taken familiar music and have blended it together.
We really wanted to tap into that. It’s right, there is a licensing hurdle to get over, but thankfully we’re working with the best licensing guys in the industry.
These are the guys that have gone and licensed all the good music on Guitar Hero, these are the guys that have taken acts which are no longer on the road and put their albums back into the charts and got these guys back out of retirement.
Because of that influence the music industry is a lot more receptive to games. It was only 45 years ago that people for the first time started playing records for people to dance to, and musicians were terrified that they no longer had a live gig. So I think for a long time musicians have always been, initially, unreceptive to new forms of media but then find there feet with it.
The music industry is starting to recognise that the games industry is a credible media partner, which offers them an opportunity to take their music to a big, wide audience that it cannot touch through radio or record sales or TV.
What are you doing with the DJ peripheral in order to make it more accessible, for left-handed people, for example?
Get this. [Pulls off the mixer from the set]
You can take this off, turn it around, and this will set you set you up if you’re left-handed.
Also, some people like mixing from the outside of the platter as opposed to the inside of it. We realised through the research we have done that we had to change the game in the way that most suits you.
If you want to play on the outside, you can, and we’ve adapted the in-game highway so it can change if you want to move the buttons to the outside of the platter.
What essentially is your target market? Would you expect professional DJs to want to play on this?
Professional DJs would not be our target market at all; our target market would be people who want to have a party, people who want to play contemporary music to others in their home.
How does that sit with Guitar Hero? This is the same target market.
I guess the difference is, if you want to get into Guitar Hero you need to have a Rock-based interest. And Rock is a small but really important and cool part of the market. For me; I’m much more into electronica, hip-hop, dance, and DJ Hero is an opportunity to put you in the centre of the party using contemporary music that we all love, so we felt we’d move in that direction.