It's been an interesting few weeks for RedOctane. Guitar Hero II has finally launched on Xbox 360, but the publisher - now part of Activision - has finally caught sight of what the game's developer, Harmonix, has gone off to make with Electronic Arts and MTV. Rock Band might well be described as a spiritual successor to Guitar Hero, and the decision to introduce other instruments, and vocals, arguably raises doubts about the real Guitar Hero III, in development at Neversoft, and due out on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and PS2 later this year.
So you might be surprised to learn that Kai Huang, co-founder and president of RedOctane, claims to be quite excited about what his old pals are working on. Presumably it's just bluster, but he cut a happy figure on his recent trip to the UK, where he - and the mighty Guitar Hero bus - were stopping off to promote the Xbox 360 release of the second game in the series. "The more products there are out there, the better it is for overall space," he told us, before questioning whether it's necessary to complicate a formula to that degree.
RedOctane certainly doesn't think so for now, with Guitar Hero III well within the mould you'd expect. But what are they planning to do with the guitar peripherals? What sort of new modes and online features will be there? What sort of downloadable content can we expect for Guitar Hero III, and for that matter Guitar Hero II? Are we going to see something like Sony's "SingStore"? And are they ever going to get those PS2 guitars working on PS3? We asked, and he mostly told. Read on for all of that, and look out for more on Guitar Hero III in the near future.
Eurogamer: RedOctane began as a small company importing third party dance mats. Why did you do Guitar Hero?
Kai Huang: Well, we'd been in the music games space for six years as a peripherals maker and so when we decided we wanted to do music games, we decided that there were a lot of great games in Japan that were in this space - music games - but none of them were really going to work well in North America. DDR - Dance Dance Revolution - was really the only big game that had made it from Japan over to the western world so we just really felt like something was missing there and that "something" was the music, and so we decided that in order for a music game to be successful here it had to be based on rock-and-roll, and if there was going to be a rock-and-roll-based game it had to be guitar, and really that's how we got started with Guitar Hero.
Eurogamer: How much of a blow was it to lose Harmonix? It's almost like the Foo Fighters losing Dave Grohl.
Kai Huang: Harmonix is a fantastic developer. We have a great working relationship and we've been working with them for several years now and they've done just an amazing job with the Guitar Hero franchise, but now that we've decided to move the project internally to Neversoft, it's going to be absolutely incredible. You know, they're really taking it to the next level. All of the things we really wanted to do with Guitar Hero in the past that we've not been able to do, now Neversoft is going to be able to do for us, so we're just really excited to be working with Neversoft.
Eurogamer: How are you planning to improve it? It's hard to see what you still have to do...
Kai Huang: Yeah, and that's the great part of Guitar Hero. I always say it's a very, very simple game; it's simple to pick up, but difficult to master, and so when you look at the basic gameplay mechanics, not a whole lot is going to change because the formula is really there and it works. What we're going to be able to add to Guitar Hero III and to future versions of the game is really a lot around the areas of online - people are really asking about online, online co-operative play, online competitive play. There's going to be a lot of content we're going to offer through the next version of Guitar Hero, so people can download songs and play all the songs that they hoped to play in the past, and there will be some really cool things with the features that we're doing for the game, including different modes of play that'll make the experience in the living room where you're playing with other friends and other people a lot more fun. We haven't made any announcements on that side yet, but we will soon and you guys will see that soon.
Eurogamer: There have been reports in the press that you're looking at other versions of the game, with drums and the like. Is that the plan?
Kai Huang: We're definitely looking and evaluating and have been evaluating all types of different instrument-based games, and drum is certainly one of the ones that we've been looking at. We haven't made any announcements yet about what we're going to do and when we're going to release a game, but fans can rest assured we're definitely looking at all of those types of games.
Eurogamer: Harmonix has obviously gone to work with EA on Rock Band incorporating all these different kinds of instrument. Has that stolen a march on you?
Kai Huang: I think what Harmonix and what EA are doing is great. Harmonix again is a fantastic developer and we're actually really excited about what they're doing as well, because what they're going to do is really to help us grow this really small, but fast-growing genre of games - the music rhythm games - so the more exposure that's out there, the more products there are out there, the better it is for overall space. So we're really actually excited about what they're doing as well. I can't comment about the Rock Band product because that's theirs, but I can comment about Guitar Hero and what we're doing, and I would say that the beauty of Guitar Hero is its simplicity and its elegance, and when we think about adding other musical instruments in there, that's going to make the experience a lot of fun, but it can also make the game a little bit more complex, and so what we want to focus on is all the great features of Guitar Hero, what makes it really fun and simple for everybody to pick up, and we think we've got some great things that we're working on in that respect.
Eurogamer: One thing you might be able to clear up is comments from Harmonix to the effect that you might be able to play Rock Band using Guitar Hero controllers. Is that something you're happy to allow?
Kai Huang: That's something we've heard as well - that they will be making their game compatible with our guitars - and unfortunately that's not something that I can comment on right now, because I don't know how they're designing the software and how it's going to work, but there's no question that the guitars will be designed to work ideally with Guitar Hero franchise and that's what we're going to be focused on.
Eurogamer: Having come up as a third party peripheral company, is it maybe encouraging to have your peripherals on other games than your own?
Kai Huang: I think there's definitely advantages to that. Seeing the proliferation of the hardware and the software, and seeing it work on other parties' games, is certainly a possibility, but I think that we can't make any guarantees that our hardware is going to work on anybody else's software.
Eurogamer: One of the main criticisms about Guitar Hero II is the track listing itself, and that it wasn't perhaps a bit more varied, with a few more poppy numbers in there. Is your solution to that moving forwards what you'll be able to offer online?
Kai Huang: That's definitely one of the things we're going to do. You know, you can only fit so many songs onto one game. It's a very difficult job of picking the right ones, and the ones fans are going to like, and of course getting it out there you're never going to please everyone. But the beauty of downloadable content and what we can do on Xbox Live and PS3 is that we're going to be able to offer a wider range of music out there to fit more musical tastes. So when the 360 gets going - and you'll see that we've already launched our downloadable content - we started with the songs from Guitar Hero 1, but we're going to shortly follow up with new music, and hopefully fans will be able to see that we're really broadening that music for them, and that's one way to do that.
Eurogamer: There have been some initial criticisms about the cost of the downloadable tracks. Are you going to stick with the current pricing?
Kai Huang: We've done a lot of evaluation on the pricing and the costs for each of the songs and how they work for each of the packs, and we think that they're priced competitively, but certainly we listen to the fans and we take that feedback, and if that's something we'll need to evaluate we'll do that.
Eurogamer: Going forward, do you plan to stick to the model of big sequels, or will you perhaps adopt an approach like Sony's SingStar, with an online store where you can download songs from an iTunes Music Store-style shopfront.
Kai Huang: I think Sony's SingStar model is a great model and a great thing to model ourselves after. What we're going to be doing with Guitar Hero is a combination of both. There will be a lot of people who have an online connection who will be able to download new music, so we want to obviously offer them an opportunity to download more music than you can get in the game. But then there will be consumers who don't have online connections and we want to make sure they have a great experience as well. So I think we're going to follow definitely a model of both. We're going to be releasing more disc-based games throughout the year, and then we're going to be offering more online content.
Eurogamer: For those disc-based games, are you planning for genre discs?
Kai Huang: I think there's definitely an opportunity to do that with Guitar Hero - to focus on certain genres of music, even within rock, and that's something that we're evaluating right now.
Eurogamer: The debate goes on about using original tracks versus using cover versions, as you do, to bring out the guitar lines more. Would you prefer to use the original masters?
Kai Huang: We're definitely very happy with our model, and I think in the future we would like to use more masters and original version songs, but sometimes the song may be a little bit too long, or maybe we have to change it slightly to make it a little bit more fun and to really bring out the guitar, as you said, so we're going to continue to do both. Where it's appropriate we're going to re-record the songs and the re-recording studio that we use does fantastic work, and so whatever ends up making the gameplay the best is what we're going to follow. But I think fans will be excited to hear that in the future we're going to have more masters than we have now, and more of the original music.
Eurogamer: Are you going to work on any solution that allows PS3 owners to use the PS2 controller on their console?
Kai Huang: We're working on that with Sony right now - looking at how we can get all the PS2 guitars that are out there, and all the owners of them, to use them on the PS3. Unfortunately we don't have any promises yet, but we're definitely working hard to see if we can make that happen.
Eurogamer: Going back to the point about disc-based releases, how many are we likely to see in the next 12 months for instance?
Kai Huang: I think that fans can definitely expect that we're going to have one major release a year, and then what we're doing beyond that major release is to release update packs and content packs so there's more songs. We haven't announced exactly how many we'll be releasing every year, but certainly we're going to be releasing multiple ones beyond that one major release per year, and then what we're going to be doing is localising the music as well. So for the SingStar model, what they've done of course is to bring very localised music into every country, and I think that's a great opportunity for Guitar Hero to work with local artists, to really promote the music and the bands that are popular in each of the different countries.
Eurogamer: Looking at the future of rhythm-action in technology terms, where do you think we'll be in five years' time?
Kai Huang: The peripherals side of this game is critical, we think - and obviously having the background of being a hardware manufacturer we may be a little bit biased - but such an important part of the game is the tactile feel and having that guitar in your hands and really feeling like you're a rock star. Imagine this game would be totally different if you were playing on just a regular standard gamepad controller, so that experience is really important and we plan to improve that. We've got designs for different guitars, whether that's new shapes or new colours; we've got designs obviously for wireless, which we'll be releasing at the end of this year for all platforms; and then we're looking at really cool interesting finishes and different ideas that we can do with the guitar to make them a little bit more exciting, and in fact we're even looking at making some higher-end guitars that might be made out of real wood.
Eurogamer: Nice. And finally, how good are you at the game?
Kai Huang: [Laughs] Right now, I'd say I'm okay. I've reached a sticking point. I can finish all the songs on Hard and I'm just going through a few on Expert, but that's kind of my sticking point right now.
Guitar Hero II is out now on PS2 and Xbox 360. Guitar Hero III is due out on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and PS2 at the end of 2007, with a DS version planned for 2008. Interview by Johnny Minkley and Tom Bramwell.