Joystiq interviews Rob Kay of Harmonix

In our second interview from the Develop Conference in Brighton this week, Jen and I sat down with Rob Kay of Harmonix. Rob was project lead on the cult classic Guitar Hero, a game which is part of a new wave of hyper accessible games that is all about catching the mindset of the mainstream, as well as addicting millions of hardcore gamers. We talked with Rob about song licensing, Konami's recent "Guitar Revolution" trademark and the possibility of a Trombone Hero.

You talked about clones of Guitar Hero in your seminar. Specifically you talked about how other companies are being inspired by the premise of games like Guitar Hero. I don't know if you heard about Konami trademarking a Guitar Revolution game?

Yeah, I read that on the internet. To give Konami props, they started this whole instrument simulation in games thing when they did games like GuitarFreaks which they released in Japan. We worked with Konami on Karaoke Revolution and Karaoke Stage as well. So, I think it's great actually. I'm kind of the opinion that whoever is making these games with us then we're exploring this new ground together. I've got friends who have played Karaoke Revolution, and they wanted more songs so they've gone out and bought SingStar. So I think great, more people are out there playing these types of games.

I believe that Konami has actually applied for the patent "toy guitar controller with video game".

Oh really? Well that's news to me. I'm not able to cover all the implications of this, but it's really by-the-by I think. Really I'm just psyched that they're making music games and that we'll help each other out by making music games.

In terms of the direction with the next-generation. Do you think that the next-generation has less of a focus on entertainment? You talked in your seminar about how people should be able to pick up and play and should be able to get into the game straight away. Do you think that the next-generation is less about the experience and more about the visuals?

I think the next-generation hardware is there to be used. It's up to game makers whether they'll be conservative with that or whether we'll be adventurous with this. I think that there's reason to be optimistic about all of the next-gen platforms. We're certainly taking a look at all three of them and seeing pretty unique opportunities to create games on all of them. Not just in terms of increased content but increased accessibility opportunities; increased processing power is one example that will help improve our type of game.

You touched upon this idea in the seminar where there's this formula where a game is extremely easy to get into so people just want to pick up and play the game. How do you think this kind of formula is created?

It's something at Harmonix that we tried really hard to work on. Over the course of the games that we've developed we've probably improved the playability of each game that we've developed on each game. So what happened with Amplitude, which was this great music game that made people want to work at Harmonix, was Sony did some research where they got people to look at a screenshot and title of all the games in Sony's catalog and then write down what their first impressions were and how much they wanted to buy it. Then they got to play all those games, and they gave Amplitude and Frequency the lowest scores based on the initial screenshot and logo, but actually got amongst the highest scores once the people played it.

So I think what Sony realized at that point making great games wasn't enough. Making games with a clear role, with a guitar, a guitarist rock star role. That's obvious straight away and we support that with the visuals and all the game mechanics don't get away from the fact that you're a guitarist. That's what you have to focus on if you want instant accessibility.

In traditional genres like first person shooters, the number of FPS games supporting co-op in a couch setting has dropped. Why do think in the last two years the popularity for co-op in games like Buzz! has increased?

I think certain games just lend themselves to co-operative play. In particular, party games have always lent themselves to this style of gameplay. Maybe party games are coming back into vogue through both SingStar and Guitar Hero. I think that helps people want to play party games because in the past party games were often presented as these twee things that people tend not to want to play.

One of the differences that I found between SingStar and Guitar Hero is SingStar you pay £30, and you get two microphones to play co-op. Guitar Hero you play £100 for two copies and two guitars. Even £50 for one copy is a bit steep and I've tried playing it on the controller and it just doesn't work. Do you find that different types of people attracted to these games because of the price point or are you trying to get the same people?

I can't talk for SingStar. They're in a pretty privileged position when it comes to marketing but I think they've done a good job. We're working with Red Octane who didn't necessarily have the financial muscle to put it out any cheaper, but I actually think £50, especially when most games cost £40, is a bargain when you're getting a guitar controller with it. Certainly it was in the U.S. I'm sure.

How has the acquisition of Red Octane by Activision changed the way you're going to produce games going forward?

Well at the moment we're not sure, we'll see. I think that we're expecting that in the short term we have a bigger marketing spend, Activision will put all their weight behind Guitar Hero as it's one of their new properties. They're very much expecting that the brand will become one that everyone goes out and buys.

In the seminar you talked about how the multiplayer mode in the original Guitar Hero was almost not included in the game. With Guitar Hero 2, there's a renewed focus on the teamplay/co-op element of play with the possibility of playing a bass part. Why did you not have the foresight to see the great popularity that co-op Guitar Hero would garner in the first place?

Well actually we always wanted it, and we always knew it would be fun but it was more a budgetary concern. Guitar Hero was made on the type of budget that could be brought from concept to completion with a very small team so we had to take this relentless focus where anything seemed peripheral it came very close to the cut. I think if you see that there are no cut scenes and there are no things that are very expensive to bring into a game. At one stage multiplayer was on the chopping block, but we decided to keep it. Hindsight is a great thing.

One of our readers was worried about the bass section of the co-op in Guitar Hero 2 might be simplified in order to make it accessible to new players or as a result of the difference in playing bass music when compared to lead parts. Can you allay his fears?

Some songs don't lend themselves to being good bass songs, so we will pick the good lead part or the good bass part or the good guitar part. So we'll pick two parts for any one song, and it'll be the two strongest parts. We've got a lot of guys looking out to make sure that this is totally tuned into our song selection process.

So licensing is one of the biggest problem with music games and with the first one you were looking to have AC-DC...

Yeah, we're still trying to see how that turns out. We want all the classics that everyone wants. We want Metallica, Guns & Roses. I don't know if you saw the sub list at E3, and that included some fantastic songs. I think we've got more chance this time round to get the big songs, especially since we were successful with the first game.

With relation to customization, the internet and the next-gen, is there any room for custom games with people making their own music and putting it into Guitar Hero?

In terms of the goal, there are lots of hurdles for making this sort of thing happen. So I don't think that's going to happen in the next year or so, but we would love to give players the ability to put their own music in the game and let others share music and collaborate.

What if they do cover versions?

That would be fine as far as I'm concerned! But I'm sure there are legal viewpoints that need to be looked at. But that's for the future though, I'm sure that's not going to happen anytime soon.

What about more Guitar Hero games, like a Trombone Hero?!

I'd say that Trombone Hero would most likely come after Cowbell Hero, but in terms of other Hero games, I think Red Octane have discussed the possibility of other types of games and expressed their interest in doing so to the press. We'll discuss out ideas with them, but there isn't something signed with them at the moment. Yeah, of course it makes sense that should be more Hero games and not just Guitar.

Do you think that the creativity from the arcades of previous decades is rubbing off on the games industry, specifically with these games that use specific peripherals. Do you think there will be a more large scale adoption of innovative controller designs for specific gametypes?

I actually miss the days of the arcade when there was a new thing in there to play. It seems like those days have gone - it's nice to think that we're now finally plugging that gap on games consoles. So the development of new controllers is something that developers and publishers have their eyes on. It's not like it used to be in that if you bundled a peripheral with a game that it wouldn't sell anymore. There are lots of examples of games with peripherals selling hardly any units.

This goes back to your point you made in the seminar that you can't get too abstract with the concept and peripheral behind these types of games. The reality is that people can just pick up a guitar and they know what it is and the fundamentals of the gameplay. Thanks for your time!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.