Interview: 4mm raps with us about Def Jam Rapstar

When Rockstar founders Jamie King and Gary Foreman announced plans to start up a new company earlier this month, even the clairvoyant among us were taken aback by the pair's plans to take on an already bloated music game genre with an entry of their own. However, that appears to be exactly what the newly founded 4mm Games is up to, and together with Def Jam Interactive and with considerable backing from investment firm CEA Autumn Games, Def Jam Rapstar was born.

While 4mm is keeping much of the game's details safely away from the mic until E3, Joystiq recently caught up with company CEO Nicholas Perrett backstage to talk about Def Jam Rapstar, as well as what else the company has planned and the reason behind calling the studio "4mm."
First, what does the name 4mm mean? What's the significance?

The company was set up to create a new kind of game company that transcended the 'traditional boundaries' -- both in terms of game concepts and delivery. The origin of our name 4mm stems from the idea for (4) connected online worlds where games are played across a disparate range of devices by large numbers of people. So though you pronounce our company name as "4 millimeter", its original meaning was "massively multiplayer" (mm).

"The way we work together isn't like a license where they just slap their brand on our game ... it's a true collaborative partnership."

And what spurred the creation of the new company?

Again, it goes back to the vision we had. There was a void in the gaming space that the founders shared a vision to fill. We each brought a different background, experience and skill set, but collectively we quickly realized we shared the same vision of creating a truly unique game company that delivered on culturally relevant game experiences that spoke to a large -- global, to be honest -- community, and that really excited us.

More over, we all believed the timing was right to do something different in the games business. By this, I mean whether it's using the web to link games up, using mobile data, creating new art styles-- there's a lot to do.

You recently revealed a partnership between the company and Def Jam Interactive for an upcoming music game called Def Jam Rapstar. Is this a karaoke game, ala SingStar or Lips, or something else entirely?

Def Jam Rapstar has a rapping/singing mechanic at its core, but we're pushing the boundaries of what a singing game is-- how it lives on beyond the traditional platform -- how we use vibe, player geography, competition and community to take the experience to new places beyond it being just rap focused. It's a lot to take in, I know, so we're committed sharing what that means starting next week during E3, and in the following months. We've got lots to share.

You've also described this partnership as "unique." So, what's so unique about it?

Our partnership with Def Jam Interactive is unique for multiple reasons. There is no other brand "license" quite like Def Jam, especially with the hip-hop space, they are synonymous with hip-hop. So for this first project, which is a hip-hop music game, it was a natural fit. More over, Def Jam is the only brand with a music heritage that has a proven track record of success in the games business. The way we work together isn't like a license where they just slap their brand on our game, Instead, it's a true collaborative partnership.

We work together closely down to the very last detail -- the casting of talent, the club used in our trailer, the track list, game design -- everything. It's a fantastic "think tank" as both companies really bring exciting ideas and opportunities to the table that ultimately our consumers will benefit from. We like that degree of integration and think it's unique in the games business when it comes to license partners.

"Photorealism is not required for our first couple of projects."

Are you planning to stick with just music games for now, or are you open to exploring how the Def Jam name can be applied to other types of gameplay, say action or role-playing for instance?

For us, having Def Jam Interactive as our first partner is great considering the fact our first game is a music hip-hop game. The Def Jam brand is about culture just as it is music. We're very focused on Def Jam Rapstar right now, but there are many creative directions we can take this partnership so we'll share more as things progress. As for bigger picture 4mm Games, we've definitely got a long term vision and plan that we're excited to see through.

Is 4mm a one game at a time sort of company for the time being, or are there other projects in the pipeline as well?

No, we intend to be working on many titles and indeed already have a second property in development. For those that know Jamie King, he is an exceptional talent whose creative ideas are brilliant and inspiring, so we find ourselves constantly mining and exploring new game concepts that we hope to incubate and bring to life. It also helps that CEA Autumn, our backers, very much are buying into us for a slate vision so having that support is really beneficial.

How much insulation from the adverse economic climate does CEA Autumn Games' financial backing afford 4mm?

Quite simply, a lot. Friends with deep pockets AND the right attitude to creating arguably risky big budget new IP are hard to come by. CEA Autumn has a lot of trust in us, so instead of worrying about our financial situation, we're able to more so focus on developing our company, securing great partnerships and realizing new entertainment projects, which ultimately will benefit them. So a true win-win partnership.

The music and rhythm game genre has exploded in recent years, making it presumably difficult for a product from a newcomer to grab the spotlight from the Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes of the world. How do you plan to stand out?

It's great to see how successful music-inspired games have become. And with the right technology and content, we see this genre only further catapulting. In terms of how we plan to stand out starting with Def Jam Rapstar, that starts with our partnership with Def Jam. It's a very brand driven market we live in, so it doesn't get any better in terms of a hip-hop brand than Def Jam.

From a gameplay standpoint, we know that we need to demonstrate the vibe, reach the audience with our content over a long period and connect with them through our online plans -- we think bringing on board the best from the internet world will enable us to develop a groundswell and viral buzz that will easily help us stand out.

"We know that we need to demonstrate the vibe, reach the audience with our content over a long period and connect with them through our online plans."

Forgive us if we get a bit personal for a moment, but we're of course familiar with Jamie and Gary from their Rockstar background. We're less familiar with your work. Coming from Image Metrics, how involved were you with the Emily video? Do you think this video helped you land the role of CEO at 4mm?

Emily and Image Metrics' work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button certainly put them at the top of the world vis-à-vis the quality of their work. I wasn't personally involved in Emily as I was handling the major game work at the time, such as GTA IV.

What helped me "land the role" as you put it was my leadership ability and strategic insight. The common vision for the future of interactive entertainment I shared with Jamie and Gary was critical -- they believed I could help them execute that vision in ways they could not. We each know our individual strengths and we are extremely complimentary in that respect.

The same skills helped me attract someone of Paul Coyne's caliber to the team too as he brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and discipline from his entertainment and technology background. It's been a fantastic opportunity but I'd say getting the job is just the beginning!

You say you were not personally involved with the Emily video. But were you able to bring any of that tech along with you to 4mm? Is photorealism something your studio is looking to bring to its games?

I don't believe in technology theft! Joking aside, photorealism is not required for our first couple of projects -- Def Jam Rapstar will not have avatars -- but that said, I am certain our future will be able to capitalize on their market leading expertise in that area. Our games will tap into the strengths and resources that make most sense in their respective genres/categories/platforms.

Finally, looking over an office full of plastic instruments, I almost hate to ask, but will Def Jam Rapstar require its own proprietary instrument?

We'll be announcing details on that front in the coming months for Def Jam Rapstar. My personal favorite guess so far from a random player online to us was for "a diamond necklace controller" -- who knows!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.