Interview: Dance Central producers on balancing gender and keeping it 'fresh'

During our extended preview of Dance Central at Harmonix's studio (post-E3), we talked with project lead Kasson Crooker and lead producer Naoko Takamoto about the challenges of making a new dance "franchise" (a term Crooker doesn't like) and finding gender balance in a game that's all about shaking what your momma gave you.

Joystiq: Is Dance Central considered "a platform" in the same way that Rock Band is?

Kasson Crooker: Yeah, it is a platform. We're at the beginning and DLC will be the extension. And I hope that if people take to it -- the non-dancers take to it, the dancers take to it, people take to it from a fitness workout physical experience -- that this is the beginning of a huge world of dance for Harmonix. The same way Rock Band has been.

Are dance moves trademarked? Do you have to get the rights for that? Something like Madonna's "Vogue" or Michael Jackson's moves.

Crooker: You would have to get the rights to that. It's highly associated and very specific ... well, "Vogue" is actually very interesting, because vogue was a style of dance before Madonna decided to make it her own.

Naoko Takamoto: We have a vogueing move in "Funky Town." The thing is, if it's more a routine that's lifted from something, then you'd have to get licensed. Like, an individual move, unless it's completely associated with somebody and that's "their move," that's "their thing," then anything other than that is kind of like gray area. We're still trying to actually figure out all that stuff. It all just depends, but, yeah, vogueing is crazy

"I don't believe just because you're a younger guy, you just don't want to dance. I'm calling 'bullshit' on it."

because it's an actual huge subculture.

Crooker: Yeah, it's a style of dance --

Takamoto: Which Madonna doesn't own.

How do you add variety to the choreography? You look at a group like NSync or Britney Spears and the choreography is similar because it was ...

Takamoto: Wade Robson?

Yeah. So, how does Harmonix make sure that when adding dance moves to songs that really don't have routines associated with them that there's variety? One choreographer is going to do it this way and another is going to do it that way -- how do you chose which choreographers get their moves in the game?

Takamoto: We have our two in-house choreographers and they're both very versatile, they're also extremely unique people and they are very different from each other. We have three other choreographers who do not work in the office, and we just give them songs when we find that one is a good fit.

So, we kinda just like huddle and go, "We have these songs, who do we think they should go to?" It just naturally falls out. Like, we have one of our choreographers for "Poison," his name is Devon Woolridge and he's amazing. And Devon's very bombastic, huge moves, very manly and we're like: "'Poison!' That's the guy that's doing 'Poison.'"

Crooker: Sometimes you just know right away. Like, Marcus Aguirre is great at hip-hop, he has to do "Body Movin'" versus Frenchy Hernandez who has to do an M.I.A. song that just needs something more booty shakin', or hips, or that kind of thing.

How would you freshin' up, say, an Abba song to make it work for the game? The music may be over 30 years old, but the choreography isn't going to be a 30-year-old routine, is it?

Crooker: Well, one of the things for me was to make sure that we didn't have the token disco song. So, if you use "Funky Town" as a good example, which could be the token disco song, you do see some disco moves in there. You see this move [Crooker points his finger to the sky and to the ground Saturday Night Fever-style] but you also see it mixed in with other, fresher, more contemporary moves. And, for me, that was actually really important -- because I didn't want it to be like "this is the Reggae song, this is the Disco song" and have it be really stereotypical.

I wanted to make sure that, while the songs may come with inherent flavors, the choreograhy actuallly always comes off as fresh, like you would see if you asked a choreographer to come up with new choreography. Like, if you put "Funky Town" on MTV today, that's the style of choreography you would see in it.

Have you had a situation where you have, say, this Lady Gaga song and give it to the choreographer you think it should go to, but you're also thinking one of other choreographers could come up with a great, albeit completely different routine? Is it possible to include two different routines for the same song? Is that something that's been discussed?

Takamoto: We actually did talk about that with a Lady Gaga song. Yeah, it's been falling out pretty well -- as in: we've gotten to know the choreographers pretty well, so we actually know which songs they want to do. And so I'm inclined to give them the songs they feel very strongly about.

Let me rephrase it: Has the conversation come up to have a masculine dance routine and a feminine dance routine for the same song?


Crooker: Yeah, the genderizing -- we've thrown out so many words, like, "it's a feminine move," and we're like, "Wow, that's a horrible concept." And then we're like, "it's a sexualized move," and that feels weird, too. I've gone back to: Does it feel feminine, or does it feel masculine, or does it feel sorta "gender neutral"? This has been a huge topic.

I want guys to play this game. I don't want this to be a game just for girls, and that means that there are a lot of guys who are uncomfortable about shaking their hips, or popping their chest, or doing things like that -- things they don't feel comfortable doing. And so, figuring out how to make most of the game feel "good" to both sexes has been super important. So, that came up and we were like: "We'll just do two routines. And we can have the female sexy version -- or whatever feels good for the woman dancing. And then if a guy wants to dance the female version, or vice versa, we could do that."

That seemed like the wrong way to go, but it would also be ridiculously expensive because it would double all of our budgets for routines; and we just didn't have the time to do that. It is a very interesting topic, and not many people have asked us about that, but, for me, the biggest thing about learning this (dance) world has been difficulty and gender. It's been really, really fascinating to me.

Dance Central is a dance game. An actual dance game. While the mainstream audience may get into it (as we've seen with something like Just Dance), what's your pitch to the 18–35-year-old male?

Takamoto: So, I think there are lots of types of people out in the world, and I think it's half-unfair to just assume that people just don't want to dance. I think it's fair to assume that people don't want to dance in front of other people, and that it's something fun, or a guilty pleasure -- or maybe you're just not that confident about things. I don't believe just because you're a younger guy, you just don't want to dance. I'm calling "bullshit" on it.

I remember being in high school and Jodeci was the biggest shit in the world. It's four guys who are just extremely sexual and dancing on stage all the time. And guys I went to high school with, when we had dances and stuff, the guys would just go out and start winding their hips, or they would do moves from House Party.

"Somebody may realize: 'I want to get into it because it seems way more fun than having to go to the gym.'"

I'm totally '90s, so anything new jack -- people were doing "the running man" all the time. It's just fun.

I don't believe that just because you're a guy and you like video games that you don't want to do it. Maybe you don't and that's fine. And maybe, if you do want to do it and you don't want to tell anybody, this is something you can just have in your house and hide under the couch like it's Playboy or something. I just don't think that across the board people are going to be, "I don't want to dance."

I'm glad that there are a lot of dance games coming up, so it's going to be a less weird thing. I just think it's good that a lot of people will be dancing and there'll be less assumptions made. Like, "You have to like techno" and "You have to go to the club," if you like to dance. These are weird things that I've gotten feedback from people on. And I'm just gonna call "bullshit" on it. We can teach you some simple stuff to do that you won't feel stupid doing, and if you like the song, take the time, then you can do it.

Crooker: People are into different things. There are people out there who are going to hate this game. They want to play a driving game, they want to blow stuff up -- that's fine. I think we will try to encourage them and maybe it won't be up to us. Maybe it'll be their girlfriends, or maybe they'll realize it's their lack of girlfriends -- something out there will drive somebody. Somebody may realize: "I want to get into it because it seems way more fun than having to go to the gym."

They can do it in their living room and learn a real skill. And now, when I go to my next wedding -- where I used to sit out -- I can actually do a few things. But, you know, that is going to be the most skeptical demographic of potential people who will like our game, and I hope they take to it.

There are various levels of embarassing in Rock Band, tapping buttons on the guitar is pretty low compared to --

Crooker: Singing.

Right, trying to get someone to be the singer is the hardest part. How does Dance Central accommodate shy people?

Crooker: For me it would be how critical we are being of them. We can't encourage them to stand up and dance. We don't have a mechanic that brings up a character that realizes there's a room full of people sitting who won't get up and goes, "Hey, hey hey, somebody step up!" We don't do that.

We were really worried that people would get accidentally stuck in a situation where they are over their head and they feel disconnected, confused, and then they're done. And then they walk away. We didn't want that.

So, for instance, all the songs in the game are unlocked, right away -- except that you can only go into easy. Because we don't want people to go to the end of the song list and, say, "Body Movin'" was the last song -- it would be sorta sucky to not be able to go to that song until you beat the first group of five, and the next; doing that linear thing. We wanted to leave it open, so that anybody could go through that whole song list, find the things that they liked, which is important because people need that comfort zone ... and then we make sure they go through on easy so they don't accidentally go into a harder difficulty. And that will be good because people will get into it and they won't be overwhelmed. Then when they get through easy it unlocks medium, and once they do that it unlocks hard.

Takamoto: That's just for the performance, if you decide you want to go learn it [in "Break it Down" mode] all the difficulties are unlocked.

Crooker: For instance, if "Body Movin'" is locked on hard, you can go into "Body Movin'" in "Break it Down" on hard, which is unlocked, and the minute you get past it, we've unlocked all three difficulties for that song.

So, for me, it's difficult: There are groups of players. There's the willing non-dancer, which is the sweet spot for our game, and I think we've done a really good job at making sure once they stand up and are ready to do it that we'll help them to become a real dancer. The non-willing, non-dancer is very difficult.
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This article was originally published on Joystiq.