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Guitar Hero Live: The Next Generation Of Music Games

Someone on Activision’s investor relations team has a cruel way with puns. When, in 2011, the publisher announced that it was putting the Guitar Hero series on hiatus and that around 500 people were losing their jobs, the majority as a result of that decision it said its music game business unit was being “disbanded”. The publisher had only itself to blame. Activision had released 14 console games bearing the Guitar Hero name in five years, had ported it to smartphones and the arcade, and spun it off into a band game. It was the sort of release schedule that would turn even the world’s hottest band into its most hated. Warriors Of Rock, the closing act in a series that made Activision some $2 billion, launched in late 2010 to 100,000 first-month sales. The market had spoken some players lured away by Rock Band’s superior party game, many more simply tiring of a series that had changed too little as the years had passed. Thousands of plastic instruments went up in the loft, or off to landfill. Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg said that Guitar Hero would not return until a developer could “generate meaningful innovation” in a series that had become too set in its ways.


Four years on, he’s got it. Guitar Hero Live makes sweeping changes to the way Guitar Hero is played, presented and delivered. Its controller has been redesigned, its perspective has swung around, and Activision’s longterm plan is being built on a 24-hour on-demand music video service. It is precisely the sort of innovation Hirshberg wanted and the series so desperately needed. And who better to deliver it than Freestyle Games?  The UK studio has been making music games ever since its inception in 2002, was part of the Guitar Hero DLC production line from 2008’s World Tour onward, and did more than most  to innovate in the plastic-instrument genre with DJ Hero.

Shrewdly, creative director Jamie Jackson understood that the only way to navigate 14 games’ worth of baggage was to simply get rid of it. “When we started, I had a couple of rules: on no documents do we use the old Guitar Hero logo, and no flames or barbed wire,” he tells us. “We were trying to make a new Guitar Hero, and the only thing I wanted to start with was the name. Dave [Osbourn, co-founder and design director] and I were quite strong on that: ‘If we’re going to do this, we need to take all the shackles off, remove all the history almost, and just keep the core of what it is.’ That, to me, is how you innovate within something that already exists.”

With this scantest of briefs, Jackson set a small team to work on exploring what form a new Guitar Hero might take. Activision gives its subsidiaries a certain amount of leeway when it comes to R&D, and Freestyle exploited that freedom to the fullest. “We had prototypes at the beginning where we didn’t even have a guitar,” Jackson says. “We had air guitar stuff going on with all the different camera tech that was out there, where you could play notes just by playing air guitar. We had stuff going on with touchscreen technology; what if we stuck a phone in the guitar?What would that allow us to do? It was a really fun time. We were able to just try out really different, weird, strange things. It started to help us narrow down what we wanted to do.”
“‘If we’re going to do this, we need  to take all the shackles off, remove all the history almost, and just keep the core’”
Guitar Hero’s appeal, however, lies in its controls. It is about a connection between the player and the music, and so its guitar a physical object with fret buttons to press and something to strum is a vital part of that connection. There was no need to overhaul much of this setup the strum bar, for instance, has always been fully fit for purpose but when the studio began to pore over the reams of player data that Activision had amassed during Guitar Hero’s heyday, it realised what needed to change.

“We wanted to know who played Guitar Hero,” Jackson says. “It was one of the big things we wanted to know: was it just expert players, who wanted to play [Dragonforce’s] Through The Fire And Flames? Or was it a broader group of people? There were a lot of people, more than any other category, that played on medium [difficulty].”

In previous games, medium difficulty was, by and large, played on the first three frets, with the other two only really coming into play once players make the step up to hard and beyond. Notes become more frequent as you move up the difficulties, and that, combined with the need to move up and down the neck, proved too much of a stumbling block for many players. “We wanted to make a game that really spoke to that group of people, but gave them more depth than the old configuration did,” Jackson explains. “As soon as you had to use your pinky, or move your fingers down the buttons, then re-find your position… for so many people, that’s where it fell apart. I was one of them, definitely.”

With that in mind, Freestyle landed on a new layout quite early on: two rows of three buttons. Staff mapped out possible chord shapes and phrase patterns, and liked what they saw. They hacked together a prototype with some cable trunking and the innards of a smashed-up 360 controller, and marked up a few songs for this new control system. “It just worked,” Jackson says. And it does: while it takes time to adjust, moving a finger from one row to the next feels natural and organic, and the two-row layout makes what is coming down the note highway in the centre of the screen feel like a more realistic reflection of the song in the background. Barre chords come into play in rock songs, power chords in metal, and open chords in indie or folk. It makes an awful lot of sense.

Guitar Hero Live may offer those who play on medium a deeper experience than games past, but while it may be the most popular difficulty overall, Jackson is well aware of the need to cater to the more committed player. “It couldn’t just be a game for [medium]. We worked really hard to ensure that, although we changed the guitar, there are still those combinations of phrases that will give you the feeling of doing those five-button runs, but in a totally different way.”

For us, the step up to Advanced, the new name for hard, proves more than enough, with more notes to play and more frequent switches between rows and chord shapes. We’ve seen Veteran, as it’s now known, and suffice it to say that those who see the new fret button arrangement as evidence of some kind of dumbing down are in for a hell of a shock.

They are also in for a stern telling off from tens of thousands of unhappy punters. While the effect of the peripheral’s redesign is subtle, and has to be played to be properly understood, the impact of the shift to firstperson play in front of a live-action crowd is immediate, and enormous. And while the new guitar design came to life in the back room of Freestyle’s Leamington Spa offices, the shifted perspective was born on the other side of the Atlantic. “We were having a chat with Eric Hirshberg,” Jackson says, “and he asked the question, ‘Have we ever thought about turning the camera round, making it firstperson, putting people onstage?’ We thought it was interesting we took it back to the studio, and thought about it some more.”

It’s a simple concept, in theory. It makes a lot of sense, too: why has a game that casts you as the Guitar Hero always been viewed from the perspective of the crowd? But as soon as Jackson started to think about the logistics, it quickly began to get out of hand. Show the action through the crowd’s eyes and all you need to make is a stage, some lights, a band and their kit. As confident as Jackson and Freestyle were in their abilities, even they didn’t fancy rendering a crowd of thousands and the world around them. “I immediately thought, ‘I want to film this’,” Jackson says. “’If we’re going to truly make it look real, we haven’t got a fucking chance of doing it in-engine.’ Could you imagine 100,000 realistic people looking back at you in a game engine? It just wasn’t going to work.”

So, exploiting Activision’s hands-off approach again (“I’m a big fan of the ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ approach for, well, life in general,” Jackson says), Freestyle made contact with a couple of production companies and went out filming. The initial premise was for a storyline: you started out not as the axeman but a roadie, only taking to the stage after the guitarist quits mid-song in a fit of pique, and it took half the song to get the sceptical crowd on your side. By the end, they were cheering and singing along. It was a powerful moment, and when Freestyle showed it to Activision, it went down well. But it was also an isolated one. What if every song, start to finish, was an ongoing battle to win over, and keep, the crowd?
“ you’ve got to appreciate the level of detail that we’re going for. you can only achieve that if you’re going to film It”
It is at this point that it no longer sounds like Freestyle has been developing a videogame. We are in filmmaking territory here. While the redesign of the guitar itself was informed by previous Guitar Hero games, the central inspiration for the live-action component was Andy Serkis, who spoke at an Activision leadership conference about advances in motion and performance capture. Serkis explained how, during the making of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson had shot interior scenes that showed Gandalf towering over the rest of the assembled cast.

“On the same sound stage, they built a human-sized hobbit hole and, next to it, a child-sized hobbit hole,” Jackson tells us. “They put all the hobbits and dwarves in the big one, then Sir Ian McKellen in the kiddie one. They had two robot cameras programmed to be perfectly in sync and do the same shot. They could very quickly comp that together and Peter Jackson could look at it, then direct them all as if they were acting together. When I saw that, my brain exploded.”

Before long, Freestyle had its camera, a two-tonne robot that could repeat the exact same shot time after time. All it needed to do was film the crowd reacting positively for one shot, and negatively for another, and it could switch between the two according to your performance. It is an elegant solution to a complex problem, which might as well be this game’s tagline. From each new idea or solution spills a series of new hurdles; that’s game development, of course, but not many game-makers find themselves needing to tell a 400-strong crowd what to do. Few play pop svengali by auditioning potential members of the band they’ve just invented, looking for the right mix of acting chops, musicality and chemistry with bandmates.

So when we say that all Freestyle needed to do was have the crowd react positively for one shot and negatively for another, we’re skimping on the details slightly. First, it had to get the camera’s movement right; when fully programmed, it was too robotic, but when based solely on a motion-captured guitarist, it was too human a full-pelt run over to the drum riser, for instance, just wouldn’t look right. Scenes of the band and their entourage backstage before the show needed to be cast, written, rehearsed and shot. Once those 400 extras had been recorded doing their positive and negative responses, they changed clothes, were moved back four or five rows and shuffled around, then did it again, and again, those 400 people sometimes playing the roles of 5,000 before CGI would take over and fill in the rest of the crowd. And when CGI did kick in, it wasn’t simply filling in the back of the arena, but the world behind it: one of seven festival scenes designed from scratch by Freestyle’s art team, made up of assets of a higher resolution than anything they had ever made, then post-processed and lit by London-based postproduction company Framestore. There you go: you have a song. Now do it for all the others.

If you think all that sounds expensive, you’d be right. “We’ve tried to make it efficient as possible,” projects director Jon Napier tells us, his choice of words making it pretty clear that it cost a bomb anyway. “You’ve got to appreciate the level of visual detail that we’re going for here. You can only really achieve that if you’re going to film it and do postproduction, and there’s a cost involved with that. It’s great for us to know that we have that level of backing and support from Activision. We wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.”

Indeed, Activision comes out of this quite well, considering it ran the Guitar Hero series into the ground and has a reputation for repetition. It was because of that, perhaps, that Guitar Hero Live’s announcement was met with cynicism online. Both guitar and soundtrack were ridiculed, while the live-action component invited comparisons with old FMV games. Jackson saw it coming.

“I always, always believed in it,” he says, “but for a long time, I had this thing in the back of my mind: we’ve just filmed real people. Are gamers going to get it? I remember Red Alert, and that Wing Commander with Mark Hamill. I just had this nagging doubt for a while. Then I’d look at it and just be, like, there’s no fucking way people could compare it to that. This is completely, completely different.”

He’s right, but while it’s impossible not to admire the thought, effort and work that has gone into the creation of this live-action component, many players will miss a lot of it. These games are defined by the note chart in the centre of the screen, and when you’re struggling to keep up, your eye is not going to appreciate the thumbs-down gestures of a grumpy crowd, or the sad shake of the head from a stroppy drummer. Jackson hopes this will make singleplayer Guitar Hero more social than before, with spectators more involved in the onscreen action now that there are so many visual points of contact on the periphery.

It’s cheesy, too, but then so is the rock-god fantasy. After just a few plays, those intro sequences get a little repetitive, but they’ll be skippable once you’ve watched them once. Most importantly of all, while it may have taken the lion’s share of the budget and an awful lot of work, it is only part of the package. Renaming the toughest difficulty ‘Veteran’ is telling. This is the Guitar Hero equivalent of a Call Of Duty campaign: a lavishly produced, highly polished, singleplayer component that is, in the scheme of things, only a small part of the package.

Guitar Hero Live’s long game is GHTV, a round-the-clock streaming service made up of genre-themed channels and set not to live-action backdrops, but music videos. Songs will be parcelled up into 30- and 60-minute TV shows (though they can also be selected and played individually). A Freestyle-developed recommendations engine will suggest other things for you to play later, either during idents between songs or on an evolving home screen. It is a sort of cross-pollination of ideas from YouTube, Spotify, MTV and LastFM, and can be left running indefinitely, the player picking up the guitar and playing along when something they like comes on. Playable alone or in multiplayer either locally or online, with a realtime scoreboard ranking performances GHTV may not be Guitar Hero Live’s headline act, but it certainly takes top billing in terms of staying power.
“ Are gamers going to get it? I remember red alert, and that wing commander with mark hamill. I had this nagging doubt ”
Freestyle is reluctant to go into too many details, preferring to hold back for E3, but we do know that it is reaching far and wide in terms of genre for the service: Gary Clark Jr’s smokey blues-rock and Skrillex’s divisive brand of EDM provide the opposite poles on the slender list of artists announced thus far. The licensing process is moving at speed, too. Guitar Hero Live will, we’re told, launch with the biggest soundtrack of any game in the series to date, and it will be updated constantly following release. The studio has plans to build GHTV channels around current events, be that a festival lineup or a retrospective of a big band with a new album coming out. Analytics data showing what is most popular will guide Freestyle’s future licensing work.

Whatever gets added to the service will be made, and made available, in a far more timely fashion than in the DLC days of old. With record labels providing official music videos and soundtrack stems, Freestyle’s role lies solely in turning a studio recording into a playable song. It’s not the simplest of processes, certainly, but at least there’s no need for two-tonne cameras and a couple of hundred extras.

Yet perhaps the most significant element to GHTV is that it kills an old business model stone dead. “We’re building a multi-year service,” Napier says. “We have lots of things that we’re putting together now for year one, year two, even year three. Rather than targeting the big holiday release window, we can look at events. We’ll have a schedule, of course, but it won’t be Thanksgiving, it’ll be Glastonbury.” He speaks not only of new content being added, but new gameplay features too.

He recognises, however, that whether GHTV succeeds or fails will be a question of sales. No band can play to an empty room for long, and without an audience Freestyle will struggle to license new material and maintain a team to make it playable. The reaction to the announcement may have been cynical, but it has always been easy to pooh-pooh Guitar Hero until you hold the instrument in your hands and begin to play. It says much that Activision let the public go hands-on with Guitar Hero Live at the flagship store of UK retailer Game days after its announcement. Much more of this will be required in coming months.

Napier joined Freestyle three years ago, when the studio was starting to think about what would come next after it had delivered Wii U karaoke game Sing Party U. “It was a great company,” he says, “that, I think, really needed something to get its teeth into.” It clearly did, taking on its biggest and most risky project to date, then making it even bigger and riskier with each new idea. Never mind something to get their teeth into; did Jackson ever feel they’d bitten off more than they could chew?

“For me? Personally? Almost constantly,” he says. “I would walk out onto a stage the size of a very large festival that we had completely custom built. We had several thousand pounds’ worth of music equipment loaned to us. I looked at the band, checking over their wardrobe, I saw the giant fucking robot camera, then I turned around to see 400 people looking at me. I’m like, ‘Wow. We really did this. We actually went out and did it.’” Indeed they did. Hirshberg’s got his innovation. Guitar
Hero has its new perspective, its new presentation and its new way to play. All it needs now is a crowd.

Chord Changes
While attention will naturally focus on the new peripheral’s six-button layout, it’s equally important to appreciate what hasn’t been changed. One of Freestyle’s goals was to have what players do with their left hand feel as natural as their right; the strum bar has always felt right, the tremolo arm sits within easy reach, and the Hero Power button can be pressed with the heel of a hand. The distance between strum bar and buttons is also the same.

The multicolour buttons are gone, and keys now sit flush with the fretboard, the bottom row with a cross-hatch texture so that fingers can distinguish between it and the smooth top row. The result is a peripheral that looks less like a toy than before, appropriate given the emphasis on realism.

That, however, isn’t such a concern when it comes to mapping out notes on the highway, a process Freestyle calls ‘markup’. “We tried replicating exact chord shapes,”  Matt Flint , lead MIDI designer, tells us. “But because the majority of players won’t understand they won’t hear a chord and go, ‘Oh, that’s a D, I know that shape’ they don’t get the connection. It’s not about making it as accurate as possible. It’s about making it as fun as possible.”

Freestyle’s dozen-strong markup team work in software that enables them to place a note on the highway with a click, and their layout is playable with just a few clicks more. They start on Veteran, where the player has to perform an action for every note in the music, then dial down from there, where rulesets dictate how frequent note and row changes should be on lower difficulties. A peer-review system sees tracks bounce back and forth between staffer and reviewer until both agree that it feels right.

“None of the [markup] team have worked in the game industry before this,” Flint says. “They are all primarily musicians; they have a passion for games, but never got into programming or art. Because they’re all gamers, they understand the difficulties games have in trying to translate certain things to players. It’s amazing how many times you’re marking something up, going, ‘That’s perfect, it’s exactly what the guitarist’s doing’, then you play it and it just feels wrong. It’s about getting that balance, I think, between musical accuracy and playability.”

Pop Art
Videogame development is something of an indoor pursuit, and an unglamorous one, but Guitar Hero Live isn’t exactly your average game. “We went to a lot of festivals on research trips,” assistant art director Gareth Morrison tells us. “A few of us had backstage passes to get behind the scenes, because that’s where the magic lies for us, exposing that bit that not a lot of people get to see. We captured as much reference [material] as possible. It totally informed how we thought about piecing together these made-up festivals from our own imaginations.”

While the crowd naturally fills most of the screen, the slightest flaw in the space around them could break the spell. Those festival trips to Glastonbury, Coachella, Fuji Rocks were no mere jollies. Freestyle has, as Morrison says, invented multiple music festivals, each with a different vibe to suit the sort of music being played onstage. Off in the far distance are food stalls, merch stands and Ferris wheels; farther back there might be another festival stage with its own light show running, or city apartment buildings with individual light sources behind every window. It’s all in the sort of resolution a game engine could never cope with one scene contains over 4 billion polygons. “The really exciting thing was watching it become reality,” Morrison says. “The riggers come in and build this stage we’d been mulling over for months. We saw the green-screen room, saw what we’d been concepting and modelling right in front of us. It was brilliant.”

Freestyle’s art department hasn’t just had to invent and build CG festivals from the ether; it has also designed each of the bands in the game, given them names, backstories and personalities, and decided how they should be dressed.

As a building full of developers, Freestyle has had to outsource, and worked with other companies on motion capture, casting and postproduction. “Film and games are so similar,” projects director Jonathan Napier says. “They’re using an offline render process and we’re used to working with a render process, but otherwise so much is compatible.”

Mix Tapes
You’d think audio would be the most straightforward element to a music game. The licensing team secures a song, the record label supplies the stems for each instrument, and the markup team makes it playable. That’s not been the case in Guitar Hero Live, where the decision to turn the camera around and put the player on a real stage in front of a live audience has meant that lead audio designer Andy Grier has had an awful lot to do. “Every other rhythm-action music game has always been presented from a passive, audience perspective,” he tells us. “The music you hear is dry, it’s very clean. It might have a bit of reverb on it to fit the basketball court you’re playing in or something, but that’s it. My [idea] was, ‘You’re onstage; let’s make it sound like you’re onstage.’”

So, yes, there’s reverb, but that’s just the start of it. A detailed surround mix means that, if the drummer’s  currently over your left shoulder, then that’s where the drum sounds come from. If a tambourine player dances across the stage, then the sound will pan across accordingly. Elements get louder as you get closer to them, and quieter as you move away, the treble fading as you go, since high frequencies are directional and lose impact at a distance. And since the music’s being pumped out to the crowd and the world around them, you’ll hear reflections bouncing back off trees, buildings and other scenery. Grier calls the process ‘Livify’. “There’s no proper term for it, and I started calling it that and I cringed a bit. It’s just one of those wanky terms, but it’s stuck.”The effect which wasn’t in place at the game’s London unveiling, but is playable when we visit  the development studio is remarkable.

Grier has been equally thorough with crowd singalongs, assembling a group of trained vocalists at Pinewood Studios and spending a week making them sound, well, rather less well-trained than they are. “They were putting on vibrato and harmonising and stuff,” he says. “I went, ‘Look, this is lovely, but it’s way too good.’ I had to mentally get them drunk.” Grier had them jump up and down while they sang; back in the studio, he’s time-shifting individual takes some a little early, others slightly late to more accurately replicate the sound of a boozy, boisterous crowd.

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