After blasting out "Spiderwebs" by No Doubt, we took the time to have a chat with Charles Huang about the new title, and his plans for the future.
GP: So can you give us a bit more of an understanding about what you do for Activision? We know you founded Red Octane along with your brother, and you sold the company to Activision? So what do you do on a daily basis now?
Huang: That's a good question! (laughs) you know, I do interviews, such as this! Primarily what we still do at Red Octane is that we publish the game, and we do the marketing for the game. We also do all the hardware design, so we have an entire group that comprises of probably twenty people now that do hardware engineering, design, production out of China. So I still oversee that part of the business, and the other thing I do as part of business development is looking at new projects and ways to expand Guitar Hero or other projects that we might be interested in doing for music games.
GP: Great stuff. So tell us more about the GHTunes concept, was this something you thought of originally? Was this the way you always envisaged Guitar Hero would go?
Huang: To be honest, this was something that we got together with Neversoft, who are the main studio behind Guitar Hero on the 360 and PS3, and we discussed towards the beginning of this year. The challenge with that, and the reason we never thought about it in the beginning was it required a whole new set of controllers that were robust enough to allow people to create music. Our vision was to allow real musicians to create real music, and to do that you have to create real musical instruments. You can't give 'em a plastic guitar and ask them to make great music, it just doesn't work! (laughs). So we had to completely redesign the guitar, and of course we've been working on the drums for almost two years now, and to give musicians a feature set both on the hardware side and the software side that would allow them to create interesting music on GHTunes that other people would want to download - you know, if it ends up being just a bunch of crap nobody is going to want to download it! So that was the challenge we had this time.
We really had to step away from the whole Guitar Hero franchise that came before and say that if we're serious about doing this GHTunes, we have to make entire new sets of hardware with totally new innovations and technologies. And that was an incredible challenge to get done in one year! (laughs)
GP: So just talking about this new hardware, did you have any problems with the design, the reliability?
Huang: Yes! Well, Red Octane, part of our background in hardware goes back to the dance pads, so we've always prided ourselves in being... well, to be a bit boastful here, we've always prided ourselves on making some of the best hardware in the video game industry. So we needed to make not only robust, feature rich hardware, but it had to last. Because gamers are going to pay a lot of money for what we call our "super bundle", which is of course a "band in a box". And we have to make it last for them to feel like they weren't ripped off. So we definitely had to work on reliability and durability, and we have some crazy videos back in the office of our guys playing the drums with hammers! Just to see if they could break the drum kit! (laughs) so we really, really stress test the hardware, and we also wanted to make sure we replicate the experience as authentically as we could. Especially as drums take a lot of pounding! So that included designing raised cymbals, five drum pads.. so there were a lot of things we did that were geared towards making sure that: one, if you're just in regular gameplay you're going to get a product that lasts you a long time; and two, if you are a musician you're going to get a product that makes you feel like "hey, this is very similar to what I play on a real instrument."
GP: Going back to the beginning then, with the first Guitar Hero, what was the eureka moment? When did you think that this would really work?
Huang: That's a funny question because the other day, somebody was moving cubicles and they discovered the first build of the first Guitar Hero that we ever had, and we hadn't seen it in years! It was essentially, believe it or not, a black background and five dash lines moving down the screen. And that's all it was, there was no graphics, nothing. It looked a lot like an Atari 2600 game, five different coloured dash lines moving down the screen! (laughs). And those of us who were there with that first build were amazed, because I remember sitting there and just starting to play it - I think there was a Weezer song that we ended up not licensing for Guitar Hero - and people played for hours on that, just saying "wow, this is actually really fun." Even though if you look at it, there was nothing on-screen apart from five dots.
That was the first moment that we thought that this could really work. We always said that someday we should show people that build just so they could see how simple it was, and yet the core gameplay mechanic was there. Even though it was, like I said, five dots, the fact that you were holding a guitar in your hand, and playing to a song you knew, that was the core mechanic that really engaged people. So yeah, it was literally from the first build.
GP: Wow. So you've gone from the dance pads in the early days, to guitars, and now the whole band - anything else going through your mind about what you can possibly do next after this?
Huang: Well we are of course always working on expanding Guitar Hero into other music genres, for instance with the Guitar Hero drum set, it has a MIDI port, so you can plug in other MIDI instruments, such as electronic drums, keyboards, so you know there are certain areas in Guitar Hero that we can expand. We also look at different genres of music that we haven't been able to capture with Guitar Hero. We've been able to explore rock, metal, alternative music pretty well, but there is a lot of music we'd love to see in our video game. For example hip-hop, a lot of electronica music, things like that which we've never had a chance to do because they're not guitar driven, they're not drum driven. So we are looking at other music genres, as well as looking at certain parts of Guitar Hero World Tour that we would like to expand the features of. Take, perhaps, individual direction on the drums, the guitar, the vocals and really expand out the feature sets for those. We feel like it's just the beginning of what we could do with music video games, and there's still a lot of very exciting things ahead of us.
That is the real beauty of World Tour, it has taken that original, simple idea to a whole other level. Not only can you battle it out in career mode by yourself, or with friends, you can link up over the internet and battle another entire band from the comfort of your living room. Or garage, if you want the authentic experience. We can't wait to get our hands on this kit, and will bring you an in-depth review closer to the launch in November.