Q: After Warriors of Rock, Vicarious Visions was supposed to get a shot at Guitar Hero, and apparently worked on a game for a year before it was scrapped. How did FreeStyle Games wind up getting a shot at the franchise?

James Norris: I can’t personally speak to how Activision approached them – I think that happened before I was asked to come on board – but I know that I was back in the States working at another developer, and I got a call from Jamie Jackson. He said, ‘Hey, do you wanna come out here and help make a new Guitar Hero with me?’ I was overjoyed and said ‘Yes, sign me up!’ So I moved from Venice Beach, California up to Royal Leamington Spa, England, and I’ve been working on it ever since.

Q: Activision is largely blamed for killing rhythm games by releasing a bazillion Guitar Hero games and saturating the market. Why are we seeing a new Guitar Hero now?

Guitar Hero Live interview

James Norris: The demand is back, you know? People want to play rhythm action games again. With the new consoles, and the fact that there’s probably loads of gamers out there that were never a part of that rhythm action phenomenon, and haven’t had a chance to play Guitar Hero yet that would like to. So we thought it was the right time to try and bring that back.

Q: What’s the plan going forward? Will we see Guitar Hero Live 2 next year? Is this an annual franchise?

James Norris: On the disc side, we have no plans to make another one of those. With GHTV [Guitar Hero TV], because it’s our always-online 24 hour music video network, it’s kind of a new platform. So that’s gonna be really easy for us to update and constantly add new songs in.

We’re gonna focus on that, and we hope that the community will get behind it, get on the forums and talk to us about what they wanna see, so we can develop GHTV in a way that gamers want it to evolve.

We found that that fourth finger – we nickname it the danger pinkie – deterred a lot of players

Q: One of the big selling points for Guitar Hero Live is its full-motion video. Can you walk us through the decision to go that route, and the process of getting it into the game?

James Norris: Guitar Hero was always about being a rock star: everyone wants to feel like they are the rock star, and we thought about how we could turn that up a notch. We thought that taking the camera and switching it from a third-person view and putting it into first-person and using real people and live action would be a great way to reinforce that ‘you are the rock star’ feeling. We shot a lot of different venues with a lot of different fans that we constructed based on loose genres – genre-specific groups, so that you can get the experience of a lot of different bands, a lot of different show sizes. It was a lot of fun to film these, actually. We all got to do little cameo roles in the studio.

Q: You got to bring your leather wristband out of the closet.

James Norris: Yeah, I think they probably put a couple of wristbands on me, maybe a bandana. I’m a roadie backstage on one of the sets, so I have disapproving glances when you’re playing terribly, and I let loose – but not too much because roadies have to keep their composure.

Q: A lot of folks will still have an older model of Guitar Hero guitar lying around somewhere, and might resent having to buy newer hardware. You must have known you would get pushback from some segment of the community for that decision – was that a hard thing to push through?

James Norris: We wanted to do something different, and we actually did a lot of research into what were some of the difficulties players found with the older version with Guitar Hero controllers. We found that that fourth finger – we nickname it the danger pinkie – deterred a lot of players from stepping it up above the medium difficulty. And we wanted to make something that was accessible to players that hadn’t played a Guitar Hero before, as well as provide a new challenge for people that were awesome at Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero Live interview

So, you start out real easy, just on one of those rows of three buttons, and gradually step up to the top row. By the time you get to the expert level difficulty, it poses a brand new challenge. Even if you were amazing before, you’re still going to have to learn a new style of play. But it’s still keeping true to the connectivity to the music. You still feel that ratio of 1:1 note-to-note gameplay when you get to the top level.

Q: Guitar Hero Live does feature an option for vocals. Are these scored separately, and can one player sing while another plays guitar?

James Norris: Yeah there’s a score for the singer as well. The main focus of this version is certainly the guitar, so when you play through the first time, we want you to play with the guitar, and experience that level of stage fright you said you were familiar with. I’d say a good 80-90 percent of the people at FreeStyle have been in bands or are currently in bands, so we wanted to transfer that feeling of stage fright to the player. But certainly, once you’ve aced a track in the campaign, you go into Quick Play, you can have your singer step up, and you can both play together and be scored separately.

Q: Speaking of the campaign, can you tell us anything about the single player storyline? Is it like quest mode or its own beast?

you can buy a play pass, and that will get you full access to our online catalogue for a determined amount of time.

James Norris: It’s you playing with these different bands. There’s two different festivals: one is an American festival, and one takes place in the UK. You choose which events you want to do first, and as you play through those you’ll unlock different sets you can play with different bands.

Q: Will Guitar Hero TV replace DLC? Or is it offered in addition to DLC?

James Norris: We looked at how people were getting music now as opposed to five years ago, and that’s changed a lot. We wanted to mirror the way people get a hold of their music. I’m old, so I still listen to vinyl, but apart from that I get all of my music online. So, we wanted to mimic that. The way GHTV works is: we’re going to release with hundreds of songs, and we’re going to be updating that library constantly. You’re not going to have to pay for any of the songs we’re adding to GHTV – there’s no subscription model, it’s not like a traditional DLC based thing. You can turn on GHTV and enjoy all of the new music. It’s a different approach to how you gain access.

Q: So if I have this right: there are a number of channels with songs on rotation, and if you want to play a song out of rotation, you spend points or real-world money?

James Norris: More or less. While playing on the channels, you’re earning currency and you’re earing the right to play songs on demand – we’re calling them ‘Plays’ right now. So you’re earning these Plays, and you can go set up a playlist, and play any songs you want to. If you have a group of friends over – the way I always played was we’d get a group together, we’d be hanging out, having some beers – you can buy a play pass, and that will get you full access to our online catalogue for a determined amount of time. I’m not sure the actual amounts of time or cost.

We thought… live action would be a great way to reinforce that ‘you are the rock star’ feeling.

So if you don’t want to spend any money to play the songs you wanna play you don’t have to. You just enjoy GHTV, you get some Plays, you go play the songs you want to. If you’d like to spend money to get a large group of those Plays and make a playlist you can do that as well, and you can also get a Play Pass. I do wanna stress that there’s no need to do that – you can enjoy all of GHTV for the cost you buy it for in store.

[Here PR steps in to say there will be more info coming soon.]

Q: Are there any other microtransactions in the game?

[PR: That’s something we’re going to be sharing later on.]

Q: Can I play local multiplayer against another guitarist?

James Norris: Yes. Also, the way GHTV works is: you are matched up against nine other players of similar skill and similar experience level. As you play through the song, whoever gets first place is going to receive more coins and more experience points, but everyone who plays along is going to get some. Obviously the better you do, the more you’ll get. And you can use those coins to buy Hero Powers, personalisation items, a whole slew of different things. Plays as well – that’s how you get your Plays.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

James Norris: We’re really excited to get it out there and see what people think. We want it to be something that the community gets involved with and lets us know what they like, so we can tailor GHTV to what the people who are enjoying it the most like.