Video Games Interview: FreeStyle Games’ Jim Norris Chats Guitar Hero Live

We caught up with FreeStyle Games designer Jim Norris at the EB Games Expo to talk all things Guitar Hero Live, from the newly introduced GHTV feature, to the games development process. Check out Larry’s interview below!

Tell me a little bit about how you first got involved in this project.

So, I was working for another developer at the time and running my own janitorial company, and I got a call from the creative director – a good friend of mine, Jaime Jackson, said, ‘hey, do you want to come and make a new Guitar Hero with me?’ and I said, ‘Hell yes.” Then I got my visa sorted and moved over to the UK, and the rest is history, I guess you’d say.

Is this the first Guitar Hero you’ve worked on?

Well, I worked for Activision, the actual Activision publishing company as a production co-ordinator on a few other Guitar Hero games – I worked on the DS ones, I worked on DJ Hero, that’s kind of how I met FreeStyle Games, so I have worked on a few in other capacities, but this is the first one I’ve had the opportunity to be a designer on.

So tell me a little bit about how they work – especially in those early days- working with Harmonics and working with all those guys.

 Well, I never actually directly worked with them, so I was working with mainly FreeStyle Games, and I have worked with Vicarious Visions, but that was ages ago. Let’s talk about this Guitar Hero.

I guess to start with, obviously there’s a new controller and for me, I had no idea what I was doing because it wasn’t the five things, the colours. But then once you get the hang of it, it’s great and it’s more natural for someone who plays guitar. I guess to start with, was that the idea from the beginning, that there’d be a different controller for it?

Well, it’d been five years since the last Guitar Hero, and we’re FreeStyle, we like to do things differently. So, we did a lot of different attempts at controllers. We tried some with the same layout, then we sort of evolved into this two-by-three layout. We kept the colours in the beginning, and then someone on our UI team was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we take the colours out, just make it black and white?’ Like… are you fucking serious? This is Guitar Hero, you can’t take the colours out of Guitar Hero. But we tried it, and as it turns out, it’s a lot easier for a lot of people to read, because we do have the new up and down top and bottom row, and when you had colour in there as well, that just drove people’s brains insane. So we put it to black and white, and it was a lot more easier to figure out.

It took me a few goes. I mean, the first go I’m like… ‘But I’m pressing! I’m pressing the- oh, I’m not doing the top one’.

Did you do the inverted claw technique?

No, I was using the thumb. I was using the thumb for the black and the rest of my fingers for the white. But it took – I mean, I couldn’t even work it out at the beginning, because I was just so used to the other Guitar Heroes. I was a big fan of Amplitude and Frequency before there was even Guitar Hero, so my experiences go right back to the origins. 

You love rhythm action games.

I love rhythm action games. I mean, I think Rez is one of the best games ever made. 

It’s a great game.

I mean, it’s exciting to see it change up.

Well, I mean, you didn’t have the benefit of the tutorial.

No, there was no tutorial. Which will kind of tell you what to do.

Another good part about the way these buttons are set up is we looked at a lot of research into what the previous players had struggled with in old Guitar Heroes, and it was the usage of what we call the ‘Danger Pinkie’ at the office. The minute that you have to try and move away from that home position, it became really difficult for a lot of people so with this one, you start out with just the bottom three buttons, and then once you’re comfortable with that, we start to introduce the top row, and it’ll be an easy transition. You’ll play a few on the top, and then go back down to the bottom. You go into Advanced, we start to get some bar chords going on, some power chords. Then, we get into split chords, and then as you get into expert, the patterns are even crazier, it’s a lot faster.

But you’re not moving up and down as much.

Which was one of the tricky parts of the old version. But we’ve got new challenges in this one, so even if you were really adept at that, that previous Guitar Hero, there’s a new challenge here for you.

Yeah, I mean I was just ‘what the fuck am I doing’. Which is exciting, I mean, like you said, it has been a while between games, and to come back and introduce something new. Obviously the live aspect is from a most basic non-controller aspect, is the biggest change. This idea that you’re playing in front of a live audience. I mean, there was always an element of it, but now it’s like video, and it’s – there’s a band playing, and you’re in that band and they’re telling you to fuck off when you’re not doing well, and they’re yelling at you when you’re not doing well. I guess, tell us a little bit about what action you guys took to give it that live element that the other games were lacking.

I guess our main approach was making it feel more real, making you feel like a rock star. That’s always been the goal of Guitar Hero, but we thought ‘how can we turn it up a notch.’ We came up with the idea of turning it to first person, and using live video footage of real crowds- you playing in a real band.

Was that all just done with a green screen or is it actual elements from actual festivals?

So, it’s a bit of both, right. We hired upwards of 400 extras at some of these shows, and there were sort of in the front row and we dropped a green screen behind them and created these massive arenas- you play outdoors, you play indoors.

It kind of looks like Milton Keynes meets Coachella. You’ve got the carnival in the background, but then you’ve kind of got this open space.

 So, we’ve got different festivals. We’ve got one that takes place in the UK, so that’s going to be more like your Glastonbury, more like your Reading Festival, and we’ve got a US festival – Rock the Block – which is more like your SXSW and other notable festivals- like Coachella, like you mentioned. We can really do a lot, obviously, with green screens and so we’ve created a lot of different venues for you to play in- some small, some big. We also used the same camera-rigging system that they use in the Lord of the Rings. So we filmed one version where you’re playing great, everybody loves you, your band mates think you’re the coolest guy in the world, and then on the other side where you’re playing like shit. The crowd hates you, they’re booing you, you get closer to the crowd, you can hear them booing you more. You get closer to the drummer, you hear him playing more, and with the positive and negative, we switch between them seamlessly as you play in real time, just responding to the way that you’re playing.

A lot of us are musicians at FreeStyle Games, and we really wanted to transfer that experience of playing on stage to the gamer. We want you to feel the success of doing really well, and the then the satisfaction of nailing that solo, and the crowd going wild and loving you, but we also want you to know what it’s like to get up there and sort of underperform and kind of the feeling that everyone’s looking at you and they know that I’m messing up. So we wanted to create that stage fright – the success and failure of being on stage and performing.

I think there is a big difference between using animated figures to do that than actual video footage. As green-screened as it is, there’s still that idea that this is happening, and this is real. 

I think as soon as you have an avatar for yourself, then it’s easy for you to disconnect from that person but as soon as it’s from your perspective, you really feel the realness.

Once the game’s developed and everything is ready to go. Does that end there? Do you still kind of get involved in like – oh, we’d love these songs to involved in the game, or is that then passed onto someone else to handle?

Well, I guess, for Live, that’s in the can. We had to finish that ages ago because it’s live video, it then has to go through post-production. It was a really interesting journey trying to figure out how to blend film – theatre, cinema, I guess you could say – and video games. But then, on the other side, we have GHTV, and this is the area where we’re really able to keep it going. It’s a new platform, it’s an always online 24-hour music video network we’re going to launch with hundreds of songs, we’re going to constantly update that, and put more in. That’s going to be the place where we can take a look at what people like, what people are into, what they’re responding to, and we can add more as we go on. That’s what we’re going to take forward with this, this new platform, this new way to play.

I mean, that’s been the big difference I guess compared to when Guitar Hero started, is that DLC – it’s the additions that you need to make to the game. You don’t need to release another game in two years cause you can just keep updating this one. The music video aspect interests me quite a bit. What brought on the decision to make it that you could take it outside that box and really incorporate those other elements from popular culture into it, rather than just the 10, the 50, the 30, the 40 songs that come with the game.

Well, so we took a look at how people listen to music nowadays. Obviously, there’s plenty of ways to do it. I used to listen to a lot of vinyl. If I go by a thrift store I have to go in, and I have to dig through the crates and see what they’ve got but other than that, I get all my music online. I don’t even buy my own music, I listen to what’s available. There’s a lot out there for me, there’s a lot of choice. I’m constantly finding and discovering new music, and that’s another thing that we want GHTV to be. We want it to be something where you get a lot of music that you would expect in a Guitar Hero game, like Pantera, and Judas Priest – you know, the classics. But we also want to bring a lot of new stuff to the table – there’s pop rock, there’s indie rock, there’s alt metal, there’s country, there’s some dance pop rock. We’ve got a lot of stuff in there. We want you to turn it on, and be like, ‘Oh, I know this song, this is a great song, I’m playing this song.’ And then you might go to the next channel and go, ‘I don’t know what this is, I’m going to play it,’ and then really enjoy it, and maybe go seek that artist out, and look for the rest of their music. We’re trying to deliver it in the way that we think people are listening to music nowadays.

So, there’s the discovery element to it that hasn’t been there before. Actually, no, that’s not true at all, there always has been. I mean, I remember playing Frequency and discovering some bands that I’ve never heard of. But now it’s at another level, because you can just keep adding more music to that. How does that rendering work with the actual mechanics, in terms of adding new music to it? Is it literally someone’s job to just go ‘this is what the song structure is, or is it automated’?

Oh, it’s definitely not automated. We’ve got a big team of guys that work on the mark-up, the mark-up team- we call it ‘mark-up’ when we take the actual song and we transpose it into gameplay. We have a lot of guys doing that and we get a lot of songs that we mark-up that maybe for whatever reason or another won’t make it into GHTV but we’re trying them out, we’re seeing if they’re fun. The rule kind of is, can we license it, is it fun, do people apart from us actually like this song? We think we’ve got pretty good taste in music, and we’re going to put a lot of stuff in there that’s fun to play, and it’s a fun process. We pass it around the office, we have competitions on them to see who’s the best. It’s good fun.

It’s always the way, isn’t it. No matter what game you play, it’s ultimately, ‘who is the best at this game’.

 Yeah, who is numero uno.

Where do you fit in that cycle?

I mean, I don’t know. I’d probably say I’m in the top 20 players of the office? I don’t know.

There are only 20 players in the office.

 There is exactly 20 people. No, there’s quite a few but I get up there. I try and play as often as I can. There’s a lot of people that are obviously miles better than me, but I still play on the top difficulty. I still can’t play ‘Cowboys from Hell’ on any difficulty past Advanced, so there you go. There’s a good example of one that is a tough song.

And leaving it on this – what’s your favourite song to play on Guitar Hero – either on Live or just any Guitar Hero ever.

Marmozets – ‘Move, Shake, Hide’. I didn’t even know about this band until we put them in the game, and that girl’s got so much energy. That was my pump up song for E3 and it has been ever since then. It’s just a really good track, they’re a great group.

Phenomenal. Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for your time. Looking forward to getting my fingers in this new mode. Very exciting.

Very exciting. You know nothing.

Touché

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Guitar Hero Live is out today! For more information and a full track list, check out the website here: https://www.guitarhero.com/au/en/