Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Interview with Chris Canfield Re Guitar Hero/Rhythm Games

Student Charlene Jeune conducted this email interview with Chris Canfield, designer of Guitar Hero II, from Harmonix for her Rhythm Games presentation in USC Gamepipe's CSCI 180, Survey of Digital Games & Technologies.

How did you decide how the gameplay was going to work?

On a very high level, we took a look at what was out there, we figured out all of the ways we wanted to interpret this idea, and we sketched out a plan. We then looked at our budged, and trimmed that plan back to the barest, core ideas. Frequently, being forced to re-examine your ideas due to a low budget helps to foster creativity.

We also had a clear aesthetic target in the form of great concepting sketches, which we filtered every decision through. This helped not only visual decisions, but also what gameplay would “fit” into the world.

How do you decide for the different levels of play how many notes to put in and their placement? Is there a program that maps them for you or are they all placed in individually?

Our sound engineers do a lot of that work. Generally speaking, Easy level is as easy as you can make it while still feeling like you’re playing the guitar, and Expert is every note in the song. Medium and Hard kind of scale between those two. When we have a setlist order, we then smooth over any rough spots.

All game difficulty things are highly iterative. You put something in, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. Even if it works, you’ll need more passes when other songs get authored, to keep all of a difficulty level at similar levels. And you’ll need a couple of final passes to get a ramp up a difficulty once a setlist has been decided on. It was exactly the same process on Guitar Hero as on Eyetoy: Antigrav and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World (an earlier project I worked on).

The notes are placed by hand by people. Like so much in life, computers have a hard time grasping the “feel” of making music without direct intervention.

Is there any reasoning behind the colors (color scheme, order) of the circles?

We actually tried a large number of different color schemes and layouts before settling on the one we kept. Fortunately the lead designer on the original project, Rob Kay, has a strong art background and was able to iterate on color arrangements pretty quickly.

We were basically going for something that could be quickly read without counting the lane number of the gem, and without stepping on the other color cues in the game. We were also trying to avoid making the controller look like a tinker toy, but pretty early we had to abandon a bit of that for pure functionality. The orange and yellow gems are a little too close for my liking, but overall I think we nailed it.

Why was it decided for the fret board to come towards the player instead of going across the screen or up and down? Does it make the experience more intense for the player?

To be perfectly honest, it just looks better. You could argue that it being prettier makes the experience more real for the player. And you could argue that we had the technology and experience sitting around from Frequency and Amplitude. But really, when it came right down to it, we go with our gut a lot. Our gut said the 3D track just looked nicer.

When putting together a song, what criteria must it meet before it can be considered done?

All of the song recording for the main songs are done at a Konami spinoff group in Southern California by the name of Wavegroup. They’ll generally make a first recording and mix of a song, which we’ll then comment on for their revisions, and back and forth. Sometimes an extended solo is too Clapton and not enough metal, sometimes a drum is mixed too low. In general, though, they do a great job. We usually consider a song done if we can listen to the cover of these legendary songs and feel like we’re doing them justice. Or at least not cringe. That depends on how close to ship we are.

As for the gem placements… that gets tweaked right up to the last minute.

Early in development, how far from the finished product was Guitar Hero in its prototype phase in terms of gameplay and entertainment value?

About 9 months? That’s hard to say, really. We basically knew what we wanted to achieve from the start. Some of the specifics changed over the course of development, but not as many as might in a longer project. We didn’t have that long to make the game, and that really helps to keep a project focused on doing what you know is important.

How important do you feel the guitar peripheral is to the experience?

Totally important. That’s like saying “how important are having skiis to the feeling of skiing?” People may not always realize it, but you’re not just learning the rules of a game when you play, you’re learning to play with a physical object. Usually that’s the same boring gamepad, but it doesn’t have to be. Games like Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution, DDR, and the Wii really show that people enjoy new interfaces to the game world beyond the normal pad.

How important do you think the game’s emphasis on making the player feel like they are rock star is to the overall experience?

That’s all it is. Everything we did was guided by that vision.

General Music Game Questions

What other music games have you worked on? What is your background? What games have influenced your approach to making music-based (rhythm) games?

It’s funny… about 10 years ago, Dance Dance Revolution introduced me to the world of dancing. If you watch the GH2 unlock video, you can see me making a fool out of myself busting out some club moves for the camera. On Eyetoy: Antigrav, I based a lot of the gem / rail hand patterns on rhythm music games like Pop ‘n Music, Para Para Paradise, etc. I recently got to fulfill a dream working on Karaoke Revolution: Party, as I spearheaded the dance authoring effort. I went from being a DDR fan, to many years later leading a team of people who were re-envisioning DDR.

But beyond rhythm music games, lots of what you learn about gaming is broadly applicable. Rules about menu items, keeping things simple and accessible, et al remain as true on anything Harmonix makes as they are on anything Capcom makes. Study it all.

My degree was actually in Sociology from UCI. People fascinate me. Gaming is a little snow globe world where I can poke at them, and they can poke back. I was always a little jealous that USC had a game development program and we didn’t.

What are the core aspects of a music-based game that are crucial to making the experience believable? What are the core aspects of a music-based game that are crucial to making the experience fun?

These two really are one and the same. Really, it all has to be about the player’s experience. And more specifically, whatever specific experience you’re trying to give to the player has to drive every single decision on the project. We went with pre-recorded music because it “felt” more musical than Midi, even if it was a fake. We added posters to the metagame, and tips to the pause menu, to add that experiential flavor. We made sure everything the player did in game was related to actual performances as much as possible. The only real edge case to this is star power, but we’re close enough there.

What do you think was lacking in rhythm games of the past that kept them from reaching the level of popularity that the Guitar Hero series has?

I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what makes a game click. A ton of things have to come together, many of which are outside the control of the developers. Why don’t I give you a real, if grossly simplified, answer. One thing that worked really well for us, was simply that it was time for good old fashioned balls-out Rock to make a comeback. Up until last year, your musical choices in games were Bubblegum Pop, Techno, or Hip-Hop. Iron Maiden, Hendrix, Styx… these were all lost to time. Liking Hair Bands was considered shameful. But there was something there. There was a freedom, an energy, a passion that had been to a large degree forgotten. There was basically this giant wealth of emotion and music to tap into. And while liking Hair Bands is still shameful, it can also be cool.

A woman at thanksgiving thanked me, because her son started asking her about The Ramones, Queen, and a lot of her old favorite bands. That really makes it worth it.

There is an arcade game called Guitar Freaks by Konami that is also a guitar simulation but did not become as popular in the US as Guitar Hero has. Are you familiar with it and if so, what do you think held it back?

Guitar Freaks is a great game, but it did have some specific cultural shortcomings. For one, Americans are less adventuresome in public. For a nation raised on Karaoke this isn’t a big deal, but you’re less likely to get an American who is unfamiliar with rhythm music games to jump out and wail away in front of other people until they’ve had a chance to try it in the privacy of their own home. Japan is all about the arcade scene. America, not so much. Similarly, the music they chose for the Japanese release is very, very Japanese. It ranges from sickeningly sweet beach tunes, to hypercutsie Pop Ska. Even the presentation is very japan-centric, with giant teddy bears holding hearts marching in time to the music. The American gamer is going to look at that and give it one big “huh?”

Games, and any entertainment medium, are all about tapping into people’s emotions. Music, sadly, is a largely culturally specific route to people’s emotions.

What predictions do you have for the future of this genre?

More games. I predict that with the success of Guitar Hero, every publisher and their mother will want a music game in the lineup.

A branching of musical genres. We’ve seen 70-90 power rock, but where is the 80’s – 2000 electro / alternative? The whiny Emo?

Sales should be up across the board. We’ve always felt that anyone having a breakthrough music title in the US (be that Harmonix, Konami, Codemasters, or Sony) would help open doors for everyone in this genre. Hopefully people will start buying more music games, and exploring this genres more across the board.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Interview with Jim Bumgardner Re Flash Games

Students Pamela Fox/Ben Lisbakken conducted this email interview with Jim Bumgardner of for Ben's flash games presentation in USC Gamepipe's CSCI 180, Survey of Digital Games & Technologies.

1) How has flash technology changed to better enable games?

It was always possible to do rudimentary games in Flash, but since Flash 4, each new version of Flash has significantly improved Actionscript, which has made things easier. Flash 5 was the
first version that I would even consider using - it introduced a basic C-like syntax to actionscript, which made it more attractive to experienced developers.

Flash 6 introduced a lot more functionality, particularly for the "MovieClip" object, and at this point, Actionscript started to look a lot more like Javascript/ECMAScript.

Flash 7 introduced Actionscript 2.0 and a more elegant system for doing object oriented programming.

Flash 8 introduced some significant performance enhancements, improved font handling, and most importantly for games, support for bitmaps.

2) What genres/types of games are best made with Flash?

I generally encourage my students to make "classic" games in Flash. Although it's possible to make 3D games in Flash, it lends itself much more to 2D (or "2 1/2 D") style games. It is an excellent platform for doing classic arcade games. There is also a genre of game which doesn't really have a name, but I'll call "Post Classical" which is basically a classic 2D game which has been gussied up to look good at high resolutions. This style of game is something that was pioneered by Flash developers, because Flash lends itself to making higher quality graphics. Another related genre is the inverse of this (Pseudo Classic), which are new games that are made to intentionally look like old fashioned games, such as many of the games on the
Homestarrunner website.

3) What were important games in flash game history?

I'm not much of a gamer, so I'm probably not the best source for this.
I don't really think of any specific Flash games as "ground breaking" - however I do think that the trend towards including smaller "gamelets" on websites is interesting. Flash enables this because the games can load quickly and can be created relatively cheaply...

Oh yeah, one other thing worth mentioning about Flash games. At one time, computer game development was commonly done by a single person or very small teams - for example, the first games from Sierra Games were done by husband and wife Roberta and Ken Williams.

In recent years commercial game development is a much bigger affair, resembling movie production, with huge teams and huge budgets. Flash game development, however, often more closely resembles game development from the Apple II period - and this reason, perhaps more
than the performance characteristics of Flash, has a lot to do with the character of the games themselves.

Interview with Don Daglow re Early Game Programming

Student Viraj Tipnis conducted this email interview with Don Daglow of Stormfront Studios for his university gaming presentation in USC Gamepipe's CSCI 180, Survey of Digital Games & Technologies.

1. Is there any reason why you chose to write Baseball as your first game.You might have been a fan ,but were there any other technical reasons why you chose that particular game?

Apart from traditional games like chess and Monopoly, the first game that fascinated me was called All Star Baseball, which I started playing at age 11 in 1963. It was a board game simulation of American baseball that ignored the role of the pitcher but did a great job of modeling the performance of hitters. Kind of like a soccer sim that accurately modeled the skills and performance of every forward in the league, but had only one "average" fullback who played both sides of the field for every team.

I ended up inventing a way to modify the game to simulate both offense and defense, but did not have all the statistics needed to implement the design accurately until I went to college, when my passion turned instead to computer games when I programmed Baseball in 1971. So only a few college friends ever saw my "improved" version of All Star Baseball as a board game.

The minute I saw the computer terminal I realized I could build a far more accurate baseball game than All Star Baseball, so I immediately set to work on it.

I also designed a comic-inspired "Peanuts" dice-and-board game when I was about 12, which was a too-simple pursuer-pursued dice-rolling game in which Snoopy and Linus alternately stole Linus' blanket from each other. No one would ever say that it predicted my later success in game design!

2.I haven't used a PLATO or DECUS terminal before. It seems similar to todays filesharing networks.Was there any concept of copyright or intellectual property at that time?

I'm asking this because games were distributed 'freely'.

Actually, there was no such thing as a DECUS terminal: the games for PDP-10 computers (and I imagine other systems later, but that was "after my time") were shared between universities on "DEC Tapes." The school loaded the game on its computer's hard drive (precious real estate, hence the concerns re size) and THEN students could access them after logging into a terminal. So we thought of the terminal as a PDP-10 terminal, not as representing DECUS.
We had no thoughts of IP's because the idea that anyone would ever pay us to create games was so foreign. It was an underground activity one did for fun, not something one ever dreamed of being paid to do. When I applied for a job at Mattel in 1980 they thought I was lying about having written games for 9 years because they didn't know that era of game design existed -- fortunately, they figured out that I was telling the truth so in the end it helped this English Major get a job as a "Senior Applications Programmer."

3. You were one of the pioneers when it came to early computer games. Do you feel that if gaming was considered to be different type of field in computer science, we would have had better games today.?I mean was writing games and spending hours playing them not looked upon too favorably at colleges as a career prospect?

It was looked on as a waste of time UNLESS you were doing it to interest more people in getting involved with computers, in which case it was considered socially redeeming. Of course, the underlying flaw in this theory was the assumption that the minute someone got involved with the computer they would immediately regard games as pase and start doing "serious computing." They were half right: people who started wiuth games did use the computer for serious purposes, but they never stopped wanting to play games.

This led to all sorts of (now funny) contradictions. There were 10 of us in our computer science study group, of whom I was the one concentrating on games. When they wrote an article in the Pomona newsletter about us almost all of the examples cited were my work -- because the really inventive work everyone else was doing was "too hard to explain" or "didn't sound interesting to non-math-types." This was very unfair to the other students -- I heard that one of our group later led the project that computerized the Library of Congress.

Yet if we were caught writing games we'd be kicked off the system, despite the "good PR." Which was unfair to us!

4.Some of the major arcade companies during that time, had PLATO connections and had free access to these games. Companies were 'inspired' after looking at some of the coolest games and turned them to arcade versions.

Students who wrote them as free ware never got credited for their work...I have a few examples..

What are your comments on this?

This probably happened after I was already at Intellivision, but it doesn't surprise me. When Creative Computing Magazine started publishing code for microcomputer games in about 1980, everyone who had written anything during the 1970s probably saw their game code listed with their name removed from the source. IMHO that was actually the greatest impetus to the no-credit no-royalty use of a generation of work.

5.Do you think that game programming in colleges needs some type of boost,like having some kind of game sharing network like PLATO between colleges?. I feel that really good games were shared and developed by students at lot more in the 70s than now. Please correct me if I am wrong in thinking this.

I can't comment on the comparison because I don't know what happens in colleges now.

I can say that what games were picked up by DECUS (or shared less formally by computer center managers) was very flukey and unpredictable, and we had no influence over what other schools took or didn't take. I first found out Star Trek had become "the #2 Star Trek at most schools" (behind the MIT one that had quadrant printouts) when I started getting fan letters at my dorm. I didn't even know DECUS had picked it up.

Baseball was a "core hog" because it did so much calculation, especially in full season mode, which took 50 minutes per league on a lightly loaded system. So it was nowhere near as welcome as the 32K version of Star Trek, which as a turn-based game "rested light" on the need to be swapped into core for processing.

You may have been briefed on this, but the PDP-10 was a time-sharing copmputer with only one CPU. Each active user's program was "swapped" into core for a fraction of a second to process a few instructions, then swapped out for the next program. In theory it was supposed to be so fast that everything you tried to do endured just a short delay. Picture 55 users (including a hospital business office) electronically sharing the processor inside your cell phone to do all their work, and you get the idea why games that only had to be swapped into core once in a while fared better than those that wanted to do intense calculations.

Of course, sim designers like to hog core... when I wrote Utopia at Intellivision the programmers all kidded me about being the first guy ever to write five pages of assembly code that displayed absolutely nothing on the screen of a video game!

By the time I wrote Dungeon in 1975, which turned out to be arguably my most influential work, its size and its "calculate what every monster in this world is doing every turn" CPU load was a major liability to its distribution. The anecdotal stories I heard were that it was shared more often as an underground activity "off the record" than through above-the-table swaps, though I've had a variety of people tell me they played it on a PDP-10 in the mid and late 70's so I know it gained at least a little momentum.

6.You obviously received a lot of fan mail when you wrote Star Trek. Was there anything like students across Universities waiting for Don Daglow to come up with his next game? Did you share your source code with any body at that time?

No, I'm afraid that even though we got fan letters from students we had no influence on whether anything would ever be shared beyond our immediate friends, so I never thought of trying to provide something new to those same people. Some letters would have game improvement suggestions, though. Maybe someone somewhere was waiting for my next game, but we always thought of just doing things for the people at our school. We definitely were not looked on as people doing something significant on campus.

Since the only language used for most of the distributed games was BASIC, your source code was always right there for anyone to see and could not be hidden -- thus its later publication over and over in books and magazines. This was part of its appeal as something to draw more people into programming. The only other "lengua franca" available on all systems at the time was Fortran, which was a TERRIBLE game language, though I did a simple port of Baseball as an exercise. I did a version of Ecala in SNOBOL but only the BASIC version ever got shared. ELIZA was in compiled LISP, but our system did not support LISP as a language and we had no access to it. Assembly, which became the default game language family when microcomputers were invented, was used almost exclusively for operating system work on the PDP-10 because its instruction set was limited so doing anything with it was cumbersome. Of course, compared to the 6502 microprocessor that came later it was pretty cool!

7. Did arcade companies approach you with a lot of $$$ to sell them your ideas? Or did you approach any companies to sell your code?

No -- because the 70s work was all text-based there were no arcade versions. After all our work was published anonymously whatever benefit we could have had was lost. My one benefit was that both Baseball and Dungeon were so long and complex they were never published for the "type it in yourself" market and no one ever apparently figured out how to abridge them. By way of contrast, there must be at least 10 versions of Star Trek that are cut down in one way or another to fit on 2 or 3 pages and be "typeable." Almost all of them eliminate the work Jonathan Osser did to add the z-axis to the game's math.

And I wasn't smart enough to do what the Zork guys did and start a company when the Apple ][ (<-- dated symbol use!) came along. Once that market emerged I was already running the Intellivision game design team and not thinking about comercializing my older work -- I thought we were going to end up being one of two or three dominant long term design groups in the world and couldn't believe my luck at leading the Intellivision team. History served me a great dose of humility when the Crash of 1983 came along!

Interview with Trip Hawkins re Mobile Gaming

Student Viraj Tipnis conducted this email interview with Trip Hawkins for his mobile gaming presentation in USC Gamepipe's CSCI 180, Survey of Digital Games & Technologies.

1. Do you think that mobile game developers are at the mercy of cell phone manufacturers? Can both work together while designing games on a particular cell phone. I mean certain hardware aspects of a cell phone that will be crucial to gaming?

** No, you just have to figure out how to be a good vendor and to understand them as customers. This includes listening to where they see problems and opportunities. The handsets are very cost-driven, which must be respected if you are going to have a mass market.

2. Is it best for cell phone games to stay as simple as possible ?
Wouldn't people play games on a console if they had more time? Is this a challenge considering that people increasingly demand higher quality for cell phone games?

** KISS is good for mass markets, although of course markets evolve and grow as better technology improves the experience, including both usability and fidelity. Note that everyone uses a PC and the most-played games are things like Solitaire and Minesweeper, not Grand Theft Auto, which a hardcore gamer may buy a console to play at a deeperlevel.

3. Do you have issues with finding talented people to work on making games for mobile devices? Wouldn't people rather work on a largercanvas of a computer monitor rather than a small cell phone screen?

** Yes. However, mobile is global, so we now have most of our staff in Helsinki, Finland, where working on mobile games is very "cool" and there aren't a lot of big console game companies to work for.

4. Social networking sites are doing great at present .Do you foresee such a trend in social gaming when it comes to cell phones?

** Yes. Go read all the press in terms of what I have been saying about this for many years now, eg NYT May 21 2006, but also USAToday back in 2004 and 2005.

5. Some of the early video game consoles were marketed based on the fact that they had some cool games on them. People bought the console for that game. Do you see a similar thing happening for cell phones, like people wanting to buy a cell phone because it has a really great game on it?

** This DID happen with Blackberry and Email, and with games this couldhappen, but it typically does not happen for infrastructure reasons.Eg, the handset maker does not want to limit the market and manufacturing demand of a handset to just those on one operator that want a specific game. And the operator is not likely to pay a higher price to narrow such demand - the cost of handsets is tied to manufacturing quantities.

6. Is making games for cell phones a safer option financially for companies and compared to making them for consoles? I am asking this question in terms of production costs, timing of launch and access to distribution networks/chains ?

** Yes, because we can still experiment with a fairly broad market and low costs, whereas the high cost of console game production forces the publishers to mostly make sequels and licenses.

7. In the mobile game business, there is very strong competition originating also from the traditional game console manufacturers, such as Nintendo and Sony. These companies are adding communication featuresto their mobile game consoles. How do you think it affects independent mobile game developers?

** Handheld game systems is an entirely different ecosystem from games for mobile phones. A phone game may be only 64kb in size and is delivered over the cell phone network from a carrier vending and billingsystem. The handheld game may be on a memory card or optical disc and may be literally 1,000s of times larger. In the latter case the game must be sold via a physical retail store and has tangible manufacturing cost. The latter game will have a hardcore brand, eg Madden, for a hardcore user on a hardcore device. But this same game would be too large to even consider delivering over the cell network, and 95% of thecell users have never used, and do not care, about Madden or other hardcore game brands. But they'll buy Tower Bloxx for $5, and zip, it's on their phone over the air.

8. Where do you see mobile gaming in the next 10 years.? Where do you see Digital Chocolate in particular?

** It will evolve as its own medium, following some of the patterns of the Internet but being more mass market. Digital Chocolate will play a role in this by pioneering innovative new products that serve this new mass market, notably with more usable games and services that have more social value, all in a mobile context.