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
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
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,
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
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.
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