Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023
From DJ Hero to Guitar Hero: How Freestyle is making rhythm games sexy again

Freestyle Games’ Jamie Jackson hands me a strange beige sheet of plastic, a shrunken replica of a semi-hollow Gibson 335 guitar. It’s not functional, but it’s easy to see where the six buttons, spread over two rows on the underside of the fretboard, should be. There are several buttons on the body, along with the familiar strum bar of the Guitar Hero series. Created during rapid prototyping on a 3D printer, the brittle guitar (I’ve been warned not to drop it multiple times) never made its way to full production. With plans for pearl inlays, multiple non-functional knobs and gold detailing that made the guitar cost more than £60 ($100) to produce alone, it was considered overpriced by the powers of Activision.

At a stage, Guitar Hero Live– the first new one Guitar Hero game since 2010 Warriors of the Rock– not even to have a guitar controller. Early prototypes used console camera systems in an attempt to turn drunken air guitar (admit it, we’ve all done it) into a game. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work. But this was all part of the process, a “washing of what Guitar Hero was,” as Jackson puts it. Other prototypes would follow, including the first iteration of what it would become Guitar hero live guitar, which is made from the plastic trunking that lines the walls of Freestyle Games’ Leamington Spa studio, and some buttons ripped from an old controller.

The final version of the <em>Guitar Hero Live</em> guitar.” src=”×326.jpg” width=”980″ height=”326″/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / The final version of the Guitar Hero Live guitar.
Freestyle Game's Jamie Jackson (left) on the set of <em>Guitar Hero Live</em>.  ” src=”×450.jpg” width=”300″ height=” 450″ srcset=”×960.jpg 2x”/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Freestyle Game’s Jamie Jackson (left) on the set of Guitar hero live.

This was not an entirely strange process for Freestyle Games. Like the studio behind the cult classic DJ hero, it had been on a path of rapid prototyping before. Many of the original prototypes before DJ hero were built in Jackson’s garage, the product of vandalized Guitar Hero controllers and some sloppy soldering. Building a guitar out of trunking—something that would later come to be known as the “Frankentar”—allowed the team to easily play around with different configurations, moving knobs around to mess with the series’ fundamental mechanics. Switching to two rows of three buttons removed the clunky little finger presses of yesteryear – something even real guitarists struggle with – making gameplay more accessible, but also allowing for the introduction of new, complex chord shapes.

This was the breakthrough moment. Combined with some basic graphics – an “80s Atari-esque thing” I’m told – the basic gameplay of Guitar hero live was born. Oddly, Jackson didn’t see the magic at first. “I’ll be very honest with you: when the team presented it to me and Dave Osborne, the design director, we looked at it and were like ‘what the hell are you doing? You can’t change the knobs!'” , explained. Jackson. “But then we sat down and played it, and thought ‘that was really cool, we’re taking it back.'” The end result is a game and a guitar that’s reassuringly familiar, yet very different from the Guitar Hero games of yesteryear.

While notes still flow down a note highway from the top of the screen, there are now two different colors for notes: black for the top row of buttons and white for the bottom one. Even for those who were Guitar Hero pros, this poses quite a challenge, especially as chord shapes are introduced. Pushing down over a single row represents the most power chords, with bottom row extensions adding higher notes. Songs with open chords resemble classic fingerings like the three-finger spread of an open C or the claw-like grip of a G.

Despite this added complexity, the game stays true to it Guitar Hero roots. You still activate star power by tilting the guitar (or pressing a button near your palm), while shaking the whammy bar to add vibrato to those extended notes for extra points. The guitar’s shop design – the final product of all Freestyle prototypes – also maintains the same button spacing as in Guitar Hero guitars of yesteryear while also having a similar profile and body shape. However, it was almost bigger, just like that earlier beige prototype. But Freestyle got its way with at least one aesthetic decision: love it or hate it: the flashy gold highlights remain.

A game of two halves

It’s the only addition of bling to a game and a studio that prides itself on it – for lack of a better word –real. It’s hard to imagine a game on the scale of Guitar hero live, which is associated with one of the largest game publishers in the world, made in such a humble environment by a team of such nice people. But there is evidence of it Live‘s upcoming release scattered throughout the studio: meeting rooms full of computers and TVs for last-minute play tests, and computer screens in the kitchen streaming debugging information for Guitar Hero TVthe game’s ambitious always-on music TV service.

Although the bill highway is only three bills wide, there are two different colors for bills: black for the top row of buttons and white for the bottom row.
Enlarge / Although the bill highway is only three bills wide, there are two different colors for bills: black for the top row of buttons and white for the bottom row.

In another room, a team of musicians – most of them with no experience in the gaming industry – create highways in MIDI software. They show me how for each of the six buttons on the guitar and the open strum bar there is a line of note highway MIDI information. Programming the timeline is as easy as clicking to enter a block of MIDI information. The musicians start with the expert level – a note-by-note transcription to Lives six buttons – before the notes are removed to accommodate less skilled players. A peer review process ensures that, despite the missing notes, the song’s basic rhythmic structure is preserved. If the song needs testing, potential note highways can be exported to a PC version of the game in seconds.

Elsewhere, there are sound designers pitching some Judas Priest to an expert and testing the game’s 70/30 (front/rear) 5.1 surround mix, while upstairs a newly formed analytics team collects gigabytes of data on what songs people play and how often they are played. With a team of 180 people behind the scenes, it’s a complex operation for a complex game. Divided into two parts: the online music video channel Guitar Hero TV (more on that later), and the offline campaign Guitar Hero live—development at the studio has been split in two: the former received a crash course in running a TV station, while the latter became a film director.

Live‘s high-concept aesthetic, that of ‘shelf fright’, has resulted in a look that is very different from the Guitar Hero games of yesteryear. Instead of staring at a strangely animated 3D tape, you get a full live-action sequence of run-throughs Lumbar puncture-like winding corridors of the backstage area, past the stage hands and the groupies and your fellow band mates, before leaping onto the stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. Finally, when the song kicks off, you get an eerily accurate first-person depiction of guitar playing in front of a live audience.

The live-action visuals look modern in a way that even the best animated 3D models could never do, but for a studio accustomed to pixels and polygons, it posed a huge technical challenge.

By akfire1

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