Last Wednesday I had a terrific conversation with Rob Kay (lead designer of Guitar Hero and the forthcoming Rock Band) in his office at Harmonix. I feel very lucky to have been able to talk with a game designer on-the-record, which is something I never managed to pull off during my Grand Theft Auto project. Rob gave me permission to post excerpts of the interview transcript here; I'll start with this one, which begins with my asking a question about "star power." (When you are playing a song successfully, you gradually build up "star power," which can then be deployed by lifting up the neck of your guitar; the crowd goes wild and you earn extra points for a while. The folks over at ScoreHero have made star power strategy into something of an artform, as Rob and I discuss later.)
KM:The other thing about star power that I think is really interesting is the way that it visually shakes you up when you’re playing. And I wonder what went into that decision.
RK: Do you mean, how the visuals react on-screen?
RK: So, I think one of the big things that you try to do in game design is give people instant gratification, feedback for anything that they do in the game. And feedback is always audio and visual. And if you can, if you’ve got these big moments, emotional moments in your game you want to make sure you’re using both the audio and the visual to really give you a positive feeling for doing something good in the game. So, star power is the big bonus moment, and you want to feel like you’re being rewarded for doing it. And then—you know, that’s like on a purely mechanical level? And I know we spent a lot of time trying to figure out, what should the visuals be, what should the sound be, and I was really keen that we had a theme, that we found something to link it all together. And so, we thought, well star power, should we put little gold stars or something like that, I was like no, that’s a little bit cheesy. And so then we thought it would be fun to go with the whole, hey look, it’s the electric guitar, you’re playing an electric guitar, so let’s make the theme electricity, and overloading, and all that kind of vibe. So we went with this kind of electric blue color scheme, and little kind of fizzes and spark sound effects when you deploy as well. So it was trying to bring a little bit of the raw, amp, overload kind of feel to the feedback. And that’s what drove the visuals. So as well as serving that functional purpose, which is to let you A. know when you’ve earned star power because you see the blue little sparks go off, you know that as your meter fills it’s blue, and it’s got sparks, so you’re identifying it conceptually, okay, blue glowy stuff is star power, it’s serving that functional job, but it’s also serving an aesthetic, an experiential kind of thing as well, making you feel like, oh yeah, it’s all electricity, and I’m kind of overloading the crowd with energy by releasing it. That was kind of an important direction.
KM: It’s interesting how that sort of replicates a really iconic, mythical moment in rock, which is the moment of Dylan going electric.
KM: I don’t know if that ever occurred to any of you at all, but it just struck me just now when you were talking about it because it is this huge [snaps fingers] sort of transferral at this moment, although of course the crowd reaction was different—
RK: Yeah. Not explicitly. That’s right. Yeah, well that wasn’t an explicit goal at the time. But yeah. I mean, it’s very much a part of what, I mean Guitar Hero from the beginning was always, well, not right from the beginning, I think when we first started we didn’t know whether it was even going to be about rock or whether it was going to be about guitar. Because first of all it was about guitar, and then we only kind of realized a couple of weeks into the project that it made sense to make it all about rock.
KM: Really, so did you consider initially having a bunch of different genres so that you could be the country guitar hero, or the whatever guitar hero, the classical guitar hero?
RK: Yeah. Up until that point the normal thing to do in music games was to have a mixture of music from different genres. And I think the real, I mean, you could ask, why would you do that, it seems so obvious to put it into one genre and have a real identity, but I think people are probably just thinking about, oh how do we appeal to lots of people, oh, put lots of different music in there. And certainly in our karaoke games they were pretty pop-centric but they had a pretty wide range of songs. And Guitar Freaks, which I’m sure you must’ve heard about and looked into, had a strange mixture of songs, it had blues in there as well as rock, and you know we kind of had to make a decision early on, were we going to have blues as well, and were we going to have other stuff that people think of as typical guitar music, and it just seemed right to us to make it about, you know, balls-out rock guitar, that it’s the iconic thing that bringing a guitar game to America should be all about. Seems like the obvious think to do, to take it in that direction.
KM: So there is that American aspect to it. [NB: Rob Kay is from Manchester; one of the many limitations of this transcription is the fact that you can't hear his accent and speech cadences.]
RK: Yeah. I was always joking with Ryan who’s our art director, that it’s gotta be like a balls-out American thing, people identify with that I think. And it’s just the cliched thing, and often in videogames it’s those cliches that are easy to hold onto and get into, you just, you step out of yourself for a little while. And I enjoyed it, even though I wouldn’t necessarily identify, for me, you know, that American guitar rock as being my favorite thing. I know what it is, and I know how to get into it.