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School of Rock – Guitar Hero Live Designer James Norris Talks Bringing the Franchise Out of Retirement
Post by nachosjustice @ 04:43pm 13/10/15 | Comments
Before going hands-on with the latest iteration of the franchise, Guitar Hero Live, Nathan “nachosjustice” Lawrence jammed with FreeStyle Games designer James Norris about what can be expected from the impending gig.

AusGamers: What’s it like being Down Under? Have you been here before?

James Norris: Never. Ever. I like it. I tried to break away… because I’m staying in Darling Harbour, which is pretty touristy, but I did get on a boat to Manly, which is also a little touristy, but not as touristy. And then someone… I’m a huge cheeseburger fan, as you can probably tell.

AusGamers: A man after my own heart.

James Norris: So I went to Mary’s. You ever been to Mary’s in Newtown? Amazing burger.

AusGamers: It lived up to the expectation?

James Norris: Yeah, it was really good. And just a chilled-out vibe. Cool people. They let me graffiti the wall, so that was fun. And then I went and saw the bird show at the zoo. So I did… in the few hours they would give me a day, I would just like, ‘I’m doing this.’ Then today I’ve just been talking to people all day about the game, which is cool.

AusGamers: So we’ll jump into some of that. Why is now the right time to bring back this franchise that’s been sitting dormant for the last five years?

James Norris: You said it yourself, so the last five years we kind of thought that there are new consoles out. There’s a whole generation of gamer out there who maybe didn’t have a chance to play Guitar Hero. And we thought that because there’s a new console, there are people who maybe haven’t played it before, that now was the right time to do it. And of course, we’re FreeStyle, so we wanted to do it a bit differently.

AusGamers: You mentioned bringing in newer people, which is an easy sell if you’ve never played a game before, but for someone who’s familiar with the series and played a lot of it on the last-gen consoles, is there a big reason to bring them back, or is the pitch the familiarity?

James Norris: There are three main things that are different about it. We’ve got the new controller and so this is a six-button controller. Three buttons on top of three. I don’t know if you personally have had a chance to play it anywhere yet?

AusGamers: No, I haven’t [I did after the interview].

James Norris: We’ll go over and we’ll bash it out later. But what that does is it allows players, either who haven’t played GH in a while or who never have, to ease into it. So you’ll be on the bottom three buttons first, and then you just kind of get used to it. You never have to slide your hand up. There’s no pinkie finger involved, we call it the danger pinkie in the office: it kind of kept a lot of people from advancing past medium, the old difficulty that was called medium, we call it regular now. As you step up the difficulty, you go into that top row and sort of ease into it, and then we get to advanced, where we’re going to have some bar chords and some different shapes, and it speeds up a little bit, all the way up to expert, which is… it’s hard, but I mean, it’s just as hard as it was before, but it’s a different way. If you were an expert-level player on previous games, you’re not just going to be amazing at this one. It’s going to be some new challenges for you to learn and some new patterns and some new different play patterns and play styles. We think that it’s going to be a new challenge and it’s going to be a lot of fun for old GH players as well as people who’ve never played it before.

AusGamers: How do you shape that learning curve? Obviously on the simpler levels, I’m thinking back to what I played and it was fairly straightforward, but how do you go about, I guess, conceptualising, especially when you’re playing the game day in, day out, what constitutes a fair difficulty jump between the lower levels to expert?

James Norris: Within songs themselves, they also have intensities. There are songs that are just going to be harder because the songs themselves are more difficult. We always start by marking up at the highest difficulty, and then we pair it down to get the advanced level. We go down to regular, down to casual. So there are a few different rule sets that we have that we use to sort of as a benchmark, but some songs we might add a little floruit in there for advanced players, too, to kind of give you sort of a little tricky spot, but we don’t make the whole song tricky. Just little things that will teach you a new trick that when you step up to the next difficulty level, you’re going to be sort of ready for it.

We also have a cool thing in GHTV: we have a lot of different hero powers. So instead of just having the one, we have many. And we’ve got two that are really neat that are difficulty up and difficulty down. So if you’re kind of on the verge of going from advanced to expert, you can choose difficulty up and when you’re playing through the chorus, you can use that hero power to step the difficulty up. You’re going to get more points. You’re going to experience the higher difficulty. Or, conversely, if you’re on expert but you’re not quite ready for that solo, you drop the difficulty down, you drop the difficulty of that solo down a little bit to play it, to practice, until you’re ready to nail it on your own. It’s similar to the old version and how we marked it up then, but like I said, there’s intensity within different songs, and there are certainly rules that we use, but until you get up and play it, I don’t want to give those rule away just yet. You’ll sort of learn it as you go, I guess.

AusGamers: Returning to the idea of five years between gigs, does that give you an opportunity to return to some of the more classic songs that have been part of the franchise before?

James Norris: Yeah. With this one, we want to have a lot of songs that stay true to what GH fans will expect. We’ve got hard rock. We’ve got alt-rock, but we’ve also got a lot of indie rock. We’ve got pop-rock. We’ve got dance rock. We want you to discover a lot of stuff that maybe you would have never have played, like, you wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a really fun song to play in Guitar Hero.’ We want you to kind of be on GHTV, you’re going to be playing, like, Pantera, Cowboys from Hell, then you might change the channel and there’ll be like an Echosmith song on there or something else that maybe you wouldn’t normally say, ‘I bet that’s fun to play,’ but you’ll play it. There are a lot of tracks that I have actually… I didn’t know the Marmozets before we put them into our game on GHTV, and they’re kind of like an alt-metal group. I tell you what, that song is great. Her voice is incredible and it just gets me pumped up. That was my E3 get-pumped song: Marmozets -- Move, Shake, Hide -- I’d play that basically every morning before we started the show. You’re going to find all sorts of new stuff, but you’re going to have stuff that you would expect in a Guitar Hero game, as well.

AusGamers: That’s actually really interesting, your point about having not heard about a specific song before you played it. Do you kind of think about that in terms of the player as well, especially because, for me, personally, I scan through tracks and see the ones that I know and I might avoid the ones that I don’t want to play. Have you incentivised players to play outside their comfort zone, or their familiarity zone?

James Norris: A little bit. We also cultivate the shows based on genre, too. So you’ll go look at GHTV. You’ll see that at eight o’clock the indie-rock show is going to be on. I definitely know that I like that, I’m going to go play that. But you also might turn it on when you get home one day having not looked at the schedule and it’s just going to be running. It’s like television, so you don’t really know unless you look ahead at the schedule, what shows are going to be coming up. So you might just turn it on and say, ‘What’s this song? I don’t know, let’s start playing it.’ And then you’ll listen to it and you might then go seek that artist out and listen to the rest of their songs and sort of find something different that you like. Also, if you want, you can go into the on-demand catalogue and you can just play a song on demand, as well.

AusGamers: Okay. I find it interesting that your big contender Rock Band 4 has come out of retirement at the same time as Guitar Hero. What is it like having that rivalry back? Does it help?

James Norris: I think that it’s great that the rhythm-action games are back. We’ve been focused on a new controller, on guitar gameplay. We’ve got GHTV, which is our 24-hour always-online music-video network, and we’ve got GH Live, which is the live-action video. So we’re just excited that the rhythm-action genre is back.

AusGamers: You’ve just mentioned the live-action stuff. Are there any particular challenges with working with that versus what you had in the past, or any particular opportunities that weren’t there in the franchise in the past?

James Norris: There was definitely a lot of trial and error getting the formula right. The really cool thing is there’s… we’re all performers at FreeStyle Games. I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the guys and girls that work there are in bands or have been in bands, and we wanted to transfer the experience of performing live to the game. We want to try and give you that feeling of being on stage and either totally doing well, or… I should say kicking ass or sucking. That’s what we want to transfer. So if you’re up there and you’re playing terribly, the crowd’s going to be throwing stuff at you, they’re going to boo you. If you’re closer to the crowd, you’re going to hear more of the crowd audio.

If you’re closer to the drummer, you’re going to hear more of the drum audio. All of these things come together to make the experience of being on stage more realistic, and that’s what we want to do. If you play terribly in this one, there’s no kick-out mode anymore. So you’re not saved by your ineptitude of that song: you have to struggle through it and deal with the faces of the crowd and the faces of your band mates, but that makes it even better to finally succeed at that song and to see the joy of your band mates, of the crowd cheering you on, and you personally in your living room. I’ll be in my underwear just cheering when I finally nail that solo for the first time. It’s a really exciting moment, and these are the things we’re trying to transfer to the player.

AusGamers: Are you worried that might deter certain players: if they’ve got to struggle through something that’s kicking their arse? Are there ways to coach them to get a bit better instead of going, ‘Screw this game, it’s too hard for me,’ to make them go, ‘You know what? I like this challenge and I want to come back for more humiliation until I get there’?

James Norris: Well there’s… you can always change difficulty in the middle of a song, so we’re not forcing you to stay within a certain difficulty. If you’re uncomfortable with it, just drop it down. If you want the challenge, just bring it back up. As I said earlier, there’s also those hero powers in the GHTV mode. It’s not like we’re trying to make players feel humiliated, but it’s about an experience, is about what GH Live is all about. There’s a learning curve to everything. Practice makes perfect, and I think that was a big thing in previous GH games, was trying to nail that solo over and over again, restarting, restarting, restarting. In this one, you might have a pattern, a chorus, that you’ll play through, and you don’t quite understand it, but if we kick you out of that song, you’re not really practicing that chorus a few more times. At least you get to play through it and try that chorus a few more times. At the end of that song, you might nail it and win the crowd back, and then they’re cheering you on. We think it’s going to be really rewarding for players to learn and struggle through and get better.

AusGamers: Is there anything specific that the new-gen systems allow you to do in terms of gameplay that you weren’t able to do before in the series?

James Norris: We’re releasing on all platforms. I think the always-online console is something that is new to this day and age, and we tried to capitalise on that with GHTV, and we really hope that people are going to get on, get involved, and really take advantage of GHTV. It’s a platform. It’s something we’re going to be able to constantly update. We’re going to be putting new songs into it all the time. We just hope that the community gets behind it, lets us know what they want and want more of, so we can give that to them.

AusGamers: I read that there was a cancelled Guitar Hero game from quite a while ago. If that was true, was there anything salvaged from that game that you were able to bring across to this version of the game?

James Norris: This is a total reinvention of Guitar Hero. We wanted to do something completely different. We’re FreeStyle Games, the guys who did DJ Hero, so we wanted to do something different.

AusGamers: That’s all the questions that I have. Can we go jam?

James Norris: Absolutely.