Q&A: RedOctane cofounder Charles Huang

RedOctane cocreator and Guitar Hero rocker Charles Huang discusses working with Microsoft, picking the right guitar for the job, and his take on Rock Band this holiday season.

The rhythm game landscape--which was so bare only a few years ago--faces a climax of sorts this holiday season. In one corner is the reigning champion--the Guitar Hero series--and in the other is the new up-and-comer Rock Band. GameSpot AU spoke to one of the key driving forces behind the Guitar Hero juggernaut, RedOctane cofounder and chief operating officer Charles Huang, about all things Guitar Hero, how important the guitar peripheral was to the success of the franchise, the upcoming DS version, and how Rock Band will fare in the market.

GameSpot AU: Guitar Hero wasn't the first rhythm game to use licensed music tracks. What is it about the Guitar Hero series that has captured people's attention?

Charles Huang: Like a lot of things, it was a combination of features a lot of other games had used before. So I think it was the licensed music tracks--classic rock, metal music--that had a lot of appeal to people. One of the big things we focused on was the illusion of being a rock star, and so everything from the guitar controller to the music just gave you that illusion. It wasn't a music simulator per se--a lot of people thought this was a guitar simulation, but our perspective was it wasn't a guitar simulation as much as it was an experience of making you feel like you were a rock star.

GS AU: Guitar Hero, perhaps more than any other rhythm game, has pushed the genre into the mainstream, particularly to Western markets. How big a role do the peripherals play in further growing the audience?

CH: From the game experience standpoint, I think everyone who plays Guitar Hero should try at least once playing the game on a DualShock. You'll see immediately how different it feels versus playing with a guitar controller. I would say that probably [in] 99 percent of all the video games out there, all the experience and the illusion of the game takes place on the screen. And by holding the guitar peripheral in your hand, you take that experience off the screen and into your hands, and really, into your living room. I think for that reason, when you look, a lot of people don't so much play Guitar Hero as they do perform. I think part of the success of Guitar Hero was to bring it offscreen and put it in your hands and really make you feel as if you're part of that experience and the illusion. I think part of the magic of the peripheral, and why it appealed to so many people, is that the experience was now this total sensory experience rather than just seeing what was going on onscreen. But then again, that was all made possible by the feel of the guitar controller because you don't feel like a rock star playing a DualShock--you feel like a rock star when you hold something that feels like a guitar.

GS AU: Microsoft has been closely guarding its wireless peripheral IP, and Guitar Hero III will be the first third-party title to feature a wireless controller that uses its proprietary technology. What were some of the hurdles in the certification process? Did they hinder the game's development?

CH: [Microsoft] came up with a proprietary wireless solution, which actually from a technology perspective is a fantastic solution. It actually works beautifully--almost no lag--it works very, very well. I believe originally they may not have had plans to license it out, and when we approached them, they viewed it [the Guitar Hero controller] as a whole different animal because it doesn't compete with the other wireless controllers that Microsoft itself makes. But I think early on, they knew there would be some challenges and a lot of support involved. So from a Microsoft standpoint, they really had to believe in the title and that the title was going to make a difference for them to support peripheral development with the technical resources it was going to take. From the beginning, we had been working very closely with Microsoft. They have sent engineers to our offices and flown engineers to China to help us with getting the entire production set up. We've been working with people from all over the world. from Denmark to Redmond, on this project, so it was fairly extensive from an engineering point of view to get this into production. On a software side, it has been mostly transparent to the development because they've been testing and developing with wired controllers. And I will say one thing: When we did finally bring in wireless controllers, almost universally, the developers, testers, and everyone who touched it fell in love with the wireless controllers because we've done some things with the shape and ergonomics on the guitar. The buttons and the strum bar have been improved ergonomically.

GS AU: Guitar Hero III's guitar peripheral features some physical differences from the previous model. What are the changes and why have you've made them?

CH: Right after Guitar Hero II came out on the PS2, we did a lot of consumer research to find out what people liked and didn't like about the game and the controller. The top of the list for what people wanted was wireless. And also close to the top of the list were more designs and more customisable features. We got that through consumer surveys. We also saw it online with people who would hack their own Guitar Hero controllers, giving them different looks and colours. Those were right up at the top of the two features we wanted to put in the controllers, so we had to design them from scratch. Besides giving it its shape--the Gibson Les Paul--we really focused on the wireless gameplay, and this time around you saw the customizable faceplates. That's part of the experience I was talking about, the illusion of being a rock star. Every rock guitarist has his or her own look, and this takes you a step closer to the illusion. Finally, we went and did a lot of gameplay testing and research into the ergonomics of the guitars. We'd gone through two models with the SG on Guitar Hero and the Explorer on Guitar Hero II, and we were really looking at taking some of the best ergonomic feel to the strum bar and trying to improve on those.

GS AU: Players will be able to skin the GHIII controllers. What are your plans to offer skins? Will there be user-customisable blank faceplates?

CH: We do plan on making many different designs; different designs for different territories, possibly different designs for different platforms, [skins] that can cater to different demographics, different territories, and different age groups. I think Guitar Hero as a game has a fairly broad appeal, both in age groups, genders, and in many other categories. So what we wanted to do was to be able to give different players who are the normal and the stereotypical hardcore game demographic a way to feel like this game belonged to them as well. We have a lot of different designs. As far as players being able to design them themselves, we are trying to find ways to do that. And hopefully, we'll be able to find something that will allow people to at least do some customisation. You may not be able to do super fancy, multicolour prints, but hopefully, we'll be able to find some way to let people do some very individual customised faceplates as well.

GS AU: Is that with a blank faceplate?

CH: Printing directly on the plastic can be difficult and challenging for that. But there may be ways to do, for example, a kind of sticker that can be put over the top of those. There are various ways you can try to do that. Whether or not that can be done in a mass market with mass production is something we're trying to research. Also, whether or not it can be done affordably is another big issue.

GS AU: What can you tell us about the wooden guitars we've been hearing about?

CH: We have looked at it, we are looking at, and we continue to look at it. Mostly what's happened is it has taken time to get all the guitars on next-generation platforms and get wireless into them and the customisable features. So it's not from lack of desire, it is lack of bandwidth mostly. Hopefully, we'll be able to continue pushing forward with those after we get our Guitar Hero III guitars into production and manufactured in time for Christmas. We wish we could've done them, but unfortunately, a lot of the next-generation consoles--especially the wireless technology--took up a little more of our resources than we expected. Hopefully, we'll be coming out with some new, innovative guitar controllers next year.

GS AU: Why have you gone with the Gibson Kramer Pacer for the PS2 version of Guitar Hero III, but no other platform?

CH: We originally selected the Les Paul for all of Guitar Hero III, and one of the primary considerations for [selecting] the Kramer for the PS2 was that we wanted to introduce a broader range of Gibson guitars. Because there are a lot of great Gibson guitars, and we thought we could bring one more to market, we thought keeping Les Paul for all next-generation [consoles] clarifies things. From a consumer standpoint, if you think about it really simply--and perhaps this is oversimplification on our part--but Les Paul means next generation. It's a great product, but we sort of kept it Kramer so that people can easily understand Les Paul is for next generation. If you get a PS3, it's Les Paul.

GS AU: What can you tell us about Guitar Hero on the DS?

CH: We are working on that. We're exploring a lot of things. We're hoping to really bring the experience to the DS and to do some very, very different approaches. We're working through a lot of engineering issues with Nintendo. I actually came from a set of meetings with them last week about this. While the technical path hasn't been set yet, we intend for this to be a very unique experience just like Guitar Hero was on consoles. This will play probably unlike any other DS game that has come out, and at this stage, that's all I'm afraid we can talk about until we have the engineering paths laid out with Nintendo.

GS AU: Are there any plans to have a custom DS peripheral?

CH: That is definitely one of the options we're exploring. The DS peripheral is very intriguing to us. It's an integral part of the Guitar Hero experience, so as much as possible, we would like to keep it within the experience as long as it makes sense and it plays well. And we can do it on the DS where it not only makes sense for the title, but also for the way people like to interact with the DS. It needs to be affordable and it needs to fit within the environment that people normally play DS games in, but central to it all, we are exploring ways to get peripherals on a DS game.

GS AU: The rhythm game genre isn't new. But until now, you haven't really had to fight for a foothold in the mass market. How do you think Rock Band will change the market landscape (including user's peripheral expectations) and how will you attempt to maintain an edge?

CH: Rock Band has been getting a lot of attention. I think there are a couple of things that are interesting about it in the marketplace. For one, it's always kind of irked me personally the association with EA. Everyone likes to call it EA's Rock Band, but it doesn't make any sense to me because it's a game that's developed by Harmonix, and published by MTV, and distributed by EA. So as far as I can tell, their biggest contribution to it really is just shipping these 20-pound boxes. They're not developing, they're not publishing, so they don't have any of those rights. So calling it an EA title, I've always felt, was kind of misleading. In North America, the most famous title distributed through EA partners was Final Fantasy, and you wouldn't call Final Fantasy an EA title. Everyone assumes it's us against EA, but in my estimation it's misleading. They are setting some very interesting precedents [with Rock Band]. I think the biggest thing for me is this price of $200 we hearing floating around for the ensemble. That's with a wired guitar and if you want a wireless guitar, the price floating around is another $80 dollars on top of that. If they went above $200, and possibly to $280, at $280, you're approaching the price of the Wii console, at least in North America. Those kinds of price points will be very, very interesting to watch. If the PS3 launch proved anything, it's that in my opinion price does matter to video game consumers. It'll be interesting to see how much consumer acceptance it has, especially for something billed as a casual game, which will be $300 US dollars, or $280. [That] seems to be awfully high for a casual game, but we'll see. As far as in your territory, Australia and New Zealand, I have two predictions: One is I don't think it will actually ship this Christmas in Australia/New Zealand, and secondly, I think if it does, the retail price of that will be at least probably A$275, and it'll be very interesting to see. We worked with Harmonix for years and they've always done a terrific job helping video games--there's no reason to expect they wouldn't--but I think you're getting into unchartered territory. This is probably the most expensive video game of all time, and for a casual game, it'll be interesting to see how well that gets carried off.

GS AU: Why do you think it will be delayed for the Australian/New Zealand territories?

CH: Well, I don't think it'll actually just be for Australia. We've had many, many years of working with peripherals, and we know how difficult it is to produce sufficient quantities for a worldwide launch. I'm not singling out Australia; probably it will be multiple territories that will not see Rock Band this Christmas is my guess. It took us a tremendous amount of effort and a tremendous amount of time to increase the factory production. It took Nintendo a tremendous amount of time and effort to increase Wii production. Those things done by companies with years of experience are difficult, and to come straight out of the gate globally even on two platforms is extremely challenging, especially with all the technology that's involved with 360 and PS3.

GS AU: Will Guitar Hero II Explorer guitars work with Rock Band?

CH: We don't know specifically because as much as I would like to get a copy of Rock Band, I don't have one. But I suspect they will--that's what Harmonix is saying. Harmonix of course developed Guitar Hero II, so they know exactly how the Explorer system works, so I suspect if they're saying it will work, it will. If they want us to test it, they're always free to send us a copy of Rock Band [laughs].

GS AU: If they do work, how do you feel about propping up your competition from a peripheral point of view when the genre is so device dependant?

CH: That's exactly one of the points. It has always been one of the barriers of entry for people to get into the music rhythm games. And traditionally, video game companies in Europe, North America, and Australia do not cross the line of hardware and software. You mostly get video game publishers who do only software, and hardware companies, like Logitech, who do only hardware. Very few companies are able to bridge the two, and it's traditionally been Japanese companies, like Konami and Namco, that have done that. We did it with Guitar Hero, and there was a tremendous challenge. To us, it's always been a competitive advantage that we could do both. We obviously believe it's a competitive advantage, and even if they can make it work with our previous guitars, and they're able to piggyback on the install base we've created, we'll be able to continue to innovate, continue to build new features into both the hardware and the software. And I think that Guitar Hero III and beyond to Guitar Hero IV will see the fruits of some of our experience being able to innovate begin to take shape.

GS AU: Charles Huang, thanks for your time.

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Discussion

38 comments
Bulecrew
Bulecrew

Guitar hero on the DS How will you play it

d3vilg0d
d3vilg0d

I think i will stick with guitar hero 3.The reason why they not releasing rock bnd on ps2 is cos the game cost twice has much has the actual console.

kneppi88
kneppi88

It seems like a cool concept, but its a little pricey now.

packernation31
packernation31

I so wish they coud somehow make rock band cheaper, or i would get it

lancezmfa
lancezmfa

Rock Band seems great, but I don't have the money, so for now I am just going to get Guitar Hero III when it comes out. Both games look to be shaping up quite nicely though.

JigokuKage
JigokuKage

Well, I don't have much to say about Rock Band's peripherals, apart from the drumset blocking a great deal of metal songs. They should have at least had 2 pedals on it... I'll probably get them both, but GH will easily be "the big(ger) thing" for me. :p

lulu52
lulu52

People say Rock Band is going to be so expensive, but you theoretically could have the same experience with both games for the same price if you just got the guitar, but with Rock Band you can expand that experience much more if you want to which to me makes it seem to me like Rock Band is the obvious choice between the two.

VegetaMaelstrom
VegetaMaelstrom

Activision should just stop calling these games Guitar Hero 3 or 4 and start calling them Guitar Hero 2008 or whatever year it may be because as long as they have the rights to the franchise they will kick out an installment each and every holiday season no matter what. Look at Tony Hawk for example.

Quadrifoglio
Quadrifoglio

You could twist and turn everything he says as a cheap shot against Rock Band, but he actually makes a valid point. Those controllers aren't actually cheap and fast to make.

Fists1
Fists1

I hope all of the new guitars are compatable with both games and it is'nt that bad for either company because it would mean people buy both with the lower cost and gives the genre alot more room to grow

PhoenixWright2
PhoenixWright2

id get rock band but all my neibors SUCK HARD, and with all the instruments itd probably be very expensive, just gh makes my wallet tremble. I hate red octane (expensive dlc and mcr, wtf) but ill be suckered into buying thier product since itll be the least expensive and i wont to focus on the guitar parts, not those other instruments or stupid mic. and i bet those faceplates will cost $10 ATLEAST so ill just paint the faceplate in comes with.

PacoL250
PacoL250

Guitar Hero 80s wasn't all that great, but lets not forget people, Harmonix developed it as part of their contract with Activision and Red Octane. Again, I just want to know if the Rock Band wireless controller will work with GH II and III. Until I know for sure, I may hold off buying anything.

callumohare
callumohare

screw activision and redoctance. i have extreme disrespect for them both... especially redoctane. Harmonix made frequency amplitude... in my opinion the greatest games of all time. most under-rated game(s) of all time as well. for these 2 to step in and try to completely screw all music games with their theory of "Money"... its irritating. i loved guitar hero. i waited over a year for it after harmonix anounced it back on freqremixes.net. (A fansite for frequency and amplitude) guitar hero 2... i loved just as much. guitar hero 80s sucked. Hard! theres no way in hell i would EVER even THINK about buying this pile of crap guitar hero 3 game though... no matter how many songs they have. they can stick millions in it. -I dont care. Harmonix. > All.

jakob_187
jakob_187

Personally, I'm looking forward to both, and moreover...what mud-slinging campaign are people talking about? I see that Huang is talking about how interested he is to see how a $200-$300 game will be in the states. That makes perfect sense, honestly. Plus, the guys at Harmonix and the guys at Red Octane have been working together for a while, so it's not like they hate each other. Either way, I know I'm psyched about both, plan on getting both, so it's whatever.

Wazzo_Wisto_2
Wazzo_Wisto_2

Rock Band!!!! AWESOME Inmediately it comes out i'll get it. Red Octane please produce X-Plorer wireless models!!! And the Les Paul skins to be more real like the real one

HK-47-M4
HK-47-M4

I'm not getting Guitar Hero 3 or Rock Band. There are to many other games that I want to play this year.

Pete5506
Pete5506

This game would be fun on the wii

Mr-Apples
Mr-Apples

I'm really sick of the Activision/Red Octane mud-slinging campaign. That interview is teeming with so much blatent misinformation. Has there been any official determination made on release date or pricing on Rock Band? Answer: NO And yet he goes out of his way to propose an inaccurate cost picture and release date slippage.

willthegreat
willthegreat

The $200 bundle he mentions is the 360 bundle . The $200 PS3 bundles is supposed to come with a wireless guitar and individual wireless PS3 controllers will be $59.99 versus $79.99 for 360. These figures are all speculation fueled by the Gamestop listing and not confirmed by EA/Harmonix. Still, if thats how the pricing stands, I know which version I'm getting...

LamboZer0Zer09
LamboZer0Zer09

Wait, will the GHIII controller work with rock band and vice versa? Because I don't want to have to play GHIII with only its controller and rock band only with its controllers.

Jason90210
Jason90210

thatguy0130... name some of those cheap shots. I saw him talk about the price which I guess could be considered a shot, but in no way cheap. If there was cheap shots (I must not have read to well if there were) thats just how the economy works. Companies don't want other companies beating them so they won't say "well you could get ours or you could just go get the other one, it's just as good," they will say that their's is the better choice. We call this capitalism. People want to make money (called capital) to invest back in their company to make it better so they can then make more money. I guess the point is, I have no clue what you are talking about.

TeamTrucker
TeamTrucker

I don't think Charles tried to slam Rock Band that much, he had some very valid points, especially about the launch might be delayed in other territories than North America. But his comment "Everyone assumes it's us against EA...". Come on now Charles, everybody KNOWS it's Red Octane against Harmonix. But I'm more hyped for RB than GH3, mainly because of the drums.

bigmick07
bigmick07

wow if rock band doesn't include a wireless guitar controller, the game, and the drums ( i don't really care about the microphone) for under 200 dollars, im just going to buy guitar hero III, for 80. (or something like that)

Apoc112
Apoc112

yoda_soda... of course the GH2 controllers will work with GH3 - any typical controller works with guitar hero, as they're just mapped buttons.

thatguy0130
thatguy0130

Interesting the way he pokes at Hamonix and Rock Band. I would expect him to say that competition in the market is a win win for the consumer or something along the lines, which is 100% true. Instead he takes several cheap jabs at them. Way to show your true colors. I guess I expected more from them.

pooladden
pooladden

cant wait till guitar hero 3 and rock band but shred some light on guitar hero ds i wana see more of that game then anything , imagine playin guitar hero on the road that is going to be sick . Dont scrap the projest whatever you do!!

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

Next question, Charles, why does the Xbox 360's DLC, which is 12 songs from the first GH game -- i.e. not even half, cost almost as much as the full game does now?

TrevasGallant
TrevasGallant

I have to disagree with some of the previous posters. I think he was just being honest and respectful in regards to Rock Band. A lot of this is new or fairly new territory.

Surllio
Surllio

Haha, he was trying too hard to dis Rock Band. And failed. Badly. Good luck with GHIII. Rock Band is so going to own you.

jakman2004
jakman2004

Sounds like someone is trying to find holes in Rock Band but knows it will crap on his product. Well at least they will be in the uk this christmas, for that Harmonix can puck my slums

watford_devil
watford_devil

i don't care about being first... if you do, get up earlier!

galerian86
galerian86

well it is good to see some competition in the rhythm games. and i guess this guy have a point, rock band is going to be expensive, no two way about it

Chickensoup911
Chickensoup911

Wow, that'd be great if the Guitar Hero 2 controllers worked with Rock Band. But, will Guitar Hero 2 controllers work with Guitar Hero 3?