Q&A: RedOctane cofounder Charles Huang

With Guitar Hero III tuning up in the background, the publisher exec talks about downloadable content plans and the company's approach to making Drum Hero.

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Earlier this week, Activision and RedOctane gave the gaming press a good, long look at Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock for the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii. The companies were using the event not only to show off each version of the game, but also to spotlight the Les Paul controller that will accompany the game's October 28 launch.

While guitar battles waged for hours at dozens of demo stations, representatives of RedOctane and the development team at Neversoft wandered the crowd, ready to answer an abundance of nitpicky questions, many of which had short, simple answers. For instance, while the PS3 is backward compatible and can technically run the first two PS2 Guitar Hero games, the new PS3 Les Paul controller won't work with those games. The Les Paul faceplates for the PS3 and Xbox 360 are interchangeable, but the Wii Les Paul needs its own unique faceplates because of the controller's design. Guitar Hero III for the Xbox 360 will not be able to backward compatible with Guitar Hero II's downloadable content packs.

For more involved questions, GameSpot sat down with RedOctane cofounder Charles Huang to pepper him with a variety of questions, from the basics to business models.

GameSpot: What criteria do you consider when choosing songs to appear in Guitar Hero?

Charles Huang: We have a whole committee of people who work on it between us and Neversoft. We try to cross different generations of rock, different subgenres of rock and metal. It's also tricky because we have to pick a progression from what we consider easy to hard, which most people don't think about. To end up with 70 songs like we did with Guitar Hero III, you start with a list of over 200 or 250. Then you go through the licensing process and most get rejected for one reason or another.

GS: How often do the musicians request certain spots in the setlist, like they want to be an encore song or they don't want to be an easy track?

CH: It does happen. It's happened through the whole process. On Guitar Hero III, when we went to license Living Colour's "Cult of Personality," we found that the band was actually a fan of the game. And they decided the song wasn't hard enough. They wanted it to be in the harder section, so they volunteered to go back into the studio and rerecord the song with a special solo in it so they could move further down the [setlist].

I think, especially with the guitar players, they prefer to be in the tougher sections. But if you think about it, if you're in the first two setlists, you get heard by more people. So we try to explain that. It's actually not bad if you're in the first setlist because you get more exposure. It's good for the band, but I think the guitarists always want to be in the last set because they want to be known as the real hardcore guitarists.

GS: Guitar Hero III has real-life rockers Slash, Bret Michaels, and Tom Morello in it. Just like you're switching to doing more master tracks, are you moving to a point where it will be standard for bands to license their likenesses as well as their music to Guitar Hero?

CH: That actually came about because Slash's manager approached us about getting involved in the game. At that time we'd never done anything like that and we'd loved to have someone like Slash involved with the game. And that was part of the integration, of how you capture being a real-life guitar hero and the essence of being that in a video game. We thought it was a major step to get not just their music, but their entire persona in the game.

To be quite honest, early on, we saw what EA Sports does with all their athletes, we thought it would be great to have the great guitarists in Guitar Hero if they were willing to front the game. But then we found out they were very open to not only being the cover boys for the game, but they wanted to be playable characters within the game.

If you think about the Tony Hawk game, that's what Neversoft does. They take all these great skateboarders and they put them and their actual tricks in the game. Having them and their history gave a lot of these artists a sense of comfort. One thing we found out about these artists is they're very sensitive about how they and their music are portrayed in games and movies or whatever. They want something credible and something real that doesn't take away from their onstage persona and their entire performance history.

GS: Guitar Hero was one of the first games to prove that you could be more than $60 and still be a huge seller. With the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Guitar Hero 3 going for $100, and Rock Band now offering a $170 package, what's the limit for what consumers are willing to invest in a single game, a single franchise?

CH: That's a tough question. When we first went out there with Guitar Hero, that was just on PS2. We were selling that package for $70, double what most other PS2 games were selling for at the time. And retailers told us it would never work. Part of it is you can't just go out there and assume consumers are going to go out there and pay $100, $120, $170 or whatever. You have to deliver a lot in terms of the software and the hardware.

I think you can always get $60 on software because that's what AAA titles do. The hardware is what you really have to convince them will be worth the money. If you look at the marketplace, the difference between a wired next-gen product and wireless is more than $10, but we priced the gap at $10. I wouldn't say you can always push the limits. It's really a fine balancing act. If you can deliver enough features, then you can get consumers to accept it.

It's a challenge. You saw that Rock Band recently went from $200--everybody's original guess for the bundle--to $170. That's perhaps indicative that you're really getting up there against the limits of what consumers are willing to pay. But if you deliver a great experience--look at what the Halo 3 special edition pack did--people will pay.

GS: PS2 game sales have been tapering off a little slower than anticipated. How much longer do you think it will be a viable platform for new Guitar Hero installments?

CH: It's funny you ask that. Several weeks ago I was visiting a retail partner. We had seen the PS2 sales for the year and I think versus last year, the numbers were down somewhere between 12 percent and 15 percent. But their analyst said if you were to take out the Guitar Hero franchise, PS2 software sales would be down about 25 percent. Guitar Hero II for the PS2 bundle has been in the top 10 games in NPD since its launch, and it would still be a top 10 seller if we didn't come out with Guitar Hero III.

We were just at TGS and I met with [SCE president] Kaz Hirai and told him that a Guitar Hero game is probably going to be the last game that's ever released on a PS2. We believe our game is a casual game, a mass market game. Every time they drop the price on the PS2, it brings in new people. And if you think about somebody that hasn't bought PS2 in year six or seven of its existence, they're really a very casual sort of gamer. A game like ours really plays to that audience. The PSone went all the way down to $50, and I'm expecting PS2 to go all the way to $50 as well, so we'll probably be the last title to ship for PS2. [Laughs.]

GS: How is the online play and downloadable content picture shaping up on the Wii?

CH: Our hope is on the Wii that we can be the first non-Nintendo title to have downloadable content, so we're working closely with Nintendo to make that happen. Given the success of the downloadable song packs on the Xbox 360, we can make it work on the Wii and every platform. Obviously, Nintendo's first-party titles will be the first out there with DLC and online play, but we're hoping to be the first third-party title with those features.

GS: So it won't launch with online play?

CH: Unfortunately it won't. But we're working with Nintendo to make it happen down the road. Things are just coming together a little bit too slow for launch.

[UPDATE: An Activision representative contacted GameSpot to clarify this issue. The Wii will have online play at launch, and Huang thought the question was only in regards to downloadable content.]

GS: Despite the sales, a lot of people were upset with the pricing for Guitar Hero II downloadable content. Will the price point and three-song packs stay the same for Guitar Hero III?

CH: The three-song pack is worth a look. We benchmark other music game titles, like Dance Dance Revolution has had a history on Xbox and 360 of doing different size packs, so we try to look and see how they've done. The thing about the economics of downloads that people have to realize is the artist and the labels get the same royalty payments they would on iTunes. They're comfortable with that model, so you have to give them that same cut. And Microsoft needs to get compensated for putting up and running all this Xbox infrastructure. So there's another party that takes payment and adds some cost to this. And we not only have to give the music but also build the note chart for the game, so there's development time.

The easiest comparison for consumers is iTunes, so they say, "On iTunes I get it for $.99; how come this is costing me essentially $2?" There's a lot of things involved with this. The labels and the artists get the same amount they would on iTunes. Then we have to do more work, then there's a third party involved--whether it's Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo--that has to get involved as well.

GS: Will the remainder of Guitar Hero's setlist and Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s be made available through downloadable content, either through GH II or GH III?

CH: Some of it we're working on trying to get out. To be honest, it's about as much work to rework a Guitar Hero 1 song--which did not have bass tracks and a lot of the multiplayer features--into something that's playable with Guitar Hero III as it is to take a new song and plug it in.

GS: Will you continue to support Guitar Hero II with downloadable content after the release of Guitar Hero III?

CH: That's another very interesting question. The thing with Guitar Hero II is that it was done completely with Harmonix and made off their code base. Guitar Hero III is done all by Neversoft. If we can work something out with Harmonix, we would love to support Guitar Hero II. On the other hand, the entire studio is busy with Rock Band. With the My Chemical Romance download pack, we were able to get them to support it for Guitar Hero II. It's on a pack-by-pack basis.

GS: Another complaint is that the packs weren't coming out fast enough. People wanted to give you more of their money, but you weren't letting them. How often can we see new content updates for Guitar Hero III?

CH: [Laughs.] There's actually a lot of songs that come out in the Guitar Hero series. If you look at a more mature platform like the PS2, we put out Guitar Hero II and then the expansion pack. If you look at that, conceivably with downloads, you're putting out a lot of songs over the course of a year. You have to pick and choose and try to find ways to figure out if people want downloadable or if they want songs on discs. And I think a lot of it depends on the platforms, to be quite honest. Some platforms have a lot of people who are more technologically inclined and online, and some platforms don't have that. [In that case] you're better off releasing those songs on disc because that's the only way to reach that audience.

We would like to do a lot of new downloads. Our strategy is to look at some of the more interesting things we can do. So with the My Chemical Romance pack, timing it with events like a summer concert tour--those kind of things are interesting to do.

There's always a debate that happens when we get those songs licensed. If we put this on DLC, then what happens to people on the PS2? They can't ever play this. It could be a question for Wii, where we'll see what percentage of the users will be online. It's very easy to say we could put it on DLC for Xbox 360 and possibly PS3, but there are other factors that come into play.

GS: How often can we expect to see new GH games in the future? One main game and one Encore pack every year?

CH: We're planning to do one expansion pack and one reiteration each year. If there are special opportunities that come along, we might look at doing that. That could be anything. We could do different territorial things, maybe Japan, European. But at minimum, that's what we'd like to do, plus the downloadable content.

GS: RedOctane has filed trademarks for Keyboard Hero, Drum Hero, and Band Hero. You also designed the Guitar Hero II Xbox 360 controller with an effects pedal jack that has gone unused so far. Considering Harmonix is already introducing the drum and band concepts with Rock Band, when are we going to start seeing RedOctane flesh out its plans?

CH: We look at a lot of interesting options for where we'll take it. One of the early trademarks we did was for Drum Hero. Our approach was to take it and make a drum game that could stand on its own. It should be fun for someone to play just sitting in a room by themselves with a drum kit, playing a game called Drum Hero. And we've put some time and effort into creating that. Now it may connect eventually to a Guitar Hero, but at minimum, we wanted people to feel that they could just buy that, and if they never played with anybody else, they could have fun playing Drum Hero.

GS: Another feature of Rock Band's that is not announced for Guitar Hero--as yet, anyways--is downloadable albums. What's RedOctane's position on that idea? Have you explored it?

CH: Downloadable albums are interesting. It's something that makes sense to labels who put out albums, because that's what they do. It's an easy business model for them to understand. From a consumer standpoint, it's a bit tougher. I think most consumers, at least most younger consumers in the iTunes generation, don't buy whole albums. They buy songs, or packs of songs. They buy individual tracks if they can.

And the album model, if you talk to people in the industry, [they'll say] that's really a broken business model. The whole idea of selling you 15 songs by a band on a CD doesn't work, or else they wouldn't all be losing money in that industry. The artists kind of see that. Some of the record companies are still in the business right now of selling albums, but give it another 5 to 10 years at most, and people will be baffled why you went and bought 15 songs from the same group.

GS: When are we going to get a little Led Zeppelin in there?

CH: Well now that they're getting back and playing, maybe. There have been several groups we've always tried to license that have been tough: AC/DC, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica. We got Metallica finally, but it took a long time.

GS: You got Van Halen...

CH: Yes, but we wanted a lot of Van Halen. What happens is a lot of the groups are--how should I say this--more motivated to do something to get their music out when they're ready to do something like a new album or a new tour. So when we heard that Van Halen was going to go back on tour, we thought this was our chance because they'll see this as an opportunity to get their music out to people, especially younger people. Unfortunately, Eddie went back into rehab so the tour never took place, but maybe if it does, that's an opportunity for us to approach Van Halen again.

Zep is a very difficult band to license. If you look at all of their music that's ever been done, very few people have ever been able to license a Led Zeppelin song for anything. But if their sort of reunion concert they're doing in London goes well, then maybe they'll get back together and do things. Usually when artists get back and on a roll of doing commercial things, getting out there and doing tours--they're more open to licensing opportunities. Hopefully if that happens, we'll be able to get Led Zeppelin. It's not because we haven't tried.

Discussion

81 comments
MariJoe007
MariJoe007

I think you guys are right. I don't want all the songs from one band. I want a variety of all the famous songs of the bands not so completely lame song that im never gonna play!!

4esth
4esth

Hmm I don't think "Edit" is supposed to work like that lol

4esth
4esth

I second that acidglitter. I only buy CDs from bands like Tool or Beck that include crazy cool stuff with the CD. Man I wish they could get some Hendrix and Zeppelin for the add-on!

acidglitter
acidglitter

2headedhawaiian "His comments about buying "15 songs from the same group" makes me sick." makes you sick?? what the hell? i only download music now. if i ever buy a cd its because its one of my favorite bands

dunkaroos1000
dunkaroos1000

Hm, isnt there a game that already has great downloadable content and Drum Hero. Yeah, its called Rock Band.

realpudgy1
realpudgy1

LOL at Zeppelin being tough about allowing their music to be used, considering how every one of their hits is an uncreditted rip-off of someone else.

americahellyeah
americahellyeah

dammit, that sucks so bad that the new guitar won't be compatible with 1 or 2 and the PS3. I mean come on! thats just pathetic that they couldn't even at least launch a patch alongside. heck they could even sell teh patch in the PSstore for 5 or 10 bucks and i'm sure alot of people would buy it.

blancobo
blancobo

Guitar Hero 3 should be better than the 2 or the 1st. Gameplay does not change all that much and I really do not care all that much. I think the game should have a base line and much room for downloadable content. A game with downloadable content will make much difference, more expandability and less BS on all this releases... At the end it is still Guitar Hero but with other songs...

jadeninja
jadeninja

Yeah, they seriously need to bring Cowboys From Hell back, that was like the best song to play on GH1, I hated that stupid My Chemical Romance pack.

evilorder
evilorder

Just give me Cowboys From Hell as a download on 360 already! I'm not sure if I want to buy another $100 or $170 game with the way the promised support and downloadable content has turned out for 360's Guitar Hero 2. Who is to blame on that one Harmonix, Red Octane or Activision? The packs for 360 just plain suck! I know these are a bonus but if you're going to do something...do it right and not half-assed. Start by giving more tracks from 1 and individual prices. Id gladly pay a couple bucks to buy what tracks I want. Please don't make me go out and buy a ps2 and another game and another guitar!

GreenC4T
GreenC4T

I'm disappointed that the PS3 guitar won't be compatible with my PS2's GH and GH2. Also, what's up with him saying that in "5 to 10 years at most, and people will be baffled why you went and bought 15 songs from the same group. " Since I'm not the type that buys one song at a time from iturnes, his comment sounds like we are going backwards. That's how it was in the 50s, when new acts would record one song and sell it. I prefer to go to the store and get my 15 song CD from my favorite artists.

Grim062000
Grim062000

Dude, Back In Black by AC/DC is on GH3....

darth-revan
darth-revan

McDog3 "It's very easy to say we could put it on DLC for Xbox 360 and possibly PS3" What do you mean POSSIBLY? I would see no reason why my PS3 couldn't get DLC from GH3 while every other game does........ Me: Until Home comes out, PS3 online is supposed to be difficult to work with and the hardware is a pain in the ass.

Ozzie234
Ozzie234

I think the PS2 will continue to be the worldwide "contesters" platform. Good thing.

McDog3
McDog3

"It's very easy to say we could put it on DLC for Xbox 360 and possibly PS3" What do you mean POSSIBLY? I would see no reason why my PS3 couldn't get DLC from GH3 while every other game does........

GamerErman2001
GamerErman2001

Packfan104L4, the Wii online from IGN was probably just set up in a local area network. Either that or they have to set it up for a larger scale. I plan on getting this for the PC. It'll be kind of funny to buy a PC game that comes with it's own controller, but, what the Hell? It could work perfectly with USB.

StarFreak101
StarFreak101

Wow!! I hope they do have some Zeppelin!!

Packfan104L4
Packfan104L4

IGN has a vid SHOWING the Wii version working online. Also, I could have sworn I saw this posted on IGN about 3-4 months ago...

Heylin_Force
Heylin_Force

this is gonna be such an awesome game!!!! many questions cleared i am getting this game if i have to amputate my legs and sell them to science!!! i'm getting a 360 almost solely for this game.

Warshock
Warshock

Screw Metallica or AC/DC, where's the great music at? Dream Theater, The Faceless, Mastodon, Between the Buried and Me, and Nevermore. What the hell, get some of the best at least. Not stuff that's been played over the radio stations 100 times a day.......

jester12321
jester12321

I agree with 2headedhawaiian. What happened to buying a band's CD at the store? I don't feel right unless I go out and buy a good band's CD. Regardless, the second I saw the Smashing Pumpkins on there, I knew I had to buy this thing. I've been wanting to rock out on the Pumpkins for YEARS!

2headedhawaiian
2headedhawaiian

His comments about buying "15 songs from the same group" makes me sick.

LINKloco
LINKloco

Zeppelin owns. Black Dog, Dazed and Confused, Immigrant Song, Stairway To Heaven, etc... Must get for the next GH.

stealthygringo
stealthygringo

Wii remote with nunchuck & a double bass foot controller = awsesome drum game for wii. Why isnt this being done?!

Kanden626
Kanden626

I think I'll wait and see if they get AC/DC and Zep on the next game. This game looks pretty lame.

Crazy_McGee
Crazy_McGee

It's $170 for a $70 game, which leaves the other $100 for perphs...say that the gutiar controller is $50, that leaves $50 for the other two controllers...yes, it's a good deal, but like so many other people are saying, it's too much to pay! Offer seperate bundles for less (mic +game; guitar + game, drums + game).

ewmgreendawg
ewmgreendawg

my gh2 downloads wont work for gh3 :( and my guitar just broke :(

-_Jeremy_-
-_Jeremy_-

Rock Band's a little too much. $130 - $140 is good. GH is in my asking price all the way...I also wished we got to see AC/DC and Zeppelin in there. But whadaya gonna do?

bobbetybob
bobbetybob

170 for rock band because you get a guitar a game a drum kit and a microphone...if you ask me thats an amazing deal! A microphone alone, like those from singstar, etc are usually $20-30, plus Guitar Hero, which is what $100? (i say guitar hero because that covers the cost of the guitar and game approx.) and then you're only paying maybe $40-50 for the drums, great price IMO.

Bliind-Guardian
Bliind-Guardian

hmmm why do i think i am one of the only person who wouldnt buy it for more than 120 dollars? 170 dls for rock band! omfg why!?

fartys
fartys

great news, i'll get myself the PS3 version because i want to support Sony with the bad sales etc.

tophat666
tophat666

WOW. But boo for the wii version. No online play (off the Bat). Thats to long to wait. Well look like i need to get another 10 bucks to get the PS3 version. OMG my fingers are going to bleed.

jbstark720
jbstark720

Me Excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

phoenixfoley
phoenixfoley

Come on, how the hell can GH1 and 2 nor work on the PS3 with this controller. THat was one of the biggest reasons I wanted this game and the new guitar controller, to play GH1 and 2 upsacled with a save on my PS3. This fact that they cannot be played has swayed me away from buying it really. Well done Red Octane. You may have lost a customer, and probably many others

Geek12
Geek12

I want Van Halen!! But i'm satisfied with whats (or will be) out.

DrummerDude1010
DrummerDude1010

Im dissapointed the wii version wont launch with online. I wonder how they will include it later...

Watch_Me_Xplode
Watch_Me_Xplode

Why the HELL wouldn't a PS3 guitar work with a PS2 GH game?!!!! Neversoft deserves to be severely beaten for that crucial mistake.

bacchus2
bacchus2

I can understand about the licencing; standard licencing, plus their development fees. However, if I'm paying that much for for the song I want the benefits of both. I want the song added to my Xbox 360 music folder, or at least be able to launch it from within the game. I'll pay the extra to strum along as well at my leisure.

Hellmonkey012
Hellmonkey012

Drum Hero would be perfect on the Wii, you wouldnt have to pay extra for the drum sticks.

lulu52
lulu52

They just want to make us buy new hardware I bet....those bastards

resident_rozza
resident_rozza

I really just can't grasp the fact that backwards compatability seems to be a big problem for RedOctane, i mean how difficult can it be to get a PS3 version of the GH Les Paul to work with GH 1 & 2? Also the Wii not having online to begin with is a bit of a blow, but i think i can wait. This hopefully should be a great game. Especially now Metallica are in it!

yanyatkai
yanyatkai

Drum Hero? It sounds like another copycat from Konami Drum Mania.

damion_10_7
damion_10_7

"For instance, while the PS3 is backward compatible and can technically run the first two PS2 Guitar Hero games, the new PS3 Les Paul controller won't work with those games." How lame.

shockwave04
shockwave04

"Guitar Hero III for the Xbox 360 will not be able to backward compatible with Guitar Hero II's downloadable content packs." That sucks. And where is Jimi Hendrix songs ???

I_AM_AROD______
I_AM_AROD______

"GS: PS2 game sales have been tapering off a little slower than anticipated. How much longer do you think it will be a viable platform for new Guitar Hero installments? CH: It's funny you ask that. Several weeks ago I was visiting a retail partner. We had seen the PS2 sales for the year and I think versus last year, the numbers were down somewhere between 12 percent and 15 percent. But their analyst said if you were to take out the Guitar Hero franchise, PS2 software sales would be down about 25 percent. Guitar Hero II for the PS2 bundle has been in the top 10 games in NPD since its launch, and it would still be a top 10 seller if we didn't come out with Guitar Hero III. We were just at TGS and I met with [SCE president] Kaz Hirai and told him that a Guitar Hero game is probably going to be the last game that's ever released on a PS2. We believe our game is a casual game, a mass market game. Every time they drop the price on the PS2, it brings in new people. And if you think about somebody that hasn't bought PS2 in year six or seven of its existence, they're really a very casual sort of gamer. A game like ours really plays to that audience. The PSone went all the way down to $50, and I'm expecting PS2 to go all the way to $50 as well, so we'll probably be the last title to ship for PS2. [Laughs.] " Until then I guess I won't have to buy a new-gen system. lol

yinyang3
yinyang3

Great interview! I can't wait for the game to come out.

stanley2011
stanley2011

the Wii one is awesome but i really didnt get the online part:D:D

mnitemare8
mnitemare8

the hands on describes the online competitive play on the Wii ,and unfortunately also says that friend play will require another friend code..but it did say that online play was included.... no mention of definite downloadable content though...