DJ Hero Q&A: Jaime Jackson

FreeStyleGames' creative director drops details on the upcoming rhythm game, which puts players behind the wheels of steel.

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You won't need to be a world-class mixer like DJ AM to have fun in DJ Hero, but some skills on the turntables certainly won't hurt. The upcoming game from Activision and developer FreeStyleGames will put some of the same skills you've developed from the long-running Guitar Hero series to a different sort of test. In it, you mix, twist, and scratch tunes in styles as varied as club music, hip-hop, electronica, and Motown. We last saw the game at E3 2009, and recently, we caught up with FreeStyleGames' creative director Jamie Jackson to see how DJ Hero has progressed since then, as well as what to look forward to between now and the game's release in late October.

GameSpot: So how has the game been coming along since our last look at E3? What aspects have the team been focusing on?

Jaime Jackson: Basically since E3, we've been running full speed toward submissions. We've been polishing and finalizing the art, cleaning up a few known issues, and tweaking some of the over 90 on-disc mixes.

On the art side, the team has really been pushing the effects and light show markups. We really want to put players into the most amazing venues they have ever seen, which make them feel like they're in the club!

The design team has also been diligently working on the DJH turntable controller, and we're really happy with the feel and look of the final version. We've had a number of people who have played the game tell us they were amazed how solid and real it feels.

GS: Since the game was officially unveiled, what's been the most common compliment from fans? What are fans complaining about most? Have there been any changes to gameplay/control/song choice/etc. based on fan reception so far?

JJ: I'd say the biggest compliment for me is seeing the turn in opinion once we release footage and tracklists to the public. I think once people actually saw what we're doing, they realized it's not a copy of anything; it truly is its own game, albeit in the music game genre.

The biggest complaint seems to be about who is and is not in the game. All I can say is, every time we announced someone, say, DJ Shadow, DJ AM, or Z-Trip, we had a few fans say, "Yeah that's great, but what about Grandmaster Flash?" Then we revealed him, and we still have some big artists up our sleeve, so watch this space.

Did we mention Jay-Z and Eminem? [grins]

GS: What's the process for picking songs and mixes for DJ Hero been like? Did you have a wish list of folks to work with? Did artists come to you looking for exposure or a mixture?

JJ: Track creation was one of the hardest parts of DJ Hero. You have to remember: We're doing something with music never before done in a video game. We're asking two artists to let us create a unique mix for gamers to play and enjoy. We mixed some pretty random stuff--stuff you would never think would work, but it does.

The process basically starts with the music team here at FreeStyleGames submitting a request list to the (legendary) licensing team at Activision. These guys will then go and see what we can get. In the meantime, the FSG team will create track sketches. Essentially, these are quick mixes of the music. These get sent to the "Sound Board," a random group of anonymous music lovers spread through FSG. These honest folks provide feedback on the basics: Does this sound any good? Would you dance to it? Buy it or leave it? This process helps us get a broader feel for the appeal of each track. If it looks like we'll be able to use the tracks, then the music team will go full tilt at it and make the game mix.

At the DJ Hero reveal party at E3, I had a few artists come up to me after I'd demoed the game on stage and say, "Man, I need to be in this game." First: Holy crap! Guys who I've only seen on television are asking to be in our game! (Names remain hidden for now, just in case). Second: We must have done something right because they wanted in based on our mix of Black Eyed Peas versus Benni Benassi...credit to the mixers for that one!

GS: When working with the DJs in the game, how much back and forth was there in terms of choosing songs/mixes between the artists and the development team? Did the development team need to make changes to mixes in order to better serve gameplay, for example?

JJ: This process varied depending on when the DJ came on board and how much time they had. There was back and forth with everyone because we're doing something a little bit different than they do on stage. But the roots of it are the same, so they all got it real quick. In fact, I don't think they would have got on board if they didn't because they only want to be involved in an authentic, fun product.

The process with the named DJs is the same as the London team. We gave them the cleared list, and they picked what they wanted to do. We didn't want to interfere in that process. They know what they can do with what they have better than we do.

Dan Neil, our music director, would spend time with each DJ to explain the gameplay and help give them an understanding of what we could do. Once they submitted a mix, we would tweak a few things to make sure the gameplay was tight--all of which was done with the DJ's approval.

GS: In the Guitar Hero games, players are gradually introduced to more complex songs as they progress, resulting in a pretty smooth learning curve. What's the approach to sequencing in DJ Hero and how does that affect the learning curve?

JJ: We have taken the same approach and also extended the thinking into how we mark up different difficulties. Instead of adding streams, we add actions as you step up from easy to medium, medium to hard, and so on.

So, in easy, you have no cross fader, this is all done for you. But in medium, we add some basic cross fader action. As you get through medium, you'll notice they get harder, getting you ready to step up to hard. In hard, we add directional scratches. This basically means you have to scratch in the direction of the arrow onscreen and, therefore, scratch in the direction the actual DJ scratched in.

In expert, you do everything the DJ did! All cross faders, all scratches, everything!

GS: The game will feature mixes from DJ Shadow, DJ AM, and DJ Z-Trip, among others. Can you characterize each DJ's style and how that will translate to gameplay?

JJ: If you are a fan of these DJs, you'll instantly be able to tell which tracks they mixed. I've been a Shadow fan for as long as I can remember, and a defining moment in making this game came when he delivered his first two tracks. Bear in mind, these are new tracks--mixed by Shadow. Both could easily make his albums. We had them marked up and playable, so when I hit the first and second scratch sections on his first track, I knew we'd hit big. It was his signature style of track blending and scratching. I think I smiled for about three weeks and told everyone to call me Shadow.

Shadow also did a mix, not revealed today, which features an unreleased track from one of the biggest bands in the world. This mix will melt faces and is definitively Shadow--it's pretty rad.

Z-Trip's song selection totally defines him: a bit more guitar, more eclectic, and super tight. AM is more like his TRV$ DJ-AM show, where Travis Barker and AM do a crazy, live drums and DJ stage show--real quick cuts, very good fun. To be honest, I think he could have made a track out of about 12 songs if we'd let him.

GS: Finally, what's your personal favorite mix to play in DJ Hero and why?

JJ: Can't tell you...we haven't revealed those artists yet. I'll mail you when I can.

GS: Looking forward to it. Thanks for your time, Jaime.

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