Q&A: RedOctane's Kai Huang

Founder and president of the California-based company spills the beans on Guitar Hero III, how he came up with the idea, and why some great songs aren't in the game.


It's about 11 a.m. on the corner of Piccadilly and Park Lane in central London, and a team of journalists are standing outside the Hard Rock Café where the Guitar Hero "rock bus" has been parked. The rock bus is a double-decker coach, wrapped from top to bottom in a Guitar Hero advert. The interior has been done up to look like a tour bus--on the first floor is a mini bar with seating and cushions to chill out, along with a series of bunk beds for rockers to crash out in after too much partying. The top deck features a huge plasma TV, along with a PlayStation 2, an Xbox 360--and of course, the Guitar Hero games and controllers.

Sitting on one of the two leather sofas upstairs is Kai Huang, RedOctane's founder and president. Huang is the man widely lauded as being the person who originally thought up the idea for the Guitar Hero game, thus starting the hugely popular series and generating a series of similar spin-offs. California-based RedOctane was founded in 1999, starting out in the early days as a peripherals manufacturer. The company is now also the publisher of a number of games, including Guitar Hero. RedOctane was bought by Activision in 2006.

Kai rocking out on the rock bus.
Kai rocking out on the rock bus.

The first two games in the series, Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II, were developed by Harmonix, a company which was then bought out for $175 million by MTV Networks last year. Recently, Harmonix has announced its own music game, titled Rock Band, which will be heading to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Guitar Hero III will therefore change hands and be developed by Activision's internal studio Neversoft, maker of the Tony Hawk games.

GameSpot sat down with Kai Huang on the Guitar Hero rock bus to ask him all about the next instalment in the franchise, along with his personal favourite tracks and what he thinks of Rock Band.

GameSpot UK: So what's the deal with the bus?

Kai Huang: This is great, isn't it--the rock bus? We're trying to promote Guitar Hero, obviously, and what we've done is we've wrapped the outside of this entire bus with Guitar Hero pictures and it's going to go around on concert tours all summer long, going from concert to concert, so we're going to have this huge Guitar Hero presence everywhere we go.

GS UK: By concerts you mean proper rock concerts?

KH: Yeah. There are concert tours that are happening throughout the summer, and we're going to be taking this bus out there, and if the opportunity is there where we can actually set up Guitar Hero and have bands play, then we're going to do that. And we're going to set them up in the backstage areas, and for fans to play as well. So when they're attending the concerts one of the things that they can do while they're there is play Guitar Hero, and something that we're trying to work out, which could be a lot of fun, is if we can maybe have a competition between one of the band members and someone from the audience.

The bus parked outside London's hard rock cafe.
The bus parked outside London's hard rock cafe.

GS UK: Where will the tour be?

KH: The tour's going to be all over the UK. [There's also a tour currently going on in the US.]

GS UK: How do you pick the songs for the Guitar Hero games?

KH: The song selection process is a pretty complicated one. It starts with several members of the song selection team, they go through the list of songs that we want and collect them and they collect ideas, whether those ideas are from other people within RedOctane and Activision, or developers, or fans, who submit ideas for all the songs that they want. And then we actually have to take those songs and figure out which ones will be fun and work with Guitar Hero, and once we do that, then it starts really the most complicated process, which is the licensing.

The licensing takes, or can take, a very long time. We have to work with the music labels to get the clearances to be able to use the songs in the game, and then after we're done, we have to in some cases rerecord them and tune the songs a little bit, if you will, to make them a little bit more fun to play for Guitar Hero. So, that process can take a very long time, and that's what really makes the selection of the songs such a time-consuming process.

GS UK: How can fans submit ideas?

KH: Right now we don't have a formal way for fans to submit, but what we do is we have a forum at www.guitarherogame.com and one of the forum topics there is Guitar Hero songs, and you can go in there and submit ideas. We get a lot of fans who go in there and tell us you know, we'd like to see this song, and this song, and this song, or songs by this artist, and we take all of that and we bring it in. And we do use that as part of our song-selection processing. A lot of people as well just e-mail us with their favourites, which is fine too.

GS UK: Are there a lot of songs as well that at first seem great, but then in the end don't work so well with the game?

KH: Yeah, we get that a lot. There are a lot of fantastic songs out there, a lot of great artists, a ton of great music. But not all of them would be the most fun for Guitar Hero, so part of that selection process that we go through is that we have [a list] of some great artists, and then we go through the songs that are there and then we really look for the songs that have some great guitar riffs, or some great guitar solos, and those are the ones that we finalise and choose, because those are the ones that we know are going to be fun to play in the game.

Welcome aboard.
Welcome aboard.

GS UK: What can you tell us so far about Guitar Hero III?

KH: Guitar Hero III is being developed by Neversoft, which is an internal Activision developer. They're one of the best Activision developers, if not one of the best developers in the world, having had a tremendous amount of success with the Tony Hawk franchise, and they've been working on Guitar Hero III now. We don't have any announcements yet about what features are going specifically into Guitar Hero III, but Neversoft is focusing on online play, of course, and that includes both co-op and competitive modes. We're looking at more downloadable content, and more music, because we know that's one of the things the fans want--as soon as they finish playing Guitar Hero, they want more music. And then we're really focusing on features that will make the multiplayer experience, not online, but the offline multiplayer experience a lot more fun.

GS UK: Can you confirm platforms and dates?

KH: Guitar Hero III will be launching at the end of this year, and it's going to be launching on all platforms, so that will be Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii, and the PS2. We're actually also looking at a DS version, for early next year.

GS UK: What do you think about the recently announced Rock Band title?

KH: Me personally, I was very excited to hear about Harmonix and EA working on the game Rock Band. I think Guitar Hero was really the first big game that defined the music rhythm genre. I mean, there were other games before it, but none of them I think has grown as big as Guitar Hero. So we're excited that Harmonix is working on it. They're a fantastic developer, we've had a great relationship working with them in the past, and we know that they're going to do a great job with the game. So, what they're doing will only help this entire music rhythm category and bring more awareness for the fans of the genre. I can't comment specifically on the Rock Band product, but on our side, definitely Guitar Hero III is going to have some amazing new features that fans are really going to like.

GS UK: You've been credited as the guy who had the idea for Guitar Hero. How did that come about?

KH: Guitar Hero has been a very interesting journey for us. RedOctane started up in 1999, and we started as a video games peripherals manufacturer--that's what really we were most well known for. We made a lot of peripherals in the music-gaming space including our most popular ones, which were dance mats for all the dancing games that were out there. We actually saw, because we'd been doing these products for a long time, saw a lot of activity and a lot of games in Japan that were in the music rhythm category, that were doing pretty well. And we thought that there was a real opportunity for those games to work well in the Western world, in North America and in Europe. The challenge for those games was that they were very focused on the Japanese consumer, in particular with the music, the style of music that went into those games. So, we thought that really for us there was an opportunity to make music-based games here, and to do that we needed to change the music, so for us it was very logical--if we were going to do a music based game for North America and Europe, it would have to be based on rock and roll. And if it was going to be based on rock, we knew that the first instrument had to be a guitar. And so, really, that's how we started with Guitar Hero.

GS UK: Why do you think that rhythm games became so popular?

KH: Rhythm-based games are certainly gaining a lot more popularity, and I think certainly a big part of that has been fuelled by the success of Guitar Hero. The reason that I think they've been so popular and why Guitar Hero is such a great game is that they can be very easy to pick up but very difficult to master. So when you look at how easy it is for rock fans or consumers to get into the Guitar Hero game, almost anybody can, whether you're five years old or 65 years old. Everybody can pick up the guitar, everybody knows what it is, and they can have a great time playing the game almost immediately. We were out walking around in a lot of different stores this weekend and it was amazing just to see the range--whole families would go and stand around and watch or maybe for the first time play Guitar Hero, and you would have little kids, I think they were no more than five or six, to parents who were, like 45, and everybody could pick [the game] up almost immediately and have a great time. I think that was the great elegance of Guitar Hero and I think that's the key part to a lot of these music games is that they're very accessible.

GS UK: There are a ton of spin-offs that could be done with Guitar Hero. We at GSHQ have heard rumours of an '80s version and (yikes!) a country version. Can you comment on any of these?

KH: We haven't made any announcements yet on which specific genres of music we will be focusing on, but we definitely are looking at different genres. You know, within rock and roll, there's a lot of different subgenres of rock, and what we're going to be doing is exploring some of that through online and downloadable content. So, we may not have been able to get those types of songs in Guitar Hero II, but we're going to be looking to online content and downloadable content to bring that music to its fans.

GS UK: What kind of peripherals will Guitar Hero III feature?

KH: We're planning a lot for our new guitars for Guitar Hero III. First of all, the one feature that fans have been asking for the most is that, yes, they're going to be wireless. So now fans can finally rock out in their living room and jump off their couches and do all the crazy rock star stuff that they haven't been able to do in the past. And then, what we're doing with the guitars is there'll be a new shape and there'll be new colours. And what we're also looking at in addition to all those features is creating some more interesting guitars that are higher end, and some of them will be made out of wood, and so they'll actually feel like a real guitar.

GS UK: What kind of music do you like to listen to yourself?

KH: I tend to listen to rock as well, but I would say I'm more of a pop-rock kind of person. But I still love all of the music in Guitar Hero and a couple of bands that I couldn't wait to go on in particular were Guns N' Roses--I'm a big Guns N' Roses fan, and I just couldn't wait to get them into the game.

GS UK: Can you tell us anything about the songs that will be coming?

KH: We've got a lot of songs and artists still that we would love to have, in particular, we've been trying to get Metallica, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin, so hopefully sometime in the near future, my wish, and everybody's wish, will come true, and we can get some of their music in the game.

GS UK: You guys patented the names Guitar Villain and Drum Villain back in 2006. How are those projects going?

KH: We did trademark them, but we don't have any announcements right now, but keep your ears open.

GS UK: Thanks for your time.

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