Best set out my stall early. If you’ve read my (quite out of date) bio for The Digital Fix, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the ‘other franchise’. I’ve sunk many hours and too much money into Rock Band - totally worth it, of course. However, it did foster a feeling of mild hostility towards Guitar Hero after Activision bought it and turned it into a money-spinner that killed a franchise and a genre in one fell swoop. When Harmonix announced Rock Band was to return it felt right. When, weeks after, Activision announced the return of Guitar Hero all I could muster was a dejected sigh. Here we go, the plastic instrument war reignited. That is, until I saw the approach Freestyle Games had taken…
By now you’ve probably seen the reveal trailer and know the approach Guitar Hero Live is taking. Rather than the cartoony caricatures used in previous games, the series is going full FMV, with live audiences, live bands and huge arenas courtesy of the CGI magicians at Framestore. At a hands-on preview event, The Digital Fix had a chance to check out the game as well as chat with Jamie Jackson, Creative Director from Freestyle Games, Giorgio Testi, Director and Pedro Sabrosa, VFX Supervisor from Framestore.
Going behind the scenes of Guitar Hero Live’s elaborate sets proved fascinating. In a bid to resurrect the franchise even motion control had been considered, replacing the plastic guitars with ridiculous flailing in a poor attempt at air jamming. That was soon scrapped and the team focused on what had changed in the musical landscape during Guitar Hero’s five year hibernation. A new rule was created: ‘No fucking flames and barbed wire.’
This prompted a change towards realism. Not in the Rocksmith ‘learn to play’ use of the word; instead why not have real crowds, real gigs, real bandmates? First things first - the guitar had to make a comeback, but it needed a change as well. Having realised that most players never go beyond medium difficulty, the idea to change the buttons came from a desire to offer a new challenge while staying closer to the realistic slant. Five coloured buttons doesn’t quite give off the rockstar vibe, whereas the new six button setup (three on a top row and three bottom, white and black) looks better and now allows for basic chord shapes to be created.
Stage Fright - this was the working title for the game and a key concept the designers wanted to work around. What was the feeling of standing on stage in front of hundreds and thousands of people? This couldn’t be achieved with the traditional spectator camera seen in the series - it had to go first-person. And what better way to ditch the cartoony look than to go entirely the opposite direction?
Festivals are central to the music industry and served as the perfect design centrepoint for the team. They encompass all genres of music, allowing Guitar Hero Live to have a diverse, current and eclectic soundtrack. The team began by designing four or five fictional festivals, starting by drawing a map for each. Not only did this help inform the stages and overall feel of each festival, but they gave designers geographical points of reference - sightlines, camping spaces, visible landmarks and bars (of which there were plenty in one map drawn by an Irish artist, for some reason.)
While a handful of global festivals were sketched out, ultimately two were decided upon - one set in the UK and the other in the US. We saw some of the concept designs for stages of various size and capacity - a hazy, tree bordered field that wouldn’t look out of place at Secret Garden Party, a big-top style medium size stage common in UK festivals and the ‘Castle Stage’, the biggest type in the game and typical of large US events. Each had it’s own atmosphere and some suited particular genres more than others at first glance (the ‘Glade/Barn’ stage in the forest had a very folk vibe). The whole team were sent to festivals over a course of the year as research - perhaps the greatest research trip ever. The choice to narrow it down to just US and UK festivals came from the fact that they felt the most diverse as well as a desire by the Leamington-based team to create something close to home.
We asked whether real festivals had been considered - they had, even so far as seeing whether it would be feasible to hang around post-Glastonbury and film using the Pyramid stage. Licensing, budget and time simply meant it wasn’t a going project though.
In the same way that the festivals were meticulously detailed, so each fake band had to be designed to the smallest detail. From reference boards to designing fictional discographies, Freestyle made sure that everything felt correct, including the type of groupie following these bands around. Musicians were cast to play each different band. Then came the hard part… filming the whole thing.
It all began with a camera strapped to the shoulder of a stocky cameraman, a rig that required two runners in case he needed to sit down. Needless to say, this was nixed. A few more camera-helmets later the idea to use motion-tracking cameras was made, eventually resulting in the Bolt camera, lovingly named Penelope by the crew. Essentially one of the mechanical arms that usually make cars, the Bolt camera is named as such as it produces so much torque that it needs to be bolted to the floor. The Freestyle team needed freedom to move though, so Penelope was attached to rails, whizzing around the set (and causing one or two incidents during filming).
For Giorgio, a famed concert director, it posed a new challenge. Used to filming concerts from the best angles possible, he suddenly had to film looking out towards the audience. Not only that, but rather than adapt to what the band were doing on stage instead he called the shots. In control of everything, he had to make the various bands look like they’d been playing together for years, directing everyone from the roadies to the lead singer to make sure the atmosphere and performances were right. A lot - a LOT - of swearing was involved, but it was, in his words, the perfect dream job.
With the magic of Framestore and whole lot of green screen, a crowd of a few hundred was expanded to fill massive (digitally created) venues. The game needed to reflect how well you were doing, so positive and negative reactions were filmed, with the band members having to hit the same marks each time. Speaking to Jamie Jackson he told how the first attempt at filming a negative reaction went slightly awry, given the teen rating of the game. ‘We had people shouting ‘Get off you fucking wanker!’ We had to tell them to tone it down a bit.’ Likewise, certain people in the front row had to be checked lest their outfits prove a little too revealing for the game.
The use of motion programmed cameras made filming sound more like a carefully coordinated ballet than anything else. Even the shadow of the rig had to be avoided, achieved by shutting down the relevant part of the lighting as the camera pirouetted about the stage. All of it comes together to create something genuinely not seen in games before and it’s intriguing to watch as both player and spectator.
As someone very experienced in guitar-based rhythm games, Guitar Hero Live was a revolution on all fronts. The new button layout is deceptively challenging, requiring even the most skilled player to rethink their hand movements. There’s no need to use a pinky here but chords prove a different skill to master. There are also open chords - strumming with no buttons held - and hero power returns with a button to activate it if tilting the guitar is a little too theatrical.
The custom filmed setlists are but one half of the Guitar Hero Live experience. Freestyle has also included Guitar Hero TV, a different mode that seems aimed squarely to put turn the game into a new media platform. Like MTV, two channels run side by side, with set schedules of music videos divided into programmes. This could be top ten lists, specific genres or anything that Freestyle think up. Players can switch between the channels and play along at a touch of a button, the music video playing in the background. Imagine watching the aforementioned MTV and being able to play along to each and every song.
Alternatively, there’s a music catalogue that players can browse and from what we saw it’s pretty extensive. All of it is competitive, with each song having its own leaderboard. Better still, there’s no need to download anything - everything is soft updated. Guitar Hero TV will alert you to any new music too, placing this squarely in the same realm as Spotify. There’s never the chance you’ll fail a song either - Freestyle are all about positive reinforcement, not a game that’s going to keep reminding you that you’re crap.
Enabling access to this are hero coins, an in-game currency earned through playing songs, completing challenges and posting scores. These allow you to buy plays so that you can specifically choose certain songs from the library. The Premium Shows section - Guitar Hero TV’s arcade mode - constantly offers new challenges and content that will unlock premium shows. There’s an option to use real money - yes, microtransactions are here albeit in a non-invasive form - and the rewards offered for completion range from new hero powers through to vanity items such as new fretboards and player cards. For casual players there will be the option to buy a fixed time ‘party pass’ allowing access to all content - perfect for an evening centred around the game. Activision have applied Call of Duty’s customisation options to the Guitar Hero template but it doesn’t feel unfair or pay-to-win in any way. And hey, I spent ridiculous amounts of money on Rock Band downloadable content, so the amount of content included on disc is admirable.
Labels and musicians have seen what Freestyle have achieved and are getting behind the project. It’s a way to bring back the importance of music videos, a new place to get them seen in this age of streaming.
Of course these type of games live and die on their setlist and Guitar Hero Live has received some degree of raised eyebrows for a tracklist including Skrillex, Charlie XCX and a heaping load of very current bands. Jackson tells us it was a case of trying to cover as many bases as possible. Everyone on the team had choices they wanted to make but it was ultimately about setlists that work and feel correct, while maintaining the degree of realism. Their work on DJ Hero had given them a broad approach and personally it’s refreshing to see bang-up-to-date arists like Courtney Barnett and Wolf Alice sitting next to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.
As a die-hard Rock Band fan I came away from playing Guitar Hero Live impressed, excited and relieved. Activision have done something completely admirable - in paring the game back to a focus on guitar (and vocals), while revitalising everything else about the game, they’ve set themselves apart from the Rock Band franchise. Whereas there used to be a war of attrition between the two, they are so radically different that they should be able to sit comfortably beside each other. It’s a bold move for a company not famed for innovation, but Guitar Hero Live is genuinely revolutionary in countless ways. We can’t wait to see what’s in store when it’s released in October.