Shredding away

I need to admit something. I stink at “Guitar Hero.” Oh, I can hit 98 to 100 percent of the notes of songs on Easy level, but anything beyond that and I run the risk of losing my hands. Should that stop me from being able to check out “Guitar Hero II” on the 360? I think not.

This week I headed to Los Angeles to meet with Bryan Lam, senior PR specialist of RedOctane. Before we actually got to playing GH, I managed to chuck some questions at him. Some of them were my own, others were from faithful AGI listener UkuleleSHIMA, such a fan of the series that he has his very own customized guitar controller. Freak.

So, here’s the Q and A. Keep in mind that Lam is eating while answering … I edited out the chewing sounds for better reading:

Q: What’s with the new controller? Other than the “X” connection, why was this particular design chosen? Are there any mechanical improvement that might give the Xplorer version a different feel than the ones for the PS2?

A: It’s based on another classic Gibson shape that most people know about. We’ve worked with Gibson for a while now — both Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II had the Gibson SB mini-guitar. If you take a look at the strum bar and the whammie bar (on the Xplorer), they’re more reinforced. The feedback we heard was that when you strum so hard or rock out with the whammie bar, it gets a little loose, so we wanted to make it a little sturdier. But in real life, every guitar is different as well.

Q: The fret buttons are square on the Xplorer, as opposed to the rounded ones on the PS2. Was that just a cosmetic change, or was that also more of a feedback-and-feel thing as well?

A: It’s a little bit of both. The neck of the guitar is a little skinnier as well from the SG, but that’s just because that the type of guitar it is. We just made the changes to adapt to the guitar.

Q: There’s some speculation about the “mystery port” at the bottom …

A: I’ll solve that for you right now. If you wanted to order Burger King while playing online, you can do that now … No, but seriously it’s still being confirmed (as to what the port actually does). It’s like a bellybutton … it’s there, but you don’t know what it’s for. Right now, we have a lot of ideas as to what we want to do with it.

Q: What’s the latest on the wireless solution? (cue AGI “wireless is hard” joke)

A: Initially, it’s going to be wired, but wireless is something that we’re working on. There’s no set timetable for when it’s going to be done, but we ARE working on it. For next-gen consoles, it would only be natural for everything to be wireless. It’s more about putting ot something that we’re comfortable with.

Q: Will a stand-alone guitar be available at launch?

A: That’s what we’re aiming for right now, because since you have co-op and multiplayer in it, you need to have another guitar or else people will have to buy two bundles. Which would be great … but, really we want to have a stand-alone at launch.

Q: How are the exclusive songs integrated into the game?

A: They’re going to be in different sets, but it’ll be where we feel their difficulty lies. If we feel that Pearl Jam and My Chemical Romance are easier songs, then we might have both songs in the same set. They’re going to be spread out — eight in the main set list, and two that are unlockable.

Q: Was it the plan to add songs for the 360 version, or are PS2 owners going to get a chance at these songs?

A: That hasn’t been confirmed yet, as to adding content for the PS2, but for the 360 version, we always had the idea of expanding, just because the actual game disc can hold more. We’re always working with new bands, so whatever we could fit on there is what we can fit. But with the downloadable content, it’ll help keep everything consistently fresh.

Q: We’re any of the existing GH II songs altered or improved in any way?

A: Not the actual songs, bu as far as the actual 360 version, if you just listen to it, it sounds a lot better. That’s just because the audio capabilities on the 360 are better than on the PS2. As far as visually, the characters are remodeled, the shading was redone, and the lighting is a little bit different too. But nothing different was drastically done development wise.

Q: Any new unlockables, like venues or costumes?

A: It’s pretty much going to be the same stuff you got on the PS2, same characters, same venues. The biggest thing will be unlocking the two songs on the game disc. It’s going to be more about the downloadable content.

Q: How are you going to be handling achievements?

A: There are going to be 50 different achievements that you can unlock. We’re going to try and make this as fun as we can — that’s the essence of the game. So you’ll get achievements like, “beat all the songs on Expert, and you’ll get X amount of points” or if you fail a song on Easy, you’ll get some points for that, just to make things a little more lighthearted. You’ll get a lot of standard achievements, where you’ll have to beat something on a certain level, or trying to get a certain statistic — like getting 100 percent on Freebird, stuff like that.

Q: There’s been some buzz about songs being downloadable on launch day. Would those songs be from GH I?

A: We would love to have at least some of the songs from GH I available at launch as far as downloadable content, but what it comes down to is, once again, music licensing. For the first Guitar Hero, we had licensing JUST for Guitar Hero for those songs. So when you’re looking at using those songs outside of the original game, you have to redo and rework all the licensing again. So if you wanted “Bark at the Moon” as downloadable content, then you have to rework the licensing deal. You’d have to do that even if you wanted it on another platform.

Q: Would stuff like hammer-ons and pull-offs be improved, like what Harmonix did with the GH II songs? Are co-op practice mode and face off going to be added to them? For instance, are you going to be able to play bass on “Higher Ground” or practice “Cowboys from Hell?”

A: That’s actually what we’re working on right now. In addition to relicensing, it’s also about breaking down the track. So, songs from the original Guitar Hero, hopefully you’ll be able to play the bass tracks off of them — the guys over at Wavegroup Sound do all of the retracking, so hopefully you’ll be able to do all that stuff in the future.

Q: How are the downloadable songs going to be distributed on Live?

A: As far as the songs go, we’re obviously have to charge. But hopefully, when we

Q: What’s the release date?

A: It’s still spring, but you can expect it within the next couple of months.

Q: What’s up with online play?

A: Initially, there isn’t going to be online co-op. We don’t want to rush anything if it wasn’t ready. As far as lead time for such a feature, it’ll take a while. You can’t have any lag time — the music has to exactly be in sync. So until we feel like it’s ready and it goes through all of it’s fine-tuning, then we wouldn’t want to rush it out there. As for pro faceoff, you’d be starting the song at the same time, and the only interaction you’d have with your friend is if you were talking trash, like “I just killed this solo riff” — but the other guy’s doing the exact same thing. We do have online leaderboards, so you can see how your score ranks with other people.

Q: Many have said that the GH1 songlist was better than GH2. Do you feel that the more is better philosophy will continue in future GH games? Or will you pear back the number of songs for future releases?

A: It’s not about more songs or less … it’s really more about the songs that make for the best gameplay experience. If there are a ton of songs that do that, then we’re going to put as many songs as we feel fit within the game. As for whether the songs from GH1 are better, that’s a tough argument because it comes down to preference. But as far as having bigger and better songs down the road, we feel that’s definitely going to happen — everyone from entertainers to sports stars to rock bands all take it on the road with them, and they’ve become such fans themselves that they’re more receptive to putting their songs in the game. Music record labels are more open to it now, because they “get it” now. With the first Guitar Hero, it was hard to go to a record label and say, “Hey I have this plastic guitar and I can simulate the rock experience by strumming on these notes.” It’s gotten a lot easier now.

Q: What can you say to all those that are nervous about Neversoft taking over development duties from Harmonix?

A: Neversoft, never worry. Microsoft has gone to Neversoft before with their trusted titles, but if you look at the Tony Hawk franchise — it’s been around for so long and there have been so many iterations of the game, and they’ve sold more than 10 million units. You can’t really argue with that kind of success. If you play a Tony Hawk game, you’ll notice that the music is just as immersive as actual gameplay. So, they have the knowledge and experience of music licensing and understanding that whole culture of what game players want to play and hear — all that blends in seamlessly with Guitar Hero.