‘Guitar Hero’: The Video Game That Literally Rocks

Virtual-guitarist game is a surprise hit of the holiday season.

There was a time when Greg LoPiccolo wondered if video games had room for rock and roll. For him, it was a natural question.

In the early ’90s he was a guitarist and songwriter for the Boston rock band Tribe. He “did the standard big local band trajectory,” which means he failed to make it big and switched careers. Next he went to work in the Boston video game industry, taking a position in the late ’90s at Harmonix, a developer that specializes in music-based video games.

That pedigree would seem to have destined LoPiccolo — and the many other Harmonix employees currently or formerly in bands — to make a rock game. But for years, none happened.

Instead, Harmonix focused on critically acclaimed and sometimes commercially successful music games featuring techno, rap and (mostly) pop. They made games that required dance pads and microphones (“Karaoke Revolution” and “Dance Dance Revolution”). They made cult hits imbued with the graphic style of raves (“Frequency” and “Amplitude”). They even made a futuristic skateboarding game that utilized Sony’s EyeToy camera. For those projects, publishers such as Sony and Konami gave Harmonix the green light, but none were interested in letting them rock out — definitely not with a game involving a controller shaped like a real guitar.

That’s the back story. The current story is that “Guitar Hero,” a rock and roll PlayStation 2 game that is controlled with a two-foot-long plastic guitar, has become one of the surprise hits of the busy holiday gaming season. Developed this year by Harmonix and published by a scrappy California outfit called RedOctane, gaming insiders say it’s one of the hardest games to find in stores; on the Web site for GameStop, the leading American game-store chain, “Guitar Hero” is currently sold out.

LoPiccolo told MTV News that development of the game began with skepticism. “Early on we were wondering, does anyone still like guitars? It seems like everyone wants turntables and microphones.” Now they know otherwise.

Guitar-based video games had been popular in Japanese arcades since the launch of Konami’s guitar-controlled “GuitarFreaks” in the late ’90s. That game spawned numerous sequels and several versions for the PlayStation. An arcade version was featured in 2003′s Sofia Coppola-directed film “Lost in Translation” as an icon of Japan’s distinct gaming culture.

Konami brought its dancing and karaoke games to the U.S., and other publishers like Nintendo and Namco brought games that could be played with special drums. Konami tested “GuitarFreaks” in U.S. arcades in 1999, but the company didn’t push the game any further in the States, even as arcade and home-console versions were released year after year in Asia; a company spokesperson did not comment when asked if Konami now has renewed interest in bringing the series to America.

Thus, for the last half-decade, American gamers jonesing for interactive riffage had to settle for obscure creations like the Aerosmith “Quest for Fame” computer game, with its special guitar-pick-shaped controller.

LoPiccolo acknowledges that “GuitarFreaks” provided his development team with some inspiration, but their project went in new directions, making the guitar more complex and orienting the song list toward an American audience.

John Tam, the game’s producer at RedOctane, was in charge of the guitar’s design, which approximates the shape of and color of the notoriously hard-rocking Gibson SG (often brandished by AC/DC’s Angus Young and System of a Down’s Daron Malakian). Tam said his design team experimented with ways to make playing the controller-guitar feel like playing the real thing, even if the two would actually involve completely different disciplines. For the gaming guitar, a players’ hand presses buttons on the fretboard that match cues from the onscreen game graphics. Instead of strumming strings, the player flicks at a ridge of plastic. The better gamers match the cues, the better the songs sound, and the physical gestures make it feel like the guitar is actually being played.

Tam’s team experimented with making the fret buttons sensitive to varying degrees of pressure so they would behave like real strings — a mechanism known as touch-sensitivity in the musical keyboard world — but discarded the idea for being too complex. A tremolo, or “whammy bar,” was essential, Tam said, “but for the longest time, the awesome was not there” — using the bar to bend notes just wasn’t fun at first. After weeks of fine-tuning and tweaking, and about a month before the game’s completion, the awesome finally arrived.

Figuring out the guitar was easy compared with sorting out that quintessentially American playlist. The focus was supposed to be on hard rock. Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Blue Öyster Cult and others all fit the bill and were plugged into the game. But some songs the licensing team obtained the rights for were not exactly part of the hard-rock sound, like the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” “It’s not really a ‘Guitar Hero’ song,” LoPiccolo said. Nevertheless, it was put in the game. “We were like, ‘It’s morally obligated to be in the game. Lots of 10- and 12-year-old kids are going to buy this game. It’s our mission to make sure they learn about music they might not otherwise hear about.’ ”

A Zakk Wylde song was included two weeks before the game’s completion when the guitarist found out about the project and asked to be involved. Wylde’s track turned out to be the only one of the game’s 31 licensed songs that’s not a cover version (the original recordings would likely be prohibitively expensive to use even if a license could be obtained). The need to use covers led to another challenge for the purists working on the game: figuring out how to make the new versions sound like the real things. Tam said the sound producers went to great lengths to make the recordings accurate. When they read that the fluctuations in Ozzy Osbourne’s voice on Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” were created by having the singer perform from the other side of a spinning metal fan, they tracked down the same model fan through Craig’s List and re-created the vocal effect.

The game has proven to be a critical and crowd favorite, but LoPiccolo said there is room to grow. Players are playing with the game’s music, but someday, he sees them actually getting the chance to play music. “The boundary between making music and playing the game would break down,” he said. “You’d be making musical decisions.”

Which may be a complicated way of making young people realize that old-school entertainment like playing an instrument is really fun. LoPiccolo said that Harmonix was founded on the desire to “try to use technology to give the experience of playing music to non-musicians. It’s such a transcendentally joyous experience to make music.”