To make this year's most anticipated music-based video games, you need the right credentials.
Helen McWilliams, associate producer on "Rock Band" at development studio Harmonix Music Systems, sings for a punk band in Boston when she's not working on the guitar-drums-vocals game coming to the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the fall. She spends a lot of her development time playing the new game: "I mostly get to run around the country touring with a fake rock band playing with the game."
Randy Guillote, associate producer on "Guitar Hero III" at development studio Neversoft, used to spend his time working on the "Tony Hawk" games his studio has long developed. His team got the call to take over the "Guitar Hero" franchise after Harmonix was purchased by MTV. Guillote said they qualified for the assignment: "We're the 'Tony Hawk' guys, but every Friday night we would have two kegs of Stella and 'Guitar Hero' on a projection screen on the wall. That's all we would do: Play 'Guitar Hero' and get drunk. And eventually 'Guitar Hero' was looking for a new developer that was under the Activision developer. All they said was, 'Guitar,' and we were like, 'Yes! Absolutely we want to work on the game.' "
With the impending fall releases of "Guitar Hero III" and "Rock Band," careful attention is being paid to ensure that both games exude a true rock spirit. Having the right credentials counts, and at E3 earlier this month, the pedigree of both games was showcased.
Activision produced a guitar legend to authenticate and promote its game: Slash. The Velvet Revolver guitarist recorded a solo for the song and makes a virtual appearance as the game's final boss. Slash told GameFile that he hasn't played the game yet, but he has enough "Guitar Hero" experience to be involved in the project: "I was taking a Gibson tour bus to some charity event and they had it plugged in, in the back, and that was the first time I was exposed to it. And then soon after that I got one and just started doing it."
He admitted the game gave him some trouble and that being a skilled guitar player might actually be a liability. "I'm not great at it," he said. "And a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's hard for me to get rid of 30 years — whatever it is — 20-some-odd years of playing in a certain way and then all of the sudden become accustomed to pressing some buttons and stuff. I have these little things that I'm so used to doing that when I'm playing 'Guitar Hero' it sort of screws me up."
If Slash's involvement and Neversoft's love of the series insulate "Guitar Hero III" from any doubts that a skateboarding-game studio is now handling Activision's franchise, what can Harmonix do to guarantee rock respect for its new project?
At E3, Harmonix announced that Steven Van Zandt, better known to some as Little Steven or Silvio Dante from "The Sopranos," would chair the game's music advisory board. He was chosen less for his ability to play a member of the mob and more because of his lengthy music career, which includes a long tenure as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and his continued support and promotion of garage rock.
The makers of "Rock Band" also used E3 to announce that Metallica songs will be featured in the game and that the title will support downloads of full-length albums. The first announced Metallica song is "Enter Sandman." The first "Rock Band"-playable album will be the Who's Who's Next, with future downloadable albums and tracks promised to be part of a weekly "Rock Band" update following the game's release.
Those may have been the headlines used to command "Rock Band" respect. But little factors may help as well. McWilliams told GameFile that she's also the head writer on the game. Writing isn't an aspect paid much attention by fans of rhythm games, but she said the game's text — be it instructions, exclamations or pop-up trivia — plays a key role in setting the tone.
"A lot of it is making sure the voice is pretty true to the spirit of rock and roll," she said. "You realize as you start looking at it that there are words that are acceptable in the rock universe and words that are totally unacceptable. It tends to be a lot of me going through and saying we are not saying 'groove' and we are not saying 'jam.' "
Ultimately it may be song selection that dictates whether a gamer buys "Guitar Hero III" or "Rock Band." It may also be console ownership: "Rock Band" is only set for the PS3 and Xbox 360 this year, whereas "GHIII" is slated for all home consoles. But what neither game seems vulnerable to yet is being accused of faking it. The games have the rock cred. The battle of these bands will be decided on other criteria.
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