Interviews// DJ Hero 2: Jamie Jackson, Creative Director

Posted 21 Jun 2010 14:50 by
FreeStyle Games was ambitious about its debut scratching game, DJ Hero, about this time last year. Joining an army of fellow music rhythm games in a packed Holiday 2009 period, its 100-plus price tag ended up being a deterrent to many potential consumers ? while appreciation for playing with plastic instruments took a dive in the run up to Christmas.

Despite this, DJ Hero did go on to win several accolades ? the one creative director Jamie Jackson is most proud of being the #1 New IP for 2009. Along with the achievements come lessons that FreeStyle is keen to learn from. Rather than focus on the hip-hop genre, for example, DJ Hero 2 will expand its reach to the dance and pop scenes as well.

The mashups, as a result, appear to be far more interesting. Watching a rendition of Deadmau5 mixed with Lady Gaga seemed to capture much of the eclectic party atmosphere that the first game tried so hard to achieve. Feedback from players has also been taken into account to streamline the experience ? guitar support is out, full mic support is in.

A new Empire mode acts as an incentive to play through the single-player campaign, while new freestyle mechanics offer a greater variety of depth to the game ? particularly in the new multiplayer modes, where a positive side-effect of last year's development has been fleshed out into a brand new mode.

I sat down with Jackson to explain more about the journey DJ Hero has taken since our last interview, the new modes and features in the game and where the series could be heading in the future.

SPOnG: DJ Hero 2 has added full microphone support. How will that work out in gameplay terms - will you be singing as you would if you were playing a Guitar Hero game, or will it be more rap and rhythm-based?

Jamie Jackson: Good question. I think the first thing to say is that the updates we've made to DJ Hero 2 isn't just about the addition of the microphone on its own. I think free-styling is up there as the main feature, but the big thing for us is more about the social aspect of adding a microphone with two turntables. That complete social experience rather than just the support for the peripheral.

In terms of what you're singing, we wanted to deliver more of a karaoke style experience ? so you are singing the lyrics that would appear in the tracks. If you get a chance to see the Lady GaGa track you'll see that all the Lady GaGa lyrics are marked up, along with the lyrics that come up from the mixed Deadmau5 track as well. Same as if you played the Pussycat Dolls vs Pitbull one ? both sides are marked up.

What happens is, if it goes to more of a rap style, it actually changes to markup ? or how you have to sing. So it's no longer pitch-based, it's more about hitting the beat within the lyric. And like I said, we wanted it to feel more karaoke and a bit more fun, rather than an overly-harsh markup.

SPOnG: Because you had microphones last year but they weren't...

Jamie Jackson: They weren't marked up, no. You could plug it in and shout through, and it would blend in with the music, but it wasn't scored.

SPOnG: What about the guitars, because you had guitar peripheral support last time. Are they back in DJ Hero 2?

Jamie Jackson: Erm, they're not actually. We moved away from the guitar since last year. Activision does a really good job of researching products and researching the audience, so it gives us something to work with as a developer, rather than working on plain assumptions. One of the things that came back last year was that it was felt, prior to the launch of DJ Hero, that our audience would be music rhythm gamers ? and the biggest one of those games at the time was Guitar Hero.

So it was concluded that we would see a proportion of those players come over to DJ Hero. The proportion that actually did was a lot smaller than what we originally thought. A lot of the DJ audience were completely new consumers to the music genre. We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the guitar feature, and it didn't really get used much.

This time around, we thought about what means a lot to us and that was the DJ element, so we decided to focus our time on that instead of working on features that our audience is telling us they don't really want. We're focusing more on the mic ? we heard that people wanted more mic integration and support. Not so many people were telling us they wanted the guitar.

SPOnG: You're working on your second game now, and while the music genre is quite crowded you still don't have much in the way of direct competition, whereas Guitar Hero has some pretty formidable competition. Do you feel relieved in a sense, that you don't have that sort of pressure and you can just get on with doing what you want to do rather than trying to be one step ahead of another game?

Jamie Jackson: I guess maybe subconsciously, there's a relief. It's not something I've really pondered about and gone ?Oh, I'm glad I haven't got competition,? because my focus is to always create the game I want to make, and I think that drive would still be there even if we did have competition. I want to make the best game I can possibly create, and give our audience and new consumers the most fun experience.

I don't want to try and force a feature just for the hell of it. I want to make something that's really genuinely fun to play and I think if that's your focus, then regardless of your competition you're going to deliver a really compelling product.

But I suppose subconsciously it's kind of nice to not be in Brian's [Bright ? project director of Guitar Hero at Neversoft] shoes and suddenly start thinking ?We're gonna get compared against this, that and the other.?

I guess we'll see what happens with any other products like this because it'll be interesting to see, but I'm really proud of what we've done and I think we've done something that's really accessible ? more accessible than perhaps people thought it would be ? contains some really awesome music and I think the way we've approached that music is unique.

SPOnG: Were the new freestyle and extended freestyle features also a reaction to consumer feedback?

Jamie Jackson: To a degree, it definitely was. I mean, we're a really ambitious studio and we had that code and that idea within our codebase on DJ Hero 1. It just wasn't as good as it is now ? we didn't have the time to make it as good. At the same time, we didn't want to deliver DJ Hero 1 and overwhelm the consumer ? this is a new product that we're asking everyone to get on board with, and we could have thrown the kitchen sink at it and it could have been ropey. You risk trying to do too much.

So we cut a lot of stuff out, and decided to leave all those ideas for DJ Hero 2 where we'll really focus on it and make it as good as it can be. I feel that, if it hadn't been as good as it can be, or as good as it is, we wouldn't put it in this game. But we're really happy with where it is. It's easy to sound good, it's very hard to sound bad, you're connected to the music. It's that level of freestyle customisation that our audience wanted and it justified our thought process in holding it back to make it great rather than possibly get it wrong the first time.
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