RedOctane execs on a roll with "Guitar Hero"

DENVER (Billboard) - There were a lot of questions surrounding the “Guitar Hero” videogame when it first came out. Would gamers agree to pony up extra money for the special guitar-shaped controller needed to play it? Would the music industry agree to license master tracks? Would the addition of downloadable content be successful?

Show attendee Brian Weinberg plays Guitar Hero III on a Dell laptop during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada in this January 8, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

The answer to all those questions has turned out to be a resounding yes. “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” has sold more than 8 million copies, and the franchise has sold more than 20 million songs through its downloadable content store.

During the past month, publisher Activision -- which purchased the rights to the franchise by acquiring original publisher RedOctane -- rolled out a portable version of the game for the Nintendo DS called “Guitar Hero: On Tour,” introduced a special edition dedicated to classic rock act Aerosmith and unveiled plans for its next instalment, “Guitar Hero: World Tour,” which for the first time adds drums and vocals to the mix in a bid to compete with rival “Rock Band.” An added twist for the expected fourth-quarter release: The game’s “music studio” feature enables users to compose and record tracks and share them online.

To be sure, the story of “Guitar Hero” seems to be just hitting its stride rather than slowing down. Billboard caught up with RedOctane founders and brothers Kai and Charles Huang -- president and VP of business development, respectively -- to hear their reflections on the past and what they’ve got planned for the future.

Q: Why a whole expansion of the game dedicated to Aerosmith rather than just featuring the band as a downloadable content special?

Kai Huang: Because we really wanted to showcase Aerosmith the band. Downloadable content will allow you to just get the music, but we’ve gone much, much further than that. We’ve actually brought them into the studio to do full-motion capture of them in performance, and we put all of that into the game. We had the band consult on the actual songs that they wanted, including about 20 of the songs that they had over their 30-year career. And then they provided input on songs that were from bands that they’d either toured with in the past or that have influenced them over the course of their career. So the game is a lot more than just about Aerosmith music, it really is about the history and the rise of Aerosmith.

Charles Huang: Even the venues have changed, so the venues are the actual places where they played. We actually have Nipmuc High School (in Massachusetts), where they did their first gig, (and) Max’s Kansas City, and all of (those) are authentic through the history of Aerosmith, so it was a lot more than just making their music playable with “Guitar Hero III.” That’s why we had to put it on disc to get all of that into the game.

Q: Is this the template for how you would like to do other expansion-type discs with other artists for “Guitar Hero?”

Kai: Yeah, I think definitely. If “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” proves to be as successful as we think it will be, then we would love to continue doing this type of game with bands in the future because it’s a lot of fun to work with the bands, No. 1, but again it’s a great way to showcase the talents and the career and the histories of these bands.

Q: So you want to see how well this Aerosmith “band pack” works before doing the same with other artists?

Charles: We would love to work with a lot of other artists. Now to fill up a whole game, you have to have an artist that has some longevity and history, they have to have a body of work that can span 25, 30 great “Guitar Hero” tracks, and so there’s a handful of bands that have that, and we’d love to work with them. But there’s a lot of great songs out there that we would love to compile in a genre pack as well, so definitely the commercial success of this game will dictate some of our strategy. But some of it is just dictated by the music that’s available from some artists.

Q: There’s been some news about how Metallica might be the next on deck. Can you guys comment at all about that?

Kai: We’re not ready to comment about Metallica yet, but what I will say is that we’d love to work with all of the top rock bands of all time, whether it’s Aerosmith or Metallica or AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. If we get an opportunity to work with those bands, we would love to do that.

Q: In the space of just a few weeks there has been a lot of “Guitar Hero”-related news. How do you manage all this without the brand getting overexposed or diluted?

Charles: Even though they all have the “Guitar Hero” name, they are slightly different. “Guitar Hero: On Tour” is (for the Nintendo) DS and it’s a portable experience. It’s a little bit different (in) that we’re targeting the game at perhaps a little bit younger audience that plays the DS, so this is kind of like the game for all the people that have to walk around all day with an iPod because they love their music everywhere they go. “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” is the same experience as “Guitar Hero III” -- it’s in your living room, you’re playing with friends at parties.

Q: “World Tour” is quite a major evolution of the game and the bands from the last version. How will it be sufficiently different from “Rock Band,” other than just the songs included in the game?

Charles: First of all, we’ve got our instruments, which for the first time really in the history of the franchise has some significant innovations. So the guitar will have new features, the drums will have new features as well. (They) will play differently. The drums will have velocity censors that will sense how hard you’re hitting the drum, and that plays a big role in the music studio, where you’ll be able to go in and record ... guitars and drum tracks and upload it onto the Internet. Then people can go and download those songs and play them on their “Guitar Hero” game, so that’s the big innovation both on the hardware and (the) software side.

Q: Can you say anything about the Beatles rumours we’re hearing?

Kai: Unfortunately, those are rumours right now and we don’t have any comments yet.

Charles: Well, I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is. Everybody in the world has tried to get the Beatles to put their music on all kinds of different platforms, and it certainly would be exciting, but it’s also a difficult challenge.