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'Guitar Hero' creators bullish on new game

If past is prologue, it’s wise to bet on Kai and Charles Huang. The two brothers, founders of Red Octane and creators of the "Guitar Hero" franchise, believe the new version of their game will fare well this holiday season, despite the economy, and rival "Rock Band."
Image: Guitar Hero World Tour
'Guitar Hero World Tour" adds drums, a microphone, tons of new tunes and a music-creation mode to its successful guitar package. Will the game fare well against "Rock Band?"Activision

I’ve got to admit, I love playing “Rock Band.” I like playing “Guitar Hero” too, but I’ve got a bum wrist from years of pounding on a computer keyboard. With “Rock Band,” I can smash the living daylights out of my fake drums like some female incarnation of John Bonham. (Hey, it’s my fantasy. Go live yours.)

So why would I shell out $190 for “Guitar Hero World Tour,” which adds drums and a microphone to its mega-selling guitar package? And why would I (and you, for that matter) clutter up the living room with yet more plastic stuff?

Kai and Charles Huang, the creators of the “Guitar Hero” franchise, say that it’s not just about the accessories in “Guitar Hero World Tour.” It’s also about the new software, which lets users create their own music, and, as is de rigueur these days, upload their creations for the world to play.

“We’ve had a demo of playing different instruments together for over two years now,” says Kai. “And it was really just a matter of making sure that we had the right product, the right features, and for us, 'Guitar Hero World Tour,' was all that coming together.”

If past is prologue, it’s wise to bet on Kai and Charles Huang. The two brothers got into the video game business in 1999, creating Red Octane, which at first was a video game rental service. They soon got into making video game accessories, including dance pads, arcade add-ons and music-themed controllers.

In 2005, Red Octane hooked up with Harmonix Music Systems to make their first game. “Guitar Hero” had players push colored buttons on a plastic Gibson guitar in time to cues displayed onscreen. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The company was acquired by Activision for $100 million in June 2006. And in just three years, Red Octane has pumped out four more games, sold 22 million copies and generated $1 billion in sales.

But the financial picture is murkier this year. Although game pundits like to say that the industry has weathered all economic downturns quite nicely, the economic crisis of 2008 is a whole new kettle of fish. Can “Guitar Hero World Tour,” which hit store shelves on Sunday, continue the brothers’ winning streak? Or will consumers hang onto their wallets — and their existing plastic guitars — this holiday shopping season?

Kai thinks “Guitar Hero World Tour offers “tremendous value for the money.”

“For $190, you have this awesome experience where you can involve the entire family. You get four people playing this game, there’s a ton of great music,” he says. “And with ‘Guitar Hero Tunes’  (the game’s ‘sharing’ tool), you can download an infinite amount of music, so there’s really an unlimited amount of time you can play this game.”

A few weeks prior to the game’s release, video producer Todd Kenreck and I spoke to Kai and Charles about their new game, how the franchise has changed the music industry (and music listeners) and which artists they’d most like to see in future iterations of “Guitar Hero.” Following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Q:  The first “Guitar Hero” came out just three years ago. It takes some game companies three years to make one game, and you guys have made four (games) in three years.

Kai: It’s been pretty incredible. In the early days, it was a small project and we didn’t know how well it would do. And now, (with) “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” and “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith,” the franchise has sold over 22 million units, “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” was the No. 1 game of last year … so it’s pretty amazing how far the franchise has come.

Q: What does it mean for artists? How has (“Guitar Hero”) changed the music industry?

Kai: One of the big things that’s happened (for artists) is that it has introduced their music to an entirely new audience that they were never able to reach before. So, “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” as an example, not only was it a game that brought more, in terms of royalties, to the band than either of their previous two albums, it’s also introducing their music to kids that are age 5 to 20, who without this game, probably never would have been into Aerosmith’s music. So, I think from that standpoint, it’s really changing the music industry.

Q: Where’s the Zeppelin? These kids need Zeppelin.

Kai: (Laughs) There’s a lot of bands and a lot of songs that we’d love to have in “Guitar Hero.”  And Zeppelin is still one of those bands that we’re working on.

Q. How has “Guitar Hero” changed music for listeners?

Charles: It’s a new way to experience music. At first, music was something you listened to. Then, in the age of music videos, music became something that you listened to and you watched. With “Guitar Hero,” you listen to it, you watch it on the screen, and then you play along to the music and you actively engage (and) interact with the music. And that was a totally new — and very compelling, for a lot of video game players –way to experience music.

Kai: It also is changing the experience because people are now really appreciating all of the musical instruments and the actual level of skill that it takes to play them.

Q: Red Octane was first an online game rental service, and then you made game peripherals. Were you video game guys who became passionate about music, or were you passionate music guys who saw video games as an outlet for music?

Kai: I think I was first more passionate about video games. Charles and I have been playing video games since we could first hold a controller in our hand. And we’ve always had a passion for playing video games

Once we were in the video game world, we got exposed to these music games and saw the potential of them and the potential  popularity of these types of games, and that’s what led us to eventually doing “Guitar Hero.”

Q: What’s it like running a company with a sibling?

Charles: (Laughs). It’s not always easy! As you know, with your siblings, you don’t have to be tactful. I can tell Kai, you know, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard —

Kai: And he does.

Charles: But, the great thing about it is the level of trust and familiarity, having grown up with him that you don’t have to try and figure out if you’re thinking on the same wavelength.

Q; You guys made peripherals, and at some point, you hooked up with the Harmonix guys who had experience making music games, and you made “Guitar Hero.”  Can you clarify what each team brought to the table there?

Kair: Harmonix was a fantastic developer of music games. So, we actually reached out to them to see if they were interested in doing a “Guitar Hero” game for us, and of course, they eventually became our developer for (the first) “Guitar Hero.” 

On the Red Octane side, we were the publishers of the game, we financed and did all the sales, marketing and distribution, and, given our background in hardware, which we thought was the most unique aspect of these types of games, we focused on building and designing and manufacturing the hardware.

Q; “Guitar Hero World Tour” adds drums and a microphone to the package. Was that always a part of your plan, or was it a reaction to “Rock Band?”

Kai: It really was a part of our plan from awhile ago. We have great design on the instruments and the hardware, which we’re really proud of, all the new features that we’re adding:  the authentic instruments, the software features were everything we were been looking for, all new music … and then ‘Guitar Hero Studio,’ which is going to all people to actually create their own music. And then using ‘Guitar Hero Tunes,’ they can upload and share that music with the rest of the world. So, we think we have a complete package now, and ‘Guitar Hero World Tour’ was the right time to intro that to our fans.

Q:  Activision’s CEO (Bobby Kotick) has been conducting a bit of a war of words with Warner Brothers’ CEO (Edgar Bronfman Jr.) over the amount Activision pays to license the record company’s songs. Warner Brothers says they deserve a bigger cut of the “Guitar Hero” profits … and Kotick is on the record saying that maybe the company should pay Activision. What’s your take?

Kai: I think it’s so new, these music games. And I think “Guitar Hero” … has really changed the face of not just the game industry, but the music industry. So, there’s still a lot of growing pains. What’s important is that these types of games, music games, are great for the consumer, they’re great for the artists, the fans want more music, the artists want to get their music in front of all these fans.

Q: When “Guitar Hero” came out, video games were pretty much dominated by first-person shooters and a few key (real-time strategy) franchises. Why was “Guitar Hero” successful at this time?

Kai: I thought “Guitar Hero” was successful because it was different. The gaming world had been dominated by genres that had really been around a long time. “Guitar Hero” came out a year before the Wii when, at the time, we called them party games, and now social gaming has become the de facto term. We saw that interest in people, where not only were the people playing the games having a good time, but it was all the people who were standing around watching those people play games that was really interesting to us.

Q. Is there a band or an artist that you guys personally really, really want to see on “Guitar Hero?”

Kai: For me AC/DC is one of the bands…there’s a ton of them, but that’s a band that was certainly made for this game.

Charles: Led Zeppelin, even the Beatles are high, high up on the list.