What challenges do you face when creating a music game?
The biggest challenge isn't really a developmental one; it's a marketing challenge. As I said, although music games have been enormously successful in Japan, and while we and our publishers believe that eventually music games will also explode in the U.S., it hasn't happened yet. It's sort of a chicken and egg problem. It's very hard to make games successful without a marketing budget. On the other hand, without a proven successful existing category, it's very hard to get that marketing budget. We're trying to break the music gaming category in the U.S., but Frequency and Amplitude never had any substantial marketing support.
The real challenge we're facing is, "what is the right way to break the music gaming category to make it successful enough that we can make the games without such budget constraints?" That's part of what led us to Karaoke Revolution. We took a step back and said, "Well, what kind of game can we create that has incredibly broad, mainstream appeal to even people who don't consider themselves 'gamers' would be willing to pick up this game and give it a try? How can we turn the tide and help expand people's understanding of what music gaming is, and put it on the map as a mainstream category?" That was a big part of the conception of Karaoke Revolution.
Yes, I was curious about that. How did that partnership with Konami come to be?
We had been loosely in touch with Konami for years, simply because they're one of the one or two companies that were really on the forefront of the music gaming explosion in Japan. Because we were a company that was really trying to develop music games and make them happen in the U.S., we were just kind of in touch with them, letting them know what we were trying to accomplish. They had been thinking about this karaoke project for a while. When it occurred to them that it was actually something they wanted to pursue, we were the development company that they called, simply because that's our speciality. So we got together and designed the game.
Amplitude (PS2) (top), Frequency (PS2) (bottom)
Konami's BEMANI (i.e., Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution) titles tend to use a lot of peripherals and specialized controllers for pretty much each individual game. Do you guys plan on using any kind of peripherals like that?
Well, it's hard to say. We don't have any specific plans to do so at the moment. The challenge is that, with the Japanese games, Konami's games, they all started in the arcade. When you're dealing with arcades and you're selling a $5000 box, putting on a guitar controller is easy to make work in the business model. They were products that people were already playing to death in the arcades. When they released them onto the Playstation, they knew it was going to sell half a million units of the home version, so it was very low risk to manufacture half a million custom controllers. They know that the huge fans of the game are not just going to spend the fifty bucks on the game—they'll spend the extra fifty bucks on the controller just for that one game.
If you're just building a game from scratch and you're just launching it for the first time in the home market, there is no such level of confidence, especially in the U.S. There is no similar level of confidence that that is a capital investment worth making. It's very risky to spend that money because you're asking the consumer not just to buy a new game for fifty bucks, but to buy a custom controller that will work for just that one game when they probably don't even know what that game is yet.
What can be done with a music game that already hasn't been done?
We have lots of ideas about that, actually. We're doing a new project with Sony that is not at all related to Amplitude. Unfortunately, we're under very strict NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement] with them, so I'm not able to discuss any details of it. But we do have new ideas that we're working with Sony. We're also doing new projects with Konami as well. We also have some fresh, new ideas that aren't related to either of those things that we're prototyping here also. I think that what we're really looking to do is beyond what people traditionally think of as a music game—meaning rhythm action, pressing buttons in time with the notes of the music. We actually have some fresh ideas about very different ways of realizing what the meaning of the words "music gaming" is—very different ways of combining music and gameplay that we're actually prototyping and experimenting with here.
Can you give me a generalized impression of what the difference is between a North American-developed music game and a Japanese-created music game?
Boy, I could respond to that question in a lot of different ways… Well, there are two very different flavours of music games coming out of Japan, in my opinion. There's the Konami-flavoured music game—BEMANI-style games which includes the Dance Dance Revolution-type of games, the Namco games like Taiko no Tatsujin [a game in which the player beats a taiko drum controller to the beat of the music], Samba de Amigo. The essence of those games is all about the rhythm action gameplay and the music simulation aspect of them. Then there's the other flavour of music games coming out of Japan which are essentially Matsura's games: Parappa and Vib Ribbon and Mojib Ribbon. I don't know if you've played those games.
Vib Ribbon? Very much.
It's one of my favourite games of all time. Matsura's a very close friend of mine. If you haven't played his new game yet, Mojib Ribbon—the title of the sequel to Vib Ribbon—it's just come out in Japan only (it'll probably never leave Japan). It's an unbelievably beautiful game which is one that I highly recommend that you play. The thing about those games is that distinguishes them from the BEMANI-flavoured Konami music games is that, while music gameplay is a part of them and is a fundamental part of the gameplay, what makes them so special and really worth commenting on has nothing to do with the music gameplay. It's all about the characters and the music itself and the story. The magic of those games is actually somewhat-detached from the gameplay itself.
The reason I just gave you that long-winded response is that, when you talk about Japanese music games versus North American music games is that I think there are two distinct schools of music games: the Konami and Matsura schools. The only company that's really doing music games in the U.S. is Harmonix, with some comparatively minor exceptions. To compare Harmonix games to those two schools in Japan, the difference between our games and Matsura's is that, we're more like Konami's games in the sense that our games are more about music simulation and rhythm gameplay. They're more about the action of the music game. We don't have these really charming characters and this special music that's been crafted around those characters and stories to deepen them. That's not our creative speciality, that's a special Matsura thing. We're missing that dimension from our games. Often regretfully, actually.
Kakaroke Revolution (PS2)
In some of our future projects that we're playing with, there may well be more of that kind of thing. To sort of put aside Matsura's stuff and Konami's games, what we've been trying to do is take the foundation of the BEMANI-style games—you know, pounding out rhythms in time to the music, simulate the music-making experience—and just try to push it to the next level. We're trying to up the eye-candy, the hypnotic visual component is a lot more compelling than the sometimes cheesy low-budget cartoony graphics of the Japanese-flavoured BEMANI games. And also, deepen the musicality of the experience. A lot of those games, you're not making musical sounds, you're just hitting buttons along with them, especially the dance-flavoured ones. They're all kind of modelled on one-track experiences. With Frequency and Amplitude, what we wanted to do is make it about assembling the music, and building it note by note, track by track—actually hearing each of the individual pieces of music both on a track axis and a time axis, and deepen your understanding of the music by assembling the music component by component. It's something that we felt was really missing from the Japanese music games.
Well, thank you very much for your time.