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Originally published Monday, November 23, 2009 at 12:11 AM

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Brier Dudley

'Guitar Hero' founder excited about future

Video-games sales are down 13 percent through October, and analysts are suggesting music-rhythm games have run their course, but "Guitar Hero" founder Kai Huang is looking on the bright side.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Video-games sales are down 13 percent through October, and analysts are suggesting music-rhythm games have run their course, but "Guitar Hero" founder Kai Huang is looking on the bright side.

Huang and his brother, Charles, launched the $1 billion franchise in 2005, then sold their Mountain View, Calif., company to game giant Activision in 2006.

They've since released more than a dozen versions of the game, including the new "DJ Hero," which comes with a mock turntable for scratching, mixing and sampling hip-hop, R&B and dance music.

"DJ Hero" failed to make the top 10 best-selling games when it debuted last month, according to NPD data, but Huang has been happy with the sales.

"We'll see how the rest of the year goes, but so far the launch has been great," he said during a recent visit to Seattle.

I'm way out of the demographic and found the game trickier than "Guitar Hero," but I like how it can be used as an interactive party jukebox. It can be set to play a list of songs that run uninterrupted while various people try the turntable.

But the main goal is to extend the franchise to fans of music other than the rock.

"This is targeting a group of people who, when they played 'Guitar Hero,' said, 'Where's the music I love and listen to every day?' " Huang explained.

He's also planning to extend the franchise with new technologies such as Microsoft's Project Natal motion-sensing input system.

In my interview, Huang also addressed controversy over the late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's avatar in "Guitar Hero 5" and the possibility of a "Guitar Hero" music service.

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Are you competing with social-music services such as iLike?


A: They generally recommend things you'll like in similar genres — you don't venture too far out there. The great things about these games are that they get you out there through a fun experience.

Q: People end up buying more music then, right?

A: Significantly. We've seen half the people that play "Guitar Hero" — our longest running franchise — actually prefer this as their No. 1 method of getting music vs. just passively listening to it.

Q: Will "DJ Hero" outsell "The Beatles: Rock Band"?

A: We're planning for it to be the No. 1 new [intellectual property] of the year. So, yeah, we're excited about it.

Q: What's next — what genre is left?

A: We're really just at the beginning of music games. What we love and what we're constantly looking at is, how do you expose people to new music and new instruments? In the U.S., country music is obviously very popular. Globally, classical music has always been very interesting. Latin music — there are just so many different genres of music and instruments that haven't been tapped into yet.

Q: Your games keep some distance from realism?

A: Just pull out the fun part, pull out the part that makes you feel like, "Wow, I'm really a DJ, this is me and I'm doing it." When you give people that fun, you can attract the most people to play these games.

Q: When you get too realistic, you get into issues like the complaints about the late Kurt Cobain's avatar in "Guitar Hero 5." It's so realistic, people like his widow and bandmates are uncomfortable with it. Will the trend toward realistic avatars end because of the Cobain spat?

A: We can't comment specifically because there's litigation going on, but at a general level we've been working with artists for the last four years with "Guitar Hero." As long as we can continue to work with artists to do that and put them into the game, that's what we'd love to do. It puts a level of realism and reality into the game we'd like to see.

Q: With "The Beatles" and "Guitar Hero 5" it seemed like these games were moving toward more realism.

A: That's what we hope. There are a lot of people who really enjoy that, and we'd certainly like to see it continue to happen.

Q: How about more personalization, using camera technology and Microsoft's Project Natal to pull players into the game?

A: We haven't made any specific announcements of what we're doing with new technologies in "Guitar Hero 6" and beyond, but one of the areas we're exploring certainly is camera technology and what you can do — track your movements and maybe have your characters on the screen do certain things you're doing, or personalize it more so it can look more like you on stage rather than just be an avatar.

There are a lot of possibilities that technologies like Natal will bring, and we're definitely exploring those possibilities.

Q: Wasn't the inspiration for "Guitar Hero," "Dance Dance Revolution" and other rhythm games that had people moving and jumping around in front of the screen? Natal may bring you back in that direction.

A: Definitely. DDR was one of the first music games that widened the audience. We started originally by making dance mats for that game, and we came out with a dance game ourselves. There's certainly a lot of opportunities in looking at other input devices and other game experiences that are beyond "Guitar Hero" and "DJ Hero."

Q: Will people ever be able to combine the music they buy for "Guitar Hero" with their music collection, and vice versa?

A: Today there are licensing issues with just being able to pull in your own music library and play games. But we know people love that idea and they want that to happen. We have been exploring and continue to explore how we can put those features in and make something like that happen.

Q: I wonder if the reason you haven't made PC versions is because studios are worried it would be too easy to pull songs from the games.

A: Licensing is certainly the biggest issue we have as far as being able to open up our platforms and let people access their own music, whether it's on the console or putting it on the PC and letting people access all of their own music. The technology is mostly there for us to do that today. We know that's what the consumers want and we're trying to work to see how we could do that.

Q: Will you ever offer a music service — maybe a monthly subscription to a "Guitar Hero" catalog?

A: That's definitely one of the things we would love to do. There are a lot of issues around music licensing. Consumers want it; I know I want it. We're trying to make that happen.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or

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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest. | 206-515-5687



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