Catching Up With... DJ Hero Producer Will Townsend

Games Features DJ Hero
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Will Townsend has the job that countless twentysomething dudes could only dream of: He gets paid—and well—to play video games

. Townsend is the producer of DJ Hero, the newest incarnation of the Guitar Hero series, which hits shelves Tuesday (Oct. 27).

Clad in black-rimmed glasses, a black t-shirt and a Yankees hat, Townsend looked a lot like his clientele when he sat down with Paste recently at the Xbox 360 DJ Hero premiere party in Atlanta. Over the blare of party-goers diving into the new game, Townsend told us about putting the game together, the power of video games and “shitting cupcakes” when he met Daft Punk.

Paste : How would you compare the support of DJ Hero to that of Rock Band or Guitar Hero from bands who want to get involved?
Townsend: It’s stronger. I used to be a producer for Guitar Hero, and I got a lot of “Hey, my cousin wants to get his band on the video game.” And I’d give it a listen and I’d say, “Oh, dear god. This is bad.” But not with this game. This is my dream project to work on. Freestyle Games came up with this five years ago, they were shopping it around, working things out, working it, working it. I started working with them a year ago at Activision. This is the kind of game where artists come out of the woodwork, like “Wow, I want to be a part of this.”

Paste : Did you put your feelers out or did they come to you?
Townsend: We reached out to everybody. The music licensing team at Activision—they’re awesome, some of the hardest working dudes in the industry. They’re established. They worked on Guitar Hero —they’ve listened to everybody’s cousin’s band. So they went out and did four times as many licensing requests for this [as compared to other games]. It was insane the amount of work.

Paste : How many tracks in all?
Townsend: Over 100 tracks were licensed for this, whereas the biggest we did for Guitar Hero was 80. We mixed that into 93 mixes. So yeah, we reused a couple, but that’s because it sounds really damn good. Also, for us, it’s about giving the user as much bang for your buck as possible. And what do people want? They want content, they want to hear stuff in a new way. And the only place you’ll get to hear this stuff is in DJ Hero — it’s not for iTunes, it’s not for YouTube. It’s just for our space. There are a couple instances where artists have been gracious enough to say, “Yeah, I love that mix, you can share it on your website.” But no one will have this on their MP3s.

Paste : How much more intense was publicity push for this?
Townsend: We did an event with Jay-Z and Eminem in Los Angeles—if you want to talk about Mount Everest of events. That was, by far, the coolest thing I’ve ever seen for any video game. It was a really special moment to get to be a part of that. It all came together so quickly—both Jay and Em were interested in participating. Not only that, but they wanted to make it work. That’s like seeing your heroes onstage.

Paste : How long did this game take? Can you tell us about the process?
Townsend: Absolutely. A lot of the hard work, the care and attention to detail and the passion—that’s the last five years. It was interesting to see how clunky [the prototype was] until it was a sexy, sleek piece of hardware. But also the functionality, right? How do we get there? These guys had a great idea of what the vision was, what it wasn’t, and where they wanted to go. They finally got there a little more than a year ago. We spent 12 months building, and we bought Freestyle [note: Townsend works with Activision] because we know a good thing when we see it. And the last 12 months have been just racing for it—getting every different department together. I have a team in Dublin, a team in Canada. Anyone who would listen could help out. And the guys in Freestyle, they worked their asses off—they really ground it out to make this high quality game. So some of our reviews are coming in; we got a 92 and a 90 already. So I’m fired up.

Paste : The argument exists that Guitar Hero makes people think they can play guitar when they’re just playing a game. At the same time, this looks a lot more complicated—more to do. How closely were you trying to stick to what a DJ does?
Townsend: One of the first rules of DJ Hero was that we’re not making a simulator—we don’t want to have you doing all the work a DJ does because, myself personally—I’ve owned turntables for five years. And they do a great job of collecting dust on the shelf in my office. I don’t have the skills to be a DJ. I’ve tried, taken lessons. I just don’t have it. But I do have the skills to be an expert on DJ Hero—it’s about using rhythm, tapping at the right time and scratching at the right time.

You mentioned that people give the Hero name a negative spin—because it’s just a toy, so why don’t kids just play guitar? My perspective is, regardless of where you’re coming from in a music background, everyone loves music and everyone loves interacting with music. This gives you a chance to feel like you’re the DJ. You’re the life of the party. You’re the guy up there with go-go dancers all around and the crowd jumping up and down. That’s what we have achieved. Whether you’re playing on easy or expert, we get you cross-fading, scribble scratching and catching the beat at the same pattern that Jazzy Jeff did. It’s amazing to get that—you’ll repeat a pattern and you’re proud of yourself.

People get the idea of air guitar—everyone’s done it. Now with DJ’ing, if you ask people what they do, they do this [Motions with hand cupped over ear, other hand ‘scratching a record’]. We’ve got to get everyone to air-DJ. And from there, the world is our oyster.

Paste : Is there the hope that people will get this game and it’ll push them to play a real instrument?
Townsend: Absolutely. The game makes people more comfortable with having an instrument and developing that motor skill. It’s about being OK with screwing up, and practicing and getting your rhythm right. I’m hoping a lot of the artists really see this as the gateway to get people re-involved in the hip-hop community.

Paste : How did Daft Punk get on board?
Townsend: I think it had something to do with a unicorn, a leprechaun shitting cupcakes and all of my dreams coming true. I was on cloud nine. Those guys are so soft spoken, but so positive. The guys explained, in French, that “We believe in_ DJ Hero_, so we want to be a part of it.” You’re just like [jaw drops]. They’re always working, so once we were able to get around some deal terms, it just took off—they were totally available. They were really stoked about the mixes they made with us—they even helped with the editing.

Paste : Video game culture is a subculture. But with this and music, you’re merging two subcultures to make something gigantic. What does it say that in 2009, the biggest stars in the world are on video games?
Townsend: I think we’re absolutely at a new era in video games. We started to see this when the video game industry became more valuable than movies. Everyone’s eyes opened, but I don’t know that anyone fully bought into it. When we look at, for example, Call Of Duty, it’s immense—those guys just say casually, “Yeah, I think we moved 5 million units this morning.” And its just like “What?! What the hell?” I think that’s where we are.

Two parts play into that—one, the economy. People are watching their dollars, and they want to get the most amount of play for their dollar, or in this case replay. If we’re making a good game, it’ll be fresh and exciting each time. And if we’ve got 93 mixes, we give you so much gameplay. There’s no way to memorize that, plus all the different levels of difficulty. If I were to get these 93 tracks on iTunes at a buck a pop, it’d be 93 bucks. So throw in another 20 bucks and you’ve got this hardware that allows you to play along with your tracks—that’s money in the bank. Plus we’ll have Download-able Content coming out and that’s the value that people want. If I go see a movie, I see it once. This is completely the opposite.

Paste : You want this to be an enduring brand, but versatile, too.
Townsend: Yes, that’s something we worked on. I really think we nailed that, from content, and the genres and artists we explored, this is a different game. It’s a different way of interacting. There are people who like electronic, hip hop and rap, and they’ll get into Guitar Hero, but this is now their space. This is their game.

Paste : In the music industry, there’s always worries about the record leaking, and it usually does. Is there that fear with these tracks?
Townsend: We work really hard to protect artists, and the stuff that we’re handling is the stems, the breakdown of these tracks. It’s totally kid gloves. But I’ve got CEOs coming in saying they want to get the playlist on their mp3 player, and I have to tell them no. Then I wait to get fired. But we keep it clean, because we don’t want the tracks getting out. Think about how that would damage all the relationships – from the top of the pyramid to the bottom.

Paste : You went from guitar to full band to DJ. What is the next big leap?
Townsend: I’ll just get classical for a second and we’ll have an orchestra with a hammer dulcimer. What’s the next big step? There are two sides. One is we want to rush out there and continue with this—people are excited. October 27 is going to be a big day for video games. All of this is going to grow like wildfire. But next? Well, keep it conservative and focus on the game mechanics—cross-fading, scratching, triple A content, as much of it as we can get in. But at the same time, we need to watch what people are into. What are people’s favorite tracks, artists, genres, difficulty levels. How did they get involved with the game?

Paste : What kind of licensing costs were you working with?
Townsend: From what I’ve seen, everyone feels like they’re getting a fair shake. I like to see that. Whether you’re a mom and pop label or one of the big boys, it seems that everyone’s getting represented pretty well. Nothing has fallen through because of money. But I couldn’t tell you the total.

Paste : Overall, how does this game change the music industry?
Townsend: This is it. This is the harmony moment. I can take Marvin Gaye and put him together with the Gorillaz and say, “Marvin, you never sounded so good, dammit. And Gorillaz, you’re cool all over again.” This is the unifying moment for so many different genres of music, so many age groups. That’s the most exciting movement I see – people coming together to enjoy this as a group.

Paste : Is there a potential in these games to unearth new music to the public?
Townsend: We set it up to show people lesser known genres. Hello world, this is drum and bass, get into it. We can give people a little sampler, a little flavor. This is a cool story we get to tell. Being in video games, we get to be storytellers. And working on DJ Hero, we get to tell some of the best stories that’ve never been told.