Before forming 4mm Games last year, Jamie King spent over ten years at Rockstar as vice president of product development, working on all the big franchises, including Grand Theft Auto, Midnight Club and Max Payne, amongst others. 4mm Games is backed financially by CEA Autumn Games, and is working with engine makers Terminal Reality on its first title, Def Jam Rapstar.
Def Jam Rapstar is a hip-hop music game where users can film, edit and upload their performance online, for it to be judged and rated by the community. In this in-depth interview with GamesIndustry.biz, King discuses the origins of the project and how it's changed from the original vision, why the music genre still has plenty of untapped potential, the importance of trusting the community and the why the team's passion for hip-hop is 100 per cent genuine.
Q: 4mm Games was launched last year, but before that you were at Rockstar. Just going back, why was it a good time to leave the security of one of the most respected developers in the business and start something new with 4mm Games?
Jamie King: I think I'd done about ten years at Rockstar and it was amazing. But it was the best time for someone in my position to leave with the minimum of ramifications. We were at the start of a lot of next-gen projects, we'd already got the internal code engine team up and running. There were just a lot of things I wanted to do that meant I had to leave, in terms of different games. But being at Rockstar was some of the best days of my life.
Q: What were the ideas that were you interested in, and how have they changed up to this point?
Jamie King: I was very interested in virtual worlds and the whole idea of the meta-verse, and at the same time there was Second Life and all the Korean free-to-play business models. I thought all this was really interesting because it was undefined, there's no templates for it. I always tends to like stuff that isn't proven yet. It keeps you awake at night and keeps you on your toes. There's so much growth. And there was the Wii, and gesture-based interaction, and World of Warcraft and Habbo Hotel and there was just so much change going on with all these models that I thought we need to get to grips with this or we'll be dinosaurs. And because I hadn't worked on MMOs before or social models I found that very interesting.
Q: So you were looking at digital and online markets...
Jamie King: We had the vision of being a digital publisher and putting our games online, but going around asking for £50 million, well, you should have seen their faces. They were spilling coffee and looking at me like I was insane. In terms of the financial community, they said if we were to do console games they would feel a lot better about investing. And at the same time, part of our vision online was we wanted to do dancing and singing and once we met with Kevin Liles [former president of Def Jam Recordings] we instantly got on. He wanted to make a hip-hop performance game, and that was it. We were done, brilliant.
We spoke about the fact that no-one has done a hip-hop game. Despite people in the games and music businesses having discussed it for so long - but no one has done it. It was weird why no one had done it. For me Def Jam is the best partner because we can worry about the game and they can worry about the music because they represent hip-hop.
Q: I can't think of another record label that can bring that level of credibility. Def Jam were there from the start, from the early 80s with Run DMC and LL Cool J, right up to the present day with Jay-Z and Rick Ross, so they have that credible heritage.
Jamie King: Yeah, and Russell Simmons and Kevin Liles are all still together. Def Jam Interactive Enterprises are very active, they've kept the original label, which is what I identify with as a fan of hip-hop. For me Kevin was one of the few people in the music industry that has published videogames, has a track record of liking and caring about videogames, and understands the process that we need to go through. It actually started as quite a humble project with a couple of million and we were going to do it on the Wii, to it snowballing into something much bigger.
Q: I like the fact it doesn't look much like your standard music game with scrolling bars and gurning avatars...
Jamie King: I really like the challenge of moving away from a 2D karaoke screen and we weren't going to give the player an avatar. We didn't want to create these fake stages to perform on. We were looking at huge numbers of people on their laptops filming themselves rapping along to [Lil' Wayne's] A Milli and posting them online. What we're doing with Def Jam is rubber-banding that community and giving everyone a forum to compete.
It's not just a game where you score, but it's about the community judging the performance and ranking each other, so that's where we were looking at those that have a camera with their console can broadcast themselves. No one's really looked at that in terms of performance. We're excited about Kinect, but this is letting someone upload themselves to a community and socialise in a very different way. That's where the idea of it being about the user and themselves on camera came from. We're not going to create storylines or anything. There was conversations about should the player be an up and coming rapper, do they progress through levels in a city, buying hairdos and clothing? There's definitely room for that, but this is very much about you and I sharing this experience together, the core part of battling is brilliant because that's where the objective is. It's about crews going head-to-head. I can't rap, but I do it and I have a lot of fun doing it.
Q: Are you finding it difficult to fit your online aspirations into the console online experience?
Jamie King: We have worked very hard with the community because we do have aspirations to do with online, social networks, MMOs and these type of experiences so this is us really pushing what the console can be in that space. We developed defjamrapstar.com so the Xbox and PlayStation crowd can get together but also acknowledging that we need to have some social networking tools and even with keyboards and stuff it's not the most elegant interface. So once we've launched it we're going to feed the community. That's why we've gone with defjamrapstar.com, to support the social networking aspects and allowing those guys to start voting and opening the doors.
Q: How do you convince the community that what you're doing is genuine? Because people won't take accept anything that smells of corporate business. Users aren't idiots, they know what's real and what's fake.
Jamie King: I think we've had that from day one because hip-hop fans are a very discerning crowd. We're definitely being held to the highest standard. There hasn't been anything of any real merit in games. In terms of purely dedicated to hip-hop culture and the hip-hop generation, for us, looking at the aesthetics and the whole approach of this is very much for you. We are being held to a very high standard and this is definitely being done for the love it. Pretty much the entire publishing community asked "why do you want to make a game about hip-hop?" They're missing the point, it's about engagement. We've all engaged with hip-hop globally for a long time now. It's a music based game that I want to play.
And at the same time, I'm British, I'm white. I'm not your typical hip-hop demographic but I get it and I love it. For me working with Def Jam is cool. I can't drop the ball on that because they have very high standards. Hopefully we've perfected it not only with the visual sense and the community aspects, but with the track list. We've had lots of arguments over that because the depth of music is so big. It's impossible to choose a top 40, so it's a question of how do we engage a broad section of gamers and users that like music-based games and target that to fans of hip-hop. This is very much targeted at male gamers. We're very transparent, we're going to put it up there and online communities are very outspoken and they are very capable of managing and monitoring their own.
Q: You have to step back and let the community get on with it in some respects, and they'll judge it as they see fit.
Jamie King: We believe in the intelligence of the community and their sense of self-regulation. They know what is added value and what is not. Hopefully we've given enough initial tools and structure to the crews, the battling, the ideas of a meta-game in a wider setting. Those that participate in that community can elevate within that community. Freestyle mode gives those that really do want to be emcee's take on the serious side of the game. Hopefully with all those tools the community can represent itself. There's definitely nothing big business about us. It's hip-hop in the sense that we've raised independent money, every publisher we spoke to said "no, why do you want to do it?". We're very proud that Konami came on board to distribute this game.
I love all the haters, the detractors, the naysayers, because it makes us hungry and determined to do something great. The passion, the sweat and the toil will show. At every turn this has been the complete opposite of big business.
Q: The music genre is busy, although not as big as it was a few years ago, mainly due to the decline in hardware sales. Do you see other games as a threat? Especially with something like DJ Hero 2 which is now including a microphone for rapping and singing alongside the DJing?
Jamie King: I don't see it as a threat because it's almost a completely different category. I'm very proud of the fact that Def Jam Rapstar is totally dedicated to hip-hop, it's very focused on one genre. The strength, the amount of various styles of hip-hop means we can just focus on one genre like that. It is challenging because Rock Band is on its fourth or fifth iteration, there's Guitar Hero, these have had years of big budgets and we're coming out with our first title but it's got to be as good as those. We deliberately decided to not do certain gameplay mechanics that they or other music based games have done.
We also have unique phonic recognition software, and that was really important so that you can't just whistle your way to a high score. Because of the importance of rapping lyrics we had to really nail the phonic recognition which gives it that extra challenge. There's a lot of focus on rock music out there and it feels like with Def Jam Rapstar we are on our own and it's a very fresh injection to a music genre that's not dead, it's not over, it's just gone a bit stale. We look at Rapstar as a franchise and this first game will get us into the marketplace and then it will be interesting to see how the online community develops. Some of those thing won't work and hopefully we'll be surprised by things we didn't think would be as popular will be more so. And it's great to know with downloadable content we can feed content alongside version two and the expansion packs. So we've definitely given a lot of thought and have high hopes about that. It will also be interesting to see how people begin pushing gesture-based movement stuff and maybe that can be blended in with music performance.
Q: How often can you get music out as DLC? I play a lot of DJ Hero but I'm disappointed that DLC for the game is so sporadic. I would buy two or three tracks a week, no problem, in the same way I do with new music.
Jamie King: There's an incredible challenge, certainly for traditional console publishers, to understand service-based digital distribution. For a long time we've done our homework and there are these new business models, and if you start a community online you've got to feed it. The moment you stop that, you lose your community. We do have to have a very considered plan.
There's so much music available we've got to make sure that the amount we start providing is at a sustainable rate. We've already worked out the next 70 tracks for the US and the same for local markets. It's very important that we give UK specific tracks for example. Then there's the idea of custom packs. There's so much music, I'm a bit older, so I was sixteen listening to Big Daddy Kane, but the younger guys are like, "who?" There's a fantastic cross-section of music we can offer. There's the Backpackers Pack, the Back In The Day Pack, for the hardcore I'd like to see a Dirty Pack, and if there's a way we can do that – everyone's very concerned about censorship and adult content – we've got to get that balance between people who know the content and giving them the choice.
Q: You see an opportunity to do that, offer a Parental Advisory pack? Because aren't you going to be limited by the initial rating of the boxed game? And there's different levels of rap, where you've got something that could be considered raw, street, and then something else entirely that's just plain ignorant.
Jamie King: Consumers are very mature, right? There's a generation that's used to that language. We're giving the player the tools to put themselves on the world stage. In all societies and cultures there's extreme behaviour. We have a number of mechanisms in place, we have a certain amount of moderation of content before it gets online. All the content will adhere to the Xbox and PlayStation rules. There's a certain amount of checks in place and even if something becomes offensive the tools are there to flag it, to complain about it, to rate it. We believe that gamers and consumers in general are pretty sophisticated. We're very aware that when you put content out in the digital world it can take on different meanings, and I'm fully confident in good self-policing and community management.
I'll also be thrilled to see the creative behaviour. The camera is all you need, you don't need a green screen or worry about the lighting involved, you can be making short movies. There's the next director, there's the next A&R guy, there's the next rapper in our game. This is a very elegant way for Def Jam to represent hip-hop music in the game space. It has a lot to offer, it's about a culture, a state of mind, an attitude from top to toe. It's unlimited.
Q: Do you see a point in the future where you're effectively acting as a music publisher as well? Something similar to the Rock Band Network where artists can publish their own music to be played through the game?
Jamie King: There are opportunities, yes. I don't know, I'm curious to see how that works. It's definitely very viable and it seems very interesting to people. There's a lot to work out and you've got to have all the systems in place and understand the ramifications and legalese that comes with that. It's very exciting to see that videogames are extending social interaction and extending opportunities to be able to not only engage with people and advance artists, help them monetise and push their career forward.
Jamie King is president and chief creative officer of 4mm Games. Interview by Matt Martin.