Interview: Getting Funky With Scratch: The Ultimate DJ

Genius Products' Mike Rubinelli talks to Gamasutra about Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, 7 Studios' turntable controller-using rhythm game that he says goes beyond the "effectively glorified versions of Simon Says" of existing music titles.
The music game genre in its current incarnation is dominated by rock god fantasies -- the huge boom in peripheral-supported music titles has focused on only one type of music. But what about hip hop? Activision recently announced DJ Hero, which will ship with a turntable peripheral -- but before CEO Bobby Kotick began to tease the product, Genius Products revealed it's developing its own hip hop game, Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, partnering with 7 Studios and relying on the input of renowned musician-producer Quincy "QD3" Jones. Genius Products senior VP of game development Mike Rubinelli claims over 17 years in the business at companies like Electronic Arts and THQ, involved with Madden on the Genesis all the way up through THQ's wrestling days and many other projects. And in 2006, when Genius Products, a major movie distribution company, decided it wanted to join the video game game, Rubinelli was brought in to head it up. As he began to meet with developers to hear presentations, he made an interesting discovery on a visit to 7 Studios. Discovering A Labor Of Love "I stopped off in this audio engineer's closet of an office," Rubinelli recalls. "Lo and behold, Dan Lehrich shows me what I think is the coolest thing ever; I was very sort of swept up in what it was." Although Lehrich is an audio lead, and game direction wasn't really in his day to day responsibilities, Rubinelli loved what he saw -- a tech demo Lehrich built in his spare time, the core mechanics of a rhythm game running with a couple of low-end MIDI controllers and a handmade turntable. Lehrich's labor of love -- "it just oozes out of his pores" -- prompted initial discussions on the project that would become Scratch. "For us to find Dan and be able to execute on this opportunity has been really rewarding and gratifying," Rubinelli says. "I think the desire for us to get involved stems from the fact we thought that the hip hop and R&B category was huge musically -- and it was completely underserved in video games," says Rubinelli. "Here's a huge underserved market; there's a tremendous amount of potential there. This audience -- we think they're video gamers, and we think this is an outlet for them to interact with hip hop music in a way even more interesting than what's currently available." A Different Approach To Music Play "To say that this is an 'urban version' of Guitar Hero or Rock Band really sells it short," he adds. The gameplay for Scratch plans somewhat of a different focus, Rubinelli explains. "Those games which we love are effectively glorified versions of Simon Says. You have to do what we tell you, when and how we tell you to do it, and if you dare get off that path at all we're going to penalize you for it." "That's not what performance is all about," he continues. "Being a performer is about being in the moment, and taking chances and doing things differently, and putting your own spin on it. We think the creativity around Scratch as a whole really helps the rhythm and music category." "We think the things we do will be embraced by the Guitar Hero and Rock Band creators as well, and that we'll see an evolution of the gameplay experience. It's not just 'Guitar Hero with hip hop music.'" In Rubinelli's opinion, many of the music games that come out recently have been so activity-driven that there's "not enough game there to keep people engaged over long periods of time." "We think that we very adeptly straddle that line of freeform expression and creative artistry, and we're actually giving you mechanics that you have to succeed at in order to progress." This is a challenge, says Rubinelli, because music and games are fundamentally at odds in terms of their art forms. And yet Scratch isn't going to be a "music creator game" either. "Our goal is to allow you to interact with music in a meaningful environment with ramping difficulty goals and a different way of scoring achievements than what you've interacted with historically," he explains. The Musical Influences QD3, the son of the legendary Quincy Jones and longtime hip hop producer, is acting as executive producer and creative consultant on the project. "He's been tremendous," Rubinelli enthuses. "Quincy is great from the standpoint that we have here on the development side sort of a narrow view of the world of hip hop." "Every time we have an opportunity to listen to hip hop music, we do -- but Quincy literally travels the world making hip hop documentaries," he says. "He's got this great sense of trends and movements and sounds that he always lets us know -- if you want to be relevant you have to represent for the different 'food groups' of hip hop." Scratch's track list, then, isn't necessarily top 40 music? "It's not just old school songs, it's not just electronic hip hop," says Rubinelli. "We've got what we think is a really strong blend of great music that you may or may not have heard of -- from a few big, commercial smash hits to, 'I've never heard this, but I want to find out more about this artist.'" Thus far, the game's licensed songs from Kanye West, Beastie Boys, The Black Eyed Peas, Tech N9ne, and Eric B. and Rakim. Mix Master Mike is also providing music as well as creative and technical support for the project. Working With Quincy Jones So what's it been like working with QD3? "When we met with Quincy a little over a year ago, we had no idea that he was going to be remotely interested in working with us," says Rubinelli. "We had a relationship with him from the film distribution side, because Genius distributes his movies," he says. "We brought him in for a discussion... and we pitched him on the notion, and within 10 minutes, he's like, 'I'm in, I love it, let's figure it out.'" "To hear somebody of his accomplishments be excited to work with us was pretty amazing," says Rubinelli. "Without Quincy, Dan and I are just a couple white dudes trying to make a hip hop game. He keeps us relevant and on point, and makes sure that nothing gets missed." What About That Turntable? Although the company's not yet ready to announce too many specific details of the game's turntable peripheral, which is being produced in association with famed DJ accessories firm Numark, Rubinelli was willing to give us a couple of hints. "The one thing that I will say is that the fact that we have a turntable allows us to do certain things with the music," he begins. "One of those things that we allow the player to do is -- to scratch the music. The fun thing for us is that this is a real audio sample that you're scrubbing with. We like to think that it's fairly close to 1:1 -- you've got a high-resolution wheel, and the sample scrubs forward or backwards, and it's speed-sensitive." "Just sort of knowing that little tidbit, we think-- and giving people a musically-appropriate time to do that inside of a song is really cool fun and different, and just the tip of the iceberg of what we allow players to do in the game." The Challenges Ahead Just as Genius prepared to discuss Scratch, however, publishing giant Activision, driver of the Guitar Hero juggernaut, announced it was getting in on the genre, too. Is Rubinelli concerned? "You know, I'm not," he says. "My perspective on the category is that it's only going to grow. If as an industry we only made rock and roll rhythm games until the end of time, there's not a lot of room for innovation or creativity." And what about the doom bells of "market softness" that analysts and retailers have begun to ring around band games? "I guess my point is the initial Guitar Hero is a real phenomenon," says Rubinelli. "Rock Band took it to a whole new level and made it more of a social experiment. Clearly they're going down different paths, and both have merit. We think that we're coming at it from a whole new angle." "We think the fact that not only are we giving people an exciting new controller to interact with music that they love, but we think that the sum of all those parts is unlike anything anybody's done before." "Because of that newness, we are not as concerned with this sort of perceived market softness in any way," he concludes. "That's our position."

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