The press have been making excitable noises about Def Jam Rapstar, but sales of music games are generally in decline. Aren’t you a little worried that this niche has already reached saturation point?
No, Def Jam Rapstar is a complete breath of fresh air, and it’s going to reinvigorate the music genre. I think it’s going to surprise everyone with just how fun and viral it is.
What is it about hip-hop that you love?
It’s uplifting, it’s really poignant social commentary, it’s flamboyant, it’s full of swagger. There’s lots of bravado. I can’t rap, I can’t sing – I never will – but for a brief moment in time I forget. With the phoneme recognition technology we’ve got, you have to get the lyrics right, and in Battle Mode you really start trying.
You’re getting, for a moment, to be a bit like Biggie. It’s really cool, and slightly larger than life. There’s a lot of aspiration. Getting away from our weekly lives, and our jobs. There is this brief moment of ‘Oh!’ It’s just fun and glamourous, and super competitive. It comes as a surprise just how much non-hip-hop fans will come into the room, work their way forwards, grab the mic and compete. And that’s why I’m very confident we have a good franchise here. There’s replayability here.
What’s happening post-release? Are you planning another one?
We’re going to support this heavily with downloadable content, and keep feeding the community. We’re already talking about what we’re doing for the next one. We know we can’t just rinse it out and just put in new songs. There’s got to be gameplay innovations in there, and that will be a challenge. But we’re very serious about this, and about Def Jam Rapstar becoming a franchise.
4mm was working on an MMO. What happened to that?
We worked on Cement Factory [a paintball game targeted at teenagers], and got it through pre-production, but all the finance we raised has gone on Def Jam Rapstar, so it’s kind of on hold for now. We’re not worried about that.
What’s this collaboration with TV channel NBC you’re also working on?
Yeah, they have formed an all action sports group, which is skateboarding, motocross, BMX freestyling, wakeboarding, and some other stuff. They have an annual tour – it’s like the X-Games. The next one’s in Vegas, and we are making free-to-play 3D action sports titles in a browser to support it. It’s the beginnings of an online world based around action sports.
Are you building that side of the business as you go along?
Yeah, completely. Later in October we’re announcing the first sport that we’ve started working on, and we’re very excited to be working with NBC and old media – their distribution reach is enormous. We’re going to take on the social gaming upstarts and the free-to-play models coming over from Korea. I think MMOs have a lot of life in them. We’re just at the beginning. There’s so much potential, and it’s transforming the industry in ways that people don’t realise. Over the next 40 years, there’s so much good stuff to be done, and we are very focused, long-term, on digital distribution and the move away from the ‘ship and forget’ model.
Talking of which, how do you view the High Street retail space right now? Is it going to keep contracting as many people predict?
You know, I don’t know. Years ago I read a great article, and it discussed the inbuilt resistance from the bricks and mortar companies to suddenly allow digital to take over. For all the excitement and the idea that ‘It’s all about digital distribution,’ there’s a lot to be said about going into the store where you know where the store is,
and you know the guys behind the counter, and you trust their advice, and you get something in a box, and you get to go home with it and unwrap it. “Oh, I got my present, I got my treat.” There’s something so impersonal with a little download.
You think retail and digital can happily co-exist?
Absolutely. It’s not going anywhere right now. Consoles are still there, disks are still there, and all of the infrastructure is still needed, but we are under attack and under threat. I feel like a dinosaur, really.
You’ve been widely quoted as saying that games like Get On Da Mic and Beat Boy were examples of how not to do a rap game. Where did they go wrong?
I feel bad, I’ve tried not to give that quote, and it has come out from others too. I don’t want to be rude about Eidos and that game. They tried. They were kind of avant garde and ahead of their time, but [in those games] you were copying an avatar copying Snoop. And you started in this shitty bathroom with not very good camera angles, and you couldn’t necessarily relate to this avatar they’d given you.
Hip-hop culture is one of those areas that you really can’t fake. How does Rapstar appeal to the real hardcore hip-hop fans, while also being accessible to the more casual audience?
With great difficulty. I think the hardcore will always give us a really hard time, just for the mere fact that we’re trying to appeal to the mainstream. But I think to be fair to hip-hop’s enormous fanbase, I think it’s important to allow both to flourish.
I think the hardcore always keep us very aware of being true, and what their standards are, and hopefully the whole aesthetic, and the way that we’ve put this together and the attempts that we’ve made to give a true offering. For all the derision about ‘oh you should have had this song over this song’… I’d like to see them in a room and not have fun with this, and then compare it to what else is out there.
It’s important that we cater to the hardcore, but that we don’t let them stop us from giving something to the casual.
How did Def Jam take to having their game being made by an English guy?
I had to stand in a room with [Def Jam co-founder] Russ Simmons and he said: “So you’re the guy that made this game for us, right?” and I was like “Yeah.” He replied: “I don’t know about that.”
Def Jam has built up a brand over 30 years, and they are
hip-hop. They know hip-hop, right? And so, on the face of it, I come from England, what the fuck do I know? I’m
never going to be hip-hop, but as Kevin [Liles, ex-Def Jam president and 4mm partner] said, I like hip-hop, right? “You get it. You’re never going to be it, but you get it.” And he’s right. I do.
So all we can do at 4mm as fans of hip-hop is apply our gaming experience to just try and make sure that there’s a really authentic, proper game that we’ve made.
King co-founded Rockstar Games. We asked how his past experiences at Rockstar shaped 4mm as a company, and what inspired him to strike out on his own:
“There are a lot of things that didn’t turn out how I expected. I’d been at Rockstar for 11 years, and I think it was a natural time for me to move on. It was definitely a good time. They had the next generation technology up and running, and all the next big games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption were started, so it wasn’t a problem when I left.
“Now, I’m not a resume guy. I did not want to have to go to the West Coast, and go and interview at existing publishers and say ‘Can I have a job please?’. Especially after coming from Rockstar, right? I wanted to stay in New York, so I had to start my own company to have a job in games.
“And when Rockstar’s CTO Gary [Foreman] left, he came and found me and said ‘I quit, I’ve gotta do something!’
“And Nick Perrett, our CEO, he really cares about building a proper company that’s world class.
“Investment group Autumn Games backed us, and said they wanted to work with the best in the industry, and that was two years ago. I don’t know how they raised the money they did in the height of a financial meltdown. They were really ballsy, and they were really smart. They believed in Def Jam. They believed in Rapstar, and even when everyone around them was telling them no, and giving them a hard time, and everyone else was going broke, no-one was opening the cheque book, and wouldn’t do a big budget triple-A title, they haven’t flinched once.
“Fuck me, I’m just so grateful to them, I don’t know how they did it.”