Perfect Porridge

Peavey’s JamParty game will redefine your relationship with the plastic guitar

I had the opportunity to demo the new JamParty game last week, in part thanks to my friend, professional musician Chris Heille who is working on the project.

Part game, part creative sandbox, Peavey’s new JamParty is poised to redefine your relationship with plastic guitars forever. Really.

In a gaming and entertainment climate where the Guitar Hero and Rock Band genre has peaked, social network sharing games — like Farmville — are skyrocketing, mp3 sharing is a given, local bands and bedroom rockers have mastered Garage Band, and remixing as a art-form is totally hot, software developers are experimenting with some interesting concepts. This is one of them.

Developed by Zivix, a local Minneapolis software shop, JamParty represents a new approach to the music experience; specifically by changing how one experiences music by combining (remixing, if you will) two previous trends — Guitar Hero games and composition software.

The plastic hero games permeated the market to the point that no family gathering or drunken after-party was complete without breaking them out. In fact, they were so popular, they jumped the shark and the market has burned out. Well, mostly.

Where is your Guitar Hero guitar right now? I bet you money it’s not propped up next to your flatscreen fresh off a 3 a.m. jam session last night trying to beat Slash in the Big House Blues Boss Battle on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (and the fact you actually know what I’m talking about proves my earlier point).

But with plastic guitar hero games, you weren’t actually playing music, were you? You were playing Space Invaders. You were pushing green, red, yellow, blue and sometimes orange (my pinky never cooperated) in sequential order while plinking a plastic bar.

Plastic hero games required good hand eye coordination but really very little musical skill. Heck, even karaoke requires musical talent (to an extent). But in playing these hero games, you felt like you were a rockstar, and there’s nothing wrong with a little suspension of disbelief. It is a game after all.

So let’s go to the other extreme: composing music. Technology has broken down the barriers to recording and mixing your own music on the professional side. Thanks to DIY software and broadband, musicians can collaborate on tracks and don’t even need to be on the same continent. Once a track is complete and ready for the public, musicians can flood an mp3 upon the web and fans can buy/share/remix a file with a single click and sneeze — the time it takes a song to download.

So let’s combine these, shall we? If you remember back to the Super Nintendo (SNES) days, you may have played with Mario Paint – a rudimentary music program that allowed anyone to editing a handful of 16-bit songs or create their own from scratch. Pretty good for 1992.

For example:

Although a bit cheesy, people spent a lot of time making songs this way (literally thousands of these on YouTube right now). Important note: you can’t win Mario Paint. People invested time in it because exercising creativity to make music using predefined sounds was just plain fun. And 20 years ago, there was no mechanism to share it. You could save your song, but the only way to share was for a friend to come over to your house to see it.

So back to JamParty. In my opinion, JamParty combines the rockstar appeal of wielding a plastic guitar that’s spewing music one million times better than you could ever create yourself with the opportunity to design a personalized, limitless, creative experience that you can share.

Rocking JamParty with a Peavey stack for audio. SWEET!

The game itself seems complicated at first blush, but it is actually quite simple. First, you drag out your plastic USB guitar and plug it into your computer. That was a first for me. I didn’t even know you could do that.

Then you select a song from a number of genres, established artists and unknowns. The player is presented with five banks of pre-recorded tracks featuring standard music categories: drums, bass, guitar, vocals and synths. Each bank has five loops the player can choose from to create a new song. You can switch back and forth between banks and tracks within banks.

That’s really it. At this point, you’re playing.

See it in action below. Download a demo here.

I think that was the hardest part for me to wrap my head around. There’s no winning here. This is a solo creative experience more than a competitive game. Sure, you earn points as you play. And actually, the more intense and creative you get in your mix (e.g., start slow with drums and a simple bass line, build up bass tracks atop each other, rock three vocal loops at the same time, nail a guitar solo AND THEN pull everything back for a quiet little bridge), the more the graphics react and the points add up. But the points you’re earning are merely a function to have you play around with each selection of songs in the tier you’re playing before it opens the next tier. You don’t really win.

And considering you’re holding a plastic hero guitar built for a game where you have to push the red and green button and plink a little plastic bar at the right time or an audience will boo you to the point you have to start a song over, this disconnect requires a bit of a mental reset to let go of that feeling.

But I do think there’s something here. In studio mode, you can build your own tracks and share them via mp3 through social networks. Basically, you can make your own Girl Talk.

Building on this concept, I’d love to see some of the niche labels and collectives jump on this, like Saddle Creek or Young God Records. Or can you imagine Phish offering their back catalog up for remixing? Certainly Radiohead would apply.

Or how about live DJ sets building this into a set? After all, they’re doing everything on laptops anyway… why not show what’s going on behind the curtain? Or what about Wayne Coyne throwing a plastic guitar into a crowd and let a fan play along? Kind of fun to get creative, eh?

After my demo at the Zivix headquarters, I had the opportunity to ask Chris Heille some questions about the game, the music and what’s next for the company (hint: Wii!!).

Chris Heille rocks JamParty

PERFECT PORRIDGE: Guitar Hero is basically dead. How does JamParty fit into the post-plastic guitar gaming culture?

CHRIS HEILLE: I’m not the gaming industry expert, my forte is the music side of things, but the general consensus re: the existing music gaming titles (discontinued and otherwise) is that they kind of stale’d themselves out of the market. The games themselves really didn’t evolve with new features – they just strapped different music to the same game experience. The RockBand franchise is doing a better job of introducing new features (the RockBand network is a fantastic idea, the verdict on the pseudo “real” instruments is a good sign) – but the rumors are that RockBand Beatles didn’t do as well as they hoped. (Personally, I love RockBand Beatles. I hope they continue to support the title because it’s really an amazing muscially historical experience.)

If you think about it, the Hero/Band game concepts work really well on providing gamers the psychological experience of “flow,” the challenge/reward curve is spot-on. But at the core it’s basically modified Space Invaders meets Simon Says…

JamParty takes that whole Hero/Band thing and turns it upside down. Instead of game players following a pre-determined “follow the leader” model, JamParty opens the door to the music and invites you to explore – you play it however you want to. It’s like musical Legos, you see what the kit CAN build if you follow the instructions on the box – but you can take the same pieces and do something completely different. I think that’s the coolest feature – it surprises the player and the artists writing/submitting for the game… When I see players with little previous musical experience take the components I assembled for the game to a musical destination I never imagined… It’s pretty fantastic. Creativity can now be an exchange between artists and audience, not just on display.

You’re a musician yourself. What was your role in developing the game?

As far as game development, I’m pretty late to the party and generally confined to music creation and selection. Two years ago, give or take a couple of months, Zivix held an open house looking for musicians to discuss the game and music submissions. I didn’t give it much credence at the time until I saw the game.

The version of JamParty they were touting back then was roughly the same interface and general concept that ends up in the version you see now. The plastic guitar controller options, the 25-loop bankset, the non-avatar venue ackgrounds… but Zivix was pretty open about being early in development at that time. It wasn’t amazing, but I’ve got a long history in working with sequencers and live performances, the potential for what Zivix was attempting to achieve with JamParty really piqued my interest. The open ended format where loops have to work together in any combination was intriguing as a creative challenge. The downside to that challenge: both Zivix, other music producers, and I were shooting at a moving target for a couple of months following that open house – an open ended format requires a high degree of experimentation to define what parameters work and what doesn’t. It took a couple of months for all of us to figure out what makes JamParty tick.

Because I saw JamParty as something more akin to an indie band release and a musical platform to itself, I was very interested in how Zivix was going to promote JamParty. Zivix (at that time) had more relationships that aligned their marketing to video game models. I started chirping about some people that I thought might help bring more exposure to the music side of the marketing, one thing led to another, and I’ve been in the offices of Zivix since October.

We’ve got three people in what gets called “Team Music”: J-Rod Hadaway, Chelsea Wrathchild, and myself. Without diving into the dirty details, we each have specialties but there’s a lot of overlap too – it just depends on the workload at the time. There’s always new being written by any one of us, we also head up more of the music-oriented PR initiation. Some of the gameplay elements came from the music team as well. Our biggest challenge continues to be creating or refining music that enables a better gameplay experience.

One of the interesting challenges on my plate is the pursuit of more artists, more music for our upcoming console releases and DLC. We’ve had an initiative going since November for licensing music from artists with a higher level of exposure. We’ve been banging on the doors of labels and publishers (kind of top-down), but the process has been moving slowly. We’re changing our tactics a little in recent weeks (more of a grassroots approach), we’re landing some connections directly to the artists directly and we’re being well received.

Who are the target audiences for the game?

I’m not certain what the “official” demographic target our game marketing claims to be, but I do know that JamParty translates fastest with music lovers… So if you add music lover plus video gamer the numbers probably skew from early teenagers thru to people in their early twenties, but we’ve found JamParty has a really wide appeal. Even someone who coniders themselves “not that into music” will find JamParty entertaining. You don’t need to be a musician… You don’t need to be recovering from puberty either, some people just love to experience the sensation of playing music.

We’ve been getting feedback from musicians that JamParty is a great practice tool. It doesn’t surprise me, there’s so many genres represented and so many combinations you could practice against… Once again, it’s proof that JamParty is more than a game and more than musical Space Invaders.

You’ve signed bands from across the country – with more on the way. Who are some of them – where are they from – what do they sound like?

Citizen Icon submitted this great Iggy-Pop-meets-Bush-meets-early-Editors track, “I Know,” they’re from Atlanta. Radagun from Florida submitted a very good pop tune, “Check Me Out” which has a great hook. We’ve got a Halloween, Alaska remix of “Champagne Downtown” titled “Downtown.” Among the local Twin Cities heavy hitters, we have great Hip-Hop from Heiruspecs featuring Dessa in the game, Allison Scott has a retro-flavored A/C tune in the game, beat boxer Heatbox… There’s a cool alt-rock tune from local guys The Set, Intercept from California has a quasi-new-wave-rock tune in game. Producer Lance Conrad from Humans Win studio has some lush production work in the game.

You’re currently open to signing more bands for the game. What kind of music makes for the best Jam Party mix?

That’s a trick question… My approach to screening submissions has always been hooks – if a song has memorable hooks (either melodically or in the arrangement somewhere) it’s usually a good candidate for the game. (We’ve worked with some submissions where the hook made the song and we tweaked to build the rest of the content to support the hook for the artist.) After the hook, we look for engaging sounds. If there’s mushy subtle textures it’s probably not going to play very well, or if there’s too many similar sounds it probably won’t provide the game player with the sensation that they’re “creating” when they switch between loops. Additionally, because you’re usually working in 8 bar segments, each 8 bars should be compelling enough to hold curiosity when repeated multiple times.

How does a band apply to have its songs considered?

Send us an email at: jamparty-a-r@zivix.net. Include a link to where your online media player (if we want an mp3 we’ll ask), a link to an EPK or something similar, that will get the process going.

Where can people get the game?

Best solution, go to JamParty. We’ve got other retail options if you want, but they’re expanding faster than I can add ‘em.

Grab a demo here.

The demo comes with two venues & four songs, no studio mode but you can purchase jams and venues from our DLC catalog within the demo. This allows users who are undecided about purchasing the retail version (either online or at a brick-&-mortar location) an open structure for them to choose later. The demo allows for expansion via DLC within the game. Our DLC catalog includes venues as well as jams, so it’s possible someone can incrementally build their version of JamParty ala carte with the free demo. We won’t dictate at what level JamParty works for you, we trust that people will figure that out on their own.

I heard there’s a Wii version in the works. True?

Wii version is titled JustJam, available soon thru the Wii Market online. The experience is a little different due to the Wii Market’s smaller data footprint requirements, but the JustJam experience has it’s own cool qualities. Early on in the process we were concerned that the Wii version wouldn’t translate well compared to the PC version, but it turned out to be a more immediate experience. The Wii-mote and nunchuck has an instant-on fun factor. The only way I can describe it is like moving from a laptop to a mobile device, you find the features you thought you were losing are replaced with cool motion gestures. We retooled some existing titles from the PC, but we also added new jams to take advantage of the Wii’s play factor. (JustJam has 16 jams, 4 or 5 venues, and our Wii guys believe it’s the most advantageous Wii Market titles they’ve ever seen – we get a lot of mileage out of that tiny file.)

You guys will be at SXSW in a next week. Where can folks check you out?

Two locations on March 17th – The Red7 611 E 7th St, from 1 pm to 6 pm: We’re co-op’ing an event with The Artery Foundation, we’ll have two big stations on display for demo. Then that evening, we’ve got a couple of local acts at The Blind Pig, 317 East 6th Street from 8pm and there will be some stations for demo. Outside of 3/17, I can be contacted to set up some appointments for 3/16 – 3/18 at jamparty-a-r@zivix.net.

What’s next for the Jam Party brand?

XBOX 360 and PS3 are slated for release in May or June; that’s huge. We’re working on a mobile idea right now that’s really close, iOS and Android. Our guitar partnership with Peavey, The HeroMaker – a real electric guitar that also does video game control – that should hit this summer and it’s really amazing. I’m a Mac guy, and we’re starting to talk about a Mac version, that’s exciting.

JamParty is out now for PCs. More information.

  • http://twitter.com/DrewChowen Christopher Heille

    If anyone wants to talk about JamParty while at SXSW, we’ll have some feet on the ground to talk, answer questions, hang out… just drop me a note at: jamparty-a-r@zivix.net and we’ll set up a connection!