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Air Guitar Warrior Interview

Interview with Aki Kanerva from Virtual Air Guitar Company, Founder & Lead Designer for 'Air Guitar Warrior'

A staple I do in all interviews in order to start things off is to ask that you elaborate a bit about your game (s) that people might not know?

Aki: Air Guitar Warrior for Kinect is a mix of music game and scrolling shooter. The game puts a flaming guitar in your hands, and when you strum, it shoots bullets. You aim by tilting the guitar neck, and control different bullet types by changing your rhythm and pitch. You use these guitar weapons to blast hordes of enemies like flying skulls, aliens, ghost vikings and so on. You also get to ride awesome mounts like dinosaurs, tigers, unicorns and flying sharks with lasers.

Where did the idea come from of doing an epic air guitar based game?

Aki: It all started with the music. All the way back in 2006, Virtual Air Guitar Company’s first game was going to be Virtual Air Guitar that would put you on stage playing air guitar. This was before Kinect existed. The game was going to have two parts: playing along to existing rock hits, like Guitar Hero, and a “freestyle” mode that would let you control the music. There was a record company involved too.

Sadly, as these things go, the project was cancelled by the publisher, so we went on to develop Kung-Fu games. Air guitar was still something we wanted to get back to, but after fully embracing indieness by surviving three publishers going bankrupt under us, it just wasn’t possible to license bands like Led Zeppelin or Metallica.

The “freestyle” component wasn’t something that would have stood as a standalone game, so it was never explored further. But after ten games, we still wanted air guitars, and in 2016 the idea was born: what if we built a shooter game around it? The very first prototype had a guy on a dinosaur wielding a flaming guitar. The dinosaur was a photograph, the ground was a checkerboard and the sky was a red gradient. But it was awesome, and everyone we showed it to would laugh and say, “you have to make this game!” So we did.

Air Guitar Warrior for Kinect screenshot of Jason Stettner in viking lands

What were some of the key goals when working on Air Guitar Warrior?

Aki: We had one guideline: stack awesome on top of awesome until it goes over the top. Stylistically, we had two rich worlds to draw from: eighties metal and retro video games. But even though the tone is a little humorous, we didn’t set out to poke fun at anyone. We wanted to make the player feel like they were a rock star warrior saving the world.

You get to visit some crazy places and ride some insane creatures, what was the process behind the creation of these and where did some of the ideas come from? I really liked the flying shark!

Aki: Would you believe mushrooms? Seriously though, the source material was so amazing. Old album covers, music videos, classic games… no matter where we looked, there was awesome stuff there. We’d always ask, “how to make this more awesome?” There’s a dinosaur, how to make it more awesome? Make it a cyber dino! There’s a shark, how to make it more awesome? Add lasers! The player is in space, how to make it more awesome? Ride a flaming meteor! Surprisingly, we ended up using almost every wild idea we had. We only dropped a couple because they didn’t make the player feel more awesome or they were jokes that weren’t funny.

The motion tracking with Kinect was rather interesting in Air Guitar Warrior, what was the design process behind your intuitive ways to control the game?

Aki: The game’s controls were built around the music. We had a system that would let you use air guitar playing styles to control the lead guitar, like a multitrack recording where you’re switching different lead guitar layers on and off. The shooter controls – tilt to aim, strum to fire – were added to give motivation and purpose to the playing.

There are three key features in the game that all work together. You’ve got the shooter game, you have the ability to control music, and you see yourself on screen riding dinosaurs and motorbikes playing air guitar and causing untold destruction. It’s the combination of all these things that makes the game what it is.

Air Guitar Warrior for Kinect screenshot of Jason Stettner in album one

What was the process behind the intense music and how did you guys integrate it into the regular gameplay?

Aki: We had two amazing guitarists working with us, Mika Tyyskä (aka Mr. Fastfinger) and Samppa Siurala. They needed to create music that not only sounded cool, but also had five different lead guitar variations, so the player could switch between them. Each layer had additional requirements: play fast, play faster, play even faster… all the while sticking to driving, crunchy rhythms to help the player keep to the beat. We also had to keep the tempo within strict limits. Too fast would make it hard for the player to shred, and too slow would make the weapons fire too slowly to destroy enemies in time. All this would have been impossible if we’d used existing music.

And then we asked them to repeat the same thing 18 more times, in various styles ranging from classic rock to heavy metal. The results were amazing.

Mika was involved in the original Virtual Air Guitar game as well. The track you hear in the very first level is a new version of the very first freestyle prototype, way back from 2006!

There’s a big focus on having the actual player in Air Guitar Warrior and I’ve seen it in a couple of your past games. Is the effect easy to pull off with the Kinect and where did the idea to do fun cover poses come from? Having players see themselves in the game is great, do you feel that this aspect adds to the immersion?

Aki: There are a lot of games where you control an avatar, but not many where you’re inside the game world yourself. Seeing yourself on screen is what makes games like Air Guitar Warrior for Kinect and Kung-Fu for Kinect look unique. They also feel unique because they give you the freedom to do things outside of the limitations of a gamepad’s buttons, to make a show of it. When you’re sharing screenshots or videos of other games, they all look the same. But when the player is involved, “look at this game” becomes “look at me inside a game.”

So seeing yourself is absolutely central to the design in both Air Guitar Warrior and Kung-Fu. An avatar can’t do everything that you can do, and doesn’t let you wear your favorite band shirt while rocking out. Likewise, the album cover poses in Air Guitar Warrior and the comics in Kung-Fu wouldn’t be possible without using the player’s image. Kung-Fu is also the reason for the album cover poses. Instead of comics, we sought something that would fit better in the world of rock.

Air Guitar Warrior for Kinect screenshot of Jason Stettner viking ship regular guitar

As for the Kinect image, it’s fairly easy to get something on screen, but a lot of work goes into the details of making the player fit in the game. For example, each of the 50 levels has different color settings to make the player blend in better. We also split the player’s image in two and render a part of it behind the vehicle, so it looks like you’re straddling a motorbike for example.

There’s also quite a bit of work put into making the player’s outline as smooth as possible, because behind the scenes we’re aligning two camera images: the color image, and the depth image that tells how far each pixel is from the Kinect sensor. These images have different resolutions and aspect ratios, and since the Kinect has two cameras that are physically in different places, we also need to correct for perspective, tilt and depth differences. Real-time image processing like that can consume a lot of resources, so we need to balance it in order to leave some power for the game itself.

Lastly I would like to leave a spot for you to say something or go over anything I might have missed during the interview?

Aki: Rock will never die!

Virtual Air Guitar Company Site
Air Guitar Warrior Store Page
Air Guitar Warrior Review

Gamerheadquarters Reviewer Jason Stettner
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