Written by Joshua Hyles Tuesday, 16 February 2010 13:18
Is there anything more vital than being up on your industry? Whether you're an ambitious up-and-coming writer or a mildly curious video game fan, what producers, developers and publishers have to say and pass on is the most raw, immediate, fascinating information circulating in gaming. We offer you a new, more personal way to get to know the top dogs of video games.
On this edition of Know Your Industry, we get the chance to have a chat with Roger Kurtz, one of the Producers for the upcoming Lips: Party Classics and the already released Lips: Number One Hits. He describes his pursuit of getting into gaming by taking it slow, favorite experiences working with Lips, top tracks in his Lips playlist, and what to expect from the newest game in the Lips series.
Lips Producer Roger Kurtz
Loading Reality: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to answer some questions for us, Mr. Kurtz. As a fan of the Lips series, it is my privilege to interview you today. A lot of our readers are interested in getting into the gaming industry. What would you say were a few of the best decisions you made to help you get to where you are?
Roger Kurtz: I came to the games industry in a fairly roundabout way. During the process, there were a few things I did (or didn't do) that were helpful. Since my path to where I am now was fairly nonstandard, "YMMV" definitely applies to anyone wanting to take this as advice.
- I was patient. I knew it would take a while, so I took a long-term view and just kept working at it...I treated getting a job in gaming a bit like a hobby :)
- I used what I knew. Doing things that interested me along the way, I kept a steady income and got my skillset and background in good shape to finally make the jump out of the industry I was in (advertising) and into games production.
- I played games with a critical eye, but didn't stop being a fan. I love to overintellectualize pop culture with my friends, and in the professional realm it became pretty valuable to precisely articulate at a moment's notice what, for example, I liked so much about Oblivion or something. Much of being a good producer is about balancing realism and passion, and knowing which sentiment to advocate at any given time. Being observant while playing really helps one develop a gut instinct on feature ROI, etc.
Loading Reality: Before getting into the gaming scene, did you ever dream of a job like this, or is "producer" a little different from the path you wanted to take?
Roger Kurtz: I figured I'd end up getting into the industry in more of a business capacity, if at all, given my background. That said, most of my other jobs before this one involved me acting as a bridge between the business side and software development side of a given product...i.e. telling devs why it was important for the business to build the product in a certain way, and going to the biz guys to talk about how we could maximize our profit through a specific technical implementation. In the end, I really enjoy building things in a collaborative, creative environment, and a producer role is very much about that. In that regard, I can't imagine a better job than producer given who I am and my background.
Loading Reality: Now, a little bird told me you have a neat past work history. Can you let us know a bit about what you worked on before the Lips series?
Roger Kurtz: Back in college, I was a huge movie buff and planned to go to film school. So I've worked in Hollywood a bit on both the production house and on-set side. One summer I worked as an Assistant Director on this soft-core porn movie for Concorde New Horizons, working 16 hour days doing stuff like shaking the bed during a sex scene, making sure the shower water wasn't too cold, playing hacky sack with the talent between takes, etc.
Once I graduated from college, I realized that I hadn't given much thought to how I'd pay for film school. My girlfriend at the time had gotten into the best program in the world for what she wanted to do (Cal, for Urban Planning), so I figured I'd get a job, be with her, and then apply to director's programs later. So I get a job at an internet startup (only job available to me as an English major, I even got turned down at Target for Chrissakes) and two years pass. I learn about ecommerce back in the days when Amazon only sold books and nobody else really sold anything online. As I'm waiting to hear back from film schools, I come in to work one day and am informed that the company has been acquired by Microsoft. So I interview up here, get offered a job, and decide to take it, since a (secure) bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Sitting at my new desk at Microsoft, I got the acceptance letter to USC :)
So I put in a lot of time at MSN, working in various capacities on MSN's e-commerce portal. I learned a lot and worked with many wonderful people, but suffice to say that merchandising bouquets and managing enormous XML files didn't have me leaping out of bed in the morning.
After that, I spent 3 years working with Xbox LIVE doing technical planning around starting and growing the in-and-around-game advertising business. Yes, I am one of the filthy bastards who put ads in the 360 Dashboard :) Regardless of the public and gamer opinion on the business, I'm incredibly thankful to have done the job, and I'm exceedingly proud of what we accomplished. All of us who started this business are gamers, and we busted our asses to do things in the right way...make the ads relevant, go beyond that relevance to actually give concrete value (like free gamerpics, content, etc), and never intrude on the gamer's experience if we could help it. I'm happy with how our programs and scenarios turned out. It's very fulfilling to do something that has never been done before.
After the New Xbox Experience came out, I had a mini-epiphany, kind of a Lloyd Dobler moment...I had spent my entire career building stuff that was built in order to sell other people's stuff. My career was going ok, and if I went much longer, I'd be locked into working on advertising my whole career. I love advertising, but I wanted to take a shot at building the things that other people sell for a change:).
Thanks to my job working on Xbox advertising, I met a ton of people and parlayed my experience into a producer role here on Lips. I love it. It's intense, immensely gratifying work. I get to make art for a living! So hot.
Loading Reality: When you're away from the office, what games do you play on your own time?
Roger Kurtz: I have a 2 year old at home, so the console-based gaming has tailed off recently. That said, I play a fair bit of portable stuff on DS and PSP. I find myself getting more and more into genre-mashups and "new experiences", stuff like Patapon, Scribblenauts, etc. I also love tactical turn-based titles like Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, and the reigning champ of this genre, the Disgaea series. On the console, Crackdown is still my favorite 360 game. I loved that and am excited to play Crackdown 2 when it comes out. Fallout is fantastic as well, I think the Pip-Boy targeting system sound effect is permanently burned into my brain.
Loading Reality: Can you recall what your first experience with video games was?
Roger Kurtz: I remember playing Moon Patrol a ton in the arcade in the basement of the MGM in Reno (where I grew up). I loved arcades as a kid...Kangaroo, Moon Patrol, Xevious, Food Fight, Elevator Action, those were my jams.
Loading Reality: We know you are currently producing Lips: Party Classics. What is your favorite part of working with a game like Lips?
Roger Kurtz: I have a bunch of favorite moments associated with the Lips production process. I love music, I love karaoke, so in many ways Lips is a perfect project for me. Don't get me wrong, I love setting zombies on fire as much as any other red-blooded gamer, but as a guy with a family it's nice to work on a game that grandmothers, adults, and teens can play together. I'll rattle off a few of my favorite parts in no particular order...
- Getting an awesome song that I love cleared through licensing. I pumped my fist when I saw the approval for LMFAO - "La La La" come through recently. I've been pimping LMFAO for about a year now, it'll be great to have them in-game.
- Finding the perfect piece of album art to go with a song. Totally small thing, but many of my early memories of music are linked with holding the album jacket in my hand while the record played... it's really important to us design-wise to honor the source material. Our content is what people come for, and we want the gameplay experience to add to rather than distract from the source material. When you play the song in game, we want you to feel the way you feel when you're singing along in your car, when you're jamming out listening to your headphones, when you come out of the store and can't wait to rip the cellophane off the CD. That joy of discovery and participation is so vital to what music is for people.
- Nailing the lyrics. I'm an English/grammar/pop culture geek as well as a huge hip-hop fan (by and large my favorite genre of music), so I love getting the lyrics just right, especially on a difficult or fast song like "Hip Hop Hooray", which you will probably be seeing in a Marketplace near you pretty soon...
- Tuning gameplay. The iNiS chart team and our MGS test team do an awesome job of balancing gameplay, making sure the duet chart really shines, and polishing the experience as a whole. It's a pleasure to sit with our testers (as they're both awesome singers), hear them kill a song, then watch them make it even better with some careful consideration and collaboration.
Loading Reality: Since you're around Lips music so much, you must get tired of some songs. What tracks get on your nerves and which ones never get old?
Roger Kurtz: For the most part, working on Lips has really enhanced my enjoyment of music. I used to be (and still probably am) a bit of a hater when it came to pop music, but pop is our bread and butter, and Lips has given me a deeper appreciation for pop as a genre. Our music supervision team does a fantastic job picking great songs (not as easy as you might think given the complexities of licensing and our commitment to entertaining a worldwide audience), and it's an honor to help bring them to fruition as a game product.
Some of my all-time favorite songs from the Lips Universe, with on-disc songs listed first...sorry for the length, I have a lot of favorites!
- Lupe Fiasco (ft. Matthew Santos) - "Superstar" (V1)- As I mention above I'm a huge hip-hop fan, and this song provides some fantastic gameplay...great mix of rhyming flow and singing, the hook is killer.
- Lady Gaga - "Just Dance" (Number One Hits) - One of the best pop songs of the past decade. An absolutely monster tune.
- Foreigner - "I Want To Know What Love Is" (Party Classics) - Perfect embodiment of the Lips Party Classics spirit. Healthy dose of cheese (check out the haircuts in the video!), but it feels so good to sing. I walked by my manager's office one day and found our business manager standing on his desk, screaming this song at the top of his lungs.
- UB40 - "Red Red Wine" (Party Classics) - This song had a complicated production process that yielded a fantastic result. We discovered that the original video didn't have the toasting verse in it (the "red red wine you make me feel so fine / you keep me rockin' all of the time" breakdown in the middle), and how can you release this song without the toasting verse? So with the help of our licensors, we created an extended edit of the video in order to incorporate the toasting verse (something the SingStar version of this song does *not* have, I must point out :) ), and we think it turned out great. I also love to see lyrics in the Jamaican patois since I dig reggae and dancehall music.
- Erasure - "A Little Respect" (???) - Possibly the best video ever made. I'm not a huge Erasure fan but the hilariously awesome video gets me every time. All these Youtube auteurs creating "literal videos" were beaten to the punch years ago by the dudes from Erasure, who made a literal video for their own song.
- Vanessa Carlton - "A Thousand Miles" (DLC) - Our best-selling DLC song, which is a complete mystery to us. That said, it's really fun to sing, very catchy, and has a fantastic chorus.
- Kanye West feat. Chris Martin - Homecoming (DLC) - Yes, Chris Martin singing a song about Chicago is...suspect. But I was in the midst of crunching for Lips Number One Hits last summer, not sleeping much, feeling overwhelmed, and I did the lyrics for this song on the bus on the way in to work one morning... made me remember why I enjoy the job, I literally ran off the bus to get to work :)
- Bing Crosby - "White Christmas" (DLC) - A timeless classic, Bing's voice is like hot cocoa on a cold winter day, so perfect.
- Concrete Blonde - "Joey" (DLC) - Who knew that a song about a terminal alcoholic would be so fun to sing?
- Sir Mix-A-Lot - "Baby Got Back" (DLC) - Gotta represent Seattle! Plus this is my wife's karaoke magnum opus, she always kills it with this track.
- Heart - "Alone" (DLC) - well out of my range, but hearing a good singer nail this one is a near-spiritual experience.
I do have a few personal "least favorites", but since *every* song we have is fantastic, of course, my least faves are often tied to production issues that have caused the team a lot of pain during the production process. No need to air the dirty laundry in this interview, though...
Loading Reality: Is there a story behind how the game came to be called "Lips"? Were there other potential names that were scrapped?
Roger Kurtz: It was decided to call the game Lips before I began working on the project, so I have to claim ignorance on this one :)
Loading Reality: How do you go about choosing the songs you put on the disc instead of on the digital store?
Roger Kurtz: We like to put our most widely appealing songs on discs, keeping in mind that our audience is global in nature. Some songs which are very popular in the US aren't as popular in Europe, so those are better suited for DLC. Our music supervision team does a fantastic job in mixing gut feeling and personal preference of our key stakeholders with data to slot songs the way they do.
Loading Reality: I know the following questions may not be answerable, but here goes nothing! Will the Lips series go beyond its current features and onto something like Lips 2?
Roger Kurtz: I think you're right, I'll likely be tased if I comment on any future plans for the Lips franchise...
Loading Reality: Are there any new features in Lips: Party Classics?
Roger Kurtz: We've added a couple new elements that we really like and that we think will increase the appeal of Lips.
1) USB mic support - while the best singing and playing experience will still come from the Xbox 360 Wireless Microphones, we wanted to broaden the appeal and addressable audience of the game as much as possible. So if you've got a USB mic from Rock Band, Guitar Hero, etc, you can plug it in and play!
2) New avatar awards and achievements - Really excited about the avatar awards that we've got lined up for Party Classics. They're tough to earn (tied to performance levels in specific songs), but they're well-worth it and really embody the spirit of Party Classics! And of course everyone loves achievements.
Loading Reality: Last, but not least, have any songs you'd like to announce for Lips: Party Classics?
Roger Kurtz: How does the whole Party Classics song list sound?
Infectious Pop Songs to Get Movin’ To
“Doctor Jones” by Aqua
“Let’s Get It Started” by Black Eyed Peas
“Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge
“Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite
“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
“I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred
“Y.M.C.A.” by Village People
Anthems for Hopeless Romantics
“You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt
“I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner
“She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5
“To Be With You” by Mr. Big
“Addicted To Love” by Robert Palmer
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison
“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer
“When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge
“Is This Love” by Whitesnake
You May Know the Words to These (But Do You Really???)
“Love Shack” by The B-52’s
“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba
“I Touch Myself” by Divinyls
“Live is Life” by Opus
“Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M
“Wannabe” by The Spice Girls
“Red Red Wine” by UB40
“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS
Songs to Shamelessly Sing in the Shower… or Living Room
“What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes
“Word Up” by Cameo
“Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure
“Laid” by James
“Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles
“True Faith” by New Order
“I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany
“Rehab” by Amy Winehouse<
Classics Jams for the Singing Hall of Fame
“It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones
“American Pie” by Don McLean
“My Sharona” by The Knack
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lyrnyrd Skynyrd
“Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders
“Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers
“These Boots Are Made For Walking” by Nancy Sinatra
“Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield
Know Your Industry is a special series of exclusive interviews conducted by Loading Reality designed to highlight all corners of the games industry. Look for the next installment soon.