Who really conceived Guitar Hero Live?

A former Activision developer says the game was his concept and he ought to be credited.

Guitar Hero Live's credits spool for around 20 minutes. More than 1,300 individuals are named as having contributed to the FreeStyle game in some way, not including those luminaries who wrote the songs included in the rock star fantasy.

One name not featured is Daniel Dilallo. He has never worked for FreeStyle. He's never contracted for them. He's had no official dealing with any Guitar Hero game since around 2011. Nevertheless, he's annoyed that his name isn't in the credits. He says that Guitar Hero Live is, at its core, his idea.

Dilallo was an employee at Activision-owned Vicarious Visions between 2006 and 2011. During his time there he was tasked with creating new design ideas and game concepts. Vicarious was working on developing the Guitar Hero franchise, along with other Activision subsidiaries like Neversoft. He was heavily involved in seeking ways to revitalize a troubled brand.

"Just a credit ... that's all I ever wanted."

With the popularity of Guitar Hero games waning, Dilallo decided to flip the game from its standard third-person view of a musician playing, to a first-person view of a live rock concert, as seen by the lead guitarist / vocalist. His demo — which he called "Guitar Hero Live" — included a video live audience that would respond in different ways to the player's vocal cues.

Along with a revamped guitar, these are the innovations that mark Guitar Hero Live as separate from its predecessors. Guitar Hero Live, which launched in October last year, was the first non-mobile game in the rock music fantasy series, since 2010.

Dilallo says the first-person live-crowd treatment he developed for Guitar Hero is one of the best ideas he's ever had, the culmination of work going back to his time as a game design student.

He accepts that, as an Activision employee, he was paid to come up with ideas and that those ideas belong to Activision. He understands that he is not owed any money. But he'd still like an official nod that the game's central concept was his creation.

"Just throw a credit in," he says. "Just a credit, to get the recognition that I helped come up with that idea. That's all I ever wanted."

Daniel Dilallo's early prototype for a first-person Guitar Hero game.

The Crowd Reacts

Dilallo keeps a personal video he shot in his office at Vicarious on a Saturday night in February 2011 (see below). It's a recording of his work on a Guitar Hero prototype, which he says he spent a lot of time developing in his spare time. "I'm pushing for a first-person perspective, on stage experience," he remarks in the video. (An extended version of the video shows him wandering the corridors of VV and then demoing the prototype to colleagues.)

Dilallo says he used to create a lot of videos for his work in progress, almost like a scrapbook or developer blog.

Credits Due

According to the International Game Developers Association, people who work on games ought to be credited, even if they depart the project prior to completion.

"If an individual made a contribution to the creative process, then that individual should be given their due credit," says IGDA executive director Kate Edwards. "The length of time of that contribution is mostly irrelevant. Some individuals may bring specialized skills for a strategic period of time, others contribute for the entire lifecycle of the development process.

"Both deserve credit for their contributions. Departure from a game project before its final completion, for whatever reason, doesn't and shouldn't negate the reality of someone's contribution to the creative process, thus they should receive their appropriate credit."

The IGDA has formulated a Game Credit Guide for its members and other developers.

The six-minute video begins with him showing his rough prototype, made in Unreal. After some technical discussion, he demos the game at work, paying particular attention to the "on-stage immersion for the player, like he's never had before." It's basically a first-person view of a performer on a stage in a large and noisy concert arena.

He turns the camera on himself. "Watch this," he says. He speaks into a mic that is connected to the demo. "How's everybody doing tonight?" The crowd roars its approval. "The crowd reacts based on the amplitude coming through the microphone," he says, with some pride.

Somewhat bizarrely, he explains the basic technical concepts of the game to the digital crowd. They clap. They are reacting to the noise of his voice, not the detail. He turns to the camera again. "This gives you a little idea of what I do on my Saturdays," he says. "I'd rather be out drinking, partying, hanging out with my girlfriend, but I'm trying to make shit happen."

Jason Willey is currently a musical composer at Riot Games. He shared that office with Dilallo when they both worked on Guitar Hero.

"I was there for the whole process and I recorded little audio clips," recalls Willey, who confirms Dilallo's story about his Guitar Hero demo. "He needed some audio for the game and stuff like sound effects. I was working on the core game that we were assigned to work on, and he was kind of doing more demo and experimentation type stuff.

"A lot of it was on his own time. He was always doing all kinds of different projects. A super passionate dude. He even had criticism that, like, he was too passionate, being able to control that. He's totally into what he's doing and believes in it 100 percent. He goes crazy for it."

Adam Block owns an audio production company called Craft Media Group. He worked at Vicarious while Dilallo was there, as an audio lead and sound designer.

"Everybody who was working on this prototype was really excited about the things we were able to do," he says. "I remember having different people come in to Dan's office. The smiles on their faces were like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.' It was just us pushing the boundaries of what we could do back then."

But was the final game based on Dilallo's prototype, or not? Either Activision kept Dilallo's idea in a deep freeze until it began work on Guitar Hero Live, sending it over to FreeStyle when development started on the new game. Or someone at FreeStyle independently came up with the same idea.

On numerous occasions, Polygon contacted Activision and FreeStyle for clarification and comment on this story. We have not received a reply.

What we do know is that Activision and Dilallo were in contact in the time between his departure from Vicarious and the announcement of Guitar Hero Live. And we know that Vicarious execs recognized the value of Dilallo's work, even as they laid him off.

Then We Were Out Of There

Dilallo began his career as a tester at Acclaim. When that company went down in 2002, leaving him jobless, he determined to gain a solid, all-round education in game design. He joined a program at Full Sail University where he won the Advanced Achievement. While at college, he was especially interested in the then deeply-unfashionable area of full motion video.

"Ever since the Sega CD, I always wanted to expand the idea of film in games as a feature," he says. "When I was in school I started working with my own AVI [Audio Video Interleave] engines. I thought that if you built an engine that supported film like you support an animation then you could literally make seamless interactive films that weren't just 'press this button and go on to that'."

Money Talk

Dilallo says he has no intention of seeking compensation through legal channels. As a former employee, he knows his work belongs to Activision.

David Hoppe is a lawyer who specializes in the video game industry. "Almost without a doubt [Daniel] had to sign a very broad employee IP assignment agreement when he started at Activision." he explains, confirming that employees have no financial claim on the work they produce.

"I don't want to get into a lawsuit or anything like that," says Dilallo. "Money has never been my driving force. It's about credit and recognition for my work."

His former colleagues agree that Dilallo can expect no financial recompense. "When you work for a company like Vicarious Visions or whatever," says Block, "they make it very clear to you, from day one, that any ideas, inventions, technology, anything that you create while you're under contract with them, they own. They owned the idea the second [Dan] conceived it under contract. That being said, Dan certainly pioneered a lot of the things that are surfacing years later. They were great ideas then and they're great ideas now."

"Technically, when you work for a company and you're doing creative work, anything you make related to that field, they own it," says Willey. "Any idea that you come up with, it's theirs. That's what they pay you to do."

When he graduated, he was picked up by Activision, and began work at Vicarious Visions, based in Albany. His first project was as a mission designer on Spider-Man 3, which came out in 2007. He then began working with the large audio team working on various Guitar Hero games.

"I enjoyed working with the audio team," he recalls. "The audio director really liked my work ethic. When it comes to work, I'm very immersed in it. I don't have a lot of outside activities. It's seven days a week, 10-16 hour days. I really wanted to make a name for myself."

After two years, he was promoted to an innovations lab-style task force that was told to play around with various franchises and come up with new ideas. That's when he created the first-person, audience arena Guitar Hero demo. They called it Project Phoenix.

"It was a small team with the top guys," he says. "We had a window before pre-production to come up with new game features. It was one of the coolest jobs. It was ideal for someone like me. There's no strings attached. Just come up with whatever you can that would be a cool feature we could leverage in the new Guitar Hero.

"Most of the team was working on new ergonomics for the controller. But while they were working on the controller, the ergonomics, that aspect of becoming a musician, I wanted to make the player feel like a musician. That was my goal."

That's when he came up with the first-person perspective and advanced audience feedback. "I started the user off in a long hallway. You'd hear the crowd pounding. There's cameras flashing. He feels like he's going to something big. It was very realistic, a very different approach to what the rest of the team was designing for the next Guitar Hero, which was more fantasy. I added a whole level of realism. I developed a HD live filmed crowd that was animation-based film."

Vicarious' bosses came by to see Dilallo's demo. "I showed the prototype on Friday. The execs and the CEO were blown away with it. Everybody was like, ‘What the hell is this? This is really cool.' I remember one of the women in the audio department started crying. She said, ‘This is it!' It was pretty undeniable, when you saw it, that there was something there."

The following Monday morning, Dilallo says a senior exec swung by his office. "He comes into my room and says, 'can I get that build? I need that build on my machine.'" Dilallo made a copy and sent it over.

A few hours later, a meeting was announced to talk about the future of Guitar Hero. "They said, we have a big announcement, everybody come to the lunchroom at this time," recalls Dilallo. "I thought it was about the prototype I'd just done. I'm sitting there in the back all happy. I was like, damn, they're going to show this to everybody.

"Then they said, Guitar Hero got shut down. I was in shock. You don't understand, I have a new feature that could bring it back. But I didn't even get to talk about it or anything like that. Ten minutes later I had to go back to my office, pack up my stuff with the rest of the team and then we were out of there."

We Could Work On It Again

When Dilallo got home he was still convinced that Activision had made some sort of an error. The company acknowledged that it had released far too many Guitar Hero games and rhythm spin-offs, and that it had not focused enough energy into changing the basic experience of the series. He believed that his idea could revitalize the genre.

Although he was now unemployed, he decided to spend time continuing to work on his prototype. For him, it had become a personal mission.

"I knew that the prototype belonged to Activision," he explains. "But I had developed the animation-based filming in college. Then, when I joined Activision, I used those ideas in the innovations lab. When I left Activision I was still developing those techniques and expanding on them."

Daniel Dilallo

He figured that Activision would come to its senses and rehire him. "I was working with the mentality that I was going to re-pitch it to Activision as soon as I polished the prototype up and really had a full-fledged design. Not just one little feature. Really show them how it would work with the first-person perspective and the animation-based filming. I spent about a year really polishing it up for Activision."

Very few people, once they are rejected by a company, are willing to still believe in that company's objectives. But Dilallo seems to have harbored no grudge. If anything, his project became something of a personal crusade.

"We just lost so many talented people. There could be a small chance to bring these guys back into VV and we could work on it again and develop a new version of Guitar Hero that the consumer would want.

"The users themselves could have the ability to experience what it's like on stage, to grow from it and learn, like public speaking. The more you're on the stage performing in front of live crowds, the more you might take that step. I saw advancements for that situation."

Dilallo's mock-up presentation cover image from 2011

It Makes The User Feel Famous

A year later, Dilallo contacted Activision's senior director of business relations, Bob Loya, to pitch the idea. By now, he believed the company might be more attracted to the game as a potential new IP.

He and Loya spoke on the phone for a while. Dilallo sent Loya an email talking about a "new music game that makes the user feel famous." He had tested it with kids, he wrote, and they loved it.

Games and Movies

Credits in video games are an amorphous subject. It's useful to compare standard practices in games and in the movie business.

"In Hollywood, the credit rights are negotiated right up front," says David Hoppe, a lawyer who specializes in the video game industry. "It's done right down to the details of the font size, or how many other people appear on the same screen as their credit." Much of the Hollywood model has been dictated by the power of unions and their long-standing relationships with studios, something that does not exist in gaming.

"That isn't something that, in my experience, has reached the game industry, at least not yet," says Hoppe. "I haven't seen any agreement with a game developer that actually addressed credit rights. Credits, historically, in the game business, have not been a big deal."

In the movie business, writers (for example) who contribute to a production but are replaced or move on before the end often have a negotiated right to be credited for their work. It's almost inconceivable that a person who devised a movie concept would fail to be mentioned in that movie's credits, without some form of legal retribution.

Loya wrote back a week later. "Thanks for reaching out. Per our phone conversation, we are not able to take unsolicited pitches so I have to pass on your proposals. As you know, our portfolio strategy is focused on our existing IP and licenses and we generally do not look for original IP from outside sources."

This was in the middle of 2012. But Activision had not given up on Guitar Hero. In a 2011 interview with Forbes, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said that the franchise would return. "We're going to go back to the studios and we're going to use new studios and reinvent Guitar Hero," said Kotick, adding "that's what we're doing with it now."

Meanwhile, FreeStyle was secretly working on a Guitar Hero reboot. The developer had previously worked on the DJ Hero series as well as Sing Party for Wii U, which was released in 2012.

According to FreeStyle's creative director Jamie Jackson, the developer started work on a new Guitar Hero game straight away. Speaking to Eurogamer last year, he said: "We got tasked with finding [innovation]. It was a small team to start off with while we were putting the other game to bed. We basically set some rules. First, don't you f***ing dare use the old logo. I've got nothing against it, but we need to start from scratch. No flames, no barbed wire, no old logo. All we did was we said let's use the word Guitar Hero and see what we can do."

In the interview, Jackson went on to stress the redesigned guitar as the main platform for innovation. "We want to be brought out of our world and be put somewhere else, whether that's racing driver, army soldier or rock god," he said. "I think, as developers we're always trying our best to deliver on that."

guitar hero live hero
FreeStyle's Guitar Hero Live

A Waste Of A Lot Of Time

But Dilallo knew nothing of all this. He believed that Guitar Hero was dead, and only his work could bring it back. His zeal caused him to make a bad mistake. In late 2014, he took his work onto Kickstarter. He showed off the basic demo and tried to raise $25,000.

He claims that he was looking to raise money to create an even better demo to pitch to Activision. "I was trying to bring the IP back, or at least get some funding to take this prototype further so it could possibly be brought back," he says. "That was the goal. I wanted to create a more polished prototype to really show it off. Basically film a live crowd again, get on stage again, and polish up that animation-based filming."

He called his Kickstarter project 'The Hero' and used a logo that was a clear copy of the Guitar Hero logo. Activision swiftly contacted Kickstarter and the project was pulled after just four days.

But the Kickstarter clued him into the fact that Guitar Hero was making a comeback. He says he spoke to an old colleague inside Activision. "My friend said, 'I saw your Kickstarter campaign. They're making Guitar Hero. It's exactly like your prototype'."

By now, FreeStyle was way ahead of Dilallo. The British company had already filmed live crowds, and was getting ready to announce its game, which was one year away from release. Guitar Hero Live was finally announced in April 2015.

"I realized it had been a waste of a lot of time on my part," he says. "But actually, I was happy. I sparked a lot of those main features that are going to be in this next Guitar Hero. I felt like I did my prototyping well in order to get those features in the next Guitar Hero."

The Recognition That I Deserve

But Dilallo still would like for some official recognition of the work that he did, for the contribution he believes he made to Guitar Hero Live. It's not often, he points out, that a game design idea sits idle for half a decade, and then is used for the first time.

He has no doubts that his prototype formed the basis for Guitar Hero Live. "Anybody could drop a different camera and go first-person," he says. "It's not like, 'Whoa, first-person, they took my idea on that.'

"But I was the first one to show off Guitar Hero in first-person. And the animation-based filming crowd, that was not on anybody's radar at Activision, that filming technique.

"I had this whole pitch behind this technique and why it lends itself well to crowds specifically, for concerts and for Guitar Hero. That's why I feel like a lot of it was sparked by my initial prototypes. They used the idea and the design behind the idea, the techniques behind the idea."

He's currently working on a VR project. His LinkedIn page mentions that his work appeared in Guitar Hero Live, and he's still hopeful for some official recognition from Activision.

"Give me a shout out, because I was working on this for years," he says. "Let me have some of the recognition that I deserve." Babykayak