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Interview: Jason Enos Details All Three Upcoming DDR Titles

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The stage is set for 2006’s Dance Dance Revolution titles, with the recent arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA scheduled to hit the Playstation 2 tomorrow.

Following on its footsteps later this year, Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 will be released for the Xbox and DDR will make its jump into the next-generation with the Xbox 360 release of Dance Dance Revolution Universe.

The series is fast approaching 10 years of success in the United States after it was first unleashed into our arcades in 1999. Since then it has appeared in the U.S. on more than 10 home versions on systems ranging from the Playstation One to the Xbox.

While the releases have ranged from all Konami-original content to U.S.-exclusive licenses and even Disney-themed, all have embraced the unique and addictive game play that has etched its place in both Japanese and U.S. culture.

In anticipation of the upcoming U.S. releases, we recently had the chance to talk to Jason Enos of Konami in regard to Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA, Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 and Dance Dance Revolution Universe.

Aaron Auzins: First off, thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to us today.

Jason Enos: Sure thing.

Aaron: To start things off, could you please tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your role with the upcoming Dance Dance Revolution titles?

Jason: Well, I have been with Konami for over seven years now and I am a senior product manager, which basically means I am responsible for managing the day-to-day issues with the products I handle, including the promotion/marketing strategy, packaging/ad development, daily communication with the development teams, etc. My involvement with the DDR series dates back to as early as 1999 when I first joined Konami and subsequently, DDR first released in the U.S. arcades.

Since then, I have been involved with building the DDR brand in North America and working with the development teams on the various DDR games available on console. As the game’s popularity continued to rise year over year, we spent a lot more time on planning for the upcoming games.

Aaron: Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA is set to release at the end of the month with Ultramix 4 and Universe still to be shipped by the year’s end — how long have these games been in development and what are the typical steps the team goes through when developing a Dance Dance Revolution title?

Jason: From a very top-line perspective, the biggest element to any DDR game is the music. There is a long process involved with acquiring the music content for each game.

For example, a lot of the music first requires securing the licensing rights to use the song in the game. Assuming the content is good to go, we also have to edit the song to fit the typical length for the game (roughly 90-115 seconds on average). Once the song is in the proper length, the dance step patterns have to be created for each difficulty level in the game. If you figure the typical DDR game has about 70 songs, we are already talking about 500+ individually tailored step patterns that have to be made.

As you can see, we have not even addressed the development time needed to make the actual game or incorporate new modes/features, etc. While DDR games are, on the surface, more simplistic than RPGs or action games, the amount of development time needed is on par to other games.

Aaron: All three upcoming titles seem to have a key focus on beginner players as well as really challenging long-time players. What prompted this approach?

Jason: DDR has really grown from “cult” to “cultural” status since its early hey days in the arcade. We certainly realize that our fan base is extremely loyal and we have a lot of people who spent a long time practicing the game to become expert players. We always want to make sure that the game is balanced enough to appeal to players of all skill levels.

At the same time, we also realize that there are a lot of people who see other people play DDR and get easily intimidated to try the game. We want to give those people an opportunity to play this game and gradually move through the learning curve. These are the main reasons we put more focus on new and existing players.

Aaron: Everybody loves music, but the types of music people enjoy are as diverse and unique as the people themselves. When selecting music for a mix of Dance Dance Revolution, what considerations does the team take in order to ensure such a wide, varying selection of music that players of all tastes are able to enjoy?

Jason: You bring up a good point — even if you emphasize diversity in the song list, you can never satisfy everyone. However, music variety is one of the most important objectives when making the song list.

We try to incorporate as many genres as possible and a good sampling of different artists. In some ways, we built each song list independently for SuperNOVA, Ultramix 4 and Universe, but at the same time, we also looked at the song lists on a macro level too. The players who purchase all three games will really see the full picture on the music variety.

Aaron: Looking specifically at Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA for the Sony Playstation 2, the feature many players have questions about is the new “Stellar Master Mode.” The mode seems to resemble the Dance Master mode from Extreme 2 but now with a planetary theme and the addition of statistics labeled “charisma” and “VIP cards.” Would you be able to explain this brand new mode a little more?

Jason: Stellar Master Mode is a broader extension of last year’s Dance Master Mode. There was definitely positive reception to Dance Master Mode, but some of the feedback was that the skill level required completing the mode left it only to the expert players. Stellar Master Mode is partly designed to address that concern by now letting players of various skill levels a chance to complete the mode.

With Stellar Master Mode, players work their way through the many Stellar Joints and collect VIP Cards along the way (with the goal of collecting all of them). At each Stellar Joint, the player completes a set number of Trials and then tries to win the Showdown to get a VIP Card. The Stellar Joints you can go to will change depending on the VIP Cards you have. Trials can be completed by fulfilling a set of conditions and these conditions can be affected by the difficulty setting and game play options.

Upon completing enough Trials, you can try the Showdown, comprised of a number of Drills, to successfully win a VIP Card. There are three types of VIP Cards in each Stellar Joint, depending on the difficulty level played. Drills you have tried once can be played again in Training, which allows you time to practice in order to complete the Showdown. And similar to Dance Master Mode, you want to eventually complete each Stellar Joint.

Aaron: Right now Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA is slated to feature online play. Will the online play in this edition be a little more flexible than in Extreme 2 and will features such as the battle mode and edit steps carry over into the online mode?

Jason: Some of the new online elements will be a chatting feature and the ability to play special exclusive songs online. Hopefully users will have an easier time logging online with the game as well.

Aaron: What type of Eye Toy features can players expect from Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA?

Jason: We’ve carried over the key functionality from the previous games.

Aaron: Pertaining to Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 for the Microsoft Xbox, what enhancements have been made to the Quest and Party Modes?

Jason: Quest is very different in Ultramix 4. In Ultramix 3, you embarked cross-country and visited various cities. In Ultramix 4, you stay in one city and do your best to work on your success in that city.

Quest mode is also used in Ultramix 4 as a way to unlock more content in the game. As for Party Mode, there have been some new modes added, such as Relay and Power. Power is cool because it presents several songs combined into a continuous dj mix, so the whole track is several minutes long.

We originally had planned to keep Relay and Power unique to the Universe game, but then we decided it would be cool for Ultramix 4 to have them too. In a way, Ultramix 4 benefited from Universe.

Aaron: The official Web page for Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 states there are going to be new modes in the game. Could you explain what new modes are going to be featured in Ultramix4?

Jason: Other than what I just mentioned, another new element will be the ability to edit your own background video sequences. Using Edit Mode, you can now create and save your own visual edits in addition to step edits. You can construct these new sequences in a similar editing tool like the dance steps, but now you can specify which clips, when to do transitions, the type of transition, etc.

It may not be a mode everyone will use, but it is pretty cool and allows you to further customize the gaming experience.

Aaron: It’s good to see already-purchased song packs over Xbox Live will transfer once again to the next edition. How soon will we be seeing new song packs, will they remain the same price and what types of music can we look forward to downloading for the new Ultramix?

Jason: We are anticipating having new song packs for Ultramix 4 available on/around the launch of the game. Existing song packs will still be made available and if you already purchased those in the past, they will automatically show up in the game. The song packs will still keep the same pricing structure as before.

Aaron: It seems the mix we know the least about is the upcoming next-gen title Dance Dance Revolution Universe. How did this project originate and what does the Microsoft Xbox 360 give to Dance Dance Revolution that the other home consoles cannot?

Jason: As the next-gen consoles start to pull more of the current-gen gaming audience over to bigger and better things, we wanted to naturally follow suit with DDR. We were able to get a jump-start on making a next-gen DDR game because Xbox 360 released prior to the other next-gen consoles.

Our experience on the regular Xbox and with Xbox Live also helped since the team could walk into developing for the Xbox 360 with a strong knowledge base from the beginning. The Xbox 360 game looks really snazzy on the screen, especially with the HD video output. The game also translates well into a 16:9 shape, especially for four-player online play since the screen is not so cramped compared to the 4:3 view.

Aaron: Since the Xbox 360 relies heavily on wireless connectivity, what can we expect of the dance mats to be included with Dance Dance Revolution Universe? Will they be wireless as well? How much can players expect to pay for an extra dance mat for the Xbox 360? Also, with the jump to the Xbox 360’s hardware, what video and audio specs will Universe run at?

Jason: Unfortunately, all third-party peripherals for Xbox 360 must be wired controllers. This is one of the guidelines from Microsoft that everyone must follow. That being said, wireless technology is more expensive and so the wired route does help keep the costs down for the fans.

I am not sure how much extra dance mats will cost, but I think some other dance mats will probably come out that work with the Xbox 360. As for the audio and video specs, the game is presented in Dolby Digital and you can play the game in HD 720p resolution.

Aaron: Is there anything more you can tell us about the “Power Courses” and Relay Mode in Dance Dance Revolution Universe? How will the downloadable song packs pan out over the Xbox 360’s Live Marketplace — are new, downloadable “Power Courses” a possibility for the future?

Jason: We briefly covered Relay and Power already, but we are planning downloadable music for Xbox 360. Right now we are looking at offering individual songs rather than song packs.

With Xbox 360’s Live Marketplace, we can now support micro-transactions which allow us the flexibility to offer songs on an individual basis. We wanted to originally do this with the Ultramix series, but the minimum transaction price had to be $5 for premium content, so we felt the fairest thing for the consumer was to give you five songs for $5.

Aaron: Finally, what is the future of Dance Dance Revolution beyond 2006? With the full cycle into next-generation systems leading us into 2007, is there any consideration to produce titles for the Sony Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii or even future arcade releases? And with the rapid advancement in portable technology, has there been consideration to produce any sort of Bemani titles for the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP?

Jason: Well in short, I think the future looks very bright. Although we are currently focused on the existing games scheduled to launch in 2006, we definitely want to see DDR continue to grow and evolve in the future.

We are excited to learn more about the other next-gen consoles and determine how all of our games, not just DDR, could be enriched or expanded into new directions/possibilities. I think the portable systems also offer another outlet to do new things.

Aaron: Once again, thank you very much for your time and for answering our questions. I wish the best of luck to you and the DDR teams and thanks for providing U.S. gamers with such a unique franchise.

Jason: Thank you and all the fans as well. It’s great for us to be involved in this franchise too!

Stay connected to Blogcritics for future DDR information including a review of Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA, available for the Playstation 2 tomorrow, as well as news on Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix 4 and Dance Dance Revolution Universe as it is made available.

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