Jack McCauley is a magician with silicon and computer code.
Give him a some plastic and a proximity sensor, and RedOctane's director of research and development can create a high-end light gun for the console version of "Silent Scope." Bring him a digital readout and wires, and he can make a realistic F1 steering wheel that would make Helio Castroneves envious.
Ask McCauley, 49, of Danville, to make a plastic guitar for a video game and you get one of the most important products to hit the music industry since the iPod.
The way "Guitar Hero" and its iconic controller have changed the landscape for rock fans and gamers, McCauley may as well be the next Les Paul. He's had that kind of success.
Millions of people have played his creations, and by January 2008, the franchise had made about $1 billion in sales in 26 months, according to the NPD Group, a provider of consumer and retail market research.
But this success didn't come overnight. In fact, McCauley's been at this for decades.
Back to the arcades
"I go back 30 years in this business doing stuff for the arcades. I go back to the Nolan Bushnell days," said McCauley, referring to the founder of Atari.
Technically, he began by writing a program for the Navy in 1979. He earned a degree in computer science and electrical engineering at UC Berkeley in 1986 and spent most of the 1980s working on device drivers and arcade machines.
An expert in the field of haptics, McCauley describes his work as getting information from the player's body into the computer. It's the science of interface, of controllers and of getting players' commands into the game.
When the arcade business began to fade, McCauley left that part of the industry and began his own research and development business called r0r3 in 1989. He worked on creating peripherals for consoles. McCauley has had roles in creating everything from the scroll wheel on a mouse to the force feedback wheel and light guns. In all, he said, he holds about 15 to 20 patents.
Eventually, he began making controllers and light guns for the GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2. Full of circuit boards, wires and computer chips, his Danville office is a playground for techies.
"He's a really clever guy," says Kelly Sumner, the former CEO of RedOctane and Take-Two. "I've been in the computer software arena for nearly 30 years. Rarely do you come across a guy who will tell you if you can do it, tell you if he can't do it and tells you if you're doing it the right way."
It was this talent that led to a decisive moment when McCauley began to work on "Guitar Hero."
"They wanted me to fix their gamepad for a 'Dance Dance Revolution' game," he said. "That's when Kelly introduced me to 'Guitar Hero.'"
He had heard of the game previously at the Electronic Entertainment Expo and thought nothing of it when he saw prototypes of the guitar at the RedOctane offices. He still had reservations when he decided to help out on the project.
After seeing his products such as his "Silent Scope" light gun fail, McCauley said he didn't have much optimism when it came to peripherals, even after the game was released and was in stores.
"I was jaded," he said. "I went to Fry's and I was negative." But when McCauley arrived at the store, he was surprised to see a line to play the game. Still not believing it, he left and came back later and found players still there forming a queue.
"That was when I knew 'Guitar Hero' was going to be a hit," he said. Although he didn't do much with the initial guitar, he was the man behind the first wireless "Guitar Hero" controller for the Xbox 360 and each succeeding instrument. His job was to design the internals and figure out how to manufacture them, balancing cost and quality.
Now, McCauley is working on a new generation of instruments for the upcoming "Guitar Hero World Tour," which ships on Oct. 26. The revamped version of the music-rhythm game features vocals and a drum kit, a setup similar to that of industry rival "Rock Band."
Drumming up interest
The idea of a full band wasn't lost on McCauley when he was working on the "Guitar Hero" guitars. In fact, RedOctane could have beat Harmonix to the punch with a drum kit.
"He put the Drum Hero thing together on his own," Sumner said. "He pushed that even though Activision didn't want to push a drum product.
Sumner says the company showed no interest in the drum product even though it had a plan. "We sold RedOctane 2½ years ago. He had it before then. We had the concept. We had the technology to use. We would have had the drum game within six months or so of the sale."
Now, Activision, the company that bought the franchise and RedOctane, is one-upping "Rock Band" with a feature-rich set of instruments and a mode that lets players create their own music.
"We'll see a large amount of gamers into hip-hop making hip-hop songs in 'Guitar Hero,'" said Sam Fugate, the GameStop store manager in downtown Berkeley. He said that the opportunity to compose music may even open up the franchise to other genres of music.
"We'll see some country and maybe even reggae songs," he said.
As for instruments, the "Guitar Hero World Tour" drum kit will be the centerpiece of the game. The peripheral has drum pads, cymbals and a kick pedal, but it's what's beneath the hood that's impressive.
What — opera?
The drum set sports a synthesizer that can support future instruments.
"We can actually transmit 'Flight of the Valkyries' into the console," said McCauley. "Wagner — I can play that through this here. That's how much horsepower we have in it.
"That allows us to have the entire future of 'Guitar Hero.' If we want to add features to the guitar, different control features. We can easily do that."
It's that kind of ingenuity that has been instrumental in "Guitar Hero's" success.
And now his work turning player movements into reactions on the screen may even be more pivotal as a wider audience searches for a way to play but still wants the ease of simple and familiar controls such as McCauley's guitar controller or Nintendo's Wii remote.
"I don't think it would be as good as it is today on the peripheral side if Jack hadn't been there," Sumner said. The game's original developer Harmonix was also vital to the game's success.
The two parted ways after RedOctane was sold to Activision and Harmonix was picked up by MTV.
"In my mind, we got the two best things," Sumner said. "We got a software developer named Harmonix and we had a peripheral developer named Jack. It was the dream team."
It was a fact not lost on gamers. That special combination made "Guitar Hero" a hit.
"The instrument made the game," Fugate said. "It was the instrument and the music that did it."