Harmonix talks the return of Rock Band to the music games genre.
Once upon a time, it was common for gamers to invest in expensive plastic instruments for the sake of mimicking notes on-screen in an attempt to rock out in their living rooms with friends. It was foolish, it was crazy but it was fun and it signaled the mainstream success of the music games genre when titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band came into being. Over time, the core concept felt constrained, especially in Guitar Hero where it refused to evolve beyond slightly different versions with singular artists and re-skins. Though Harmonix’s Rock Band tried to breathe some freshness into the medium, it saw a quick downturn. Until just recently.
Now, Rock Band is returning but it’s not the same game it was before. Rock Band 4 will be releasing in a post-Rocksmith age and will look to present an experience that calls back to those glorious living room days of yore. GamingBolt spoke to Harmonix PR & communications lead Nick Chester to obtain more information on the upcoming sequel, including what fans can look forward to the most.
"Ubisoft has done a tremendous job with Rocksmith and it’s a really cool educational tool, for sure. In terms of how that influenced Rock Band 4, I wouldn’t say it has – our focus is on a really different type of experience than what Rocksmith offers."
Rashid K. Sayed: The music rhythm genre has seen several changes in the past few years but it’s definitely decreased in popularity since the first Rock Band. What motivated a return to this particular style of the genre which required musical instruments?
Nick Chester: I think the “death of the music game” has been greatly exaggerated. At its peak, the performance simulation games like Rock Band were a massive cultural phenomenon, and as such, saw tremendous success and an incredible boom. Surely, that’s died down a bit, but there’s always been a core audience that stuck around, and we actually continued to support them with new content for many years after the peak.
Between now and then, music games have seen a bit of a shift in a few different directions. Dance games became popular, and Harmonix actually had a tremendous success both critically and commercial with the Dance Central franchise. We continued to experiment with different takes on music experiences with games like Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved, A City Sleeps – which was a musical shoot ‘em up! – and we’re even looking to bring back classic, controller-based beat match this year with a rebooted Amplitude.
But even looking beyond what we’re doing, there are so many different kinds of music or musical experiences that have sprung up – games like Sound Shapes, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Fract OSC, and upcoming games like Sentris and Thumper. These are all so different in their approach, but they have music at their core, and that’s really exciting.
So to bring it back to Rock Band specifically, it’s just another way to experience and interactive with music, and it’s still a fun game that hundreds of thousands of people are still playing on last-gen consoles. And with that said, there’s nothing like it on current gen platforms and that’s a shame. So we see a huge and important opportunity there to not only bring that experience into a new generation, but to evolve it in some exciting ways.
Rashid K. Sayed: Rocksmith has been cited as an example of a game that provides musical instruction. How much did it influence the development process for Rock Band 4?
Nick Chester: With Rock Band 3, we introduced Pro Guitar, which was our take at moving the Rock Band experience in a more directly educational direction. And the team is really proud of the work it did in that area, including engineering a rather incredible peripheral that featured more than 100 buttons! In hindsight, however, it did fracture the experience for some.
Rock Band 3 was a huge project, just crammed with features, and not all of them complimentary to the core Rock Band experience as a fun, social game. Ubisoft has done a tremendous job with Rocksmith and it’s a really cool educational tool, for sure. In terms of how that influenced Rock Band 4, I wouldn’t say it has – our focus is on a really different type of experience than what Rocksmith offers.
" The power of the new consoles is allowing us to do some really amazing things in the visuals department, and that presentation is really going to take the experience to a whole new level. Just giving players the opportunity to be on stage and with a full band, in front of a crowd, is really amped up on new consoles."
Rashid K. Sayed: How will Rock Band 4 return to the series’ “core” while appealing to a brand new audience?
Nick Chester: We think it’s important to stay true to the roots of the franchise, to give our players what they want, which on the most basic level is “more Rock Band and on the consoles I’m playing!” That said we’re not content with simply repeating note-for-note what we’ve done in the past. We’re not really talking about the new evolutionary features of the game at the moment, but we’re really excited with what we’re cooking up, and think people are going to love it.
Additionally, there’s a whole generation of people who may have missed the boat the first time around… Rock Band at its core is still A LOT of fun to play, so we can’t wait to let people start rocking again.
Rashid K. Sayed: Rock Band 4 will be out on PS4 and Xbox One. How have the current generation of consoles helped facilitate the development of new features?
Nick Chester: The power of the new consoles is allowing us to do some really amazing things in the visuals department, and that presentation is really going to take the experience to a whole new level. Just giving players the opportunity to be on stage and with a full band, in front of a crowd, is really amped up on new consoles. Beyond that, there are also a ton of gameplay innovations made possible by the new hardware, and we’re taking advantage of the ubiquity of connected consoles to truly make sure Rock Band 4 is a platform we can build this generation.
Rashid K. Sayed: Was it difficult to translate the existing 2000 songs from the Xbox 360/PS3?
Nick Chester: On a scale of 1 to difficult, let’s just say… it’s not a small task. Not only do we have to convert songs to new platform/engine formats, but we then have to resubmit those tracks to first parties to appear in their stores. It’s a whole “thing,” we have an amazing team here with working both Sony and Microsoft to make sure it happens. There was no scenario where we wouldn’t be carrying over this content; it’s just too important for us to respect the purchase of our customers.
Rashid K. Sayed: Will there be a special package to allow for new Rock Band 4 players to access all the previously released songs?
Nick Chester: The music store is going to be packed with legacy content, in addition to an ongoing stream of new songs, so yeah, they’ll be able to purchase those songs if they wish. As far as something bigger than that, like a “mega song” package or something, we’re not going into those details right now, but it’s not our focus at the moment.
Rashid K. Sayed: There will be a new PS4/Xbox One specific controller for Rock Band. If there is backwards compatibility for older hardware, what will motivate the use for the new hardware?
Nick Chester: We know that a lot of people still have their old hardware and in some cases are still using it. Or they haven’t played in a while and it’s under the couch, in a closet, or what have you. But it works. And people spent money on it. So it’s super important for us to find ways to get that hardware working on new consoles. The new hardware is functionally identical – we didn’t add any new buttons or change stuff for the sake of change.
We already have 10 buttons on the guitar, an effects switch, a strum bar… there’s a lot to work with there, and so much we can explore, and innovate in the software. And we didn’t want to create a situation where we were forcing people to buy new hardware, because that doesn’t seem right to us – we can make a great game with new gameplay experiences using what people have and with what they are familiar with.
That said, the new hardware Mad Catz is making for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is top quality. While they look and function the same as the old hardware, there are a lot of structural and engineering improvements that we’ve made behind-the-scenes to make them better and more reliable than ever.
"We supported Rock Band with weekly content for years, which is insane when you think about it. No one else was doing that last-generation, at least on that scale. And because we always saw Rock Band as a platform, we were always adding value for the players, on their terms."
Rashid K. Sayed: Can you tell us some of the new songs we can expect with Rock Band 4?
Nick Chester: Sorry, we’re not talking about the soundtrack at the moment!
Rashid K. Sayed: What are your thoughts on Guitar Hero Live and Activision also returning to the musical instrument genre at the same time as Rock Band? It really does feel like more than just a coincidence.
Nick Chester: We’re just excited to see this genre making a comeback… it’s a great year for fans of music games, for sure.
Rashid K. Sayed: With all the controversy still surrounding DLC and video games with ten year cycles, how will Rock Band 4 deliver value to players with its own mix of paid/free features and song DLC?
Nick Chester: We supported Rock Band with weekly content for years, which is insane when you think about it. No one else was doing that last-generation, at least on that scale. And because we always saw Rock Band as a platform, we were always adding value for the players, on their terms. That meant giving them new music that they can opt into if they wanted to, and based on the sales and massive catalogues people have built over the years, the responses was great. So we’ll continue to do that in the next generation, in addition to building on the experience in other ways, like adding features to the core experience, and listening to our players to see how they want the game to evolve.
Rashid K. Sayed: Is there a specific reason why you are skipping last gen versions?
Nick Chester: By focusing on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, we’re confident we can build the best experience on current generation platforms without compromise. Because we’re viewing Rock Band 4 as a platform for years to come, it makes sense for us to focus on these new platforms. Additionally, it should be noted that Harmonix is an independent studio and we are co-publishing Rock Band 4 with Mad Catz. We’re not a mega corporation with unlimited resources, so it’s important for us to focus our development efforts.
Rashid K. Sayed: Is there anything else you want to tell us before we let you go?
Nick Chester: The response for Rock Band 4 has been tremendous so far… and we haven’t even shown everyone the game yet! We’re jazzed that we can confirm things like forward compatibility of our massive track list, but the real excitement starts when we start showing people how we’re evolving the game and letting people play. Stay tuned!