'Rock Band 4' Gets the Band Back Together

"Everything we're doing is crazy."

Harmonix Music Systems

Awhile back we speculated on the rise and fall of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, the insanely popular music and rhythm video games that reigned supreme in the mid-to-late 2000s before fading out of the spotlight. But the music never dies, and both franchises are coming back this October with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4.

Harmonix Music Systems, the studio responsible for unleashing Guitar Hero and kickstarting the phenomenon, spoke to Inverse about their high-riding past and the uncertain, yet confident, future of Rock Band 4 and beyond.

Inverse: What kind of company do you at Harmonix see yourselves as? I vaguely recall a segment on G4tv years ago, and you described yourselves as “a music company first.” Is that still true?

Nick Chester, Harmonix PR and Communications: We’re certainly a studio that probably has a higher concentration of musicians than most software or game companies, that’s for sure. We’re not a studio that generally makes music, but we do make interactive software that empowers people to do so.

I: What was the initial ethos of Harmonix? Does that philosophy remain true today?

NC: The vision for the company hasn’t actually changed much since the doors were opened more than 20 years ago. The mission was always to use technology in interesting ways that would help people connect with music on a deeper level than simply listening. That’s true for the studio, whether that’s making them feel like a musician or move their bodies to music, or, in the case of Harmonix Music VR, experience music in news ways. That’s fairly broad, which has let the studio explore some incredible innovations over the years.

When you actually look at the first piece of software Harmonix created, The Axe, and what we’re doing today with Rock Band 4’s Freestyle Guitar Solos, you can absolutely see the connection. The Axe was a piece of PC software that let people use a keyboard, mouse, or game controller to basically “jam” along with music, creating their own melodies using an intuitive interface that doesn’t require the user to have any musical knowledge. With Freestyle Guitar Solos, we’re using this familiar controller, the Rock Band guitar, and opening up possibilities to create these insane and unique guitar solos.

I: When the first Guitar Hero was in development, how difficult was it to obtain the music rights? Did it get easier in later years through Rock Band?

NC: When Guitar Hero was being developed, it was this great unknown, so there was some skepticism. Obviously, as the genre grew, far more opportunities opened up than the studio ever could have dreamed. Licensing and obtaining music certainly isn’t an easy task these days, but there are certainly more folks open to it.

I: Guitar Hero, then eventually Rock Band, became the music games in the late-‘00s. What were those years like? How did it feel to be in direct competition with your previous creation?

NC: I wasn’t around during those years, but what I can tell you from working with a lot of the folks who work on those original games is that they were truly focused on creating whatever was next and not so much looking back.

The full band design was a dream from the start, years before it happened, so it seemed like a natural evolution. So the studio was absolutely head-down in that design and bringing it to life and not really paying too much attention to what was happening on the other side. All of that said, the folks who worked on those early games put an incredible amount of work and their hearts and souls into them, so when people paint this “us versus them” picture with the two franchises, it’s certainly weird. We don’t see it that way at all, actually, even to this day.

I: Rock Band took a hiatus in 2010, and the music gaming wave in general sort of rolled back. In its place were motion-controlled dance games like Dance Central. Did those games live up to your expectations?

NC: Oh certainly! I’d say it exceeded them. I mean, there was no real market for this full-body motion control gaming at the time when the studio started the design. For the studio, the technology was an opportunity to fill the dream of this dance game it had been wanting to make. But yeah, absolutely, both critically and sales-wise, the games did very well for the studio, and we’re really proud of them.

I: Do you feel as though they spoke to a different audience than Rock Band did?

NC: Yes and no. The shift in genre musically meant that it appealed to a different audience. I mean, I listen to Slayer as often as I listen to Nicki Minaj, but that’s not typical. But on another level, people have a connection to music that is universal, so I think there was some audience overlap.

I: Music games hinge on an accessible pick-up-and-play nature. What goes into fully forming that crucial aspect of music gaming?

NC: For everything we do, we spend a ton of time playtesting and making sure that the game is easy to understand and accessible to a broad audience. If we weren’t actually concerned with that, I think we’d be failing our mission to bring music experiences to a broad audience and folks who can’t play music. You definitely want depth and you want challenge in the games, but you don’t want to turn folks away. We never want anyone feeling bad about themselves when they’re playing our games.

I: On New Year’s 2014, Rock Band 3 experienced the highest volume of online players. What about this surprised you, if at all? Do you have any possible theories as to why people were rocking out that night? Did this influence the decision to move on to Rock Band 4?

N: Was it a full moon? I think I’m fairly confident in saying that Rock Band is probably one of the best social and party games ever made. It’s not surprising that on a night where people were getting together with their friends and families, potentially drinking some champagne… or lots of it, that they decided to bust out the guitars, drums, and mic to let loose. The joy of playing music with other people is really special, and it’s something that Rock Band nails. In that sense, it’s certainly something that influenced us to make Rock Band 4 – that experience is special, and we think it deserves to be on new-gen consoles that people are playing.

I: In the five years since Rock Band 3, was there anything you learned at Harmonix — whether it’s within the game’s programming, or the psychology of how people play, or just anything you believe is interesting — that will be implemented in Rock Band 4?

NC: I can’t get into too much detail on this, but I’ll just say again that playtesting is super important to us. Seeing how people interact with the game and one another while they’re playing these games absolutely has an influence on the design and directions we take.

Take for example the way many people generally play Rock Band with their friends — it’s a group of people, hyper focused on what’s happening on their note highway, staring at the television in an effort to hit all of the notes. While there’s collaboration there, it sometimes becomes this situation where four people are playing their own game, they just happen to be on the same screen playing the same song. A goal for Rock Band 4 early on was to break down those barriers that people had, get people to start communicating while playing or in between songs, and really open up the room. With the Freestyle Guitar Solos and Freestyle Vocals we’ve gotten people to loosen up a bit; with the Shows features, we have people having conversations between songs and interacting more.

I: You’ve discussed long term plans for Rock Band 4. What is the biggest challenge in bringing back the series?

NC: I don’t know where to start on this one! [laughs] Rock Band is a hard franchise to work on. Everything we’re doing with Rock Band 4 is actually incredibly difficult, to be honest, and we’re charting some unknown territory.

The instrument compatibility thing was huge, and it’s like moving mountains. It’s not easy — it hasn’t been done on these platforms yet — but it was really important to us and to our players that we supported this. The catalog compatibility stuff is another huge effort on the team’s part. Re-authoring more than 1500 pieces of content and then re-submitting it to new platforms so people can re-download them or new users can purchase them is crazy. We’re crazy. Everything we’re doing is crazy. But it’s so worth it.