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Rock Band 2 Designer Wails At Play


Issue #174 of Play (on sale December 24 – get it for Christmas) features an awesome interview with Rock Band 2 lead designer Dan Teasdale, in which he tells us about how Rock Band 2 expands Harmonix’ vision to provide a new kind of music platform. But he talked to us about all kinds of other stuff that we didn’t have room for in the magazine, so here it is on the blog…

Play: How did Harmonix start out? Was it always a videogame developer?

DT: We started in the mid-Nineties. We were founded by Alex, our CEO, and Eran, our CTO. When they started they weren’t actually a games company, they were a music company, and a lot of the first things they did weren’t games, although we made a game called The Axe, which sold tens of copies, and was about using a joystick or a mouse to make music. It wasn’t really until Parappa The Rapper came out that it clicked that we could use games as a way for people to experience music. That was the catalyst for Amplitude, and all of the games we’ve made since then.

Play: And what exactly was the catalyst for your breakthrough title, Guitar Hero?

DT: RedOctane were making dance pads and stuff like that, and they wanted to make a guitar controller. They knew about Harmonix, and knew we made music games, and they came to us for inspiration. Everyone was sitting around discussing what we could do with a guitar game, and because almost all of us at that time were rock musicians we were like, well, we have to make a rock game.


Play: You presumably weren’t expecting it to be such a big success…

DT: I’m still amazed at how massive music gaming has become in the last three years, after we released Guitar Hero. It’s great, but it’s very easy to forget that three years ago the music gaming space was so small that it barely supported Harmonix. Now it supports Harmonix and many other games – it’s fantastic, we’re really happy.

Play: What do you think it was about Guitar Hero that made it so popular? On the face of it it’s not that different to other music games that had gone before.

DT: I think the thing that came across both in Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that it’s like a perfect union between hardware and software. It’s not about trying to jam a peripheral into a game; we’re trying to get across the experience, so all of our authoring wasn’t just trying to make colours match up – we were trying to mimic hand positions, and trying to get across the feel that you’re on stage. A lot of it is just selling that experience of being a rock star, which no one had really pulled off before.

Play: Now that Harmonix and RedOctane have gone their separate ways, you’re designing and manufacturing your own instruments. Has that been a steep learning curve?

DT: We’re definitely always improving. I think we learned a lot of from making the Rock Band 1 instruments. The Rock Band 2 instruments are more reliable. We have stuff like a sheet on the kick drum pedal now so it’s virtually indestructible, we have quieter drum pads, we have a sturdier strum bar on the guitars, so I think we’ve learned a lot by being the first band game out. I can tell already from the US release of Rock Band 2 that we now have the most reliable instruments on the market – we have no major issues with them, which is great.

Play: And have difficulties with instruments caused the delays in releasing the game in Europe and on the PS3? Or is that more to do with licensing songs?

DT: It’s a bit of both. We’re selling out in the US, so we’re scrambling to build more drums and guitars in China right now. Part of it’s that, but part of it’s also licensing and infrastructure. The Rock Band music platform is going to have 500 songs by the end of the year, and we want to make sure that everyone has access to that, so as well as setting up everything we need in the US for that, we also need to set up an infrastructure in Europe, an infrastructure in Asia/Pacific, and so a lot of our time is also spent making sure everyone gets the same DLC every week.


Play: No doubt that’s been another big challenge; setting Rock Band up as a platform, where all content will be compatible with every version of the game, rather than just a series of separate titles…

DT: It’s been a lot of tough work, and a lot of talking with people like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to get it all working, because it hasn’t really been done in games before, but everyone’s come together and we’ve managed to accomplish that for Rock Band 2.

Play: But you’re eventually going to catch up and have future iterations of Rock Band launch on all platforms in all major territories at the same time, right?

DT: That’s the goal… for Rock Band 2 on the PS3 there’s going to be a little bit of a delay after the 360 release, but even between Rock Band and Rock Band 2 we’ve been reducing the time down. We only just released the PS3 version of Rock Band 2 in America, and it’ll be very soon that we’ll be releasing the PS3 version in Europe with a shorter delay than there was for Rock Band 1.

Play: We’re sure it’ll be worth waiting for, especially seeing as it’s the first rhythm-action game to have signed up the legendary AC/DC at last. How did you manage that?

DT: We arranged a meeting, showed them the game, and from that point on it wasn’t a matter of if they would let us use their music, but when they would let us use their music. They released their new album, Black Ice, recently, and this seemed like a great time on their end to release the Live At Donington set [as the AC/DC Live Rock Band track pack], which is an amazing set. So I’m really happy that everything’s turned out  well and that we can not only include Let There Be Rock in Rock Band 2, but also have what is essentially the best of AC/DC available as well.


Play: Especially seeing as Guitar Hero doesn’t have AC/DC. But it does have an awesome, if very fiddly, Music Studio mode. Will you be looking to do something similar in Rock Band?

DT: I think if we were going to do something like the Music Studio, we’d want to make sure it fits what Rock Band is about, which is being incredibly authentic and having a platform of music.

Play: And the new Drum Trainer feature does fit that idea. Is it really so authentic that it can actually teach you to play drums for real?

DT: The cool thing about the drum trainer is it teaches you the basics of how to play beats and fills. The usual practice mode lets you play a song, which is great for learning how to play that particular song, but not necessarily great for developing the fundamentals of how to drum. It’s the kind of thing that does bridge that gap from plastic to real instruments. Stuff like that and some of the stuff third-party manufacturers are doing like the Ion Drum Rocker, which is a real drum kit that works with Rock Band. Those are the kind of things that, once you’ve cleared Expert, you can use to bring yourself into real drumming and learn how to become a real drummer.

Play: But it’s just for drums at the moment?

DT: It’s definitely something that drums is the obvious choice for – you’re hitting a surface and it’s the same movement – and with cymbal add-ons and the Ion drum kit you’re essentially making a real drum kit that’s interacting with the game.

Play: So Rock Band drummers are the real drummers of the future. But what about the future for Harmonix? Will you looking to branch out in some way?

DT: Whatever we make, we’re going to be making music games, but at the same time, we’re not tied to the Rock Band franchise. Even recently we’ve released different games like Phase on the iPod. We could have very released that as ‘Rock Band iPod’ but it doesn’t really fit what Rock Band is, so it’s called Phase, it’s a different IP and we’re really proud of that game. In the future there’s definitely room for the Rock Band franchise to grow, and there’s also other things that don’t necessarily fit Rock Band, that we can also work on. The Beatles game that we just announced is a great example. That is not a Rock Band title, but at the same time, because we’re a music company, we’re appropriately honoured that we can work with everyone over at Apple Corps, and we’re able to make a great game that fits their style, and isn’t just us trying to shoehorn them into Rock Band.

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