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Rock Band 3

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Genre: Rhythm
Developer: Harmonix
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2010 (US), Holiday 2010 (EU)

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'Rock Band 3' (ALL) Developer Interview with John Drake

by Adam Pavlacka on Sept. 1, 2010 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Featuring an 83-song set list and access to far more music than ever before, as well as innovative new gameplay modes and instruments, Rock Band 3 will change the way fans think about and play music games.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm John Drake, and I'm the manager of communications at Harmonix.

WP: What are you here to communicate today about Rock Band 3?

JD: We're here to tell you that Rock Band 3 is the greatest game ever made in the music gaming genre and that everyone else should just get out of the way and let us kick everyone's butt at retail. It's going to be a great holiday for music games. We think it's a very exciting game. More features than ever, great new music, backward compatibility support for both instruments and downloadable content so you can bring all the stuff with you from Rock Band 2 that you loved. Otherwise, we're the leading innovator in the category, and we're here to have some fun.

WP: Let's talk about the new instruments. One of the questions that video game developers have always faced: How realistic do you get? If you take a game like Call of Duty, if it's super-realistic, it's not going to be fun because you'll be dying all the time. There are a ton of new buttons on the new pro guitar. Are you worried about overwhelming the casual player with 102 buttons?

JD: I'm not, personally. Are you worried about it? I'm not sure that the casual player will want to try it. Well, they might try it, but I'm not sure they're going to want to buy that on day one. Everyone loves music, and there's something in this game for everybody. Rock Band Pro might not be for the casual gamer or the casual music fan, but there may be people in that group that really want to try an instrument and work through our tutorial system and play on Easy. All those buttons are really scary when you're looking at them head-on, but when you're playing with them, it does sort of start to melt away, though, and you start feeling like you're just playing a guitar. We actually do have a real guitar that's coming out a little later, the Squier Stratocaster. From there, you're basically going to be able to say that Easy bass is just like Easy bass in Rock Band. It's just a different way of looking at data and information. Over time, I think people will get really into it, and we'll have some crazy kids on Score Hero who master the solo on "Crazy Train" on day one on the button guitar, but I think most people will be happy playing power chords on "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and feel like they're really playing a real instrument.

WP: The tutorial mode that you have always had for the drums has always been a really strong component of the game. What kind of approach are you taking with the tutorial mode to try to explain how a real guitar is played with the pro guitar?

JD: The tutorials in Rock Band 3 are really interesting. The approach has been sort of completely overhauled. The idea is that a lot of people, like they have done with Rock Band drums or Rock Band guitar, just want to jump in and try it through the gameplay. They don't want to spend hours learning stuff. We don't make educational software; we make fun games that have music in them. In the context of the tutorials, we worked super hard. The design team and our audio team worked super hard to craft an experience that really walks you through the basics all the way through the expert stuff. You walk in and you're playing one note on one string until you get used to that, and you can slow it down or speed it up.

My favorite thing about the tutorials is that in the context of the tutorials, you're always playing with music. You're not playing a simple scale just on the keyboard by yourself and hearing just the keyboard. You're playing with a band, and you're playing a major scale in the context of a band rocking out really hard. You still, even then, feel the illusion of being part of a group performing music. I think that's very important for people to feel invested, and if you earn goals and Achievements by playing the tutorials, we're sort of tricking you into learning a real instrument. When you walk away at the end of the day, we hope that you have a real life skill. We're basically making you better people by playing a video game.

WP: Of all the instruments out there, why choose the keyboard? Were there any other instruments that you guys considered, or was the keyboard always the next choice?

JD: There's always a little bit of a hesitation that we're going that far out on a limb to open up that big of a door. As we looked at the set list of what we could add there, it was clear that it wasn't just '80s New Wave. We can have Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" because what's the point of having it without piano? The first two minutes of the song are piano. We can have "The Power of Love." We can have '80s awesome stuff. We can have The Cure. We can have harder rock songs. You know, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" has a piano part. I never knew that before, but it has a real piano part!

When you're done with it, at the end of the day, you're basically playing what is maybe the most direct translation of an instrument that people learn. When you learn the idea of a scale and the idea of notes, you're usually learning in the context of a piano because it's the most linear way of representing music, versus a guitar, where you have your hand moves and your other hand is moving. It's disconnected for a lot of people. The keyboard is sort of like a fundamental thing to really get deeper into music, and we think we've done a good job of integrating it.

We layered in a whole bunch of fun stuff. You can play five-button keys. It's not the real pro keys part, but just have fun and bang away on the bass part of the keyboard. Overall, I think we tried to pick songs that fit the game the best and hope they had keyboard parts. It seems like we did a really good job. I'm really happy with the keyboard songs we have.

WP: For the longest time, Rock Band 2 has been the core software. All of the other track packs, even games like Lego Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band have all integrated with that. You've added the vocal harmonies feature in Rock Band: Beatles and Rock Band: Green Day. Rock Band 3 has a keyboard and pro guitar, so are you going back and adding the instruments to any old songs? Will there be any hiccups in trying to make the old track data work with the new software?

JD: Any song that you bought is going to work immediately on day one in Rock Band 3. All your existing libraries will show up. We're going to be bringing disc songs over, too, so you're not going to lose songs you love to play. That's sort of the most important thing, right? The majority of our players are in that five-button realm. They love playing regular Rock Band guitar with their guitar controller of choice. We're not going to take that away from people. That would be a poor move when we're the platform leader with 2,000 songs by launch.

In terms of pro functionality and DLC and updating songs, we're sort of talking about that now, and we'll be coming out with clear statements in the coming weeks. It is complicated. It's good to address up front that it's not a simple proposition of, "Oh, we'll just send you a CD and it'll be fine!" This is sort of a layered problem of existing content that works for multiple games. We're the pioneer in this field, but it's hard to do. We'll be talking more about DLC going forward, but we're the category leader for providing people with more music because it's what people want. They want to customize their set list and play a pop song and then a metal song. We want to give them that option. With Pro, I think people are going to be even more passionate about playing music they want to learn. We'll do our best to provide the best experience we can, and, of course, backward compatibility for hardware and songs is one of our biggest priorities.

WP: What about Rock Band Network? Have you guys started rolling out tools for third parties and independent music producers to create pro guitar, keyboard and bass tracks, or is that functionality going to be withheld from the Rock Band Network until Rock Band 3 ships?

JD: We are going to be doing a Rock Band Network 2.0 thing, and Matt Nordhouse, our lead designer, has published himself on http://creators.rockband.com about that, but we haven't gone into excruciating detail about which features we will or won't be supporting yet, mostly because we're still announcing our DLC plans. It'd be weird if we announced our Rock Band Network plans before that. (laughs)

Once we do that, I think you can expect to see Rock Band Network evolving like Rock Band content will evolve to both be compatible with Rock Band 3 but also take advantage of some of the newer features in Rock Band 3. Rock Band Network is doing pretty awesome. I'm really proud of it. I have 20 songs in there from my bands, and it's a pretty awesome project, so when we look into producers and other people tapping into it for the new features, it's going to be a pretty rad project.

WP: Rock Band pet peeve: Why is it such a pain to switch players? If we're playing the guitar and want to switch to mic or drums but we don't want anyone else to mess with our profiles, we have to log out, go back and log back in. What's up with that?

JD: It's so much easier in Rock Band 3. Not only do we have drop-in/drop-out, which means you turn on and off those controllers if you need to, but we also have cross functionality, like guitars can play the keyboard parts in the five lane style. It's not what you're asking, though. We now have a single button. If you have one profile logged in, you hit the Start button in what we're calling the "Overshell," with those little menus. It says, "Profile" or "No Profile," and it says, "Swap to" the profile signed in. If you jump over to keys and you want to sign into that instrument instead, hit your Start button and then "Swap to" your name on Xbox Live, and it will immediately turn on to that instrument. We've gone above and beyond to make it easier to solve your exact problem because we knew you were going to ask that question.

Ha! Victory!

WP: What about demo plans? Are you going to take the Beatles: Rock Band approach and only have it in stores because of the new instruments, or are you looking to have downloadable PSN/XBL demos available?

JD: I'm not sure what our demo plans are yet. I think we're still working that stuff out. One of the biggest things there is not only music licensing, which is its own ball of wax, but additionally, without new instruments to play, it's sort of hard to get the new instrument experience. I think retail's going to be a focus. I think we'll be announcing more stuff about that later this summer, but I'm not sure we're going to do [a PSN/XBL demo].

WP: With Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band, the three-part vocal harmonies were sort of natural. How difficult has it been to pick general rock songs with three-part vocal harmonies in mind?

JD: It's surprisingly easy, actually. We have some really great content that we haven't announced yet that fits that whole keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and three-part vocal harmonies stuff without worrying too much about it. You'd be surprised at how many songs have three distinct vocal parts that sort of work their way in or out. I think "Power of Love" is just Huey Lewis being awesome and moving around, but there's a whole breakdown with moving vocal parts. It's been great. I think vocalists are going to be really excited about this game. We have some really challenging songs, some really fun songs. I mean, just singing Freddie Mercury alone is a big kick in the pants.

WP: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

JD: Rock Band 3 is the best! That's all I have.


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