Harmonix on Rock Band 2
Gathered on a dank Thursday morning in London's Brick Lane, a spot of rock and roll is just what we need to lighten the sense of grey depression that hangs over the East End. Just as well that Harmonix's lead designer Dan Teasdale and PR exec John Drake, are here to tell us about Rock Band 2... and also offer a few teasing hints about the new Beatles game the developer are working on.
Harmonix and MTV are about to announce that they're working on a brand new Beatles game. Can you talk about this?
Drake: We're going to be making an official announcement in five minutes, so, yes, I guess I can talk about this now. It's a game... with the Beatles!
Beatles Rock Band?
Drake: Well, it's not Beatles Rock Band per-se, it's a stand-alone Beatles game. So, its about their career and so on... its a full-on Beatles experience. It's going to be f**king amazing!
Can you tell us what's in the game?
Teasdale: We can talk a little bit about it. It's coming out worldwide Q4 2009. Its the quintessential Beatles experience, focussing on their legacy. They're the biggest band in the world essentially... and we're going to be working with Giles Martin, who's going to be the music producer; we've also been working with all the families, and Apple Corp. Paul and Ringo of course... all these guys we've been working with to try and make this product the most amazing Beatles experience you can possibly think of.
Drake: Its been in the works for 17 months; we've been spending that long trying to get the deal done, so it's great to be able to talk about it... but we should talk about Rock Band 2, because that's pretty much all we can say on that.
Rock Band 2! What is the biggest enhancement you're ushering over the original Rock Band?
Teasdale: The biggest thing we've done is that we've perfected the experience. So, with Rock Band 1 we really innovated, we were the first game with all the instruments, and with Rock Band 2 we've taken suggestions about online; cool new ways for you to experience the music. We're launching so much content every week, so generally speaking we're growing things, making a more refined experience. We've really perfected the experience of playing a band game.
The controllers seem to be slightly different. What are you hoping to achieve here?
Teasdale: So, we've gone through and tried to take in many suggestions from the community, so the drums are different; there's a much more interesting balance when you play with them. The metal pedal - we learnt a lot from Rock Band 1 - so its steel reinforced and virtually indestructible now. You can go through and find harder tracks now for particular instruments, add cymbals or the midi kit. So we're helping players move to a more advanced experience. There's still the accessibility there that people look for when they first buy a game, it's not intimidating, but once you're getting better you can add cymbals or you can get our new professional midi drum kit that we're showing off here today.
You're also shaking up on the online features too, I believe...
Teasdale: We've done a lot of things, all of our campaign modes are playable both online and by yourself. So you can play World Tour with four people anywhere in the world... there's no region-locking on our multiplayer. We have Battle of the Bands now... which isn't just four players versus four players, it's you versus your entire friend list and then versus the entire world. The way we do this is that Harmonix poses new battles to everyone, everyday, so you log-on to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, and you'll see a list of battles and there will be new ones that day - some friendly, some hardcore, new DLC, etc - the whole thought behind it is that we're putting in new challenges every day.
You're Xbox 360 exclusive this side of Christmas... is that right?
Teasdale: Well, we can't talk about the PS3 yet... the Xbox 360 comes out on November 21st. So that's where we're at right now...
Okay... and what has being Xbox 360 exclusive allowed you to do?
Drake: Well, so the reason that we did the 360 exclusive is that Microsoft were really willing to go the extra mile and help us with all this back-end stuff, the Battle of the Bands and how all the online features work... it's very close to a first-party title.
Teasdale: It's not that we're delaying Rock Band 2 on PS3, it's that Microsoft have helped us finish the 360 version earlier - so the structure was in place earlier.
Drake: In terms of the other consoles, the PS3 version just came out in the States; we're looking at a similarly close window. We want it out soon... but the 360 is where we're at right now, so...
What are your DLC plans for Rock Band 2? The song-list seems to be growing constantly...
Teasdale: The main thing is that it's a music platform. The DLC you bought for Rock Band works with Rock Band 2... and all the DLC we're releasing works with the first Rock Band, too, so we're releasing weekly content; new albums, new singles, we have loads of great bands coming out... there's so many!
Do you feel you're taking on services like iTunes... in a way?
Teasdale: I think it's a different experience. It's kind of like MTV was in the '80s... it was a very new experience, the videos make for a different experience of the music... that's where we're at now. With Rock Band we're providing a new way for people to experience music...
Drake: It's a compliment to iTunes... like MTV was... the kind of people buying music for our games are tech savvy, they're downloading music for the 360 via Xbox Live, are also going to be interested in going on iTunes and downloading music digitally. The two work really we together...
But you've got the Beatles!
Drake: Yes that's good isn't it... maybe they will come after us!
You don't let people record their own tracks, unlike the latest version of Guitar Hero, what's your take on this?
Teasdale: The whole thing for us, our reason for making games, is to give people the experience of creating music. I think that expressing... player expressivity is definitely something that we're going to be focussing on in the future. But we want to do it properly, we don't want to go out half-assed. We want lyrics... we don't want just another bullet on the back of the box. We want it to add something meaningful, not just to pad the game, but add something to everything people do in the game.
So it will be added in the future?
Teasdale: We're going to be exploring stuff like that in the future, yes.
You were the first game to introduce full band line-ups - any other peripheral plans? A keyboard perhaps? Decks?
Teasdale: [Laughs] Well... everyone has there favourites... but I'm not sure I can really tell you mine because as the lead designer, I'm the most empowered to make it happen!
I think it's one of those things where we've focussed on our core experience, which is guitar-based, and I think as things go on we'll be expanding and giving people more scope to express themselves in those roles. But... our focus right now, is that we don't want to add things for the sake of it, we want an authentic Rock Band feeling.
I read a report the other day that said music games are now the number two selling genre, which is incredible when you think there's only two or three big series'. What is your take on the genre's growth?
Drake: It's been only been a few years since Guitar Hero 1 first came out, too...
Has the phenomenon surprised you?
Teasdale: Its amazing... it's very rewarding to see. We've been making music games for over a decade... at the start we were making games like Amplitude, there was barely enough music audience to support us. Where as now there aren't enough music games! We love that the audience is there now....
Drake: I think it's the social multiplayer side, too, the casual aspect of Rock Band... if you go to a friends house, we know the controllers are expensive in Europe, but when you play it you realise that it's totally worth it. You have a good time, and you can see why everyone wants it.
Teasdale: Its about getting new people into the game... people who play it for the first time really get it, and they say they must have it.
There's a certain leaning towards rock music with Rock Band... how about a Jazz Band... or... Brass Band?
Teasdale: I think one of the things about the music store is that not only can we go deeper into a particular artist's catalogue, we can also go wider... different styles. So, it might be hard to justify on the disc, but there's a massive audience for it, so people really like it. I think there's opportunities to move out, but at the same time we'll stay true to the core audience as well.
Drake: We've already confirmed that there are some country tracks on the way, and that's now public knowledge, so we can, we will broaden our reach... you know, hip-hop bands like the Roots could be played on our existing controllers, so we're happy to widen things where appropriate...
What's changing from a visual perspective?
Teasdale: We've done a lot of polishing, there's a more authentic experience. If you look at the AC/DC pack we're showing today, and then Rock Band 2, you can see side-by-side that Rock Band 2 is much more realistic. It feels like you're watching live concert footage. Its a great feeling Harmonix has put together. We've also made changes in World Tour, there's more richness, a lot more happening... it feels raw. Real.
And... can you tell us any more on what's happening beyond Rock Band 2?
Teasdale: Beyond rock Band 2 we are working on a game with the Beatles, that'll be out in 2009...
Are Paul and Ringo in the game?
Drake: I'm not sure we're talking specifics, but all the families, and Paul and Ringo are involved in the creative process, they are working with us on the game. Plus we've got Giles Martin as the music producer...
What kind of gameplay can we expect?
Teasdale: It feels like a whole new experience... its not a Rock Band game. Its entirely new...
Any changes over Rock Band planned?
Teasdale: We'll be making gameplay that's authentic to the Beatles... I can't talk about specifics, as to what that is right now... but its not a track pack, its not just songs, its a real Beatles experience.
Which feature of Rock Band 2 are you most proud of?
Teasdale: All of them! I'm really proud of how we've polished things... the feel, it's a really great feeling... [Luke's dictaphone descends into a caucophany of drums and guitars].
Are you the lead designer on the Beatles game, then?
Teasdale: Actually, no. I'm working on another new project that I can't tell you about yet.
[More laughs, more guitars]
Thanks for your time guys.