Interview

Jeff Castaneda on The Beatles: Rock Band

MTV Games' exec gets inside the Yellow Submarine

The Beatles: Rock Band is Harmonix's latest attempt to win big in the hugely lucrative music game genre. We sat down with MTV Games's Jeff Castaneda, whose inspiring Expert levels of Rock Band drumming hide the truth that he doesn't actually play the drums, after a few games of The Beatles: Rock Band to talk about Rock Band's difficulty, the future, DLC, and why even devout Rolling Stones fans will want to give The Beatles: Rock Band their full attention ahead of its September debut.

What's your favourite Beatles song?

Oh wow. Oh man, I would say... A Day in the Life.

So... whilst we're talking about The Beatles, the game's going to ship with 45 songs. Do you think that might disappoint people who are used to getting 70+ with Rock Band 1 and 2?

The game will definitely ship with 45. As you probably know, we've announced the fact we're bringing DLC to The Beatles: Rock Band, which is great. To anybody who's kind of concerned, who's like 'oh my god, there's so many Beatles classics that are not on the disc,' hopefully we'll be able to fulfil their wishes through DLC. We'll hopefully get out there [on the DLC store] the dreams of Beatles fans.

Do you think two years from now you'll probably have the whole back catalogue up there?

I don't know, we'll see.... [laughs] We're working very hard to get as many tracks up from the Beatles catalogue as possible.

They're rereleasing the entire Beatles back catalogue on CD the same day the game comes out. Is it those [re-mastered] tracks the game is using? Or is it some of the older stereo stuff?

It's actually the same master tracks. The original master tracks. If you remember, the original masters were on two and four track tapes. It's not something where you can easily say 'hey, here's the bass line, here's the guitar part, here's the vocal and here's the drums'. In today's day and age you work with forty eight tracks and such, so every little instrument, every little handclapper, has their own track. With The Beatles tracks, maybe the drums and the bass were on one track and the vocals and guitar on another. The brilliant folks at Abbey Road, Apple and Harmonix had to come up with a whole new way of extracting the specific parts from the two and four track master tapes to be able to turn it into Beatles Rock Band gameplay. I'm not the most technical person, but...

It sounds hard.

It is! It really, really is. They've had to come up with a whole new process to make sure they've filtered out and extracted tracks so they can become gameplay.

Serious Beatles fans are quite aware of all the different sources, aren't they?

Sure. But what's amazing for hardcore Beatles fans, or whoever chooses to pick up and play this game, is that I believe it will open up The Beatles to a whole new audience. Hardcore fans will be able to hear things in the game that have never been revealed or heard: in-between songs you'll hear audio clips of the Beatles from their takes in the studio. There's never been a use for some of these takes before, so [fans will] be able to hear The Beatles chatting to each other, joking around, and just flubbing notes and such. It's pretty amazing.

So just how do you keep Beatles Rock Band fresh in an increasingly saturated genre?

In terms of The Beatles: Rock Band, it's all about the music. We had to stay true to, and authentic to, The Beatles and their sound. Introducing things like three-part harmonies, you know, that's the sort of thing where we think we will really put a new challenge out there for our audience. It's not easy to sing in the first place, but then you add in the layer of trying to learn harmonies: The Beatles have some of the most intricate harmonies ever created. So adding that to the mix adds a whole new layer for people to be taken away with. That's how we keep it fresh.

On the Rock Band franchise side, the constant downloadable content is key for us. We make sure there's new music out there on a weekly basis - we're up to 700+ songs - but if you think about it, when you think about the whole entire history of rock music, that's a small part. We just want to keep on making sure people get the most diverse selection of music that's available.

Following on from that, 'Music Game: Band Name' titles in the past have had a tendency to pad out the tracklist with 'guest acts' to increase diversity. What's stopped you from doing that with The Beatles: Rock Band?

With The Beatles, they recorded somewhere in the region, I believe, of 230-250 tracks across their very short career. They're one of the very few bands that have had that kind of output. We just felt that in each phase, each different album that they had, their sound, their style, and their look, it evolved in that short amount of time: we thought that we didn't need any other acts. You can focus on [The Beatles] and it will feel very different from venue to venue, era to era, so we're just kind of blessed to have that amount creative and artistic ammunition. It's rare, you know? With The Beatles it was amazing for us to be able to work with that.

So you're saying as the game progresses it's like you're playing music from a different band?

Yeah. It feels that way.

Was there any temptation to add in features for that ultra-hardcore market that can do [Judas Priest's] Painkiller on Expert [in Rock Band 2]. Was there any, for instance, desire to put in an Expert+ mode?

Expert is hard enough. I think the challenges [in The Beatles: Rock Band] are different. In introducing the vocal harmonies that's where the challenge [in the game] is. I don't think there was any pressure to make a totally expert extreme difficulty.

Because it felt like the genre was leaning that way for a bit. It felt a bit "More buttons! More Buttons!"

Exactly. We didn't want to make it painfully hard for the sake of it. We want to keep the integrity of the music, we don't want to just add buttons because we can.

Dhani Harrison is credited with being an integral force in bringing Apple Corps to Harmonix. Is he still involved with the game?

The way it worked was, initially, the president of MTV, Van Toffler, was on vacation at some Caribbean island several years ago. It just so happened he ran into the Harrison family. And they were talking about videogames: Dhani's a huge videogamer and happened to really love Harmonix.

Dhani was saying - and this was right around the time MTV bought Harmonix and we hadn't announced Rock Band yet - 'I'm a really big fan of Guitar Hero but, what you should do, is create a Rock Band with the bass and guitar and drums and vocals,' and then conversations started, introductions were made, and Dhani was instrumental in instigating that idea. But once Harmonix met with Apple Corps, that's when the creative, technical process of what could become The Beatles: Rock Band started.

But is he still involved? Yes, he's still involved. Along with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia [Harrison]: they're all giving their advice and feedback.

I can just imagine them there, plastic instruments in hand, netting those 5 Stars...

[laughs] Well, for them, it's more of a sit-back: they'll critique and give feedback.

Dhani's also said that charging 99 cents for a Beatles track is an unfair price. Would you say that 160 MS points is more reasonable?

I haven't heard that quote, but that's a pretty funny thing to say... [Ed: he's talking about us, not Dhani].

Thanks! So, where do you think the plastic band genre will head in the next few years? After The Beatles: Rock Band, where do you see it going?

For us, and for the Rock Band franchise, putting more music out there, making sure it's cross-compatible - at least with Rock Band itself - between different iterations is key. You're building on your music catalogue, you've purchase it, you're going to want to play it!

But where it's going? At the core, it's all about the music. In terms of features, and so on, it's hard to say. But it will stay focused on the music. At least from our perspective.

So we'll still be getting DLC for Rock Band/Rock Band 2?

Oh yeah, there's no slowdown for that. I mean, it was ballsy back a couple of years ago when Alex Rigopolous got on stage and said "we will put out weekly downloadable content" - at the time it hadn't been done. If you think about it, I don't believe there are any other publishers or developers who do it. [Harmonix and MTV games are] an amazing partnership, and it won't stop.

It really is all about the music...

Yeah! It sounds kind of corny, but that's what it is. These games wouldn't exist if we didn't have the right combination of music and a diverse offering. If we didn't, people wouldn't really care.

Thanks to Jeff for taking the time to talk to us, and for being very understanding when we ruined his drumming flow by immediately flubbing a song post-interview. In our case, Expert is definitely hard enough! The Beatles: Rock Band is available 09/09/09, and you can read our in-depth preview.

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