After years in hiding / on hiatus, the age of "instrument controllers" is yet again upon us. Harmonix has announced that Rock Band 4 — the first Rock Band title for this generation of home consoles — will be launching this year on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
The next Rock Band will largely be a continuation of the platform, insomuch as players will be picking up guitar controllers, drum controllers, and a microphone to play along with both classic and more modern songs. Alas, there isn't much else to go on at this point; when we sat down with Harmonix product manager Daniel Sussman during this week's Game Developers Conference, he was pretty cagey about revealing what was new in Rock Band 4. Instead, we talked about the legacy of Rock Band, a game that continues to have hundreds of thousands of players every month — a franchise that made hundreds of millions of dollars across a half dozen iterations and over 2,000 songs you could strum, drum, or sing along to.
Speaking of, virtually all those songs you bought for previous Rock Band games should transfer over to Rock Band 4, provided you stuck to the same console manufacturer when transitioning from generation to generation (e.g. Xbox 360 to Xbox One and PS3 to PS4) — and if you have the old hardware, Harmonix is doing everything it can to make it compatible. (There will be new hardware to buy, of course, care of Mad Catz.) That's a pretty big promise to those who invested a lot into years past; as for what else, Sussman promises we'll know more at this summer's E3 gaming convention.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Daniel Sussman: We're here talking about Rock Band 4.
Ross Miller: Surprise, surprise.
The rumors are true... We've had a team working on this for a couple months, it really started in earnest over the summer, trying to answer the question, "Why now, why are we doing this?" and out of a certain respect that we have for the brand and for the franchise, we felt it was really important not to just port Rock Band 3 but to do something that would be compelling and interesting for us as developers, as creative people. And also for our community and to really approach a Rock Band 4 as an opportunity to innovate in this space. I don't think this is a genre that has seen a tremendous amount of gameplay innovation as it relates to the core game; a lot of the innovations were in adding instruments and adding game modes and adding things that sat next to the core, but the core has been pretty static for a long time.
That to me is a problem, and it's a thing that we've put a lot of thought into. So first thing we did was play a lot of Rock Band. And these are people that have played a lot of Rock Band and worked on a lot of Rock Band [games], and there was this amazing thing that happened as we dipped into the back catalog and went, "Shit, this game is really fun!" It was a really powerful, emotional thing, to be able to come back to something, we hadn't worked on it, we hadn't thought about it, and a lot of us hadn't really played it for a good amount of time.
Is that why those recent DLC packs just kind of showed up? Were you testing the waters?
Well, no. That was deliberate, and I'll get into this, but what we're really interested in this time around is improving the quality of our dialogue with our community such that we can react to things that they want. And we thought that releasing DLC would be a really interesting way to poke the sleeping bear a little bit and get people thinking about Rock Band and asking the question, "What does this mean?" The response was exactly what we hoped for. It did exactly that, and there was a lot of speculation: "Why are they doing this now?" and "What's up with the song titles?" and "Are they doing this on purpose? What is this?" We were able to sit back here and go, "Yes, we were. We were doing it on purpose." But the really phenomenal thing about it was that it sent a message to us that, hey, there are people that are psyched.
This is not a game that we want to jam down anyone's throat; we want to make sure that there is a receptive audience, that people are excited to come back to this thing and to see what we're doing. The response that we've gotten to the DLC, to the questionnaire that we put out a few weeks ago, has been overwhelmingly positive, and to that end, I think that we do have a handle on some of the issues that people have, in respect to things that they care deeply about, in terms of what Rock Band 4 needs to do and also some thoughts about the rise and fall of the band game genre.
Let's talk about the survey. What were some of the highlights and lowlights of the responses?
A few things. One thing that jumped out to me, which I'd sort of forgotten about, was the degree to which Rock Band serves as a vehicle for people to learn about new music, and I sort of had forgotten. I think about Rock Band, and I think about these parties where everybody's sort of singing "Livin' on a Prayer.' It's really important for people to have access to songs that they know and don't know. And that was a thing that came out on the survey just in terms of, "What do you think is important about Rock Band, and what are the things you like?"
This is all related, though, because we're sort of peering back through the lens of history to try to figure out like, where's the opportunity here, and why are we doing this? What are we psyched about? As we've started talking to our fans what we've found is that there are a couple of very fundamental things that people care a lot about that are not necessarily these flashy new features that we're all excited about, but there are things like "What about my DLC library? What about the hardware that I have in my house?" So I want to talk about those two things because they matter.
On the DLC front, we are working very hard to port all of the songs that we have had in our library forward to the Xbox One and PS4, and that's a time-intensive process. We're actually taking a library that took us five-plus years to accumulate, and we're doing all of that work in a very compressed window in a matter of months.
"What about my DLC library? What about the hardware that I have in my house?"
How many songs is that?
It's over 2,000. It's a big number. So it's our hope that players have access to the full catalog of music that has already been licensed to this game. Only a very small percentage actually own everything... but there are a lot of people that have bought lots of songs already, and to those folks, we want to make sure your library of songs on the PS3 will carry forward to the PS4 and same on the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One.
Not cross platform?
Not cross platform. I wouldn't put the stake through that, but that's the one that would take a lot of support from Microsoft and Sony, and frankly that's a political rat's nest. I don't see it. And we have our hands full just getting everything up first. So building a library is kind of the first step and respecting the entitlements that people have.
All this — the legacy hardware and the legacy tracks —by launch?
By launch, yes. The one hedge there has to do with the volume of songs by launch; it is a process, and we have to go through all of the submissions process which includes [quality assurance] to make sure that nothing's getting lost in the transfer. So the number of songs at launch is directly proportional to the time it takes to get a song up. The challenge then is just dealing with the immense volume of songs that we're working with.
How long does it take to QA a song?
You'd be surprised.
I would guess a couple of days, at least.
Yeah. So maybe not. All right. And again, there are pieces that can be automated, and we're not talking about days per song per se — it's not going to take us years to rebuild the catalog. We can make a pretty big dent in it in the course of the next couple months.
A lot of this sounds like a continuation of Rock Band 3.
Well, there's an element of Rock Band as a platform, the investment people have made in Rock Band and in their connection to Rock Band, regardless of whatever we're doing that's new. There's a lot of new stuff, but we really want to make sure we're being respectful of the financial investment people have made — the songs that they've bought and the hardware that they've bought — and if they want to play those songs and they want to use that hardware, I think it's our responsibility to say, "Okay, that makes a lot of sense." As a consumer I totally understand where you're coming from.
At the same time, we are working with Mad Catz to develop new hardware. There are people who for whatever reason don't have their old stuff anymore, and there are people that never had anything to begin with who we think will be very excited about what we're doing. So Mad Catz is developing a new drum, a new guitar, and a new microphone. The form factor and general functionality is consistent with what we've done before, mostly because, hey, if we have a commitment to supporting legacy controllers, we don't want to up-sell the new controllers by saying, "Hey, these have a new thing that lets you get a better score than the old stuff." There's functional parity between the two. That said, there's all sorts of room for improvement from a build quality standpoint and a component quality standpoint. There are some incremental wins to be had from building stuff in this particular time.
So the drums will be four toms and a kick, and the guitar will be five buttons.
Ten buttons, but yes.
What is new in Rock Band 4? What are you looking to do that's not been done in the series before?
A few things. One is sort of our perspective on a longer play here, where we're not positioning Rock Band 4 as sort of the first in a long step of subsequent sequels. We think of Rock Band 4 as a successor to Rock Band 3, but our plan for the long term is to augment Rock Band 4, to build upon the game in a way that makes sense and is designed through a conversation with our community, with respect to content updates. What are the songs that people want to see, and how many should there be, and other areas of content expansion in the game, and also features... Looking at how people are playing the game and doing sort of incremental title updates that grow the franchise in one of any number of directions. I think that's actually a novel thing in the context of music games... At the end of the day, we're positioning Rock Band 4 as the nucleus to an experience that has a much longer tail and a more viable future in a lot of ways, I think.
That's sort of a framing statement around our long-term plan. Some of the stuff that we'll have on display at E3 [this year] I can't really talk about in detail, but I do want to cover quickly the specific areas where I feel there's a lot opportunity for innovation, and this is the stuff that the team is really dialed in on. One of which is improving some of the in-road social dynamics of playing music with other people. Rock Band is perceived as this great party game, but when you watch people play, in a lot of cases it's four people playing a single-player game next to someone else who's playing a single-player game. The opportunities for the drummer to be aware of what the bass player is doing, and for the singer to have some sort of relationship with the other people in that band... The game doesn't naturally sponsor or reward that type of behavior, and I think it should because it's huge part of playing music with people.
So more to come at E3.
More to come at E3.