Returning to your roots is a common tactic in the music industry. You start out indie, get your first big hit, and before you know it, you’ve done so much boozing and whoring and selling-out-ing that even Gene “Angry Birds” Simmons ignores you in rehab. Then, years later, it’s all about the music again. So you round up the old crew, hug out your petty differences, find a new drummer, and “return to your roots.”
That’s more or less what game developer Harmonix is doing with Rock Band Blitz, only replace “boozing” with “drinking lots of Red Bull” and “whoring” with “sleeping under your desk so you can start coding sooner in the morning.” For the ninth major release in the Rock Band franchise, Harmonix is putting away all the plastic instruments and returning to the same controller-based music rhythm gameplay that the company was built on just over a decade ago.
With the rival Guitar Hero franchise six feet under and more popular titles like Just Dance and Harmonix’s own Dance Central forgoing any sort of controller all together, is there even a place for games that require bulky, overly expensive peripherals? GamesBeat’s Stefanie Fogel sat down with Harmonix Music System’s Eric Pope to talk about Rock Band’s new old direction. Videos of Frequency, Amplitude, Rock Band Unplugged, and Rock Band Blitz are also included to show the evolution of Harmonix’s controller-based music games.
GamesBeat: Rock Band Blitz seems pretty similar to earlier games you guys did, like Frequency. Why did you decide to go back to your roots?
Eric Pope: Yeah, Blitz is definitely an evolution of games that we made in the past. The plate-spinning, beat-matching sort of game mechanic isn’t new to us. But we’ve never done it with all of the Rock Band library. That was sort of a no-brainer to us. Instead of creating a brand-new game with this gameplay, doing it in the Rock Band world allowed us to use our 3700-song catalog. That made a lot of sense to us.
We wanted to give fans who maybe have stopped having Rock Band parties because it’s kind of hard to organize a Rock Band party in a week, but — people who have bought songs, that still like Rock Band but just haven’t played for a while — we wanted to give them a new way to play all their content. We’re also hoping to appeal to people who maybe never did pick up Rock Band because it was expensive and it takes a lot of space to have instruments. This is something you can play on the controller, you can do it in five or 10 minutes if you want, you download it through XBLA [editor’s note: Xbox Live Arcade] or PSN [editor’s note: PlayStation Network].
It’s not like — we’re not treating it as the next Rock Band. It’s not Rock Band 4. It’s a side project, an offshoot of what we’re doing in Rock Band 3. And we’re still supporting Rock Band 3 with weekly content. We have a community that still plays all the time.
Above: Frequency (2001, PlayStation 2)
GamesBeat: So the entire Rock Band library will be available to play on Blitz?
Pope: Yep. Everything that’s been previously exportable or downloadable works. Which means Beatles won’t export, and Rock Band 3 won’t export in the game, but they never have. So yeah, 3700 songs or so.
GamesBeat: And that’s at launch?
Pope: Yeah. If you have those songs already, they just instantly work in the game. And the game itself comes with 25-ish songs — we don’t know the final count yet — we haven’t finalized it yet, but 25-ish new songs for Rock Band. They’re going to be big songs that we haven’t released before. So even if you strip out the game itself, it’s going to be a 25-ish-song track pack, basically, for a really good value. We haven’t announced a price yet, but it’s an XBLA, PSN title, those aren’t generally very expensive.
GamesBeat: Have you released the playlist yet?
Pope: We’ve got four songs that we’ve announced so far. We’ve got “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield, “Bang Your Head” by Quiet Riot, and “Always” by Blink-182.
Above: Amplitude (2003, PlayStation 2)
GamesBeat: Can’t give me any other hints?
Pope: I wish I could. It’s funny, though. We don’t even know yet. Our music licensing team — they have to wheel and deal for all these things, so we’ll find out over the next coming months.
GamesBeat: How much of your decision to do Blitz was financially based? I imagine it would be cheaper to produce an Xbox Live and PSN game than it would be to create a retail game.
Pope: Yeah. I mean, we are a business. We want to continue to be a business. I’m sure there’s finances involved in the decision. But I’m actually not involved in that side of things. I do know that it was in development for quite a long time, actually. It went through a lot of different phases of evolution. It was a totally different game when we started out. We actually had our designers do a panel yesterday, which you’ll be able to find on our website in a week or so, where they detailed the evolution of this game. So believe it or not, even though it’s an XBLA title, they’ve been working on it for quite a long time. Different phases and different groups — different developers at Harmonix switching off. So this is the culmination of a lot of people’s hard work.
GamesBeat: It’s single-player, right?
Pope: Yeah. The idea is, a single player with a controller with asynchronous multiplayer, which means challenging your friends on songs. We have a messaging system and a recommendation system, so you can recommend challenges. It’ll say, “Hey, challenge your friend Nick on ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper.'” It’ll post the score, and you can see if you can beat it. But we also have leaderboards on each song, so while you’re playing, you can see how your friends scored on a song at any point in time during that song. You can tell if you’re ahead of them or behind them, almost like an asynchronous sort of race. But the main thing is that you’re playing at home on a controller.
Above: Rock Band Unplugged (2009, PlayStation Portable)
GamesBeat: So is this game a way to keep the franchise alive and in the public consciousness without having to create all those costly plastic instruments?
Pope: Yeah. I mean — I don’t think that was the main intention with it, but it will definitely keep things fresh. Like I said, our community is still pretty rabid, and we’re happy to give them something new to do with the content they already have. It keeps Rock Band in people’s minds. Rock Band’s not going anywhere, we’re still cranking out the works, so —
GamesBeat: You mentioned Rock Band 4 earlier. Do you believe that sort of game is still viable in the current gaming market?
Pope: Um — I would say so. I can’t announce anything or speak to anything regarding a Rock Band 4 at this time, but — whereas Guitar Hero [publisher Activision] has said they’re going on hiatus [for that series], we’ve never said that for us. We’re not taking any hiatus. We’re keeping up with the weekly content, and Harmonix is hard at work on multiple things. Whether those are Rock Band games or not, I can’t say.
GamesBeat: Harmonix obviously does a lot of DLC for Rock Band. What are your thoughts on DLC in general?
Pope: I actually think it’s great. Our music team works really hard to create a blend of content that appeals to the broad base of the Rock Band franchise. Music’s tough, right? It’s so personal for everybody. Everyone likes different things. You and I probably have things that we both like and also things that we vastly disagree on. So our music team works really hard to find a middle ground — appeal to certain people this week, appeal to certain people that week. It’s a really interesting process. That’s what’s helped keep our community alive — we have a constant discussion, we constantly have things to talk about, argue over, debate about. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to stick to what we said we were going to do, which is continue to support Rock Band with new content.
Above: Rock Band Blitz (2012, XBLA / PSN)
GamesBeat: Do you get a lot of fan feedback? Like, “That song sucks! Why did you put that in there?”
Pope: No matter what week it is, what we release, someone will love it and someone will hate it, no matter what it is.
GamesBeat: Do you know how much the game will cost when it launches?
Pope: We haven’t announced a price point, but it’s an XBLA, PSN downloadable title. It’ll be comparable in that realm of prices. It’s not going to be a 60 dollar retail title. It’s going to be a really good value, like I said before. 25-ish songs attached to it, that alone — If you bought that many songs in the music store in Rock Band, it could be 50 bucks. And this is not going to be 50 bucks.