With Rock Band 2 thrilling gamers in the States, and an intriguing new Beatles title on the way, Harmonix must be a pretty… well… rocking place to work right now. But what’s it really like to be a part of the Rock Band juggernaut? Is the office a sanctuary of like-minded musical allies or a crackling hive of creative differences? How do they choose the tracklists? And, more importantly, will the Beatles game get a new sitar controller? Keith Stuart caught up with community manager Alex Navarro and software engineer Ike Adams at last weekend’s GameCity festival in Nottingham. Here’s what they had to say about Rock Band past, present and future…
Are you surprised by the enormous cultural impact that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have made?
AN: The impression around the office is, no one really expected things to blow up in the way they did. There were years of putting out games that were kind of cool, but also sometimes very niche, but there wasn’t anything that was a big commercial success for the company, until we started doing the rock games. I don’t think anyone expected anything like this. We thought, this will be a fun casual game, it’ll be something music fans get into, it’ll be awesome for people who’ve never played guitar before to try this out. But the whole sort of sub-culture that’s been created around the rock game phenomenon is not something anyone really anticipated.
You do get a few musicians criticising the rock game genre – they feel it in someway draws young people away from playing real instruments. How would you respond to that?
IA: Even a lot of my friends say ‘hey, why don’t people just pick up a real instrument?’ Yeah, I get a lot of that. One thing to realise is, we are making a game. There are plenty of games that put you in a cockpit, or you’re a guy with a gun running around – it’s not something you want to do in reality. So we make you feel like a rock star – you sound really good with the instrument, and you don’t have to do a lot of practice to get to this point.
AN: Our hope is that people who do play the game will be inspired to go pick up a real instrument. We always look at ourselves as musicians first and game makers second. And while we are very much making a game, we all play music – I think 80% of the staff are in bands, or have been at one time or another. We’d love nothing more than for anyone who picks up Rock Band to think ‘yeah, I’d really like to play a real guitar, I’d love to pick up a pair of real drumsticks and learn how to play’. That’s what we love to see.
How do you select tracks for Rock Band? Do you go for songs you love, or songs you know will work well in the game?
IA: It’s very much about how it plays in the game. Certainly popularity is something we look at as well, because the songs that people know are the ones they’re going to gravitate towards. But, some songs that people know just aren’t that much fun in the game. Fortunately, there’s such a wide selection of bands out there you’re always going to find something that people a) know and b) will have a great time playing because it charts really well on the guitar, it’s got a really fun drum part, or whatever. The approach we take is, even if we don’t have a particular song now, we can still potentially get it down the road. Because we view Rock Band as a platform as opposed to a yearly sequel kind of thing, eventually we will add this song to our library.
Do you feel that the music industry’s view of this genre has evolved over the last year in response to the popularity of Guitar Hero and Rock Band?
IA: Yeah, I’ve heard that earlier on it was very difficult to get artists signed on. When we started we were doing covers of everything because you couldn’t really get the master tracks, a lot of bands were very skeptical about licensing their music for something like this. And then the popularity that grew over time caused a lot of bands, managers and labels to sort of realise ‘oh wait, there’s something to this’ – and maybe this is a good way to get music out there to people. It’s worked wonders for classic bands that maybe this generation hasn’t had a great deal of experience listening to. We’ve done 14 songs with The Who at this point and they’re some of the most popular tracks in the game. And also newer bands who’re still trying to get a foothold – we’re releasing 20 free songs with Rock Band 2, so anyone who buys it gets a code to download them, and a vast majority are indie and up-and-coming bands. They all fit well within the context of the game, and are a lot of fun to play. Hopefully this is a good breaking point for them.
Were you worried with Rock Band 2 that you’d somehow disturb the winning recipe by making too many changes?
I think the recipe for Rock Band 2 is very similar to Rock Band 1. There is this philosophy, if something’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. But in Rock Band 1 there were some things that people could consider ‘broken’ that we have tried to address.
Check back tomorrow for more…