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Getting the Band Back Together

Harmonix chooses FIG to crowdfund a PC version of Rock Band 4 with an eye towards user-generated content

So far, the anticipated resurrection of the rhythm genre this console generation has not gone to plan, with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 both underperforming publisher expectations. However, Harmonix isn't about to throw in the towel.

The original Guitar Hero developer and Rock Band creator is pressing on, today launching a FIG crowdfunding campaign to bring Rock Band 4 to the PC. The studio is looking to raise $1.5 million from backers and investors so that it can create a port of the game that could take advantage of the PC community's penchant for user-generated content.

Harmonix founder Alex Rigopulos recently discussed the studio's plans for the campaign with GamesIndustry.biz.

You're going with a PC port of Rock Band 4 for your first FIG project. No offence, but that doesn't seem like a huge market - what's the strategy?

I would say that there are three reasons for Harmonix being so interested in bringing Rock Band 4 to the PC. We've been receiving a stream of enquiries from PC gamers for years, really since 2007 when we first launched Rock Band. There's clearly some demand for it. Honestly we don't know the size of that market but there has been a constant drum beat of requests, so if possible we'd love to serve that audience.

Secondly the Steam Workshop offers us an excellent infrastructure to bring back user generated content which is something we were very proud of with Rock Band in the last generation of consoles, so we can't wait to bring that back. That's a big part of the appeal.

"[B]ringing the game to PC will increase the number of players, which will increase the revenue base which we're basically directly reinvesting into Rock Band 4 to improve the experience"

Also, bringing the game to PC will increase the number of players, which will increase the revenue base which we're basically directly reinvesting into Rock Band 4 to improve the experience. It's a live platform and we have great ambitions to evolve it. The bigger the player base the more revenue we can reinvest.

And why choose FIG for it?

With respect to crowdfunding: I'm a huge fan, in large part because I think that when it's players not publishers who are funding games, the number and diversity of play experiences increases. I think that's a beautiful thing. So we've always been big fans of the concept, but there's always been a missing ingredient: a structure for sharing the wealth with backers in the cases when crowdfunded projects become very profitable. What's exciting about FIG to us is that it's the first programme to allow us to do that and we want to help them succeed as much as possible.

It's also worth noting that FIG curates its campaigns, unlike Kickstarter where anyone can run a campaign. Part of that process is to do due diligence on those projects, not just from a commercial viability standpoint but from an execution standpoint, meaning that if they're building a platform for games funding, they need to guarantee a certain amount of execution confidence. There's quite a bit of execution risk for projects on Kickstarters.

How do you expect the funding mix to pan out? We see a lot of folks just securing a sort of deposit via crowdfunding, money they can take to a bank or investor as proof of interest.

The actual total size of the campaign is $1.5 million. The project spend is about $2 million dollars or slightly more. So whether through rewards backing or investments, the aim is that we raise $1.5 million and Harmonix actually funds the rest. We wouldn't then be going to look for any more financing. I honestly don't think that it's a good idea to be raising part of the money in this way if you're not willing to fund the rest because you're creating a risk situation for your backers.

Are you making any promises to backers in terms of ROI?

I think those questions should really be directed to FIG, but we do believe that, given the comparatively small cost of migrating the Rock Band experience to PC, relative to the full game production, that it should be a profitable endeavour. If we didn't believe that we wouldn't be pursuing it.

What about the feeling that FIG is somehow taking advantage of the naivety or optimism of backers, to sell investment to people who don't really understand it?

"My perception of the FIG offering is that they're exhibiting quite a lot of effort to expose all of the information to investors and allow them to make qualified decisions"

My perception of the FIG offering is that they're exhibiting quite a lot of effort to expose all of the information to investors and allow them to make qualified decisions about whether it's a smart bet or not. They have the graphical break-even calculators that show what returns you get on your investment at various sales volumes, what some of the comps are. Realistically it's the entertainment business, it's risky for anyone who's involved. I think they're making commendable efforts to make sure people are educated. Of course if investing isn't something you want to get involved in, then the complete rewards based system is available.

Having been through a Kickstarter campaign, do you expect similar patterns of use here?

It's hard to say on such a new platform. I think in the Psychonauts campaign about half came from investors and about half through rewards-based backing, which I think is an indicator that there'll be an appetite for both. I don't know what the break-down was between accredited investors and non-accredited.

Your publishing partner on Rock Band 4 for console was Madcatz, who have been in a world of financial trouble recently. Presumably you still need that sort of manufacturing partner, what are your plans?

There are actually a number of peripheral manufacturers in the console business and we have a great relationship with many of them. We're very grateful to MadCatz for having helped us bring Rock Band to market in the first wave, but obviously we'll do what we need to in order to get the necessary partnerships in place, hopefully including MadCatz.

We certainly hope they manage to navigate through the financial difficulties they're currently facing.

UGC seems like an excellent idea for improving engagement and lifecycle, but what about the admin overheads?

There's a certain amount of attention that has to be paid to an ongoing UGC platform. We have been through that before with the 7th generation console Rock Band and we're very much signed up to take on that burden because of the benefits it offers.

It's been a long hiatus for the genre, and the return hasn't yet hit the heights it did previously. With hindsight, what do you see as the major contributing factors in the collapse of the music game market last time?

Well, I think there were a number of factors - there's not an obviously right or wrong answer so we have to theorise. People frequently attribute it to over saturation, point to the crazy number of Guitar Hero titles in a small window, but I think there's another factor. Instrument games were the most expensive video games on the market at a time of severe recession. It's not easy to spend $100-$200 on a video game in 2008/9 when people were in real financial straits.

"Most of the freshness came from content. That carried it for a while, but I think the market needed a rest from that experience too"

I think I'd also say that the games didn't really bring enough of the right kind of play innovation during that period to keep the experience fresh. Most of the freshness came from content. That carried it for a while, but I think the market needed a rest from that experience too. I think after a 5 year hiatus the market is ready to return to that - we're happy with the sales of Rock Band 4 so far and they continue to be strong.

I also think that there's a lot of creative headroom left in the core Rock Band experience, particularly in the domain of metagame and connected experiences. But from there I should also touch on Rock Band VR, because I think that's going to take experience to a completely different level, it's really something special. It's a completely different creative strategy, but also one which we're tremendously excited about. That's an Oculus exclusive.

We're also working on a separate project with PSVR called Harmonix Music Visualiser which is very trippy and very cool and will be a launch title for the system.

I can't possibly imagine the target audience for that.

(laughs) No comment.

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