Harmonix has been meeting with media this week at GDC to confirm that Rock Band 4 is indeed in development, and it's slated to ship later this year. While the developer did not have any demos to show to the press at this point, it's clear that the team has been thinking long and hard about the reasons to bring the franchise back, both from a creative standpoint and a business one.
"The overwhelming emotional output out of a lot of play sessions is 'holy shit, this game is a lot of fun.' It was important after coming back to it to see that this game is still good, it's still fun," Rock Band 4 product manager Daniel Sussman told me.
"That kickstarted a whole process internally where we started putting on our design hats and asked what about this game do we like and what are the areas that we think could be improved - and we found quite a few, and a lot of those worked their way into the basic design, the fundamental platform design that we envision for Rock Band 4."
Before we address some of the bigger points, here are the basics: the game will be out later this year on PS4 and Xbox One, it will support legacy instruments but also offer newly refined ones, and Harmonix is serious about making sure that all the DLC is supported, meaning that if you bought any songs you definitely won't be asked to buy them again (within the consoles families, from PS3 to PS4 and Xbox 360 to Xbox One).
Looking more closely at the instruments equation, Harmonix basically had two choices: wipe the slate clean and innovate with a new design, which could lead to new gameplay, or work with platform holders to make sure people can use their old instruments (which many players would want to do to save money). The studio went with the latter choice, but that doesn't mean it can't innovate, Sussman said.
"We do not anticipate having a Rock Band 6,7,8 - we want Rock Band 4 to be the Rock Band for this generation [of consoles]"
"I think there are a lot of elements to the guitar that went underutilized in years past... there are a few things we can leverage creatively that will feel new but still apply to people who aren't buying new controllers. We have a fair amount of creative control over the experience itself. Innovating in the hardware space splinters the audience based on what they have and we can do a lot in the software to bring people together over a common set of controllers and still provide a really compelling, new experience that's in line with the principles of the platform," he explained.
"I think there's a lot of room for creative expression in the software and changing the hardware design sets up a really vicious feedback loop. There's something nice about understanding the controller design and designing for that as opposed to innovating both in parallel."
The other reason of course is purely a business one: why limit your sales by forcing people to purchase yet more expensive hardware? "Addressable audience is a big deal," Sussman acknowledged. "So we are looking at the fact that there are a lot of people that might pull this stuff out of storage because there's a compelling game that will take advantage of it and we consider those people our customers."
One of the big problems in the mid 2000s when Guitar Hero and Rock Band were both selling like hotcakes was that retail got flooded. For the new instruments, Harmonix is once again working with Mad Catz and the company believes it can avoid past inventory issues.
"One of the things that we have working with MadCatz is a great handle on retail and supply chain and making sure we don't over extend and then end up with inventory problems. Frankly, more than anything else, you can look at lack of innovation in the space and that's speculation, but one of the things that drives some bitter memories in the industry is that retail got stuck with a lot of boxes, which means there was less demand than what they forecast, and that's the big problem," Sussman noted.
While the new instruments won't offer any radical changes in design, Sussman said that quality can certainly be improved. "There's an opportunity to look at overall build quality and make some incremental improvements to the components that drive these controllers," he stated.
Another area that's crucially important to both Harmonix and the fans is DLC. There's been a vast library of content added to the network over the years, and that's something Rock Band will continue to leverage.
"We have thousands of songs and we're working really hard to rebuild that on the current gen, so that everything that was available will be available," Sussman explained, adding that there's a licensing component but also file conversion, and a whole process with submission policy and testing. "We're trying to recreate something that took us five plus years in a matter of months, so it's challenging."
"We don't want to ask people to buy the same things they previously bought so anything you previously owned within the console family will carry forward," he continued. "At the same time we're working on licensing a bunch of great new music for the disc and offering great DLC moving forward. There will be some regular release schedule that we're still working on the specifics of. We're going after songs that are huge rock songs from seminal artists."
DLC truly is at the heart of the content strategy for Harmonix. Unlike the last time around when the guitar games market got saturated, there will be no sequel in this console generation.
"Rock Band 4 is the next in line for the Rock Band franchise; we think it's deserving of the 4. It's a bona fide evolution of the franchise and there's a lot that's very new that we're excited about. At the same time, we do not anticipate having a Rock Band 6,7,8 - we want Rock Band 4 to be the Rock Band for this generation [of consoles]. We want to make sure people understand we're in this for the long haul, and through a dialogue with our customers evolve the franchise in a way that makes sense and is in line with people's expectations and desires," Sussman said.
While releasing a new game in the series into a market that has significantly faded is surely a risk for Harmonix, the studio understands the challenge and is looking to face any criticism head on.
"If we felt like we couldn't move the needle with respect to genuinely evolving the play experience we wouldn't be here. If we didn't have the ideas we wouldn't be here. The whole thing is sort of tied to this scale issue. I don't think anybody really expected the Rock Band boom and I think this time around we're keeping our expectations honest, and we know that there is a set of people who have not stopped playing Rock Band 3," Sussman pointed out.
"All of the early hints that we've dropped about the fact that Rock Band might come back have been met with wild enthusiasm from a set of people that are genuinely psyched. We're here for a couple of reasons. One is that Rock Band doesn't exist on the current consoles and I think it should; there's a hole in the portfolios that Microsoft and Sony have, in terms of a fun, social and accessible family game that's not a 'family game.' And we also know that there are hundreds of thousands of people if not millions of people that are going to be super psyched to hear the news that we're coming back."
"We have to make good decisions about how to bring this back in a way that feels responsible from a business standpoint"
Sussman is fully aware that the market for guitar games has changed. "We have to make good decisions about how to bring this back in a way that feels responsible from a business standpoint," he said. And to that end, Harmonix is working with a smaller budget than it had for previous Rock Band games.
"Here we are, an indie studio, working with one of the leanest development budgets we've ever had, on a tight schedule with a smaller team, and talking about building on Rock Band 3 which was the biggest game we'd ever made - and how can we improve on something that was so big and so awesome and so well received?" Sussman commented.
"Out of that, we forged a really interesting design that has a ton of focus and also I think we're innovating in areas that are the right areas to innovate in. We're addressing things we feel were lacking in Rock Band - for example, there's really no incentive for you to care about what anyone else was doing until you get to the results screen and you poke your head up and say, 'what, you only got 87 percent?' That's not how music works. The most transcendent musical experiences are the ones where everybody's totally listening to everyone else and aware, in the moment, of what people are doing. That's an area where we swung and missed, we didn't do that well. I would love to be able to address that creatively and we've got some great ideas."
Sussman added that creative expression from the players can be better leveraged in the game as well. "Another element of what it means to be in a band is being able to put your thumbprint on a song whether you wrote it or not. We have a microphone and you can literally sing anything you want - there's some low hanging fruit there that would be miles ahead of anything we've done before, not to mention some of the things we might do on the other instruments. We have a really awesome set of creative goals we're trying to meet that will genuinely push the envelope forward with respect to what you might think a band game could be," he stressed.
Harmonix is aiming to show off a playable version of Rock Band 4 as we get closer to E3. While the game is currently planned for Xbox One and PS4, Sussman said that Harmonix will certainly entertain other systems if there's enough outcry. "If we feel the audience is there and we get smacked in the face by a bunch of angry Nintendo people who really want this game then I think it's our obligation to provide it, but right now given the information we have we're making the best bet we can make," he said.