Harmonix Talks Rock Band 4: Wii U Version, Missing Keytar and Upcoming Songs

Any day with Rock Band is a good day.  It’s a simple fact that music makes everything better, whether it’s listening, actually playing, or playing at playing with a group of like-minded friends.  After far too long an absence Rock Band is back, and our head-honcho Steve and helpful editor Kevin got to sit down with Harmonix’s Daniel Sussman and Nick Chester to go over the details of its welcome return.

Daniel Sussman, Project Manager for Harmonix- I’m going to blast through some of the talking points that we are trying to cover.  What we’re trying to do is proactively address the questions that seem like they are at the top of everyone’s list.  Like what Rock Band 4 might be, and things that we know are critically important to our most ardent customers.

So, Rock Band 4 for PS4, for Xbox One; we were excited to bring the classic game to sort of the current generation of consoles.

[Hardcore Gamer] Sure, they’d been gone for a while.

Daniel Sussman:  They have been gone for a while!  The response that we’ve gotten as we’ve been talking to people, as we’ve been launching DLC for the first time in a little while, has been overwhelmingly positive, you know, and that means a lot to us.  We pay attention to what people have to say.

I want to talk about DLC, because it’s a critical part of the Rock Band platform.  We have thousands of songs that we’ve accumulated over the years, and we are working very hard with Sony and Microsoft to rebuild that entire library on the current gen.  We’re also working with those guys to honor entitlements so that DLC you have bought over the years will be playable and in your library when you fire up Rock Band 4.  And it’s in keeping with our strategy going all the way back to Rock Band 2, where we wanted you to pull your library forward.  The game’s really fun when you have a big library of songs; it’s a big part of the platform.  So we’re psyched about that, and we think a lot of people are excited about that.

I want to talk about hardware, because hardware’s another critical element of the Rock Band experience.  Similarly, we have a tremendous amount of respect for the investment that people have made in their hardware, and just their Rock Band experience, so we want to support legacy hardware wherever we can.  I think it’s important to note that a lot of the possibilities there are controlled by Sony and Microsoft, you know, that a lot of the fundamental technology has changed on the console side.  That said, we are in a really constructive dialogue with both sides, and I’m confident that it will work on both sides.  For people that have guitars and drums, they should plug in and work.

Or in the case of the Xbox, um, connect.  And that’s not a Kinect reference, holy crap. (laughs)

So you can do a little air guitar over there?  (group laughter)

Daniel:  There’s no Kinect.  We’ve got a long and interesting history with the Kinect.  We’ve got enough peripherals to manage with Rock Band without getting into another one.

We are working with Mad Catz to develop and manufacture native controllers for Xbox One and PS4, so there will be new controllers for people that don’t have their old stuff any more or have never had old stuff.  You know, I think that the time that has passed means that there is a new generation of folks who i think will be psyched to play this game.

There was a lot of deep thinking that went into our decision-making process about “Why is now the right time to bring this back?”, looking back at sort of the arc of music gaming in general over the late two-thousands and early teens.  We felt really strongly that… we needed to feel like we were doing something creatively to push the bar forward; that would sort of invigorate the category, in a way, through gameplay, so we are working on a lot of “things” that we can’t show because we’re not doing that here, but we will be talking about a lot of the cool exciting new features leading up to E3.  We’ll have a playable at E3.  We think we’ll blow a lot of people’s minds; we have some stuff that is different, and I think that’s important.

We’re also considering Rock Band 4 as a game that will sort of hold for this console generation.  We have a long-term plan for content and feature upgrades that will bolt onto the Rock Band 4 base.  We’re calling it Rock Band 4 because it is absolutely an evolution of the franchise, relative to Rock Band 3 and the previous games.  We think it’s a big step forward- visually, creatively, just sort of on every axis.  But we don’t anticipate a Rock Band 5, 6, 7, 8; we think that this is the game, and that true title updates and content updates, including traditional DLC, Rock Band 4 will sort of grow through an active dialogue that we want to have with our community.  It’s one of the strengths of Harmonix; we have a great relationship with our fans and the technology today both allows us to engage with them directly and then also react to things that they have to say and directions that they want to push us in.

It’s pretty exciting!  We are working on what we believe to be the best Rock Band in the portfolio.  This is a game that… We wouldn’t be here talking to you if we didn’t think we could put the best Rock Band ever made together, and so here we are.  That’s sort of the big spiel, I’m trying to blast through it.  Do you guys have questions?

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So are all five of the instruments returning, including the keytar?

Daniel: We are focused on the original core instruments, so drums, guitar, bass, vocals.  And in fact most of the effort that we’re putting into this game is around focusing in on that classic band experience and making sure that the innovations that we are excited about will hit the most amount of people.  There were a lot of things in Rock Band 3 that I am very proud of; I worked on Rock Band 3, I was the project lead.  A lot of people had a lot of really wonderful things to say about it; my biggest criticism of it is that it is a sprawl.  It’s a big, giant game, and it was confusing to a lot of people in terms of “Hey, is this a teaching tool or is this a fun party game?  Can I play if I don’t have the keyboard?  What do I need to have to play the game?”  And so I think one of our calls to action was around focus, and getting back to some of the roots of what made Rock Band special in the first place, and not using hardware to sort of complicate the message, but really rally around the gameplay.  And I know that there are a lot of people who have keyboard controllers, who are gonna be… cranky about that.

Maybe in a future update?

Daniel:  It may be in a future update.  I think one of the things we’re committed to is engaging with fans, and if there’s a market for whatever-it-is, then that’s absolutely a conversation that we want to have.  So yeah, it’s a question that we “get”.

You gotta wonder what’s coming back and what’s not.

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely!  …  So what else do you guys want to know?

You said that there would be no 5, 6, 7, or 8.  Will there be special band editions like with what we saw with Rock Band Beatles?

Daniel:  Our perspective… There will be a disc that has sort of in classic Rock Band style a well-rounded assortment of music that covers all of rock and roll, from different decades, different styles.  That has a good mix of top-line triple-A artists, but also we think there’s a lot of value, and we’ve heard this from our fans, in using Rock Band to expose people to music that they may not know really well.  So we think that there’s a lot of music that we love, that we can put on this game that will play really well and be awesome new music for folks.

So that’s informing our disc strategy, we will have some regular DLC delivery system that is basically in line with what we have done before.  I’m not sure what the specific cadence will be, and again, that will be based on a conversation.  You know, it’s “What do people want?”, and right now it’s like you can go to our web site to request songs, and we actually pay attention to all that stuff.  We want to license songs that people are psyched about, and that applies to bands as well.  If there are bands that have the catalog, we’ve got a lot of stuff in our back catalog that’s there, and you can buy it either as a single song or a pack or whatever, and we want to continue to put compelling offers together.  At the end of the day it’s our job to provide music to people through the Rock Band catalog, so there’s a lot of different options in terms of how we do that.

Did you say it’s a PS4 and Xbox One exclusive?

Daniel: It’s on PS4 and Xbox One so it’s not an exclusive.

Are you dropping PS3 and Xbox 360

Daniel: Yes

Wii U?

Daniel:  The Wii U is a really hard call for us, but from our initial research the audience is not there yet, and I would be really psyched for there to be this public outcry of “Where is the Wii U? I will absolutely throw money at you and I wanna buy it and preorder it!” and all that.  And then we start working on it.

Nick Chester:  We’re seeing all these people flock, especially towards PS4, and people are abandoning their Wiis, and using their Xbox 360s as…  We don’t have a version of it because neither of the consoles are backwards compatible.

Daniel:  It’s a tragedy for this game not to exist on…  Video games are weird because every time you cycle the console front you lose the games that were there on the last console.  It’s not like you can go back, I mean I can’t even connect a PS2 to my tv.  There are PS2 games that I love that I can’t play, and that’s weird.  For Rock Band especially I think that’s an experience that’s fun enough, straightforward enough to endure.  It’s got a straightforward enough fantasy that’s pretty common, pretty accessible.

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Have any songs been confirmed to be included with the base pack yet, or is that still something you’re working on?

Daniel: We’re working through a  lot of that now.  We do have some licenses, but I’m not talking about that yet.

Well you gotta have Everything is Awesome (laughter).

Nick: Oh, god!  You think anybody’s going to want to hear that song in a couple weeks?

I mean the Oscar performance was awesome, so that kind of brought it back.

Daniel: It’s definitely one of those… It’s impossible not to sing along. Which is kind of one of those things, like, there’s a style of Rock Band song that plays really well because of that.

Can you comment on a release date?

Daniel: This year.  So we are targeting something later this year, which obviously as we get deeper into our campaign we’ll have more specifics.

We know that with Rock Band 2 the Xbox 360 version came out like five months before the PS3 and Wii versions.  Is that going to be a similar situation or is that going to be simultaneous launch?

Daniel: Right now we’re planning for simultaneous but that’s also something that is…  Yeah, we’re planning simultaneous.

I was just curious because there was that time when there was the gap between the 360 and PS3 launch, and PS3 people were sad.

Daniel: We don’t want anybody to be sad. (laughter) Nobody’s going to be sad this year when it comes to Rock Band. I think our job, really, is to look at the opportunities that we’re presented with and make good calls that are in the interests of our community.  We want to get this game out to as many people as possible, and that’s our most important job, really.  Well, make a game that’s really good, then try to connect it to folks that want it.

As of last night you have thirty one million people now, twenty million PS4s and eleven million Xbox Ones. It’s a big market.

Daniel: If we can get twenty, thirty percent of those we’re good! (laughter)

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Are there going to be multiple SKUs at launch, or is it just going to be the base game?

Daniel: We are working those details out, in fact I think the Mad Catz press release has some of that information in it, unless we pull it out, so I’m sort of on the fence as to whether I should talk about it.

Nick: Yes.

Daniel: Ok!  I will talk about it!  There’s going to be different configurations for how to play the game depending on how people want to play the game, depending on what you have.  Obviously if you have controllers you’ll be able to buy just the game, and then we also want to make sure that there are packages that appeal that want to buy the new stuff, you know, that need new hardware, that kind of thing.  There will be a traditional Rock Band band bundle, and we might have a couple of other combinations that we put together, because the demand is there.

I don’t know if you can answer this, but are you partnering with EA again, or is it going to be kind of like a solo publishing?

Daniel: So we’re partnering with Mad Catz.

Oh, to actually publish the game?

Daniel: That’s what we’re talking about.

Have they published a game before?

Daniel: They published Rock Band 3, and EA was there as a distributor for some of the SKUs in some of the territories.  But you know, here’s the thing, one of the things that is really interesting this time around, it’s like we’re kind of doing this ourselves.  It’s that indie spirit that is sort of permeating through the game development, and then through the publishing.  It’s scary, because this is like a big step for us, and it’s a big bet, you know, this is like a thing we’re very excited about.  There’s a lot that needs to happen to get something from a boat to a store.  We’re working through a lot of those logistics, and just to get the word out.  Which is why we’re talking to people as early as we are, and hoping, really, that people are as excited as we are about this particular franchise.  The Rock Band brand, you know, it’s a quality thing for us, and we put a lot of faith in our ability to deliver a top-line quality music gaming experience.  We hope people remember that, and are psyched about the fact that we’re coming back.

It’s been a while, yeah.

Daniel: The last thing I’ll mention, we have turned on the Rock Band 3 DLC machine, there have been four songs that have come out over the last couple months.

Yeah, people got pumped.

Daniel: We have a fifth song coming, actually, that will be launched for free tomorrow, as part of our big announcement. (editor’s note- That’s today!)  It’s a song by Frank Turner, it’s called I Still Believe, and it is this sort of rock & roll anthem that is the cherry on top of the whole thing.  It’s a great song, and it’ll play great.  Along with everything else that you have in your library it’ll be available when you fire up Rock Band 4.

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The song titles that were recently released, they kind of teased at the announcement, didn’t they?  A little bit?

Daniel: Rise of the Phoenix.  Yeah, that was intentional.

Are you doing some sort of event at PAX for the game?  A party or something?

Daniel: This weekend.  We’re flying back tomorrow morning to get our ducks in a row for that.  Some of the other products that we have in development at Harmonix will be playable on the floor.  There’s a multiplayer Amplitude demo that looks amazing, A City Sleeps will be on display, and then we have a couple of Rock Band specials.  Nothing playable yet, we’re kind of holding gameplay for later on.  We’ll have a party Saturday night.  Frank Turner’s going to play the party.

And on that note Steve and Kevin made their goodbyes, primed with tons of info and waiting impatiently for the official time of announcement to arrive.  Rock Band is coming back, and late-night gaming parties will soon be crackling with plastic instrument energy once again.  Special thanks to Daniel Sussman and Nick Chester for the interview opportunity, and we can’t wait to get our hands on the final game.