Harmonix reviews Rock Band Network's opening act

GDC 2010: Developers deliver a postmortem on their indie-friendly user-created song service, just weeks after taking the long-awaited project live in North America.

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Who was there: Harmonix senior producer Matthew Nordhaus and senior sound designer Caleb Epps capped off the 2010 Game Developers Conference with a postmortem (vivisection?) of Rock Band Network's create-and-sell-your-own-song service, which went live earlier this month.

The Rock Band Network interface might look intimidating, but Harmonix actually managed to streamline the song creation process in a number of ways.

What they talked about: Nordhaus started by pointing out that the term "postmortem" might not be applicable in this case, since the service is still being worked on. The developer explained that the original idea behind the Rock Band Network was to give an opportunity to the untold numbers of bands too obscure to merit being added to the standard Rock Band downloadable content storefront. Harmonix hoped that by allowing users to sell their own music as downloadable content through the game, it would open up the library of available music to everything from Finnish death metal to opera.

Epps said one of the big challenges in converting the standard game over to user-generated content was to choose which features to disable in order to keep the barrier to entry low but still give players the power to make the experience they wanted. One thing that was dropped in Rock Band Network was support for the licensed Rock Band fog machine accessory. For the Harmonix-made Rock Band songs, the developers had to go in and set cues for the fog machine manually. Unfortunately, the developers decided it was too difficult to test fog machine compatibility on songs because of the limited installed base for the peripheral. They didn't want people making songs that would intentionally fill a room with as much fog as possible, so they scrapped the idea.

Head-to-head mode was another casualty, as it requires the author of the note chart to balance the number of notes and power-ups, as well as the difficulty between the two players. Practice sessions were also adjusted because the real Rock Band songs had text events telling the game where the chorus and verse were on each song. Rather than allow for user control on that front, the developers thought the loss of that functionality was worth the streamlining of the process for would-be creators.

To further make the Rock Band Network process easier, the developers automated the lip-sync animation process and scoring for Rock Band Network vocal tracks. Nordhaus acknowledged that there are long drawn-out notes where the lip-sync process breaks down. However, Rock Band Network song authors have thus far found several clever ways around it, from just pointing the camera away from the lead singer during problematic lines to rerecording parts of the song to fix the problem.

For some of the more complex systems of the game, automation was made optional. There are "good enough" automated routines for generating camera angles, lighting, and drummer animations, but users can tweak the automated output however they like to get the most out of the game.

Epps talked about the decision to use the Reaper digital audio workstation as the program of choice for Rock Band Network authoring. Harmonix didn't want to go and make a program from scratch, so they examined a number of existing options in the marketplace. While Reaper is the program of choice for Rock Band Network, Epps stressed that the service is program agnostic. All users need is a proper MIDI file matching the game's specifications, and if they can get that without using Reaper, it will still function.

One big bonus for Reaper was the fact that it's available with an uncrippled evaluation mode for 30 days, Epps said. That allows people to dabble with the software to see if Rock Band Network is something they can work with before they invest too heavily in the project. Epps also noted that the Reaper developer community was large and vibrant, mirroring Harmonix's own approach to fostering a fan base with its own Rock Band forums.

Dealing with profanity and other unsavory user-generated content was a huge concern for Harmonix. With all of the venues and animation completely canned in Rock Band, Nordhaus figured all they needed to do was monitor the lyrics of each song and they'd be in good shape. To demonstrate how a little ingenuity could still thwart their issues, the developer showed mock-ups of a pair of note charts, one arranging notes into a swastika, and the other crudely depicting male genitalia.

Epps said the idea for Rock Band Network was born in part by the Guitar Hero hacking community, which inserted its own songs into early versions of that series without developer support. Out of that community has come a variety of small companies essentially established for the specific purpose of handling Rock Band Network development for musicians who want their work in the game, but don't want to (or can't) do the heavy lifting on the development side themselves.

While the goal of Rock Band Network was to democratize the development of music games, Epps said that the pay wall put up by the required membership in Microsoft's XNA program ensured that everyone involved was invested in making quality work and not wasting people's time.

As for what went wrong, Nordhaus said having no deadlines on some issues made them come together entirely too late. The XNA system also didn't match perfectly to their needs, and they had problems with quality assurance. In testing the pipeline, the QA department whipped up 3,400 placeholder songs, all using the same music. But when they opened up the pipeline to more users uploading their own unique songs, a rash of new bugs cropped up.

Nordhaus said the big lesson to come from that was to test the system with real content as early as possible. Harmonix planned to do that, but Nordhaus said a closed beta held with development team members didn't really go as planned. Out of more than 300 people on the team, only three of them finished a song during the closed beta program. What they should have done, Nordhaus said, was to go to the community earlier and have real people using real songs for the closed beta under a nondisclosure agreement.

Rock Band Network creators have been ingenious in conforming songs to the game's standard gameplay.

The issue of community standards for creative authoring was also an issue. When they were running the beta, community members were torn over the issue of whether or not to allow creative use of the game, such as a jazz track where the "vocals" were actually a saxophone. Nordhaus said the team eventually decided that since Rock Band Network was envisioned to put things into the game that wouldn't fit in the normal game, the more creative takes on authoring should be allowed.

Epps said the community also asked for mixing standards to ensure uniformity between all the songs. Epps said the Harmonix team didn't really have documented standards at the point, but didn't want to go out to the community and say, "Just make it sound good." Epps said that having that community mirror helped point out and fix that shortcoming (and others) within the studio. Mixing standards are on the way now, Epps said, but that issue opened the team's eyes to how much help most people would need in order to handle things that people who have been making weekly Rock Band downloadable content for three years just take for granted.

Nordhaus said the worst part of the Rock Band Network development process was the legal tangles. He said the legal hassles added months to the launch of the service. When developers want to do anything new with user-generated content, Nordhaus said lawyers will get involved, and the inclusion of music made this particular process doubly complicated.

All that aside, Rock Band Network is finally live, with an average of three new songs being given final approval to go live every day, with the pipeline suggesting that number will be on the rise for some time to come.

Quote: "The barrier to entry for making Rock Band songs is quite high, and we were really worried about turning people off."

Takeaway: Including user-generated content into a game is a minefield for an abundance of reasons. Users will try to break or abuse the system, lawyers will get involved, and people will disagree on how to balance a user's amount of control versus ease of use.

Discussion

28 comments
bengino
bengino

@snailz i'll be honest, i have no problem with people wanting the swears, i actually kinda want them too. HMX is the one that are responsible and wouldn't want to face any frivolous lawsuits because of having "questionable material". I still sing the songs the way they were, it will be edited the way it is in the song when she grows up and while it isn't necessarily fair, the subject was beaten to death on the rock band forum and the devs of the game said they would not change the way they have been conducting business, so we will have to agree to disagree.

elusivemelody
elusivemelody

@snailz no problem dude! glad to hear you like us....our CIA and FBI and super-cops don't have to mount an operation to steal your toilet paper now >:D

snailz
snailz

@bengino That's what parental controls are for. All they have to do is allow their customers to filter out the explicit songs so they don't even show up when you visit the market place. It's not difficult for them to do. I respect you as a parent, and i understand how difficult it can be to shield a little one from all the nasty stuff that's out there in this day and age, but I don't think it's fair to force all of us consumers to have to make a compromise, and force an artist to self censor in order to "protect the children". That's not our, nor their responsibility, it's yours as the parent.

snailz
snailz

@SolanOcard The AO rating would only be applied if there was if there were actual, visual acts of sexuality. Explicit discussion of sex in music would not fall into that category. Besides, all Harmonix would have to do is put an "explicit lyrics" disclaimer on those songs to cover their asses, and/or allow the built-in parental controls on the consoles to filter out the M rated songs. I've heard people say some pretty disgusting things about my Mother in WoW, and it's an T rated game. I'm pretty sure the ESRB has a caveat for online play too. Don't get me started on the Hot Coffee thing. I'm likely to go into a "sex versus violence" rant that would keep me here for days, lol.

snailz
snailz

@elusivemelody 100% agree. Though I probably should've said the American MEDIA fears the F-bomb, and not the people. I like you Americans.. please don't shoot me. ;-)

bengino
bengino

the biggest problem with having songs with explicit lyrics is specifically for the reason that was given before. The game is rated T, and while most (if not all) teens have heard a swear i wouldn't personally have an issue with the occasional cuss word here and there. However, HMX is trying make this platform a fun family/party game to take out, and having to browse through the list of songs and seeing mostly explicit content would take alot of the user base. Being a parent of a very small child, i know she currently cannot understand the lyrics, but as she grows older i don't want to be stuck limiting what i can play because of the questionable lyrical content.

slicedbread117
slicedbread117

@Polybren thanks dude pumped for this...might need a little help along the way so i might ask some more questions

Polybren
Polybren

@slicedbread117 Both. You prepare the audio tracks and layout note charts on the computer, then you actually test out the tracks on the 360.

Polybren
Polybren

@stjimmy15 @zyxomma100 Sorry if it wasn't clear from the headline. Be sure to read the decks, though. They're much less prone to misinterpretation than the headlines, partly on account of us having more space to be specific.

StJimmy15
StJimmy15

@zyxomma100 exactly what I thought

zyxomma100
zyxomma100

Scared me for a second. The title of the article suggests that the RBN was going down.

Trogeton
Trogeton

@cutmaclass1 well it's more convenient to me to start a custom song from scratch other than just editing songs that already exist.. not really the sounds.. and yes you are right I hate singing

StJimmy15
StJimmy15

Um, post-mortem is after death right? So... its not really a post-mortem.

SolanOcard
SolanOcard

Snailz, it is not that simple. explicit user generated content could effect the ESRB rating of the game, and if it becomes AO, Harmonix will have a class action suit like Take Two had with GTA: San Adreas over the hot coffee mod. We are talking 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars in damages. I for one, did not ask Take Two to reimburse me for my improperly rated copy of San Andreas for 2 reasons. Why would i want to hurt a company that makes games I like? and since I did not have the PC version, and had absolutely no way to access the hot coffee scene, I do not understand how I could possibly have any legitimate right to be concerned. BTW, I have watched the hot coffee scene on-line, and I wish it was ACCESSIBLE. it is funny.

elusivemelody
elusivemelody

This is soooooo cool and exciting for me; I haven't really taken the time to check it out fully, but one thing I have to complain about is it seems like the only music being made here is crazy thrash metal and obscure indie bands that nobody knows. Not a bad thing, I just wish some of my favorite music would be put on here (come on people, read my mind!)

elusivemelody
elusivemelody

@snailz I would hesitate to say that all us Americans fear the F-bomb, as almost everyone I know throws it around every other word. But I completely agree with you that the developers are way too concerned with profanity. To me as a musician, it's part of the music. And censoring music, when everyone knows exactly what word was censored, is really dumb in my opinion and sacrifices the musical integrity of the song.

pip_boy_3000
pip_boy_3000

I find this service to be fairly average. It's not bad, but it doesn't seem to do anything revolutionary

snailz
snailz

It's awesome that Harmonix has provided this tool for musicians to be heard, but what bothers me is "Dealing with profanity and other unsavory user-generated content was a huge concern for Harmonix." Whatever happened to freedom of expression? Don't we have a right to free speech? If it's such a concern for them, why no user their freedom of self governance and simply put an "explicit lyrics" warning on the songs that are "unsavory"? Sometimes I think you americans fear the F-bomb more than the A-bomb.

cutmaclass1
cutmaclass1

@Trogeton: This isn't a music creator, this is a publisher for actual Rock Band songs. GHTunes uses synthesized sounds, this uses actual master tracks from actual songs. If you like GHTunes better then you must like NES 8-bit music more than orchestral music. Or you must really hate singing. Or you could just be completely unknowledgeable as to how this whole thing works, which is probably the case.

cheesytaco69
cheesytaco69

I love how you can just put a song in and then design from there. It's a great way for an unsigned or small record band to get there music out there.

Trogeton
Trogeton

I still prefer ghtunes it's MUCH faster than this mediocre music creator

finaleve
finaleve

Only issue I have is browsing. I'd like to see the full list of songs instead of breaking it down by letter/licenses/etc. Pretty much similar to how Rock Band's Music Store and Song Selection works. Looking forward to some good tracks.

okassar
okassar

Wow it's great that Harmonix continues to support the franchise with stuff like this instead of releasing and forgetting, good opportunity for indie bands too.

Airek49
Airek49

Best part about a lot of these tracks: they are FUN! Seriously, it's not Led Zeppelin popularity, but these bands are making some good music and they chart extremely well as far as fun factor goes. If you're growing tired of your music game (oh hi GH) then give this a shot.

Nivram045
Nivram045

wow this rapes guitar hero's music maker