Last month, Harmonix and MTV Games announced Rock Band Network, a new way for established and aspiring musicians to get their own songs into the rhythm game franchise. Amidst the promise of a new business model that cultivates unknown talent, lowers barriers to entry, gives musicians a new way to earn money, and reshapes the way people view rhythm games, some of the details might have been glossed over.
Harmonix vice president of product development Greg LoPiccolo recently took some time to talk to GameSpot about a number of the more technical details of the Rock Band Network. Along the way, he provided insight into the peer-editing process, the need to have separate Rock Band and Rock Band Network stores, and how not even Harmonix itself is sure how this initiative will play out once it goes live.
GameSpot: OK, suppose I'm a struggling indie band with an album I want to release on Rock Band Network. Take me through the process in a nutshell.
Greg LoPiccolo: OK, I get myself an Xbox 360, a Gold [Xbox Live] account, and I sign up for a Microsoft XNA account, which costs me $99 a year. Then me, or somebody in the band, downloads the specs from the Rock Band Network Web site and reads up on what to do. First, you have to have the multitrack recordings of your songs. You need to call the multitracks back up and mix them out into multitrack stems according to the Rock Band specs. Then, some enterprising soul has to open up an MIDI sequencer [like Reaper] and chart all the note information.
We have a PC tool called Magma that you download from the site, and once all of your multitrack stems and MIDI files are complete, you load them into the Magma tool, which does error checking and tells you if you've got viable stuff. Then you use Magma to transfer it into your Xbox 360, where you can audition it. So you basically play-test your own song until you're happy with it.
Once it's fully polished, you log on and upload it to creators.rockband.com, where all the other Creators Club folks can download it and evaluate it. It's a play test and review process where people in the closed forums can give you feedback about your song, whether it was fun, too difficult, or so forth. Then you submit it for formal peer review, which is the second phase of play test. It's more technically oriented, where people are checking for copyright infringement and profanity and technical completeness. Once it passes that, which is sort of an automated process, it gets automatically dropped into the Rock Band Network Store and people can go buy it.
GS: Is there a way for bands that aren't technically inclined to have other people do the heavy lifting for them?
GL: There is. There's a whole cottage industry of independent authoring people cropping up. If you go onto the Rock Band Network, there's already a fair amount of networking taking place in the forums. These people are actively soliciting work, and various kinds of contractual arrangements are evolving. Some people are interested in doing this as a fee for service, where you just pay them money and they author your stuff and give it back to you. Other companies are exploring ideas whereby they submit it and get the revenue, then share the revenue with you.
GS: So you're basically serving as a Craigslist almost; just connecting people and not making any kind of testament to the quality of work that you'll receive or guaranteeing anything?
GL: That's exactly right. The arrangement we're making with people is whoever submits to us is representing that they have the rights to the material they're submitting, and those are the people we pay royalties to. Whatever happens outside those walls is up to individuals to decide between them.
GS: Is any of this automated? Will the tools you release suggest note charts for songs? Can they take an expert note track and then use an algorithm to break it down for hard, medium, and easy tracks?
GL: Generally speaking, we don't do automatic track generation. The easy, medium, and hard tracks are definitely less work than expert, since they are usually a subset of expert. But creating good tracks for the other difficulties is something of an art and one of the areas that we are focusing a lot of attention on with our documentation and assistance to our beta community.
The one exception to this is drums, where we have a tool built into Reaper that will auto-track expert drums for you on a first pass. However, you'll probably still want to mess around with it a bit. Certainly for animation and lighting scripting, lip synch...it'll auto-generate a track for you, and then you can override a lot of that information if you want to get into that.
Our sense is that the authoring community itself is probably going to be writing their own plug-ins and sharing them and so forth. We expect the tools to evolve in the user community pretty quickly.
GS: Will established labels or bands use Rock Band Network? What advantage would it have for them?
GL: Yes, we're in close touch with a number of labels. We've seen a huge amount of interest. A lot of labels have been presenting stuff to us for inclusion as regular downloadable content, but we simply don't have the bandwidth here to author up a huge flood of stuff that people are interested in getting into the game. In many cases, labels will just take matters into their own hands and either farm out the authoring or hire people in-house to do it themselves, so we expect quite a bit of mainstream material to end up on the network, as well as unknown stuff that people do in their garages.
GS: Do you expect this to change the way you go through your normal week-to-week Rock Band Store releases?
GL: Not really. That's actually planned pretty far in advance. We have a long list of stuff. Quite frankly, this is new territory for us as well, and part of what we're interested in doing is sitting back and watching it unfold. It may well have some impact that we can't predict, but right now our DLC plans pretty much remain as they are.
GS: How are you going to keep the overall quality of offerings on Rock Band Network good enough to attract people? Could I upload 1,000 tracks of atonal nonsense or handclap solos, so long as they didn't cause the machine to crash?
GL: It won't make it through the peer-review process. Everything has to be reviewed and approved in detail by a finite number of Creators Club peers.
GS: So those peers are filtering based on the quality of the song, how fun it is to play...
GL: Well, the primary filtration is on technical issues, making sure it's playable on every instrument in every difficulty, it doesn't contain copyrighted material, it doesn't contain profanity, and so forth. We're not interested at the outset in placing a lot of constraints on what people want to do. We're going to monitor it as it goes. Things that are unplayable, we don't expect to make it through review. Beyond that, there may be things that don't match our personal taste, but that stuff we're happy to let the market decide for themselves.
GS: Will it be possible to release cover versions of songs through Rock Band Network?
GL: It will not. The basic distinction is you have to have publishing permission to submit to us. If you own the publishing and recording rights to the songs you submit, then you're good, but generally that won't be the case for covers.
GS: But you'll have some function in place so a band that does have permission to release a cover version like that can be able to get around it?
GL: Yeah. A lot of it's automated, but in any kind of special case situation, we do have humans available here to talk to. If you can represent the information to do it, we'll evaluate it in good faith, and if it adds up, we'll go forward.
GS: Will users be able to preview songs and post user-feedback reviews of them to let others know what's good and what's not?
GL: Anytime a song is approved for release, it'll get an auto-generated page on the Web site with all the salient information. You can do a streaming preview on the Web site, and any song on the Rock Band Network Store on the console, you can play the first minute of it for free.
GS: How are you going to help bands promote their songs? Do you have any specifics yet?
GL: Not really. We're still working all that out. We'll have a certain amount of editorial oversight, song of the week, label of the week. We'll call out new releases in the store itself, and what we expect to do is evolve the Web site over time. There are good sorting tools, so you can sort by genre, by band, or who did the note charting. In the store built into the game, it's very easy to zero in on the content you're looking for.
Longer term, we want to have a sophisticated recommendation engine built into the Web site itself and turn that more into a community. The first cut will not have those features.
GS: These songs will go up on the Rock Band Network Store instead of the standard Rock Band Store. What is the need for the division?
GL: It's really a different set of songs. The regular Rock Band store is pretty well tuned. It's a well-established format we don't want to mess with. And just mechanically, to build a user interface for a store that could hold potentially 1,000 songs but is easily navigable with a console controller is a bigger challenge than we'd anticipated for in the original Rock Band Store. So we had to completely rethink the user interface.
GS: What potential problems are you mindful of with such an arrangement? Do you expect problems to arise where bands have some songs on the standard Rock Band Store and others on the Rock Band Network store?
GL: That could happen for certain acts. I don't think we see that necessarily as a big deal. But we're willing to say up front that we don't understand every aspect of how this is going to play out. We're very excited about the creative opportunity this creates for the bands participating, but it's a work in progress. But we think we thought through all the basics in terms of the experience you'll have on day one when we throw the doors open.
GS: Will bands be able to pull their tracks from the Rock Band Network if they want?
GL: They will. Any they've already sold will remain sold, but you can sort of cancel your offer at any time.
GS: Will bands retain all other rights to the songs and commercialize them however they want?
GL: Yes, the license we're looking for is a non-exclusive license.
GS: So if they wanted to turn around and sell it to a Guitar Hero game?
GL: We don't place any restrictions [on that]. We're just looking for a license to market it through the Rock Band Network.
GS: Will users need to keep up an active membership in the XNA Creators Club in order to claim their royalties on these tracks?
GL: No, they can let their membership lapse and still collect royalties.
GS: What are the international plans for Rock Band Network? Will these songs be available simultaneously worldwide? Can the artists control which territories can download their music?
GL: There's nothing in place that would allow someone to determine region. If it's in the Rock Band Network Store, it's in the Rock Band Network Store.
GS: What can you tell me about the launch schedule? A late August beta start was the last you said about it.
GL: The beta has been moved to late September. We haven't said yet when the full launch is going to be.
GS: And will it launch in just North America to start with?
GL: Our first phase is creators in the US only, with songs released in US, Canada, and Europe (except Germany). We are limited for now to regions that XNA supports (hence the lack of Germany) but plan to expand our territories as soon as it's reasonable or us to do so.