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.
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.
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.

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