Q&A: Harmonix on Beatles, AC/DC

Boston developers talk about signing the Fab Four and Aussie hard rockers; why Europeans should still care about Rock Band.

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Rock Band 2 received an official European release date this week, and will be making its way to the Xbox 360 on November 21 in the UK, with the PlayStation 3 and Wii versions to arrive later. EA invited us to have a jam with the already reviewed "band in a box," as well as the new AC/DC Live: Rock Band Track Pack. On hand at the event was Rock Band lead designer Dan Teasdale and Harmonix public-relations man John Drake to talk about Rock Band 2 and the new Beatles game that was announced while this event took place.

GSUK: So tell us about this new Beatles game.
Dan Teasdale: We've just announced that Harmonix is working with Apple Corps to create a Beatles game, expanding the entire history of the band and bringing across the Beatles experience coming out in Q4 2009.

GSUK: How important is getting the Beatles in a game?
DT: The Beatles are amazing. To make it clear, this isn't a Rock Band game, this is a new experience for the Beatles. It's a way to experience the Beatles' music, it's a way to bring this to a whole new audience as well as people who are huge fans of the Beatles. From our end it's amazing...the Beatles are the biggest band in the world. They're music legends, and to be able to bring that experience to everyone is a great honour.

GSUK: How did you convince Apple Corps to lend you the Beatles' music?
John Drake: We've been in talks with them for a very, very, long time... [Apple Corps CEO] Jeff Jones was saying that they respected and appreciated what Harmonix does creatively for rhythm games...being pioneers in the field, bringing the full band experience, and we, of course, are colossal fans of the Beatles so there's not too much to think about why it's a great deal.

GSUK: How does the gameplay of The Beatles Experience differ from Rock Band?
DT: We're not talking specifically about gameplay or track listing or anything like that. We'll be bringing more information about this in the not-too-distant future.

GSUK: How long have you been working on this game?
DT: We started the process about 17 months ago, so it's great to finally talk about it.

JD: And I'll say from a PR perspective it is amazing that this has not leaked out in 17 months. This is the happiest day of our lives.

GSUK: You must have a pretty loyal bunch over there at Harmonix, not to have let the cat out of the bag?
JD: The team's grown from 90 to about 270 in that time. It's really outstanding to see how close people are and how important it is [to people] at Harmonix, that they're willing to take the most exciting news and not tell their parents. We've kept it very close to our vests because we wanted nothing more than to make this game.

GSUK: Why did you decide to make a stand-alone AC/DC Rock Band game?
DT: We chose it because AC/DC is one of the biggest bands in the world, they have some of the most amazing rock songs... I'm biased because I'm Australian [laughs] but they have songs that are perfect for Rock Band, and so the Live in Donnington track pack, besides being a best of AC/DC, is also just [full of] amazing energy in there, hearing the Donnington crowd as you play and having amazing solos in there, it's a great set of song.

We have a track-pack model already for people who can't access the Rock Band music store, and we're using that model for AC/DC as well. You buy the AC/DC game from retail and there's a code on the back of the manual that you can use to export those songs into Rock Band and Rock Band 2. You can go and play all of those 18 songs in battles, World Tour, Rock Band Quick Play, and it's treated as DLC from then on.

GSUK: What would you say to Europeans that were put off by the pricing and delays on Rock Band and might be considering Rock Band 2?
DT: I'm really sad that it turned out that way because it's an amazing game, and to have the various delays that we've had and having to sort out licensing in various territories is a massive pain. But the good news is that we've sorted that out now. It was our first time as MTV Games going in and making those connections, but now that those connections are made we can reduce the time per title, so for Rock Band 2 it's a two-month delay, which isn't great, but it's in the realm of acceptability. We've got our DLC platform working across all territories now so we're releasing new songs every week, day and date with the US release, and I think from this point on you'll see the gap closing closer and closer to the US release.

GSUK: When is the PS3 version coming out in Europe?
DT: I can't talk about the PS3 date but it will be close after the November 3 date for Xbox 360.

GSUK: Is it a priority to have region-specific DLC?
DT: I think you'll definitely see more localised content not just from UK bands but French bands, German bands, Australian bands, and other regions. I think it's the best way to get it out because it doesn't just serve that audience, it allows people from outside the UK to play these bands as well.

GSUK: Do you think it's difficult for bands from small regions, such as Australia [to feature in Rock Band]?
DT: I think there are bands that are big enough to survive, like Jet, Silverchair, that kind of stuff. I think is a no-brainer to put on the platform because they're known bands. I think it's more stuff like Regurgitator where nobody knows outside of Australia.

At the same time they fit it perfectly. That's one of the cool things about the music store, it's less risk for us than putting it on the disc so we can takes chances with Australian content, or unearthed content, kind of the same way we did Jimmy Buffet in the US. That was our first test of going a little outside what we'd usually do, and it went really well, so I think you'll see more stuff like that.

GSUK: Why did you want to include backwards compatibility for Rock Band in Rock Band 2?
DT: We wanted to make a platform for experiencing music. We're musicians first and game developers second. We're not focused on pushing a new SKU every year, we want to build a music collection the same way you build a CD collection or a digital music collection, and so with that in mind it's a no-brainer to support it because you've already bought this music, why shouldn't you play it on future games? Why shouldn't I be able to play my Rock Band music in Rock Band 2 because I already bought them? It's more just making sure you have this central library of songs you can play.

GSUK: Do you plan to have all future versions of Rock Band to be backwards compatible?
DT: The dream is that everything going forwards will be able to play the stuff you buy now. We want to have you keep that music as long as you possibly can.

GSUK: Why the decision to have a Xbox 360 exclusive launch window?
DT: The main thing with Microsoft is--a lot of people see it as exclusive, and we do have a marketing deal with them--but from a development perspective is more that they helped us finish the game earlier. We have Microsoft people fly out to our Boston office all the time, we fly over to Microsoft all the time, they've changed things on the Xbox 360 for us specifically, which is mind-blowing, like the fact that they'd do an update to the Xbox development kit solely because we wanted something in Rock Band. Disc export is a great example, and cross-title compatibility wasn't possible until we really pushed for it. Stuff like that, where because they're helping us out and because they're essentially on the development team at that point, we can finish the game on the Xbox 360 before we finish it on the Wii and the PS3.

I'd love for Sony and Nintendo to do the same thing and work with us. Until then, we probably need to spend a bit of extra time getting the same features in.

GSUK: Tell us about the new instruments for Rock Band 2.
DT: You don't really realise until you do it, [but] it's incredibly hard making plastic instruments, even for people who have been doing it for years. Every time you make a new thing you don't know how it's going to break or fall apart until you get it out there. One of the things I'm really happy about with the Rock Band 2 instruments is that we've learnt a lot from making Rock Band one drums and Rock Band one guitars. We have a metal-reinforced kick pedal, for example, so it's virtually indestructible to snap metal, we have quieter drum pads with silicon tops, everything's wireless now, we have quieter fret buttons so they don't clack anymore, we have a massively sturdier strum bar with a shorter throw and a tighter feel so people have more of a feeling of when they're hitting.

One of the things I'm really excited about with the Rock Band 2 guitar is we have an autocalibrator, so we have a video camera and a microphone in the guitar, so you hold it up to the TV, we flash some lights, play some sounds, and you have a perfect calibration. It's one of the cool things of having hardware and software teams in the same house is that we can work on this stuff together, and not just getting hardware from another company and trying to get it to work with our game.

GSUK: Thanks for you time.

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