Q&A: Rockin' out with Rock Band

Harmonix's Alex Rigopulos and EA Partners' David DeMartini talk about Rock Band and why neighborhood parties will soon be centered around a PS3 or Xbox 360.

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Gamers and music fans alike have been eagerly awaiting the details of Harmonix Music System's next project. Today, the development team behind Guitar Hero announced Rock Band, a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game that expands on the formula of its monster hit by adding drumming and singing.

With MTV onboard as a partner, Harmonix was able to sign deals with the major forces in the music publishing industry and has access to the master recordings of music from popular artists. Electronics Arts is also involved and will use its global reach to help distribute the game.

GameSpot had a chance to chat with Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos and EA Partners vice president David DeMartini to get more details on this ambitious project.

GameSpot: Alex, please explain Rock Band in your own words.

2005's megahit Guitar Hero.
2005's megahit Guitar Hero.

Alex Rigopulos: Sure. I guess what I would say about it is that Guitar Hero is a game that we made with a tiny budget and a fraction of a year to build it. And we're fortunate enough now to be in a position as part of MTV, where basically we're being given the creative freedom and the resources to really make the huge game that we've wanted to make for years, which is Rock Band.

It's essentially taking the core play premise of Guitar Hero but just expanding it hugely along every axis. We're building it out into a complete band experience, with guitar and bass and drums and singing, including very deep and expansive online game play. Huge recording artists are going to be in the game, including original multitrack master recordings in a lot of cases, which has been amazing.

We've also really just amped out the graphical impact on the next-gen consoles in a way that we're just very fired up about, because we think that this game is going to--in some ways--just fundamentally alter the way that people who play it experience music.

GS: There are going to be three peripherals with the game. How will they ship? Will there be different SKUs?

AR: We haven't made final decisions yet about the SKU configuration.

GS: But there will be three distinctly different peripherals, correct?

AR: Yes, there will be a guitar controller for playing the guitar and the bass parts, a drum peripheral for playing the drum parts, and a microphone for singing.

GS: Can you go into more detail about the drum peripheral?

AR: I guess I can just say that it's a really impressive piece of hardware. I'm a drummer myself, so we weren't going to settle for anything less than something that felt like a real instrument.

GS: Obviously there is going to be a lot of downloadable content, right?

Alex Rigopulos speaking at the 2007 D.I.C.E. Summit.
Alex Rigopulos speaking at the 2007 D.I.C.E. Summit.

AR: Indeed. This is an area where we have very ambitious plans. Because for us, this game really blurs the line between gaming and music, and music-making. And we view Rock Band not just as a game, but as kind of a platform for consuming and experiencing music. So in addition to the music that ships with the game, we have very big plans for building out a huge library of online expansion content.

GS: Is any of that going to be free? Lots of musicians are living paycheck to paycheck.

AR: I expect it's very likely that there will be.

GS: The players onscreen...how will they be represented? Will they have avatars, or will there be camera support?

AR: We're not really ready to dive much more into gameplay details at this point in time.

GS: Fair enough. Because you're bringing together a drummer, bass player, guitarist, and such, is there going to be a way for people to search for bandmates online?

AR: Absolutely. The whole experience is actually about reaching out to other people and forming a band together in that kind of collaborative experience of working with a group of people to form a band--to rise from obscurity into stardom and fame, and to go through that experience together.

So yes, [Rock Band will feature the] kind of community features that allow people to connect. You can play the game with a group of people in your living room if you want, but with next-gen consoles, we're really excited to allow a group of people--potentially a guitarist in Germany, a bassist in Texas, a drummer in New York, and a singer in Tokyo--all get together and form a band and compete on the world stage against other bands.

GS: Will gamers be able to do their own original stuff?

AR: I cannot really talk about that at this time.

GS: Were there any other reasons why you decided to make it strictly PS3 or Xbox 360? Is it mainly the online capabilities of those two consoles?

AR: Well, the PS3 and the 360 are the two platforms that we're prepared to talk about right now. But they're technologically the leading-edge platforms, and we're pushing so many boundaries with this game from a design and technology standpoint that those are the platforms that we felt we had to lead off with.

GS: Is there a possibility that it could reach other platforms?

AR: Certainly. We're considering a lot of options, but we're not ready to make any specific announcements about that at this point.

GS: You are obviously attracted to MTV because they were able to help you secure these really good deals with the labels.

AR: Yeah, they have longstanding, deep relationships with the music industry, and it's been incredible working with MTV to forge these new relationships with the record companies. All of the major record companies are onboard with this project: Universal, Warner, Sony, BMI, Hollywood, even. Basically, every major label group that is significant is onboard and opening up their vaults of original masters to us for this game, which is really exciting for us.

It's also exciting for us because the record companies have by and large not been able to really benefit financially from the video game industry over the last decade, and we're offering them an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the video game business by offering their content to people to experience on a deeper level.

Dave DeMartini: To a large extent, Alex is creating a platform from which the music labels can launch things or even just get distribution and span generations with various titles. This is the ultimate family collaboration game, because you have the ability for people of a variety of ages to play the game simultaneously, and people of a variety of skill levels get the opportunity to play the game simultaneously.

GS: Say you play a song and really like it. Will there be a way to buy it right there from the game?

AR: Well, again, we'll have lots to say about that down the road a little bit.

DD: That sounds like a really good idea, though.

GS: EA is going to be distributing the title and obviously has a huge reach globally. Will there be region-specific playlists, or can someone in the US rock out to some hardcore Japanese punk?

DD: Alex is making all the key creative decisions with regard to content going into the products, and we're just trying to be a supportive partner with regards to suggestions and other things. Certainly content that is specific to different regions of the world is incredibly important, and I certainly think Harmonix recognizes that.

AR: For us, music games are at least as much about the music as they are about the game...It's critical that when we go into international territories, we're working with local artists in those [areas] who have the greatest meaning and impact for the audiences in those regions.

GS: Back to the labels and the catalogs. Do you know how much of their catalog they're offering you?

AR: Essentially we have a very broad blanket relationship with all the major label groups, so at this point we're working with artists on an individual basis to get them involved in the game.

DD: I also think Alex is moving in a direction of trying to get away from a one-off track and giving the game player the opportunity to look at a recording artist's entire catalog of songs and potentially allow you to play the entire catalog rather than a specific song.

AR: Absolutely true.

GS: How did the music publishers react to your proposition for the deal?

AR: At this point we're opening up Rock Band as a platform for music entertainment in making both the record labels and the music publishers major partners in that financially. So for them it's actually an incredible opportunity to really benefit from gamers' fanaticism about the interactive entertainment by delivering their content to gamers in a way that they're thrilled to consume.

David DeMartini announces that Harmonix has teamed up with EA Partners at GDC 2007.
David DeMartini announces that Harmonix has teamed up with EA Partners at GDC 2007.

DD: It's an interesting evolution in the industry, which MTV and Harmonix have largely been a part of. Prior to MTV, people listened to music. Then with MTV, people were watching music. And now Alex has basically defined a space in gaming where people are interacting with music in an entirely new way.

So, experience with music has evolved over these three revolutions, and I think it's made people's enjoyment of music move to that next level. People who don't have any musical skills at all--ergo me--have an opportunity to be a rock star, and that's something I'm never going to experience with "a real instrument" in my hands. But to have that ability to have that experience...I mean, to a large extent, Alex and the team are bringing a certain rock-band life experience to people who would have never otherwise experienced it.

GS: Rock Band is clearly ripe for some sort of talent contest or maybe even a reality show. Anything in the pipeline like that for MTV?

AR: It's certainly the case that these are some ideas that we're thinking very actively about right now.

GS: And any chance to expand Rock Band into other genres, like maybe hip-hop or dance music?

AR: Well, certainly. For us, this is just at the very front of what will be a major transformation in music entertainment. I really believe that four or five years from now, this kind of active participation in music-making is going to be how people expect to experience the music that they love. So, certainly, Rock Band is a huge first step in that direction. But the sky is the limit in terms of the span of genres we eventually intend to reach with this.

DD: Just from what we've seen in the demos that Alex and his team have put on, it is going to be the ultimate party experience. I could see Rock Band parties forming in a neighborhood near you, where people just get out there to entertain their friends and just love the music and interact with the music that they love.

GS: Alex, I saw your speech at the D.I.C.E. Summit, and you went about a dozen years in the industry before your first big hit with Guitar Hero. Do you feel any sort of pressure for your follow-up?

AR: There's always pressure. I think the prevailing sentiment is just a sense of excitement about everything having finally come together for music games in the US.

We've been working at this for more than a decade and finally now to have the resources and the creative freedom to be making exactly the game that we want to make. [It's great] to not be limited by resources, to have a partner like MTV supporting us, have a partner like EA who is literally unparalleled in the world at what they do in marketing and distribution of games. To have all the major record companies supporting us and offering up their content to us, honestly, I and the rest of the creative team here just feel incredibly privileged and excited to be able to just be swinging for the fences with such an ambitious project that we really think can fundamentally transform music entertainment.

Excitement is the prevailing sentiment.

GS: Thank you very much, Alex and David.

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diablobasher

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I vaguely understand why people like metallica. But i do NOT understand why people like slayer... Maiden all the way baby! Some David Bowie too!

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jamaicans1234

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how is the singing part gonna be worked and scored?

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thematt1985

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If MTV is involved, would the game only be filled with rap music? And possibly commercials for Road Rules vs. Real World?

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basketcase0493

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How about some Green Day? Those would be very challenging songs if you ask me. Personally I think we need some more Van Halen!!! I wanna play Eruption until my fingers fall off baby!

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Moffe123

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I really wish that you include Metallica this time! Who hasn't heard of them? Who doesn't know their greatest hits? :P METALLICA GIVES YOU HARD BABY!

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4degrees

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FAITH NO MORE! FAITH NO MORE! FAITH NO MORE!!!!!!!!

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deadstarr

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This game has amazing potential, i honestly can't wait for it. My only real beef with it is, Are we going to be able to make original tracks or is it just like a online kareoke?

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_Sam_

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was MTV associated with guitar hero?

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lonelogan87

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thats cool now guitar hero will have something to be compared by

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lonelogan87

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[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

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thebillyman

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I'd imagine the drums will be similar to ones they already made in Japan for Drum mania. And for everyone that doesn't know, guitar games were around for a while before we got Guitar Hero in the US. Guitar Freaks is amazing. look for a local arcade version if you can. They also made it where you can hook the guitar machine and drum machine together and play at the same time. Don't know why Konami didn't bring it to the US. Probably because the Japanese music wouldn't have sold the game as well as Guitar hero did. Here's the drum controller. << LINK REMOVED >>

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Boy_Man07

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awesome! looks like it's gonna be great!

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lukey9493

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im having trouble imaging the drums? how would they play and look like? i mean look how simle, compact and easy to use the guitar is. and the microphone would be simple. i cant rap my head around those drums. plaese Harmonix, release some pics

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mierdahp

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I just hope they put a little of every genre, or at least make different versions, or maybe one version with everything

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DeathMerchant80

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the only peeve that i would have is that if its like guitar hero in any way it will really suck if you have a noobish person on your team because youll get booed off....i mean just like co op on GH2

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S1L3N7_SWAT

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Awesome!! I was thinking about how cool it would be if a game like this was made like a month ago. I cant belive it's actually being made.

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Shadow_Fire41

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"singer in Tokyo" if there is going to be a singer in Tokyo you can play with.........can we play and/or sing 'Rewrite' by Kung Fu generation? (rewrite was the song used in the opening of Fullmetal Alchemist's 2nd season, the first season had 'Ready Steady Go' which would also be nice, but the main question is, will it be more difficult then Guitar Hero?

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Munkey4098

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Intriguing...can't wait to see how this goes seems interesting especially the drums. i play drums and guitar....if it is deeper than guitar hero with different instruments that are fun looks like i may never leave my 360.

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jacnewforce07

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It's going to be great!

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Ahitsagiantant

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I must say that this sounds amazing...expensive but amazing none the less.

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koobeeny

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I hate to say it, but this probably isn't going to be what they say it will. Remember Molyneux and Fable? Yeah. Promises like these usually don't come true. Also, if they want drums to work, they need to come up with a more free-form way to do it. That arcade game Drum Mania forces you into too much. I think they should have designated spots for fills, where you can just improvise, along with actual written out fills. Actually, they need that for every instrument: Improv guitar solos, bass solos, even vocal stuff I guess...

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doomzip_basic

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This is going to be very expensive. Good idea though and if you're will to spend the cash on it.

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CameronFarmer

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Haha, I am a fellow drummer too, I agree with a dirty hippie on the double bass pedel, and while their at it, add in some good high hats.

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absolut_alek

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dude, 300 buck for the whole expirience... suck my di#?%, man, i'll keep plaing guitar hero on my ps2, because these is preety much like pure marketing

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a_dirty_hippie

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you best make the drums good. im a fellow drummer man so do it right. and throw in a double bass pedel

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Carrnevil9

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Tell me when they make the cowbell controller.

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GFofgaming

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WOW...Very ambitious. I just hope the price is right. Let the battle of the band begin.

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Drolith

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wow, me and my buddies so wanted a game like this after battling through Guitar hero 2...and here it is...the drum/guitar will be mine

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Wurz1515

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Looks awesome but I just don't like the pricing of the Drum and Microphone which would mean another 100 dollars.

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rodimus_prime85

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It would be cool to be able to play along with J-rock like Yui and Olivia... Rather then just american bands...

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chimairawr

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This sounds awesome. It's basically just GH on a larger scale, and who wouldn't want that? I think, though, instead of having region-specific playlists it would be better to have a main playlist for the game involving each reason. Heck, it could even work as a world tour in a similar way to GH2 was loosely based on a tour. Either way, I'm looking forward to it.

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Marius_Malthus

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i dont understand why ppl still criticize and say "go learn the real thing. i'm a bass player for 12 years and slap basser for 5, i have a real a band and we still love to play guitar hero against each others, its fun and simple. that's the point of games... to be fun. i loved the rockabilly tunes in guitar hero 2 :D and i hope they will put rize and YKZ (japanese bands)on the libraries :D

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bobbysbits

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i'm very skeptical about the drums. they are gonna be really expensive and really crappy. they should just stick to guitars for a few years. make a Led Zeppelin edition!!!

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DaBu

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It's gotta be done right in order for this to be pulled off. I'm really hoping that you can somehow make your own original music with your band, the possibilities would be just unbelievably endless.

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Darth_Bourkas

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Xero_Maverick The only question I have is that fact that he stated that whats most important is keep the music in the game, localized. So how are people in America, gonna play with people in Japan if our songs are different? Japanese love north american music. Especially the classics. Classic rock was, after all, humongous in japan, and I'm assuming new rock is still big there. Plus Jpop is real music anyways so I doubt itl be on this game.

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Xero_Maverick

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The only question I have is that fact that he stated that whats most important is keep the music in the game, localized. So how are people in America, gonna play with people in Japan if our songs are different?

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konradak

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Sweet... lets see how it will turn out thoo..

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Rockclmbr6

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I can't WAIT. This is the start of some major parties at my house, since I'm pretty much the only one with a 360 in my group :-)

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jedimastr

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kick flippin !

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DbleBassDrummer

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I've been a drummer for many years now, and a gamer for many years longer. And as much as I love both of them, they just don't mix.

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lulu52

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ya rly, rokkuman. I can't wait, I just hope that my friends feel the same way so we can all rock out together.

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rokkuman09

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Dude this is going to be insane! Guitar Hero was awesome, but this is going to be so much better. It's Guitar Hero with multiple peripherals, so in theory it's pretty much several games in one. This will be the coolest multiplayer (for local play) ever.

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PnutJones

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This is taking it to far. Guitar Hero was fun, its a great game to play with friends or at a party but this is just making people think they are making a band while in reality their playing fake instruments. just go out and learn the real thing.

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jakman2004

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THIS IS GOING TO BE EPIC!!!!! and japanese rock wanda... I love the idea of mad capsule markets on there

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VidGamesRok

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I would totally get this game if I had a 360 or a PS3-way to expensive. But I have a friend with a 360-maybe I can convince him to buy it.

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tidyspidey

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i need the Japanese version if it has some Electric Eel Shock in it.... playing B@STARD online would kick ass HEED MY WORDS HARMONIX!! ELECTRIC EEL SHOCK!!!

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Modx22

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well if your into music this sounds like fun. this may not do as well as guitar hero. its a little intimdating for the non music person. i would be to scared to try a game where you have to sing.

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WandaToKyouzou

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Thanks for naming "Japanese punk" as a specific genre. Japanese rock is awesome. I'd be sick to play to L'Arc en Ciel and AKFG

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Peeekz

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I suspect that what they'll do is, if you want to play drums, you buy the game with the drums peripheral, want to sing? then buy the game with the mic peripheral. Want all three? I suspect you could buy all three if you want. The cost won't be as much as it sounds, I suspect, unless you want the opprotunity to do it all. As for MTV being involved, I think that that'll show in the visuals of it more than the music. With all of those record labels signed on, they can pick and choose what they want in the game.