Rock Band 4 is Coming Back (And It's About Time)

I Wanna Rock.

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First, the confirmation of what many suspected: yes, Rock Band 4 is officially coming, and is slated for release for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sometime in 2015.

For fans, news of the return of the dormant franchise will surely be (awful pun incoming) music to the ears. But for everyone else--those huge masses that helped propel the music/band genre into outstanding success during the previous console generation but since abandoned it--the question may be why. After five years away, why is now the right time to bring back Rock Band?

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For Harmonix project manager Daniel Sussman, it's a simple enough question to answer: Rock Band is inexorably linked with music, and as long as music is a force in all of our lives, then Rock Band has its place.

"I tie our game in music into a very concrete way. Say what you will about band games and their rise and fall, but music is still an integral part of world culture, and as long as there's an interest in music, I feel there's an opportunity for us to continue to leverage Rock Band as a way of interacting with music," he said.

"When we look at where we are with this console cycle, it's actually in a pretty similar spot to where we were when we released the first Rock Band. And guess what isn't on the PS4 or Xbox One? Rock Band. And we think it's a fun enough game that it should."

I find it hard to disagree. As someone who lists Rock Band as one of the key experiences of the last generation of consoles, I'm eager for the game's return, even as I, like many others, haven't dusted off my legion of plastic instruments at home for many months. While Sussman and Harmonix weren't ready to disclose in what specific ways Rock Band 4 would innovate on the established music game formula (more on that closer to E3 this year), he did say inclusivity would be at the heart of this new game. Splintering the user base into pro mode players or those who had keyboards or those who had the right peripherals is out. Playing as a band and feeling like a cohesive group is in.

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"We talk about Rock Band 3 within the studio as something we worked very hard on, as a phenomenal game, but in a lot of ways it's flawed in some pretty key respects," Sussman said.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to with Rock Band 4 is our design is really focused. We're focusing on the things we think are going to impact the most people, and not use game mode or hardware to splinter the audience."

"So our approach there is to really think about our development dollar, and spending that in the areas that will impact the most people. When we start thinking about the addressable audience, we want the features we develop to bring people together, and not look at hardware as a thing that will split our audience apart."

That means, of course, that new keyboards and other pro-controllers are out, with the only in-game pro-mode remaining for the new game being for the drums (due to the more direct nature of the simulation on drums). New peripherals will be coming through a partnership with Mad Catz, but they will only be guitars, drums, and microphones. As for all of the existing peripherals many of us have from the PS3/Xbox 360 games (I have three guitars and two broken drum kits at home, for example), Sussman says the team at Harmonix is "working their asses off" to support legacy controllers on new systems.

"We are actively engaged with Sony and Microsoft to support PS3 controllers on the PS4 and Xbox 360 controllers on the Xbox One," Sussman said. "It's tough because a lot of the implementation is out of our control. You're dealing with radio chips and technology that fundamentally changed between one console and the next. There is some policy we need to work through as well as some nifty engineering we have to work through, which we are."

New instruments are incoming from Mad Catz.
New instruments are incoming from Mad Catz.
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"It's one of those things that's still in progress so it's hard for me to say yes, we'll do it, but we want people to know and understand that we are working our asses off to make it done because we know it's important to people."

An even bigger challenge also looms: making sure the close to 3000 songs already available on the Rock Band network will be playable on new consoles when Rock Band 4 ships. Harmonix is also planning on making sure any songs you already own seamlessly transfer to the PS4/Xbox One.

"We have been working with Sony and Microsoft to support legacy entitlements, so that DLC you bought on the PS3 will carry forward to the PS4, and same with the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One.

This is a lot of work on two fronts. It's a lot of heavy lifting on the development side and also on the first party side," Sussman said.

"We're starting to get songs up and through the QA process now. It's one of those things that I don't want to say we'll have a set number for launch, because I don't want to be wrong, but it is our intent to support the whole catalog."

It's an ambitious goal: full support of old controllers and legacy entitlements for DLC ready to go with a brand new Rock Band game will be, frankly, an impressive achievement, and one that will earn Harmonix tremendous goodwill from fans both current and lapsed. Of course, old entitlements won't be the only thing Rock Band 4 brings. Sussman hints at new ways the team is looking at to improve band "dynamics", to shift the focus away from purely perfecting individual performance, to give players more time for "self-expression." He doesn't give me any more clues as to what these new things will be, but he is clear on one point: don't expect a slew of other Rock Band titles following 4. Rock Band 4 will be the Rock Band game for the PS4 and Xbox One.

"We want to treat this game as the game for this console generation. We are calling it Rock Band 4 because it's deserving the 4--there's a lot of innovative stuff that's built into our design. At the same time we don't envision a Rock Band 5, 6, 7 or 8. What we would rather do is build on the Rock Band 4 feature set through very deliberate content and title updates that are developed in collaboration and conversation with our community," he said.

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