Rock Band Hardware Q&A

Harmonix producer Daniel Sussman tells us about the new hardware peripherals in Rock Band.

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Rock Band, as the name implies, expands on the music rhythm game genre by adding more players and more instruments alongside the guitarist to create an entire band. The complete Rock Band ensemble consists of a vocalist, a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist, and a drummer. The new instruments are a microphone, a drum set, and upgraded Fender Stratocaster guitars for the lead and bass guitarists.

The extra peripherals will set the price of the game close to the $200 mark, but the success of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II makes the pricing easier to accept. If players are willing to pay $70-$90 for a single-player guitar game, $200 doesn't sound unreasonable to get the full four-player band experience. We caught up with Harmonix producer Daniel Sussman to find out more about the Rock Band hardware.

The vocalist, drummer, and lead guitarist all have single-player campaigns in Rock Band. Sorry, Flea.
The vocalist, drummer, and lead guitarist all have single-player campaigns in Rock Band. Sorry, Flea.

GameSpot: Will I be missing out if I use an older guitar model such as the Gibson SG or the X-Plorer, or will I be able to retrofit it with new accessories? Perhaps through the X-Plorer effects-pedal port?

Daniel Sussman: I don't know about specific guitar models, since that's something only the manufacturer can answer. But I can say that Rock Band is designed to work with the open-controller standards of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms, and should therefore work with third-party controllers that are also based on those standards. However, we've worked really hard to raise the bar with our Fender Strat controller by adding features like the 5-way toggle switch and extra fret buttons, which allow you to show off your gameplay and style in new ways.

GS: Does the new Strat have a built-in tilt sensor?

DS: Yes, it does. With the Fender Strat, you will find all of the features that people are used to, plus some added bonus features never before seen on a guitar controller.

The Strat's fret buttons have the colors printed on the side to keep the guitar face looking clean.
The Strat's fret buttons have the colors printed on the side to keep the guitar face looking clean.

GS: Can you explain how solos work with the lower fret buttons? How will the game get players to use the new buttons?

DS: A lot of the inspiration for the lower fret buttons came out of the fun factor of playing solos up there. They provide a really nice opportunity to showboat. When you get to a solo section in Rock Band and play on the upper frets, we make every note a hammer-on/pull-off. This means you don't need to strum at all. You can do two-finger tapping; you can raise your strum hand to the heavens; whatever you want. Or you can always strum along as you normally would. We've been careful to make sure that you are not punished by the game if you're not using a Fender Strat--you just miss out on some of the fun stuff.

GS: Did you test out any new guitar features that didn't make the cut?

DS: Yes, we did. A lot of our early design was centered on an abstract tenet of "guitariness". We really wanted to deepen the simulation of playing a guitar. In that vein, we had a lot of ideas on the table that were meant to make our Fender Strat controller feel less like a game controller and more like a guitar. We were able to keep some of these (for example, having the buttons flush with the neck and a clickless strum bar), but we lost a handful as well.

The Strat's five-way switch lets players toggle between effects such as flanger, echo, or chorus.
The Strat's five-way switch lets players toggle between effects such as flanger, echo, or chorus.

GS: What kind of challenges did you have to overcome to add wireless instrument support?

DS: We didn't experience many technological problems in our efforts to go wireless. The PS3 Strats are all wireless, and we've been working very closely with Microsoft on our wireless technology for the Xbox 360 Strats.

GS: Four peripherals and only three USB ports…will the Xbox 360 package include a USB hub?

DS: Yes, the Xbox 360 Rock Band Special Edition bundle will include a USB hub.

GS: What was the most challenging part of designing the drums? Were there any hard compromises on pad count, pad layout, and materials?

DS: The most challenging thing with the drums was satisfying different people's playing styles. We had to plan for people who hit lightly and people who wail on our drum set. Personally, I'm very satisfied with where we ended up.

The drum set features four pads and a pedal. The pads are detachable from the stand in case you want to place them on a table.
The drum set features four pads and a pedal. The pads are detachable from the stand in case you want to place them on a table.

GS: Would you eventually like to produce premium-quality Rock Band instruments?

DS: Yes, totally.

GS: What happens if I plug the drums into a PC? Can I use it with a sequencer program?

DS: The drums are really just a glorified handheld controller that you hit with sticks, so, no, you can't use them like a V-Drum set. Not yet…

GS: Is the game compatible with all PS3 and Xbox 360 headsets? (What's the best way to tambourine with a headset mic?)

DS: Rock Band is compatible with the current collection of headsets, and the Xbox 360 hardware will ship with a plug adapter that will let you plug the three-prong Xbox 360 headsets into the drum or guitar if needed. When it comes to creating the tambourine or cowbell effect, the software will also recognize vocal sounds like a "pow" or a "pop" in addition to a physical tap. You sure do look a lot cooler, though, when you're tapping the microphone against your hand or leg like a real rock star would do with a tambourine.

GS: Can you use multiple mics in case other people want to jump in on the vocals?

DS: Rock Band features a head-to-head tug-of-war mode, which supports 2 microphones. However, in full band play, you can only have one singer.

Just like with real drums, it's easier to hold down the kick pedal while waiting than to keep your foot in the air.
Just like with real drums, it's easier to hold down the kick pedal while waiting than to keep your foot in the air.

GS: As we understand it, bandmates won't be able to hear the vocalist sing when playing online. Are there plans to add that functionality in the future?

DS: When playing online with others, your bandmates cannot hear you sing; they can only watch your pitch and score on the screen to ensure you're keeping up to par. I can't speak to future plans in this area at this time.

GS: Is there any way to record and play back performances?

DS: My feeling is that the magic of the performance really happens outside of the game, in the living room with the people playing the game. My advice is that, if you want to immortalize your performance, buy a video camera and record the performance.

GS: Did you consider making any other instruments? It seems like a lot of people are asking for a keyboard.

DS: Over time, I think you'll see other instruments. I'm kind of a snobby rock purist and think that guitar, bass, and drums are really the only worthwhile components to any rock band.

The Strat really does resemble the original, right down to the 'Contour Body' patent lettering.
The Strat really does resemble the original, right down to the 'Contour Body' patent lettering.

GS: Would you like to eventually evolve the Rock Band franchise or launch a new one with true-to-life instruments that can actually teach people how to play?

DS: Good question. I think that we are very conscious of the fact that we're making a video game and that the experience needs to be fun all the time. I think that you will see a decent crossover from gamer to musician as the simulation becomes more realistic. The drums are a good example of a simulation that is pretty close to the real thing. I think that's cool.

GS: Thanks, Daniel!

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