Are You Ready To Rock?

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There's a good reason that the hottest video game this holiday season—and one that you probably can only obtain by bidding exorbitant sums on Ebay—is Harmonix' Rock Band. The same developer that invented the music rhythm genre with games like Frequency, Amplitude, Karaoke Revolution, and then the smash hit Guitar Hero, has made the most of its larger budget (courtesy of new owner MTV Games and new distributor Electronic Arts) and brought a full band experience to XBox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2 gamers.

While the Guitar Hero franchise, which publisher Activision now owns through its purchase of Red Octane, continues with developer Neversoft creating Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Harmonix wanted to expand the game play experience beyond two guitars. Rock Band allows four players to join a band in the same room or virtually via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. In addition to bass and lead guitars, which have been completely revamped from their Guitar Hero roots to become more like real instruments (the in-box guitar is a replica Fender Telecaster), the game introduces a drum peripheral and a microphone.

"Over time, we'd like to blur the line between game play and actual musical performance," said Greg LoPiccolo, vice president, product development, Harmonix. "Rock Band takes an important first step in that direction, but we have a long way to go. We can't wait to start working on the next set of cool features."

From the outset, back when the team was creating the original Guitar Hero, they wanted to translate their own love of music into a gameplay experience. "Many of us—CEO, audio director, art director, peripherals director, myself—either are currently in bands or used to be in a band," said LoPiccolo. "We live and breathe rock and roll, which makes the creative process so much more natural and meaningful than if we had to 'study' the subject. Our team would be a terrible choice to make, say, a real-time strategy game or a tactical shooter. But we were pretty much born to make this game, so a lot of choices came very naturally." In fact, as part of the creative development process, all 140 employees, from the front receptionist to the CEO, spent three months in four-member bands testing the game. This allowed the development team to get great feedback, but it also ended up spawning a number of real bands. Many Harmonix employees came from the music industry—most were members of small bands.

"The entire design team is in different bands," said senior designer Dan Teasdale. "The core goal of developing this game was to give players the feeling of being part of a band. We were able to create that game play out of our own experiences in real bands. When we had the launch party for Rock Band, we had four real bands featuring Harmonix employees who were inspired by playing the game."

In addition to better graphics and deeper game play, Rock Band introduces a much more robust character creation editor. Within the Rocker Creator, players can choose from 120 tattoos from real tattoo parlors like New York Adorned and place them on the arms and chest of their avatars. There's even the ability to spell out words via tattoos, and create custom band stickers to put on the instruments. "The character creator is amazing," said LoPiccolo. "You really have the ability to create very customized, individual characters, and the level of polish is incredible. The outfits alone are unbelievable."

Harmonix blended the real world with the game world on clothing, too. The company brought in fashion designer Brad Bernadetti, who didn't know a thing about making games, to oversee all of the game's virtual clothing, which gamers can purchase at one of four shops that were inspired by Boston's garment district. Once the in-game clothes were in place, Ryan Lesser, art director at Harmonix, spent a good part of the six months before launch taking some of those designs and turning them into real t-shirts, drum cases and other real-world items that gamers can purchase at "None of these items feature the Rock Band logo," said Lesser. "Instead, they're all directly inspired by the game or feature artwork from the game. We wanted clothing that people could wear out and look stylish."

This being a music game, it also features the largest collection of songs ever assembled for a videogame. Music from the 1960s (The Rolling Stones), '70s (KISS), '80s (R.E.M.), '90s (Foo Fighters) and today (The Killers) come packed in the game. Harmonix is taking advantage of the broadband players to keep the game play fresh. "We'll be releasing new content every week, and we already have a quite a bit of material cued up and ready to go including multiple tracks from Metallica, 18 tracks from the Grateful Dead and the first full album will be The Who's Who's Next," said LoPiccolo. "Ultimately, we plan to support a big library of music from all genres of rock, so every player can build out a song list that conforms to their individual taste." Harmonix has set up a Music Advisory Board with professionals within the music industry to oversee the inclusion of new music for the game. After reading about the new game in the paper, Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven) contacted Harmonix about Rock Band and now heads up the board.

As the players progress through the game in the Band World Tour mode, the look and feel of the more than 40 venues in the game will change with the style of music. Lesser said that all of the fictional venues, ranging from the cold stone-walled underground clubs of Germany to the huge stadiums in Tokyo were inspired by real places. The team scoured the world for inspiration. Since many developers actually played in some of these clubs around the globe, they brought their own memories to the game. "The entire game has a very late '70s rock feel," said Lesser. "Bands like Boston and Yes had these huge light shows as part of their concerts. We've also used different effects to bring the era of each song to life, so there's grainy stock footage for '80s bands like Beastie Boys and the bands of the '60s have a psychedelic feel.

With so many band members, especially younger artists, playing games on the road and in buses, the marriage between Harmonix and the music industry has been mutually beneficial, according to LoPiccolo. "Most artists now get the concept and understand that Rock Band allows fans to experience their music in a much more immersive and connected way," said LoPiccolo. "It is also a new market for artists and labels, which has very much gotten their attention as the CD market continues to decline."

With more schools around the country today cutting music programs out of curriculum, Harmonix' videogame creations are actually introducing musical instruments to kids. The developer has received anecdotal reports that guitar teachers nationwide are seeing a big influx of new students who have been inspired by music games. "We'll see if that translates to drums and vocals over the next year or so," said LoPiccolo. "I'm betting that it will."

While playing on expert mode in Guitar Hero or Rock Band won't translate seamlessly to real guitar prowess, the new drum peripheral actually will. As a result, the game could be teaching a new generation of drummers how to rock. "Rock Band drums skills are much more relevant to real drumming, because the single most difficult aspect of real drumming is independent limb coordination, and the Rock Band drum game requires mastery of that skill," said LoPiccolo. "To be a truly proficient drummer, you'd still need to get actual drums and practice them; it's not like the game turns you into an experienced drummer. But the core skills are completely transferable, which is very exciting."

Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, senior producer of Rock Band, had never picked up a pair of wooden drum sticks in her life. Now she can play the real drums. "Rock Band is more than just a game that creates this illusion of four players making this amazing music together," said Rosenthal-Newsom. "It's about the role of each band member and instrument. We've made sure that each song has creative pauses to emphasize the skills of the guitarist through solos, the ability of the singer to take a break and interact with the audience and the drummer to be able to go crazy on the drums."

The Harmonix crew, which recently moved into a larger office just down the street from MIT, believes there's room for both Rock Band and Guitar Hero in the game world today, especially since the two games offer such different experiences. And the creative process for Rock Band hasn't stopped. In addition to the downloadable music, Harmonix is working on new instruments for high-end and casual consumers, as well as new peripherals, that will expand the experience. In fact, early in 2008, gamers should get a bass controller and potentially a high-end drum set. Daniel Sussman, director of hardware development at Harmonix, said a lot of what the team builds and designs for next year will come from fan input. Basically, what the fans want will dictate the direction of how this music gaming experience lives on.

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