Sep 042012

Below is an After the Fact interview with Nick Chester, publicist at Harmonix Music Systems.

What goes into assembling the perfect setlist? On a side note, who was the one that proposed Jungle Boogie to be in the game? I imagine John Drake just broke into a meeting yelling Jungle Boogie, playing the song through a ginormous boombox.

We have this amazing Music Ops team here at Harmonix that does an incredible job of not only shaping the stuff you get with our core games, but the ongoing downloadable content that appears in the Music Store… we’re going on almost five years of weekly content for the Rock Band franchise, which is kind of insane.

In the case of Rock Band Blitz, it was definitely about making sure we had a really well-rounded soundtrack that covered multiple genres and featured some major artists – we didn’t skimp because we were working with a downloadable title. It’s pretty broad, and I’ve seen someone refer to it as “schizophrenic,” which is guess is fair – we’ve got everything from Kelly Clarkson to Iron Maiden to Barenaked Ladies to Elton John. But that’s definitely intentional; you can’t please everyone, but you can cover a lot of bases and try to have a little something for everyone, and just packing the soundtrack with hits.

The process for whittling down the soundtrack to the 25 songs you see on Rock Band Blitz is pretty intense, and definitely involved shouting and long email threads that never seemed to die. At one point, we had a good list of 50 or 60 candidates – all great songs – that we had to get down to the 25 songs we would ultimately come bundled with Rock Band Blitz. That involved a lot of playing them in the game, deciding what was the most fun in the context of the gameplay, and things like that. Seeing as how playing almost any song in Rock Band Blitz is fun, that long process of “fun testing” songs wasn’t all that bad. Problem is, we designed Rock Band Blitz to be fun with a music catalog of over 3,000 songs, so deciding what’s “the most fun” is a bit of a challenge. I think we landed in a really nice spot, though.

As for how “Jungle Boogie” wound up on the soundtrack, it’s not only a great song, but the scat vocal track is basically what John Drake sounds like when he’s hopped up on a dozen cans of Diet Coke, so it seems like a pretty good match.

Were there ever any thoughts of implementing multiplayer?

A lot of prototyping was done on Rock Band Blitz before it was even called Rock Band Blitz, and certainly the idea of multiplayer crossed the table at some point. But as the game took shape, it was obvious that nailing this core, single-player experience was paramount, and the focus on asynchronous, score- and goal-based multiplayer content (with what would ultimately become Rock Band World) was the way to go this time around.

What was one of the most popular songs to play in the Harmonix office?

Because they are his favorite band, Drake makes us play Nickelback songs a lot. Not sure what’s up with that.

Are there any more Rock Band games planned? Or any Rock Band hardware in the works?

Right now we’re focusing on supporting Rock Band Blitz and Rock Band 3, and given that the music library keeps growing, both of those games should keep gamers busy for a while. There’s certainly no lack of content for people to dig in to.

Any chance that Harmonix will be diverging away from the music/rhythm game genre anytime here soon?

The teams here at Harmonix are some of the most talented, passionate people in this industry. The amazing, creative stuff they do on a daily basis kind of blows my mind. We do have “Music Systems” in our name, so I think we’ll always have music and sound at the core of what we do as a studio. That said, we’re always interesting in innovating and trying new things, and you can never tell where that’ll lead us.

How long do you guys plan on putting music up on the Rock Band Music Store?

As long as there’s a hunger for more content, we want to support Rock Band 3 and Rock Band Blitz. So, you know, keep building those libraries and keep telling us what you’d like to see!

Any hints for some music that may be releasing in the next few months?

Music licensing and song authoring is hard, so things are always in flux. But I will say that we’re actively listening to the community and going after new music for the game. An example of some recent DLC we released that was sort of spurred by requests is music by Nightwish – we saw the band being requested quite a bit, so we went out there and made it happen; we just released our first Nightwish track no too long ago.

I can say we have a lot of great stuff in the pipeline, for fans of all genres, including music from artists that haven’t appeared in our games yet, so stay tuned.

How much inspiration for Rock Band Blitz would you say originally spawned from Frequency and Amplitude?

Obviously those games hold a special place in the hearts of a lot of folks here at Harmonix, and that controller-based beatmatch gameplay is in the DNA of the studio. But when you play Rock Band Blitz and get beyond its surface, you see that it’s very much its own game – there is so much gameplay and strategy in Rock Band Blitz that we hadn’t explored in previous games.

How much easier was it to work on a Rock Band game without instruments as opposed to one with instruments?

Both styles of game pose their own series of challenges. With Rock Band 1, there was that initial struggle to make the core gameplay of playing with a full band feel tight and fun. And then going forward with each iteration of that series, layering on innovations like vocal harmonies, keyboards, and Pro features and making those feel right. With Rock Band Blitz, it was all about nailing that over-the-top, fast-paced arcadey action, but also keeping things musical at the same time. Tuning controls, player feedback, balancing the Power-ups, tasking our web team here with building a Facebook application – something they’ve never done before, and absolutely nailed – is definitely challenging.

Nothing is easy in development, but we’re hearing that players are getting wrapped up in multi-hour, late night Rock Band Blitz sessions, so it seems like all of the moving pieces came together, and we couldn’t be happier.

Where does Harmonix go from here?

Well, we’re putting the finishing touches on Dance Central 3, which ships this October and is looking bonkers good. The fact that the team here was able to layer so much amazing new content on top of what was already the top-rated franchise on Kinect for Xbox 360 is both crazy and really exciting. We’ll also be supporting Rock Band 3 and Rock Band Blitz – more music, weekly goals in Rock Band World, things like that. As for the future, we’ve got some surprises up our sleeves – a bunch, actually!! – but we have nothing to announce yet.

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