Rock Band 4 Interview: Twitch, The Beatles, Freestyle Mode

On October 6th, Harmonix will release their fourth Rock Band title on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This is the first time that Harmonix has developed a console iteration of Rock Band in five years, and it will be their first title on the new generation of consoles. APGNation’s Thomas Hughes recently had the chance to talk with Harmonix PR and Communications Lead, Nick Chester about the company’s recent work on the release.

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What is it like to be once again working on a Rock Band title, especially considering that it has been five years since a dedicated console version was released?  Are you approaching development a little differently this time around?

Nick Chester: For sure, the studio needed a bit of distance from Rock Band, to explore other possibilities in the music space. That’s actually really healthy, and a bunch of really interesting things came out of that. Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved, for example, let players use their bodies to remix and create music; A City Sleeps took the concept of a shoot ‘em up and infused it with music; and we started work experimenting on some virtual reality projects, one of which we’ll ship for PlayStation Morpheus next year, Harmonix Music VR.

But even during that time, we knew that at some point we’d return to the Rock Band franchise. And when that time came, the first thing the team did was to lock themselves in rooms and play those earlier games. What they found was that they’re still incredibly fun; the core design of the games absolutely holds up. But at the same time, that distance allowed them to get honest and to see places where the experience could be improved, and that’s really where we started with Rock Band 4.

In terms of how we approached it differently, it was always about paying attention to the things that mattered the most to the broadest category of players, and really doubling down on those things. Rock Band 3 was a massive title that we’re really proud of, but the scope of it was a bit out of control when we look at it in hindsight, and that doesn’t necessarily make for a better experience. So really, Rock Band 4 for us is all about focus.

With Rock Band 4 having backwards compatibility and prior DLC access, are we unlikely to see another band orientated like The Beatles: Rock Band?

Nick Chester: The way we look at The Beatles: Rock Band is that it stands on its own. The music, the dreamscapes, it’s really about that entire experience. With that said, we get that people would love to play The Beatles music in the games going forward, but we don’t have any plans for that right now.

It was announced earlier in the year that Harmonix would include compatibility with older peripherals, as well as offering new players a new set of Madcatz Controllers. What made Harmonix decide to include compatibility with older peripherals?

Nick Chester: It was basically a mandate from day one to make that happen. We’ve always been a strong supporter of making sure that if players have music game controllers, they can use them with our games. That goes back to last generation where we worked to make competing peripherals play nice with our games. We know these titles are investments, so it was important for us to get last-generation instruments working on new hardware. There didn’t seem to be any good reason for us to force players to buy new instruments if they already had functioning hardware, and we knew we could do awesome things in the software with the hardware that already existed.

We have a lot of options for players because of this. If you’re new to the series, we’ll of course have amazing new instruments and bundles available that talk directly to these new consoles. And for long-time music gaming fans, whether it was Rock Band or a competing band title, if you have those instruments from previous generations, you’re going to get an incredible value by being able to use them again. We’re really excited to offer these options.

One of the biggest new features on Rock Band 4 is Freestyle Mode. We’ve seen a similar system for players that chose drums on other Rock Band titles. Freestyle mode offers a great way for players to express themselves musically in what was otherwise a very structured experience. What was the process behind the conception of Freestyle Mode?

Nick Chester: It’s been a mission at Harmonix for years to give players creative control over music, to let them feel like they are making music, not just playing it. When you go back and look at the studio’s first project, The Axe, that’s really the genesis – it’s a piece of software that lets you use your keyboard and mouse (or a game controller) to basically “jam” along with music, using a variety of different instruments. We’ve never gotten away from that mission, either, and you’ve seen it resurface in a number of places like the musical manipulators in Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved.

When it came to Rock Band, it was really about extending the fantasy of being a musician in meaningful, exciting ways. We started looking at how we could do that on guitar and early prototypes of the guitar solo tech that eventually become Freestyle Guitar Solos proved to be incredibly fun – just messing around with it made you feel like a complete guitar god. So the challenge there was taking that technology and turning it into a game, fitting it into the context of the core Rock Band experience. So now you have this incredibly deep and challenging scored gameplay experience that uses this tech, and it’s really satisfying. We can’t wait for more people to get their hands on it.

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You recently revealed just a few of the artists that are going to feature on Rock Band’s track list, which includes; Aerosmith, The Cure, Ozzy Osbourne, Mark Ronson and even Fleetwood Mac. How did the Harmonix team choose the track list? Are there any songs that you are personally really excited for?

Nick Chester: I’m biased, but I think we have the strongest soundtrack of any Rock Band to date. It’s incredibly varied, including classic rock music, fun to play at party hits, metal, and some more obscure music that we think people should be hearing. There’s a lot of surprises to come on that front, too!

As far as tracks I’m personally excited for, some may have not been announced… and yes, I’m teasing you. But of the songs that have been announced, I really dig Queens of the Stone Age’s “My God Is The Sun,” which I’ve had to sing on television a few times, Lucius’ “Turn It Around” is a jam, and 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up?” is one of those songs that gets a room singing.

Which new feature are the Harmonix team most excited for gamers to experience?

Nick Chester: Freestyle Guitar Solos, for sure, because it’s totally new gameplay and it’s sort of hard to wrap your head around conceptually until you get the guitar in your hands and start shredding. The Shows functionality is really great as well. This mode lets you create seamless setlists on the fly, voting for the next track with your band members. Not only does it keep you out of the menus, but there’s some fun social stuff that happens in the room where you’re playfully arguing with your band mates and trolling others with certain song selections. It’s a feature that I think people are really going to appreciate at their next Rock Band party.

How’s the feeling in the office right now during the build up to release?

Nick Chester: The team is absolutely 100% heads down into wrapping the game, fixing any last-minute issues, polishing stuff up, and what-have-you. I think everyone is just excited to finally get the game out there into the world.

With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox one having streaming capabilities, are players going to be restricted in what they can show their friends via the internet?

Nick Chester: We’re going to support Twitch streaming on both consoles, and you’ll be able to share screenshots as well. Looking forward to seeing everyone’s unique Rock Band avatars in action!

Rock Band 4 is scheduled for an October 6th release on the PS4 and XBoxOne. 

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Thomas Hughes
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I like to play video games. New and Old. Rubbish and Great.I am also one of those grown up nutters that still likes wrestling.

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