‘Rock Band 4’ Promises To Be Much More Than a New-Gen Encore

Rhythm-action gaming is back in 2015, and Harmonix and Mad Catz's co-published <i>Rock Band 4</i> could be the title to headline the resurgence.

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Jun 2 2015, 7:45pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The Social, tucked behind central London's enormous department stores in an unassuming side street, is the kind of underground bunker many a band began their touring careers at. The ceiling is low and standing space at a premium whenever there are more than 20 bodies in the room. Everything is hard concrete and brittle plastic. There's a great history to the place, and big names aplenty have graced its stage and decks under the guidance and curation of Heavenly Recordings. I mean, I've even DJed there. And this afternoon it's playing host to a giant amongst its peers: the return of Rock Band.

The Harmonix-developed Rock Band began in 2007, the natural successor to the same Massachusetts studio's Guitar Hero, expanding that game's winning formula of rhythm-action gameplay on a silly little plastic guitar controller by adding a "full-band" array of instruments: bass (well, another guitar), drums and a microphone. A critical and commercial hit, turning around revenue of around $600 million, Rock Band inevitably spawned sequels, culminating in 2010's Rock Band 3. Despite another round of high scores for the series' third installment proper, though, sales dipped dramatically. Players didn't seem so keen on the genre anymore, and Rock Band went into hibernation.

And now, it's awoken. And it's hungry, once more, for the rock which, as we all know, never stops.

Prior to any of us journalist sorts getting our hands on the new game, albeit using old-model equipment (brand-new, fancy looking peripherals are coming, courtesy of the game's co-publisher Mad Catz—but you can use the previous-gen ones collecting dust in your wardrobe, too), we're treated to a not-quite-flawless performance starring Harmonix product manager Daniel Sussman on vocals. His experience with the series stretches back beyond its existence, as he joined the developer as a tester in 2001 and has been hanging around in various senior roles ever since. He can play a guitar for real, and yet it's with entirely pretend ones that he's made his living.

I grabbed five with him after he got offstage in one of the Social's tight-squeeze upstairs booths.

VICE: Hey, Dan. The rhythm-action market's getting busy again, with Guitar Hero coming back, and the new Amplitude, and niche titles like Thumper (see link above). When you paused Rock Band, the genre had suffered from over saturation, and here we are again, potentially with a flood of titles out around the same time. Is this game's timing entirely OK?
Daniel Sussman: Well, if you think about where we are in this console generation, with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, we're about to go into the third holiday season. And that's where we were when we launched Rock Band. And I feel that what's interesting about video games, relative to any other medium, is that the content does not exist as the technology evolves. For example, one of my favorite games is one that I actually worked on, Guitar Hero II, and for all intents and purposes, that game no longer exists. You played it on the PlayStation 2, and I no longer even have the means to connect a PS2 to my television. It doesn't work.

So, I like the idea that there's a certain set of fantasies that are accessible enough that they deserve to be there, every time the console generation jumps, so that's one piece of our motivation: here are these new consoles, there's no Rock Band, and there should be. At the same time, we feel like we have a lot of ideas that make this return less of a pure business decision—we feel like we have enough game, in our design, to justify the effort and risk of making this new title.

Knowing that you had this big, banner brand at Harmonix, surely it was just a matter of time before Rock Band emerged on current-gen consoles, regardless of any dramatic gameplay advancements? I mean, I know you have them—tighter drum responsiveness, freestyle vocal flexibility—but even without new systems, you can't have kept on sitting on this famous IP.
Well, we did need that critical mass—did we have a new design that we were psyched about? What we know is that there are a lot of people out there who still play Rock Band 3, even while we've not been supporting it. The interesting thing about not working on Rock Band, but putting out games with Harmonix, is that every time we do put another game out, we're met by a flood of questions about why this isn't Rock Band. On one hand, you might feel that's pretty demoralizing, but on the other, it tells us that there are people waiting for this to come back. And if all we were doing was just bringing the old DLC forward and supporting the hardware, that'd be enough for some people (and the new Rock Band will be compatible with all your last-gen DLC – MD), but it's not for us! But there's a bunch of people who just want to play, so we feel pretty good about our chances.

This screen shot, and the lead illustration, via Harmonix.

Rock Band lives and dies on the teamwork of its players, and their bonus points-generating unison, making it one of the quintessential local multiplayer games of recent years. Just how important is it that gamers get together like this, and don't restrict themselves to simply playing with strangers over the internet?
I feel that's one of the things Rock Band does really well, and I can imagine, regardless of how old you are, lots of times when its local multiplayer experience is exactly what you're looking for. The interesting thing for me, in the context of the wider gaming world, is that there are a lot of people who have never played Rock Band, or any of these games. I think those people are going to find that this is a really exceptional game, in the local multiplayer context. There are so many vehicles for people to communicate with other people, indirectly, but there are a lot of powerful things that can come from direct interactions with other human beings. So, I don't want to get into an ethical conversation about it, but I do feel that there's a great value that Rock Band brings to the gaming world.

Is it going to support online play at all? In case you can't get your mates over or you have some awful disease or something.
We're still working through those details, but that sort of asynchronous multiplayer set-up is very compelling, and we know that people do want it, but it's very expensive. We're weighing that feature up against some of the other stuff that we're doing. One of the interesting things about our strategy here is that, just because some feature isn't there at launch, doesn't mean it won't be later on. We're going to respond to people telling us what they want. When players wish they could do things that they can't, we're going to be a virtual phone call away.

So Rock Band 4, when it comes out later this year, is going to evolve throughout this hardware generation? It's going to get all the support it needs to remain relevant?
Absolutely. We're going to be responding to the people who are playing the game, and we're not going to get too far ahead of ourselves. We're in a position where we can give people what they want, and I like that strategy. It feels right. We have a community that is very connected to what we're doing, but we have the tools to go beyond that community, too, and into the greater digital world that we live in.

And from the music industry's perspective, I can only guess that the publishers you've been speaking to, regarding the inclusion of music that they're responsible for, have been very responsive to the return of Rock Band? As someone who worked in music journalism for ages, I recognize how important it is for bands to get their material in games like this.
Actually, yes. We spend a lot of money in the music industry, and there can be tension there. You both need to get paid, and you both need to promote your talent. And I like the idea that Rock Band is a really novel way to introduce people to new music—I actually place a lot of value on the game as the vehicle that connects you to songs. So there's been a lot of enthusiasm, from a lot of music partners, some of whom we've worked with before, and others we've not. You'll see that reflected in our soundtrack, and our DLC strategy. There will be tracks that are right up to date, and those are going to be the most polarizing inclusions. But we've got a lot of gameplay aspects to work on, still, and the main music discussions will happen later in the campaign.

Rock Band 4 will be released for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later in 2015, alongside a new range of compatible peripherals from Mad Catz. It's really fun, and I say that from the perspective of a quite miserable bastard. Keep up with developments at the official Harmonix website.

Follow Mike on Twitter.

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