Interview: Harmonix's Daniel Sussman on Rock Band 3's new tune

Rock Band 3 is set to introduce a new instrument -- the keyboard -- to the performance simulation genre, and a new, more complex level of simulation in Pro Mode. At a pre-E3 event, we asked the project lead, Daniel Sussman of Harmonix, to provide us with comfort in these times of frightening music-game flux. Well, mostly we asked him to tell us things about the game. Read on to learn about the new Pro instruments and the new keyboard peripheral, and how those will interact with the Rock Band we know and love.

Joystiq: First off, what was the major focus for you guys when you were looking to make Rock Band 3? It seems really ambitious, and it seems like it's less about adding more songs -- that's sort of what Rock Band Network does -- and it seems more like expanding the platform out as far as you can take it.

Daniel Sussman, Rock Band 3 project lead: Kind of two main drives: one was to do a ground-up rebuild of the Rock Band platform, and rethink some of the ways that people get in and out of game sessions, and experience the music and the gameplay, and then the other big sort of movement was to innovate with gameplay and try to come up with some new experiences that build on the classic fundamentals of music games and also actual musicianship.
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Adding a keyboard to this one -- I'm sure that's been the most requested peripheral -- a lot of the industry seems to be moving away from the idea of these big, huge rhythm game bundles. I know you guys announced a Mad Catz partnership. Was the idea of shipping another peripheral intimidating, or was that a deterrent to doing it for so long?

We had our hands full keeping up with demand for guitars, drums, and microphones. I think Rock Band 3 was really the first opportunity that we had to think, "Okay, how can we add something to the platform?" We see almost a stagnation in the game space for music games that we wanted to address, and new gameplay seems like the right call to fill that void. There were a lot of things that made Rock Band 3 the right product to release some of the new stuff that we're doing.

"We see almost a stagnation in the game space for music games that we wanted to address."

In terms of the keyboard: how difficult do the keyboard tracks get? Are there "Flight of the Bumblebees"-level challenges? In the Pro mode, I imagine it goes pretty much 1:1.

One of the things that's really nice about Rock Band 3 and the keyboard is that we have the classic keys mode," which is just the five-line simulation, and then we build all the way through to Pro, easy through expert. That actually affords a very graceful ramp through the content, through the songs. The funny thing about Rock Band Pro is that it scales to the hardest songs we have, but just because of the immense amount of information that we're throwing at the game player, even songs that are sort of considered easy, it's a completely new experience for people. I think we were able to address stock difficulty to Rock Band Pro without having to actually go after, you know, 200 BPM songs that were not necessarily... the gameplay is where a lot of that difficulty ramp lives, not necessarily in the content.

In terms of the content you're going to be adding, I imagine the Rock Band Network tools will be updated to allow the creation of keyboard tracks, so we'll see other keyboard stuff coming out there. Is that accurate?

We're thinking through how all that is going to work right now, and my guess is that we'll drop announcements when we're ready to announce details.

This is sort of similar to the question I asked a while ago: in past iterations of Rock Band, you guys talked about how you have to weigh the different components of a song to see how fun it is for each person who's playing it. Do you think now with Rock Band 3, and with adding another instrument, that there are going to be more songs in which certain instruments just won't participate, or that balance will be tipped a bit?

Well, I think it really depends on the player and how much DLC have, and what their music library looks like. We've worked very hard to make sure that there is a very strong base set of songs within our 83 on disc that support great gameplay for all five instruments.

Between all of the instruments, with three singers, and with all of the different instruments, you'll be able to have up to eight players playing at once. You shipped a USB hub with Rock Band 1. If people haven't upgraded to an all-wireless setup, are you guys going to be shipping a USB hub for any of the new instruments or microphone kits or -- I guess the keyboard's probably wireless.


I tell you, one of the most amazing things about the deal we signed with Mad Catz is that you now get to ask them all those questions. I want to focus on core hardware peripherals and the software. Sure, all of the USB hubs that have worked will continue to work. But in terms of the wealth of peripheral peripherals, those are questions you should direct to Mad Catz.

In terms of the drum kit: the cymbals are available now, but all they do now is duplicate some of the existing pads. In the Pro mode for drums, those cymbals will actually be two new inputs?

Yeah, up to three new inputs. Basically, except for the snare, you have three lanes that will pull double duty between toms and cymbals, and the gameplay differentiates, rewards you for hitting cymbals instead of toms and toms instead of cymbals and then also, in terms of raw, life through the level, if you don't hit the right things you'll have a harder time getting through the end of the song.

"We've also added some technology just to help people sound a little better."

Talking about, kind of, redoing the Rock Band platform and rethinking it, did you spend a lot of time on vocals? I know complaints about the earlier games have been in regards to voice recognition, that basically as long as you're saying something, it's fine. Have you guys done much work on that in Rock Band 3?

Yeah, actually, we focused a lot on the singing experience; not just bringing over harmonies, which is a big thing and played into our track selection in a pretty big way. But also, we have revised the way we do note detection and also non-pitched vocal parts; we've also added some technology just to help people sound a little better, we've looked at the game structure and the whole chain of balancing out volume and input volume and output level. We've added some technology in there that does some pitch correction on your vocals. We're trying both to try to improve the gameplay side of things so that it's a little smarter, and the intent from the player is a little more clear, in terms of our scoring mechanics, and then also on the output side, we want to make singing as accessible as possible, and so there's a lot of technology in there that's designed to make you sound better.

Any support for straight-up autotuning everything, cranking that up really high?

You'll have to wait and see.

Older songs that had keyboards -- Freezepop's "Brain Power," for example -- are those being revamped for the keyboard?

We're sort of thinking through the legacy songs now in terms of how we support them in Rock Band 3. We know that all DLC and most of the disc songs will be able to be imported into the RB3 library. But in terms of how we augment tracks for Pro and also for keyboards, expect information forthcoming about that stuff. It's complicated.


I imagine, probably with the quantity of music, especially with Rock Band Network, that it gets exponentially more complicated.

Right.

Will there be multiple difficulties within Pro? Is Pro mode a bucket for a new level of difficulty or a new type of experience, or is it just the difficulty level and it's a fixed, known quantity?


We consider Pro to be a mode unto itself, and so it supports four difficulties the same way that everything in Rock Band does -- there's easy, medium, hard, and expert. And so, while we're sort of holding it up as the mode for the player that's beaten everything in the Rock Band universe, one of the things that we're most proud of is that it has a really soft barrier to entry, where it's a new experience, so skills that you have learned in standard guitar gameplay don't necessarily carry over, but it's not that you need to be a guitar player or an expert music game player to be able to get into the Pro stuff for guitar, keyboards, or drums. All of that is supported with a very low-key easy mode.

"We're designing Rock Band 3 to be the library that holds all of your content in the Rock Band space. That is our ambition."

I think you've said there would be two separate Pro guitar experiences. There going to be the Fender guitar, and there's also going to be a 120-button plastic guitar? Can you explain the gameplay differences between those two experiences?

Sure. I mean, really, there's only one gameplay difference, which is that the Fender guitar has more frets on the top end, and so we have basically author for either 17 frets or the full 22. Aside from that, which is actually a pretty subtle difference, they function the same. One of the key things that the game really needs to understand is what your left hand is doing before you strum. With the Mustang, players press buttons down and it can either be like, "now i'm playing an open string," or "I'm playing that low E string on the third fret to play a G," or "I'm playing power chords or barre chords or open chords" or whatever, but you're pressing the buttons down and then strumming to actuate. That's manifest in the Squier as well, where there's technology in the fretboard that allows the game to know what your fretting hand is doing, and then with your right hand, you strum to actually trigger the chord or note.

It's like a pressure-sensitive fretboard.


It's not just pressure sensitive. There's some technology in there that -- we can get into some of those particulars at E3. It's a lot easier to show you than it is to describe it.

How about any of the existing instruments? Are you guys tweaking the existing Rock Band 2 guitar or drums? Or is that stuff pretty much staying the same?

From a functional standpoint, or just core functionality, I think we've been careful not to change things. We want to make sure that the people who have invested in guitars and drums over the years don't necessarily feel pressure to upgrade those. Again, you probably do want to talk to Mad Catz about specifically what kind of products they plan to bring into the marketplace. Certainly on the software side, we are fully supporting the legacy peripherals that exist in the marketplace. So there's no new gameplay built that's relying on an upgraded plastic guitar outside of what we're doing with Rock Band Pro.

You mentioned before about importing, that all the DLC will import fine and most of the songs on the disc will import fine. Is that process the same as it was from Rock Band 2 to Rock Band 1 -- are you going to be buying a $5 license? Is that process built in now? It seems with Rock Band 2, you were sort of figuring out as you went along, and with Rock Band 3 you've been able to plan for this type of functionality a little better.

From a software side, it's pretty well understood, but there's a lot of paperwork behind it that we're actually still trying to hash out.

The goal would be, I'm assuming, that Rock Band 3's the only disc you need to keep around ...


We're designing Rock Band 3 to be the library that holds all of your content in the Rock Band space. That is our ambition.

Here's a question I got from a couple guys on the team who demanded an answer: Final Countdown? That's coming, right? That's a definite?

We can't talk about specific songs. That's already in the Rock Band library, isn't it? I think it's in Lego.

"I think it's too soon to call, but I suspect we'll make very big waves in the music community."

One other question: the keyboard peripheral. It looks like you can use it as a keytar. Is that a configuration that you guys support?


I mean, it's got strap pegs on it, so you can wear it and play it standing up. If that makes it a keytar in your book, then sure. It's one of these things that, I think, from the Harmonix perspective, it's the first time, really, that we've had a hand in the manufacture of an actual instrument. So, sure, it's got the strap pegs -- it's also got a MIDI out. We expect this to actually get used in, like, genuine musical applications.

Would there be any support, maybe over USB, for a regular MIDI-style keyboard in the game? Or would it just be this keyboard? I'm not sure how generic your hardware support would be.

With Mad Catz, we're developing a console adapter, so you would be able to plug in whatever MIDI keyboard you have, or whatever MIDI drum set you have, and then use that to play Rock Band.

Wow, that's pretty impressive. One of the last questions I have, which is more general, in terms of the licensing and that stuff for music: everyone always wonders why certain artists aren't in the game? Especially now with Rock Band Network, it seems everybody has the opportunity. With Rock Band 3, with the ability to use a real guitar in Pro Mode, and to be more of an actual music-playing platform, which I know some artists were sensitive about with previous plastic guitar games, have you guys found that this new focus has increased the appeal of getting artists' songs licensed into the game?

From my end, this is the first time, really, that anybody has found out about what we're doing. Obviously, we're developing it and working with our business partners to make sure we have a hardware solution and a software solution, but I'm really excited to see how people receive the news. E3 is really the first time where people are going to get a hands-on with our software and our hardware and really understand the potential here. I think it's too soon to call, but I suspect we'll make very big waves in the music community.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.