PAX 2009 interview: The Beatles: Rock Band lead designer Chris Foster

The Beatles: Rock Band drops today, along with the band's remastered albums availability on iTunes (?) and a flood of Beatles: Rock Band news. Fans will be wailing on plastic instruments all day in an effort to travel back in time and live out their fantasies of becoming musical legends.

We caught up with lead designer Chris Foster at PAX, who gave up some secrets about the game (including the scrapped "forever" mode). Read on for the full interview.

Are there some surprises still waiting for people in the story mode?

Well, I think there are a couple of things. There are a lot of specific bits of audio that just show up; they are just fun to hear. They are just the sort of things that are just great to experience as you go in, like when you hear "Sgt. Pepper's", like when you sort of hear them reversing some of the riffs, you can hear them kind of trail off, and you can see their mind sort of drift and then they come back to it.

There are a lot of little bits of personality and emotion in the game that you really can't describe. We have tried not to reveal all of the surprises that came in, because they are all fun. Some are pretty rare. With a lot of aspects of the game, there is a lot that is just how it all came together, like that it tells the story of the Beatles and captures the spirit of them in a way that is just more powerful than any one feature or any one piece of art or any one piece of audio. And that has been, I think, a huge relief, because that is really what we were hoping for.

What about the promised, never before heard audio bits? Like the studio chatter, does that come as you are warming up before a song? Or is it at the end?

Once you get to the Abbey Road era, as a song loads you will hear one of these in-the-studio rehearsal bits. Some are generic, like there are a lot that are specific to a song, like before "Here Comes The Sun" or "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" every once in a while you will hear George stop rehearsing and order a cheese sandwich just before they are about to roll tape on the take or before they start a take. We have that.

And when you beat a song, before the end, you will hear them say, "Oh that was a good take." When you screw up a song they will say something specifically from when they actually flub the take. And then when it starts over, we actually started counting take numbers, and they went and grabbed different Abbey Road engineers calling off different takes.

That sounds pretty in-depth.

It was really fun. I mean Giles Martin was sort of really encouraging us to ... I think he had access to a lot of this stuff from when he worked on the Love project for Cirque Du Soleil. So he knew what was there. And that is one of the things he brought to us and said, "We need to work this in and make it a big part of it."

With the DLC, we know Abbey Road is coming, the full album, not long after launch. Can Harmonix feasibly release every Beatles album this way? Do you have sort of an internal structure you are thinking about?

It is something we are discussing with Apple [Records] what to do after the first three albums (Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). I mean we really wanted to choose right up front three classic albums that define different parts of their era. We didn't really go back to the earlier stuff. Rubber Soul was the earliest thing we did. We had a very intense debate about whether the third album should be Rubber Soul or Revolver.

We actually pounded out sort of the awesomeness of each track on the song and ended up with Rubber Soul just inching ahead by a hair. But yeah, I mean the game is certainly built for it and we certainly hope to do it, but that is in the future. Revolver is sort of the classic turning point, but Rubber Soul is great because you are just starting to see the influences come online and then really charting their own course.

Now will the same amount of work, including chatter and stuff, go into those DLC releases?

Any song that takes place in Abbey Road, and that does include some of the songs from Rubber Soul ... Rubber Soul is interesting in the game because it is split between Shea and Budokan just the way the story mode chapters go. So when we complete the album, we are using those two. But certain songs will be in Abbey Road like "Norwegian Wood." That is the sitar one. And for a while we were like, "Can we put George on a riser at Shea playing a sitar? No. We will put that in Abbey Road. That is where it makes sense." And for each of those we do have the ability to find stuff, and Giles has been collecting unique bits of audio.

The recent comments that Alex [Rigopolous] said about Yoko. There was the backlash where Harmonix backpedaled and did damage control. What was actually said?

We were pissed of because that was taken out of context, honestly. The reality is we did bring her in to look at John and all the characters. And one of the reasons we did that with her is that no one has spent as much time really with John, or understanding, or looking at John than her, and she is an artist. And she is really good at communicating things that are important to her. So she came in. We showed her the game and showed her John. And she just like pointed out very specifically the things we were doing wrong. It was late in the game, so we were all kind of burned out, but we all kind of knew that we hadn't gotten there yet.

So, it is one of those things where you smack your head in retrospect and go, "Of course it is the posture. Of course it is the eyes." But she was able to come in and help us with that. And we thought about it, like Paul and Ringo, like they cared a lot about how everyone looked, and Ringo talked about how he drums. But Olivia and Yoko, these are people ... like if you think about how much you look at yourself versus how much someone who loves you looks at you, they know how you look and how you move more than anyone. So she was really an invaluable piece of that. I mean she was definitely very direct in her feedback, but that is good. That is kind of what we needed. So we were above where people ran it into the ground like a 40 year old joke.

Have Paul and Ringo played the game or do they just kind of watch it at this point?

There have been a couple of quotes ... it sounds like from some of the interviews that Ringo might have played it, but I think Paul was actually handed the bass at one point and he was holding it, and he was asked if he wanted to play and he was like, "Well, I did it the first time with the band ... " [laughter]

Did you get to meet everyone involved?

I personally was able to be involved in meetings with three of the shareholders. I never got to meet Ringo, but I demoed the game for Olivia and she was really nice. And she was definitely looking at George, looking at everyone and asking questions about Dreamscapes. The thing with all of them is that there is a point in games ... like games don't look the way they are going to until the very end. So a lot of what they did was a combination of being very firm with us in terms of what was important, but also having faith in that we hadn't finished them. So we showed it to all of them. They gave us feedback on different parts.

What was it like working with Sir Paul McCartney?

He is definitely busy, but the thing that blew my mind is he was shown a demo and ... all of the shareholders had been told about story mode and knew about the photo album, were given all of this access. And we got feedback from some of them. But in the demo he was flipping through the story mode and he realized, as he said, "This is how people are going to learn about us now." And so he decided it was really cool but that each story had to be correct, all the photo album text. He derailed the meeting for a half hour flipping through them and reading them out loud and saying yes or offering corrections or additional information.

But he said, "Okay, we don't have time to do the rest of this. I will book time in a couple of weeks. I will come back to Abbey Road and we will look through all of it." And he literally cleared some time out of his schedule to spend a couple of hours sitting with a cheese sandwich from the Abbey Road canteen, reading these things, like "Paul thought ... " etc. out loud while I am with my laptop hoping to God we got it right. And a lot of them were dead on. Some of them he asked us questions about where we researched. One thing that really blew me away was that a lot of his comments were, "You didn't mention George Martin in here," or, "You didn't mention Peter Blake or Klaus Voorman."

He was constantly reaching to like, "Oh, you are talking about the album cover. Mention the person who did the album cover." And then he told us a couple cool stories I had never heard before. He told us a couple of stories that didn't make it into the game that were really, really cool but didn't fit some of the songs. When I started doing game design 15 years ago, that was certainly not on my list of career goals, that I would be working with Paul McCartney, but it made the game better. All of it was meaning to make the game better and made it a real Beatles project.

It is probably the most important music video game of all time so far, and who knows? Generations may be learning about The Beatles this way.

We had to think of it as something The Beatles were going to live with and they had to be proud of and stand behind, The Beatles and the shareholders; all of them. I think the big thing that has come up in a bunch of interviews is like capturing the joy of the music, capturing the joy of their performances and how they looked. And in another way, just in how the game rewards you and how it challenges you. We are really thrilled that it seems like we got that across. Watching people here at PAX play it, watching it at GamesCom and E3, it just makes people smile. It makes people happy and that is the most important thing.

The DLC is obviously going to take the form of the albums. Do you have the ability to make any other sort of DLC, like achievements or outfits for them? I mean there is no sort of "dressing The Beatles" in this game we've seen.

No. We originally had ideas to do a more flexible thing. I think we were calling it "Forever" mode or something, that was the working title, where you would be able to take The Beatles in one set of outfits, put them in another venue and have them play some arbitrary song. And it was going to be this like fun, like gaming, like have fun moments ... not quite them singing Public Enemy, but still kind of a fun open ended play with history.

Mainly we just cut it for time. It was like we would have to make a Dreamscape for every single song, not just the algorithm ones. We would have to make the author and work across menus. So we really kind of sealed it as a performance per song, and that kind of closed the door on doing more outlets for more alternate material. With Dreamscapes there are some assets on the disk that weren't used, and we are starting to use those in Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's.

Can you actually fade the vocals all the way down?

You can't fade their vocals all the way down. You can reduce them. You have a little less control over things now. But yeah, we changed it to a checkbox because the ratio was a bit hard to figure out. That made more sense.

Was that a contractual thing with The Beatles? Was it like, "We don't want people totally butchering our songs?" You still want to hear them behind whoever is singing?

Some of it was security and some of it was for aesthetics. So yeah, you can't turn it into karaoke background tracks. People would love Beatles karaoke.

What's the next step? You guys will just have DLC, but I mean could there feasibly one day be a The Beatles: Rock Band 2 with new instruments and everything?

We haven't talked anything about that and I have been too busy and tired to think about it. But I don't know. I guess anything is possible.

This may be more EA than Harmonix, but the value edition that is coming out is not actually a value edition at all. We sort of did the math and we were like, "We can buy the Rock Band 2: Special Edition now for $100. The Beatles' game is $60. It is the same price." You get two games that way. But that is an EA thing I am guessing.

I think that is part of it. I can't really speak to the details because, again, once bits get on the disk I sort of disengage from the process. But I think I even read in your article that the idea of it being a convenience thing in the store was probably the idea behind it. Something consumers would see as less expensive than the $250 set.

But you are right. There are a number of ways you can get a fairly cheap version. And honestly, what is important to us is, if you have a Guitar Hero drum set and a Guitar Hero guitar and just about any microphone out there, you can play the game.

I played the demo at home and was happy to find out that the Xbox 360 Lips mic worked just fine with it.

That is right. Lips was an important one for us as well. That is something Harmonix has been talking about for a while. Once we were able to finally get everyone on the same page in terms of compatibility, that has just been the way that we do things.

The Beatles played on different instruments throughout their careers. Would you plan on making different instruments down the road?

I mean never say never, but it is pricey to make a mold and a set, and a bunch of stuff. We have just been refining and refining our abilities. The guts are the same, but the shells, the fit and finish are totally new. That is one of the reasons they are premium priced, because they are actually premium assembled. Like a lot of the trim on the Höfner and the Gretsch, those are techniques we haven't applied to our previous guitars; the chrome on the ... just trying to make them like really look at a glance like a guitar you had forgotten to string.

Well, I think that is about it. Good luck on Wednesday! Although, I don't think you are going to need it ...

Well you know, every little bit helps.