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GDC: Harmonix on the ups and downs of creating the Rock Band Network

Eleven days ago, Harmonix delivered on a concept many of us had fantasized about since the very first time we ever played Rock Band: It democratized the track-making process. For the first time in the franchise's history, any schmo off the street with a bit of MIDI engineering experience and a song in their heart could put that song on the Rock Band Store for the world to see (and hopefully purchase).

At GDC, Harmonix senior sound designer Caleb Epps and Rock Band Network producer Matthew Nordhouse sat down to speak about the challenges that came with opening up the game to user-generated content, and how its dedicated community has organically evolved the song-sharing process.

You're probably familiar with the Rock Band Network by this point. A few months back, Harmonix released a set of tools which could be used to transform MIDI tracks from master recordings into playable Rock Band songs. Anyone with an XNA premium membership can join the Rock Band Creators community, upload their songs for peer-review, and add the tracks to the Rock Band Network store at a price point of their choosing.

This new marketplace posed a number of problems for Harmonix, ranging from legal issues, to technical hurdles, to worries that the content created by the community wouldn't meet the developer's lofty quality standards. Some of these issues were handily solved using the expertise Harmonix has accumulated during its 15 years in operation. Others almost derailed the project entirely.

Epps explained that Harmonix's wisest decision was to "stock the pond" before the Rock Band Network beta even went live with active members of the Score Hero community. The developer quickly built up an engaged group of gamers which had previously been "left out in the cold," creating their own tracks for Guitar Hero using tools of their own devising. The Score Hero community leaped at the chance to have access to the same tools Harmonix used to program their songs, giving the Rock Band Network an early push of content -- most of which is now available to download on the Store.

Harmonix inadvertently created a brand new industry by courting Score Hero modders. Since the RBN tools became available, dozens of third-party song-charting companies have sprung up, offering their services to major record labels and independent bands alike. These organizations have made it easier for larger bands to have their work represented in the game, while helping to increase the presence of smaller bands by giving them a new outlet on which to promote their music.

A lot of major decisions about standards and practices for the Network were left in the hands of this adopted community. With little input from Harmonix, these users organically decided on a number of audio engineering standards: How loud should a song be? What's the best way to represent a crazy guitar solo in the game's UI? What could a Rock Band song be -- a jazz number in which the vocalist sings the saxophone part? A track that features acoustic guitar and nothing else?

Fortunately, this community shared Harmonix's high quality standards, which eased the developer's concerns about a lack of content when the platform first went live. Out of Harmonix's 300-strong staff, only three team members were able to lend their musical support to Rock Band Network while it was still in the beta phase. Without the passionate community, it's doubtful that the Network would have had the manpower or the content to get off the ground.

Of course, some issues couldn't be solved by a strong community. Nordhouse explained he had to struggle with a number of legal issues, like how to avoid copyright infringement and profanity. While he assumed the latter could be automatically moderated, he showed the panel's attendees how a clever note-charter could still sneak some awful imagery into their songs:

Also shown was a note-tracked penis, though our camera wasn't quick enough to capture that fleeting image. (Not that you'd want to see it, anyway.)

Another problem was deciding what gameplay features would be left out of the programming tools to make them more accessible to users. In the end, three functions were removed from the Rock Band Network community's arsenal: Songs could not be played head-to-head, they couldn't be split up into chunks for Practice Mode, and they wouldn't support the Rock Band Stage Kit. We're sure all four Stage Kit owners out there were crushed to hear this news.

It's still a bit too soon to tell how successful the Rock Band Network -- and the third-party companies which have sprung up around it -- will be. Harmonix still has to find new ways to expand the community, and find better ways of promoting their work, so it doesn't get washed away in the 1,280 tracks already available in the Rock Band library.

Fortunately for Harmonix, the pre-launch development of the Rock Band Network proved that the community was more than capable and willing to help them solve these dilemmas. Ultimately, Harmonix's new platform hasn't just been stocked with user-generated content -- it's been shaped by user-generated ideas.

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