Rock Band 4: Daniel Sussman Harmonix product manager Speak About The Game

Five years ago it felt like we could barely move without bumping into a new plastic instrument and a new rhythm action game destined for PS3. Between Rock Bands and Heroes of the Guitar, DJ and Band variety, plus a few others trying to become more than support acts to the headline stars, the rhythm action bubble grew and grew before eventually popping, with new entries in the genre drying up overnight.

Frequency and Amplitude developer Harmonix Music Systems can take credit for the genre’s rise. Creator of Guitar Hero and, after handing that franchise off to another studio, Rock Band as well, the team made the very best games that were compatible with chunky plastic guitars and drum kits a slew of 9/10 scores coursing through its gaming discography. So it’s only fitting that Harmonix is the developer to revive that genre once again.

After splitting from former publisher EA, Harmonix is locking horns with PlayStation 4 for Rock Band 4 later this year. We caught up with Harmonix product manager Daniel Sussman to discover why it’s set to be fourth time plucky for the genre’s venerable custodians.

Can you give us an overview of what we can expect from Rock Band 4?

Daniel Sussman: We’ve gone back to the Rock Band 1 mentality: what is being in a band all about? What does it really mean to play music with people that you know very well, in front of an audience? That’s defined a lot of our direction for re-production and where we are now. We really want to deliver a triple-A experience for guitar, bass, drums and vocals: the core band.
We have a library of thousands of songs we want to bring over. and we’re working with sony to support last-gen peripherals.
What makes it the definitive Rock Band ?

There’s a ton of work that goes into supporting that. We’re working with the good folks at PlayStation to support some of the platform-level conditions in respect to our DLC library. We have thousands of songs that have taken us about five years to prep and develop a library of literally thousands of songs that we want to bring forward to PS4. That is a tremendous amount of work for our staff and also for the content hosts on the first party side, but it’s a huge part of Rock Band.

Additionally, we’re working hard to respect the investment that people have made on the hardware side. There’s only so much we can do on the software side, but we are working very closely with Sony to support the last-gen peripherals on the current-gen consoles. We’re also working with Mad Catz on a new suite of peripherals that will be native to PS4.

Mad Catz is a great partner with a lot of experience working in the console space. They know the last-gen stuff really well, they know the current-gen stuff really well, and they know Rock Band really well. We have had a long relationship with them. They have top-notch engineering team and a great, ‘fashion sense,’ if you will. Their hardware design is really solid.

The other thing [about the new instruments] is that this gives us an opportunity to actually go back into the controller design and to upgrade a couple of key components. Because we want to support legacy instruments we really don’t want to change anything in the fundamental design the guitars will still have ten buttons and drums will have the same footprint but at the component level we can really upgrade some things such as the tilt-sensor and some of the mechanical parts.

What’s it like parting from EA and being your own publisher now ?

For the first time in the Rock Band world we’re operating as an indie studio and that actually has a ton of implications, all of which are really positive as far as I’m concerned. I feel like the studio has always embodied this renegade personality we are passionate, creative people who are driven by our ideas about what we want to play more so than what we think the market will bear based on our research and stuff like that. That’s not to say that we don’t do that research! We have a great relationship with our community, but we are quality-driven, passionate developers and the scale of our studio right now is a strength in that respect. It really allows us to flex our creative muscle without jumping through a lot of hoops to make decisions. That’s really exciting.

We've assembled this great team: folks who have a lot of studio experience like me I’ve been making Harmonix games all the way back to Frequency and Amplitude and that’s true for a lot of others on the team along with others with different experiences. It’s a team full of very diverse talent, all of whom are very committed to the Rock Band product. One of the first things that we did was play a lot of Rock Band, and I think every single person on the team was like, ‘Holy sh*t! This is really fun to play!’ And that tied into a couple of key areas for innovation that are really exciting for us.

Was it a surprise that Rock Band 1 still gave you that, ‘Holy sh*t,’ moment?

I wouldn't say it was a surprise. We were going into it on the hunt for things that we didn't like and things that we would improve and there certainly were a lot of those things but it was really refreshing to acknowledge the fact that the experience did stand up still.

It’s not like we stopped playing Rock Band because we were bored. We really stopped playing because we had our hands full with all of the other games that we were making, and so I think that downtime was healthy it gave everybody a chance to stretch their creative strengths in new directions. We worked on some very interesting projects in the time between Rock Band 3 and now, and more than anything else it was satisfying to go back to Rock Band 1 and realise that we have a really strong game, a strong platform and a strong brand here that we can refine, but the core is sound. We weren't exactly surprised, but we were psyched.

Can you give an example of something that stood out as a feature you really needed to improve for Rock Band 4?

One of the things that was frustrating, especially in Rock Band 1 and 2, was the amount of time that it took you to get into a song. The act of creating a band and creating your characters and all of that was actually quite time consuming. The payoff is great you have this band that is this persistent thing and you can share bands and be in other people’s bands but it felt bulky.

The other thing that really resonated with me was the fact we’re making a band simulation designed to give you that sort of visceral sense of performance you are playing this song to a crowd of adoring fans who are hanging on every verse and every note. It’s a social experience. You’re playing with a drummer, you’re playing with a bass player and with a singer, but once you get into a song a lot of that interpersonal communication falls away and each player is very, very focused on their track. That jumped out as a spot where we could probably come up with some game mechanics that would reward interpersonal dynamics: player communication and player expressivity. That is an area of focus, and certainly an area where there was creative disconnect between the implementation and the idea.

You’ve not mentioned Rock Band 3’s keyboard is it returning?

We’ve had to make a lot of really hard decisions on where we spend our development dollar. I would say probably the hardest bit about the studio size right now is that our resources just in terms of the people who we have working on this game are fixed in place. They’re limited. And it’s a smaller team than we had for Rock Band 3, so we have had to make hard decisions.

One of those decisions is to focus on the core band experience: drums, guitar, vocals, bass. And one of the benefits is that I am really excited about innovating in areas that will hit the majority of our players. There were things in Rock Band 3 that I’m really proud of, but they fractured the audience based on what controllers you had or didn't have, or your skill level and your interest. One of our cornerstones for this game’s development is focus, and focusing the game and our effort on things that will apply to the greatest number of people.

So to be very direct, the keyboard is on the outside looking in. But there are just not enough controllers in the wild to justify, a) doing the work to support them on the current-gen consoles, which is just a whole new thing, and b) adding another peripheral to the Mad Catz SKU list is just a huge investment. I’d rather focus rather than splinter.

We really liked the keyboard controller , but it did split that game…

And you’re speaking to someone who had a huge hand in designing that peripheral and designing that gameplay. We’re very proud of Rock Band 3 and there are a lot of things that laid the groundwork for very innovative experiences, the keyboard being one of them. But I think one of the things that we’re doing is making hard decisions that we think will benefit the game experience in the long run.

So how big is the team for Rock Band 4?

I would say that we’re sort of in the Rock Band 1 scope as opposed to the Rock Band 3 scope. I don’t want to get into specific headcounts or budgets or anything like that other than to say our studio is about 120 people at the moment and we’ve got four projects in development. So Rock Band is obviously a huge priority for the studio, but we’re also working on Amplitude and a couple of other projects that are currently unannounced. The studio itself is in its creative prime and that’s manifesting in a lot of different creative ideas for Rock Band and also a lot of other really cool things that Rock Band cannot disrupt.

What does PS4 enable you to do that you couldn’t on PS3?

A lot of our effort is focused on the online infrastructure not for gameplay, but for music delivery. There are also a lot of social elements of PS4 that support our ambition to connect people through music, and some exciting opportunities with respect to lighting and atmospherics that our engine folks and artists are excited to take advantage of.

We consider Rock Band to be this music delivery platform, and we view Rock Band 4 as the game that you will buy for this generation of consoles. Our thinking is that rather than release a new ‘version’ every year, that we’ll have a bunch of incremental updates that would happen over the next five years, and that we would tailor those updates as a function of our very constructive dialogue with our community and really establish a kind of living relationship with the Rock Band world to figure out where they want things to go.

Obviously we have a lot of ideas for where to push things, and we have the tools that we can use to be more ambitious and more aggressive than people may realise, but the idea really is to be respectful of the fact that Rock Band is an investment, both in terms of your DLC library your content and the hardware you play with, and we want to consider Rock Band 4 as the sort of vessel by which your Rock Band experience evolves over the long term.

How much of a headache is it to port content over from PS3?

I mean, it’s not a headache. It’s a lot of work because of the volume of content that we have, which one of the strengths of the platform. Everybody on our side and on the first-party side is very motivated to make it happen because there’s something really unique about Rock Band’s relationship with our library of thousands of songs and we want to make those songs available; we want to respect the entitlements that people are certainly carrying from their Rock Band experience on the PS3.

We understand that it’s very important, so I certainly wouldn’t call it a headache, but it is an area of development where we are... we’re not skimping on the resources, right? We understand and respect the amount of work that it will be to support the library and the legacy entitlements and that’s true on the platform side as well.

A lot of people switched consoles in the generation leap moving from xbox 360 to PlayStation 4. Will those gamers get to retain their music libraries and old hardware?

We’re starting with the stuff we understand which is migrating content from PS3 to PS4. I don’t want to make any comments about what the future holds, just because a lot of that is out of our hands. It depends a lot on first-party tech and policy.

I will say that as a player I approve of studios doing whatever they can to be generous with content as it relates to their community. So if you were an Xbox 360 player, I feel for the fact that if you’re a PS4 player now that it would be awesome to be able to migrate your DLC over. That’s something that is largely out of our control but, yeah, I’d love to get there. But our focus is on the stuff that we understand: migrating content from seventh gen to the eighth and not crossing the console boundary.
Rock band is an investment.  we consider rock band 4 as the vessel by which your rock band experience evolves over the long term.
It’s been four-and-a-half years since Rock Band 3 was released. Was there ever a point when the series fell out of your minds? Or were there always plans for another entry when enough time had passed?

From a studio strategy standpoint, there’s always been a sense of when the time is right we will come back to Rock Band, although I don’t think that there’s anything about the game that would preclude it from being successful in any time. People talk about the rise and fall of music games, and yet there’s no rise and fall of music a lot of the core elements of Rock Band are totally disconnected from gaming trends. People love music and will continue to love music for as long as there are people, and the mechanics of Rock Band are so tied to the music that I don’t feel like it has a lot of cultural trappings that would either date it or invalidate it.

A lot of the folks who were working on Rock Band over the last four years have been working on other projects. We’ve had our hands full with a lot of very interesting games that have given us a nice break, I would say, and so coming back to Rock Band has been very exciting. It’s been a sort of a reset for a lot of folks who just haven’t had the time to think about Rock Band until we started working on it.

All things considered, I think now is exactly the right time to do this. It mirrors where we were in the last console generation. I think there is a void in terms of what games are available for PS4 there are not that many games that are these accessible or family-friendly games or whatever. These games that are accessible to more than your classically ‘core’ gamers is one of the things that Harmonix is very proud of.

And those gamers who loved those series have gone from having lots of new releases every year to none whatsoever…

Well that’s the other thing there are enough consoles out there that we feel like this is the right time, and we want to make  sure that, a) there are a lot of people like yourselves that have this nostalgic memory of these games and who miss them, and then, b) there are a lot of folks who have never played them because they didn’t have a PS3, they got a PS4 and here they are, you know? The timing feels really good for a lot of reasons.

And finally, why do you play Rock Band? What’s your instrument and song of choice?

I’m a guitarist, and I’m most comfortable on the guitar. I like playing drums because they stretch me in a healthy way as a musician there’s some coordination stuff that I feel is really fun but I’m not that good.

Let’s see… Musically, Rock Band is funny because there are songs that I love in real life that don’t press the same buttons when I play them in Rock Band. A lot of the songs that I love in Rock Band are big triumphant sing-alongs [Night Ranger’s] Sister Christian and anything by Boston. Something that’s just epic and anthemic, that’s what I love to play.

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