Beatles Rock Band Interview with Chris Foster of Harmonix

This was conducted at PAX 2009 with Chris Foster, the lead designer for Beatles: Rock Band who was kind enough to give us an interview a few days prior to the game’s release.


DC [Alex Shaw]: Since we’re in the UK, peripherals have been an issue for us. From the other side, what are the particular pitfalls and logistics of trying to distribute peripherals for a game like Rock Band or Beatles: Rock Band on a worldwide scale?

CF: Well, the best thing about the Beatles’ game is that we are bringing Beatles instruments with it and those are based on Rock Band 2 hardware. So Europe will finally be getting the upgrade. These are more polished even than the Rock Band 2 instruments, and especially the guitars; for the first time in Europe you now get the auto calibration. You just hold it up to the screen and the speaker, and it automatically calibrates the lag. But the logistics of it overall are that we have to get the game done six times; America and Europe for each of three platforms. That means you have to get one done really early, then localization has to be done for different languages, and then changes have to be made to fit the Wii platform. So you basically just have to start early. And with Rock Band and Rock Band 2, that was okay, but with the Beatles, because it’s the Beatles, because they have such appeal, we made a point of getting it done very early so that we could get the game just right.

DC: Consider Australia. Are they going to be getting Beatles: Rock Band?

CF: I believe they are getting bundles and hardware on September 9th.

DC: Obviously you’re reaching a completely different demographic with this than with the previous two Rock Band games, and a lot of these people might already own a Playstation 2 – why no PS2 release?

CF: I think because we’re trying to advance the game, and the dreamscapes would really have been a technical challenge. With all the vocal harmonies and all the things happening on screen, that would have been too much of a challenge. Honestly we didn’t want to do the game half-assed. To get the game to fit on the PS2 we would have had to make compromises.

DC: How’s the Wii version holding up?

CF: The Wii version holds up great, and that was a big challenge for us, and a big priority for us. So all the features are in there, all the dreamscapes, and all the art assets look as good, even though it’s at a lower resolution.

DC [Old Cowboy Paul Shotton]: Vocal harmonizing – you have to have three microphones, how does that actually work?

CF: In terms of the connections, it’s fairly simple – you have three USB ports, more if you use a hub, so we wanted to make it that simple for the user; just plug in your microphone and go. We made it so you can sing the way you want to. Everyone can sing karaoke style – sing the same thing – or choose to harmonize. But you don’t have to harmonize to get through the game, it just becomes something you’re rewarded for. The main challenge was finding the best way to represent three parts in the same track without being visually confusing, and having three sets of microphone arrows without being visually confusing. And having rules that aren’t punishing and make you want to learn how to play.

DC: How does that basically work, because I’m thinking if I want to play solo, can I turn off the harmonies?

CF: Absolutely. You can play solo with one line, where up to three people with mikes can sing that one track, but there’s also harmonies mode, where you have each of the three lines pulled out, so you can see what you’re supposed to be singing. And we made each of the arrows visually distinctive. So when you start singing you can follow your part. As you’re playing, if you tap on your microphone, you’ll be able to see which one of those arrows you’re playing.

DC: How do you practice that? What exactly is the vocal practice mode?

CF: We added a vocal practice mode, which is like a vocal trainer but it’s in the section with the practice modes for the other instruments. We upgraded it so that you can practice each section vocally, and cycle through all the parts. It’ll ghost out all the parts but one. It will make a flute noise, a guidance point that will actually superimpose over a single part, so it’ll cause that to lift out.

DC: I think it’s always been hard for me to distinguish the melody and the harmony.

CF: What I found was that the melody you know, the high harmony is sort of audible, but that middle line was always a mystery. It’s nice to finally hear what George was singing.

DC: Is this technology something that you’ll be carrying on with in future games? And even that practice mode would be handy.

CF: Absolutely. It works so much better than we could have expected. We knew the Beatles would support harmony, that’s what their music is about, but it’s been so well received, and we’re not fools in that particular way!

DC [Alex]: I know you won’t be able to tell me anything from Harmonix’s point of view about future titles, but what would you like to see in Rock Band 3?

CF: I’ll tell you what I would like to see in future Rock Band titles, I don’t want to see us resting on our laurels. We have a franchise; we want to nurture it, we don’t want to exploit it. So finding new ways to interact with your music, finding new ways to play with the campaign and challenges, new styles of gameplay – finding ways to do that so that it’s still familiar but not too familiar.

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