Rock Band 4 and Justin Bieber: “if people ask for it, then why not?”

By Heidi Kemps
6 March 2015 13:56 GMT

We ask the Rock Band 4 team why there’s no PC or keyboard support, what happened to The Beatles, and most importantly, can we sing Boyfriend?


“I would say around 95 per cent of content has survived – there are a few bits that, even on last-gen platforms, are no longer available. Our intention is to try and bring over everything, over 2000 songs and 500-plus artists.”

Amidst all the huge announcements of GDC 2015, Harmonix dropped another big bombshell: Rock Band, perhaps the definitive music game of the previous generation, is making its comeback tour on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

While the game is extremely early in development – so much so that there wasn’t a hands-on or even a controlled demo showing – Harmonix’s Nick Chester was still happy to sit down with us and talk a bit about just what the company’s goals are with the newest Rock Band.

So the first question on my mind is – will players be able to re-download all of their purchased music, or have licenses expired in some cases?

There are rolling licenses we’ve been renewing over the past few years. I would say around 95 per cent of that content has survived – there are a few bits that, even on last-gen platforms, are no longer available for purchase. Our intention is to try and bring over everything, over 2000 songs and 500-plus artists. It’s a big undertaking to do that. It’s not like you just flip a switch and that content is available on new platforms. You have to re-submit each bit of individual content.

All of it needs to go through certification again?

Yeah, that’s basically how it works. It has to go through the QA process again. We’re working really closely with the first parties to make that happen, and Sony and Microsoft have a lot of work to do on their end, too. But they’re super excited and helpful, too.

What about games like Rock Band Beatles and Green Day?

Green Day was exportable to your hard drive to play in Rock Band, while Beatles was not, so Green Day will be playable in Rock Band 4 once we make it available on the new platforms.


“We’re looking to establish Rock Band 4 as a platform, actually. What this means is that we want this to be the sole Rock Band release for this console cycle.”

As long as we’re talking about bringing things forward, we should ask about instruments. Are we going to need a brand new set of plastic peripherals?

Well, you can if you want. We’re partnering with peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz on this, and they’re going to be making new console-specific instruments. But we also want to respect the purchases of the last generation.

We’re actually working with Microsoft and Sony to make sure that your old hardware will work on the new platforms. There’s no precedent for that – right now, you can’t use old 360 controllers on the Xbox One. It’s a big software and hardware challenge to do that. We can’t commit to it 100 percent because certain things are out of our control, but the first parties know how important it is to our customers.

It should be noted that the new instrument set is going to look and function very similarly to the old set. This is because we don’t want anyone to have a specific advantage of using one set over the other.

We’re still pretty early into this generation. Will this be the first of several new Rock Band releases?

We’re looking to establish Rock Band 4 as a platform, actually. What this means is that we want this to be the sole Rock Band release for this console cycle. In the previous generation, we released half a dozen Rock Band games. This time around, we plan to build on the core of Rock Band 4 by adding features, content updates, patches, things like that. A lot of that will be based on how we observe players engaging with the game. So instead of just updating the game with songs, we plan to update the game with significant features. We have ideas for some of these features, but let me make it clear – we’re going to ship a complete game this year, but there are things we are hoping to do down the line that will add to the experience without having to ship a new title to retail every year.

I’ll give an example: one of my favorite games of the previous generation was Burnout Paradise. I played it heavily for two months, and then stopped for a bit. When I came back six months later, Criterion had patched it, and it basically felt like a completely different game. I thought that was very cool, and I think we have an opportunity to do things like that more this generation. More people are connected, consoles are always talking to servers, and things like that.

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Do you foresee RB4 using any of the unique features of the Xbox One and PS4?

We don’t have any plans to support Kinect or the PlayStation Camera, no. At least, not at launch. We’re really focusing on the core Rock Band experience, trying to hit as many people as possible without fracturing the audience. The focus is guitar, bass, drum and vocals for instruments in this game, as opposed to trying to add all these other features at launch – though we’ll eventually be building on top of that. So the core of Rock Band will be very familiar to people, and we’ve got ideas on how to enhance that, but we can implement them through software design.

Oh, so there’s no keyboard this time around, then?

We’re not including the keyboard, no. We’re focusing on what most of our players are actually doing with the game. RB3 was a sprawling game that was trying to be a lot of things to everybody at the same time, with things like the Pro modes and the keyboards… all of these modes kind of splintered what the experience was. What we’ve noticed is that most people either play RB as a social experience or as a score challenge. We’re mainly focusing on those two things, doubling down on what makes this experience special.

How about user created content, like Rock Band Network?

We won’t be bringing the Rock Band Network back, mostly because the tools on the backend to make that happen actually don’t exist anymore. Like, on the 360, there was a Microsoft backend thing… we worked closely with them to make that happen, and it was a cool thing we were able to do, and we could do something like it again in the future. What we’re focusing on now, though, is certain an experience that hits the most users possible.


“We stopped DLC 21 months ago. Even in the absence of new content, the community was still active. Literally hundreds of thousands of people were still talking to us and playing the game.”

You’re talking a lot about bringing RB4 to the core Rock Band experience. If you don’t have nifty new features as a selling point, what do you think will compel people to pick the game up yet again for newer platforms?

There are a couple answers to that. There are still hundreds of thousands of people playing Rock Band 3 on previous gen platforms. Most of our users – based on survey data we’ve done – are moving on to new consoles. We think that people want that experience on the platforms they’re going to be using most often.

The second thing is that we are actually adding significant gameplay features to it, which we can’t really talk about much just yet – but I think they’re pretty compelling. Like, I’ve played some of the prototype stuff, and when I go back to RB3, it just feels weirdly empty. I can’t really say much beyond that at this point, though.

Generally speaking, it feels like a lot of players and observers dismissed these music games as a fad.

That’s the thing, though – we got a lot of requests for RB4. We stopped DLC 21 months ago, but we recently released some more over the past couple months, sort of teasing the fact that we were coming back with Rock Band. But even in the absence of new content, the community was still active. Literally hundreds of thousands of people were still talking to us and playing the game.

You’re right, though – at its peak, the band genre was huge, like lightning in a bottle. We’re likely not going to recapture it again, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to make an experience for our core audience, and that’s what’s driving our design and our motivation.

Do you expect all the people saying “we want Rock Band 4” will actually buy the game, though? It’s easy to say you want something, but there are numerous examples of consumers asking for something and the actual sales of said thing not really matching up to how many people said they wanted it.

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We’re pretty confident that there’s going to be an audience for this game, based on all the research that we’ve done. We just released a survey last month asking people general questions about what they’d want to see in the RB franchise. We got over 70,000 responses, which is actually kind of unheard of when you do market research surveys. Hopefully people will show up this year for RB4 with that same sort of fervor, ready to rock again.

Another big question, then: Why no PC version?

That kind of goes back to wanting to focus on the core of Rock Band, things that matter the most. Our understanding right now is that PS4 and Xbox One are where most of our current audience is. That doesn’t discount other platforms in the future, but the fact of the matter is, we’re a smaller studio than when we shipped the previous Rock Band titles. We have to make smart decisions about where we put our development dollars, and right now the focus is on the consoles. PC comes up often enough, though, that we’re definitely paying attention.

I assume you can’t talk about things like record labels and artists you’ve signed up at this point.

No announcements at this time, sorry. There’s been a lot of new music in the past three years, though, and still so many bands that have never been in the game before.

But we’re dying to know if Justin Bieber and One Direction made it in!

[laughs] Well, if you want Justin Bieber… if people ask for it, then why not?

In all seriousness, though, stuff like that could definitely bring in potential players who maybe haven’t played RB before now.

That’d be great. Our initial focus is our core audience, of course, but it’d be great if we could pull in other audiences and new players as well, people who haven’t played before or who maybe didn’t have any music they could get into. We want as many people to play this game as possible, but our main target is definitely on the devoted core fanbase.

Rock Band 4 is out for PS4 and Xbox One this year.

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