Five years after the release of Rock Band 3 (and the subsequent collapse of the rhythm game market) Harmonix Music Systems is getting back into the game. Harmonix CEO and President Steve Janiak talked with us about the company’s evolving song distribution model, the possibility of VR integration, and how Rock Band 4 will fight the competition if Activision re-starts its Guitar Hero franchise.
Gaming Insiders: Even though Rock Band 4 was just announced, the game’s due to come out this year. How long has it been in the works?
Steve Janiak: Harmonix is comprised of truly unique and diverse talent, including many musicians. We love both music and gaming, and are Rock Band fans ourselves. We’ve been thinking about how we would approach Rock Band 4 for a while and when the time was right. Shortly after Rock Band 3 shipped, a significant amount of prototyping work was completed while we explored gameplay innovations in the space. We then decided to rest the franchise both for market reasons and to creatively recharge the studio while we focused on other projects. We did, however, continue to support an active community of Rock Band fans by releasing new songs for the game.
Back in 2010, we didn’t have the tech to create some of the new features you’ll see in Rock Band 4. Almost two years ago, we started developing our new game engine, optimized for 8th generation consoles. It provides the essential underpinnings of some of this functionality, which is the biggest evolution of music simulation gameplay since we added drums and vocals to the guitar features we developed prior to Rock Band. Some of the ideas that we’re bringing to life in Rock Band 4—opportunities to be more expressive and creative as a player, for example—have been percolating for many years, but have really gained shape and focus over the last year.
In previous iterations, the Rock Band Network let people download new songs on a charge-per-song basis, often for a few bucks each. With the value of individual tracks being driven down by services like Spotify, are there plans to update that pricing model?
We’re committed to selling DLC at a fair price. To be clear, we’re not providing the same service as Spotify. Rock Band DLC is an authored gameplay experience specific to each song; we have musicians and game designers who do this work by hand for each and every note in the game. We’ll continue to price DLC in a way that allows artists to be compensated for their music, and that allows Harmonix to cover the costs of creating unique and fun gameplay. We’ll likely experiment with different price points to see what works for our customers, and to determine what’s sustainable.
If the focus with Rock Band 4 is to make it a long-lasting platform, do you foresee adding support for things like VR in future updates?
Harmonix prides itself on being at the forefront of new technologies. VR is an intriguing frontier, and a great opportunity to fundamentally reinvent how people connect to music.
For Rock Band, the feeling of playing live music, of really being on stage with the lights and the crowd and the sound enveloping you, that’s the experience we’re trying to deliver with Rock Band 4. It could be even more incredible and immersive in the context of VR, and we’re excited about the possibilities.
Music games went away last time in part because Activision was flooding the market with multiple Guitar Hero games every year. What’s keeping that from happening again this time, should Rock Band 4 become successful and prove that there’s once again interest in the market?
We’re doing things very differently this time around. Based on player feedback, we’re working to build a service that will last the entire console generation. Rock Band 4 is a platform. We’re not going to ask people to spend $60 every year on an incremental upgrade. We’ll continue to support, innovate and add value to Rock Band 4 for years. You’ll see frequent song DLC from us, as we’ve always done with the series.
We’ll also be adding substantial new functionality to the core game and releasing those new features on an ongoing basis, as part of a continuing conversation with our fans to see what resonates with them and what they want. We’re not asking you to re-buy content you accumulated last generation. We’re bringing that content over—you’ll get to play the songs you’ve already purchased in Rock Band 4. We’re not even asking you to buy new instruments if you still have your gear from prior versions of Rock Band.
Will we ever see something like The Beatles: Rock Band again? That game was amazing.
We love the Beatles. Making that game was a labor of love, and an incredible, possibly once in a lifetime opportunity. If we ever have the chance to work with that specific material again we would do it in a heartbeat. Right now, though, we’re focused on building the absolute best game we’ve ever made in Rock Band 4.