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The old adage goes that absence makes the heart grow fonder – and many might argue that’s as true in games as anywhere else. It’s been 5 years since 2010’s Rock Band 3, but it feels like a lot longer – and after a bit of time with Harmonix’s return to the precarious world of band games, it feels like the gap has actually served to aid the game.

When Rock Band retired the music genre had been squeezed out by a brutal scrap between Harmonix and Activision’s Rock Band, with numerous other series’ getting in on the action from ridiculous-but-awesome spin-off DJ Hero and even a resurgence in karaoke games that led to the likes of Def Jem Rapstar – but now, the road is clear. This year will see the original two – Rock Band and Guitar Hero – battling it out again.

So far, so Rock Band - but refinements make the 4th entry stand out.
So far, so Rock Band – but refinements make the 4th entry stand out.

“As soon as we announced, the stories start to emerge – people who never really put it away,” enthuses Daniel Sussman, Project Manager on RB4. Sussman has been with Harmonix and the world of music games since the earliest days of Guitar Hero, and can certainly be credited as one of the key people in last generation’s music game surge. Now he’s back at it.

“A lot of people kept playing! It’s like okay, wait a second – I think the decline of the music game category is grossly exaggerated,” he laughs.

“It’s a category that from the very beginning nobody really expected to do anything. From my perspective, there’s this feeling that people were just… waiting. Waiting to say ‘Ha, I told you so! Seven years, it took seven fucking years but finally, the bottom fell out!'”

For Harmonix it was never that simple. It was plain that by the time Rock Band 3 hit fatigue was starting to set in, with store flooded with instruments and other often-useless peripherals. Even so, Harmonix felt the love for their game in other areas. By the time Rock Band 3 DLC was drawn to a close, people were still buying and playing – so Harmonix waited.

Five years later they’ve partnered with the massively-improved hardware company Mad Catz to bring Rock Band back – and find themselves going back-to-basics with their development approach.

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My hands-on time with the game was familiar – it feels like Rock Band, albeit with subtle edits to certain aspects of the game, such as how drum-fills are handled – and in all areas, Sussman later explains to me the team is focused on evolution rather than revolution – and even the instruments are a nuanced upgrade on last generation’s, with backwards compatibility retained.

“It’s about accessibility,” Sussman explains. “I really wanted to support a world where players didn’t have to buy new hardware to play this game – that was actually really important. At the same time, I think the new hardware is great.”

While their rivals are going for an all-new setup and chasing a more realistic approach, Harmonix is actually taking a step back from the more realistic modes introduced in the first game – though there are all-new gameplay elements set to debut next week at E3.

“With Rock Band 3 I think we did a lot of innovation in the hardware space – you saw what we did with Rock Band Pro, with the keyboard – and it didn’t actually support the fantasy that we’re trying to communicate here,” Sussman admits.

Single-player fans will have a more focused, 'RPG style' story to experience.
Single-player fans will have a more focused, ‘RPG style’ story to experience.

“I think really that we have a tonne of flexibility in software with respect to buttons that maybe were under-utilized on the guitar – we have two sets of fret buttons – and it’s really about challenging the team to come up with the goods in the software.

There are very few categories in gaming where the controllers need to evolve with every iteration of the game. I feel like the guitar and the drum are very adaptable as they relate to music gameplay – there’s a lot of things we can do with those.

“We’re certainly not constrained by a lack of buttons or a lack of anything. I think from both an accessibility and a difficulty standpoint we’ve got a lot of tools in the kit that we can deploy from a hardware standpoint and take advantage of in the software – and really informed our motivation to stay the course. These guitars and drums are battle tested, they work really well, they’re designed to take a beating – they didn’t need reinventing.”

One of Rock Band 4’s biggest and most impressive selling points is its continued commitment – as with instrument backwards-compatibility – to last generation’s platform. While the game is exclusive to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, almost all previous Rock Band DLC will carry over – though that process will take time – not an easy task.

“Each piece of old content has to be submitted as an all-new piece of content,” I’m told. “As such, there’s quite a long process to get through from a first party standpoint to make sure it’s all tested and above board. We’re doing a lot of that math now, trying to figure out what we’ll have at launch – but it’ll be a good number, we’re confident. Ideally it’s everything – but we’ll see how far we get.”

Along with the promise of all their old DLC carrying over, customers both old and new have been promised there’ll be no need to update – with Sussman describing Rock Band 4 as Harmonix’s one band-based game for a full console generation in his presentation to press.

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Next-generation hardware gives a boost to visuals as well as under-the-hood.

“The thing that you should read into a statement like that is that we’re making a commitment to making Rock Band 4 a sustainable enterprise while treating our customers with respect,” he later elaborates to us. “What that means is not necessarily jamming product down their throat.”

“There is an opportunity for us to work with that community to do some very bold things – to see what people ask for. Maybe the only thing people will care about is a new stage kit,” he jokes, talking of Rock Band 3’s much-loved but ill-fated light and smoke show peripheral.

“If that’s the case, we’ll do it! That’s fine! But that’s the conversation we want to have, and we’re in a position to be quite responsive. We have the team that’s committed to this over the long term – which means we can do a lot of very interesting things based on both the data we get and the dialogue we have with our community.”

In the initial exclusive coverage over at IGN, much was made of the concept of Rock Band’s new single player ventures – described as being styled like a RPG in coverage. When asked to offer more detail, Sussman laughs – and then reveals this direction was birthed from a lack of satisfaction with previous Rock Band campaigns.

“The difference between Rock Band 2 and Rock Band 3 was pretty marked with regards to the career path,” he said. “Rock Band 2 is very narrative-based, Rock Band 3 is very achievement based. Certainly in retrospect I preferred the Rock Band 2 campaign – it had more stickiness to it. While Rock Band 3 was really gamey, it lacked the narrative element – it was about filling up bars.”

“There are moments that are actually an important part of the fantasy that we’re trying to communicate. Like – I got my tour bus, I’m going to Los Angeles for the first time – that’s exciting! Those are moments that I think are entertaining AND immersive – they help you develop that personality, help you to live the fantasy that you are a musician and you are doing this.

“We wanted to go back to that, but with a couple of tweaks. First, we wanted to make sure that the decisions you’re asked to make throughout your career have meaning. That was a piece I didn’t like about Rock Band 2’s narrative – that feeling of ‘Now I’m here, it’s the same songs, the same thing, I don’t understand the difference between money and fans or why I have a road manager or any of that stuff.’

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All-new features are coming – but Harmonix and Mad Catz are being coy for now!

“Y’know, I worked on that game – I should know the answers to all those questions, and yet it’s pretty fuzzy, y’know? We can do a better job adding some impact to the decisions you make, having fun with them, telling entertaining stories – that’s the RPG piece. It’s not a full RPG – but it’s a narrative element that is very responsive to the decisions that you make.”

At this pre-E3 event it’s all about the multiplayer, though these comments have me intrigued. As for that multiplayer experience – it’s as solid as ever, with new adjustments to the way singing works a particular stand-out, the game now rewarding creative license within the singing space – as long as you remain in-key.

For Sussman, it isn’t about having a great single player or multiplayer, but about the complete package – an image Rock Band wants to reshape from its entirely multiplayer-driven perception from past entries.

“There’s this sense that Rock Band is the pre-eminent band game,” Sussman muses. “What’s harder for people to understand is that this isn’t just a multiplayer game. It’s actually really fun to play these instruments on your own.

“From a quality standpoint, we think we have the best guitar game this year, and we think we have the only band game this year – and I think that’s quite exciting.”

Rock Band 4 is out later this year. It’ll be at E3 – and so will we – and we’ll bring you more hands-on details from the show.

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