The Beatles: Rock Band is arguably the most significant artist tie-in with a music game yet, and the top billing of the artist's name in the title reflects the uncommon weight The Beatles pull.
But it's still a Rock Band game; developer Harmonix isn't so much aiming at creating a virtual Beatles experience so much as it is attempting to continue evolving its core Rock Band experience in ways best suited to The Beatles influential oeuvre.
We sat down with Harmonix creative director and The Beatles: Rock Band project lead Josh Randall for some brief background on the game's origins and Harmonix's design approach.
Subjects discussed include the challenges of the three-way harmony mechanic, why you can't have a technically-accurate Beatles lineup in the game, and how this game furthers Harmonix's long-standing mission.
Was there some level of competition between Activision and Harmonix and MTV Games for The Beatles?
Josh Randall: I don't know. I don't actually know. [laughs]
The way it came about was actually that years ago, we had dreamed about making this game, but then it wasn't [in the works] until [we realized] Dhani Harrison was a huge fan of our game. He met with us, and then met with Apple Corps, and basically introduced us. And then from there, he sort of gave us the connections to get things going. That's how it went down.
It's funny; because you're using the standard Rock Band instrument lineup, not counting the mics, you can't actually reproduce The Beatles' configuration.
JR: Right. You would actually want three guys playing guitar and singing, and then someone playing the drums.
So do you have an internal guideline on, say, who can claim to be George or Paul or what have you?
Josh Randall: No. That was the thing that we figured out -- we didn't want do, "I'm George," or "I'm John," you know? It's just, "I'm going to play the bass track" or "I'm going to play the guitar track."
And, you know, Apple Corps and the Beatles have been totally cool with that. I think that goes along with how we do Rock Band. It's more about picking the material that you actually want to play. If you want to play the drums, you just pick the drums.
Was it a challenge to sell the three-part harmony feature to MTV Games, your publisher? That's pretty complex.
JR: No. Originally, with [Rock Band] and with all of our games, we wanted to just create the ultimate party in your living room. And whenever we play Rock Band together, there are always extra people in the room. So we thought, “What if we just have an extra mic?"
But then, we thought about it more, and we realized that a big signature part of The Beatles' music is the beautiful harmonies that they do, so let's actually turn that into a real game element.
We went through a really heavy prototyping phrase, figuring out, "Alright, how do we get multiple arrow pointers? How do you know what you're singing? How do we do the scoring?" and all of that. We did really tight iteration, where like every morning we would meet and try out the latest version and tweak it to see how it works.
Are you worried about how intimidating that could be to people who aren't familiar with singing harmony?
JR: No. At the bare minimum, you plug in three mics, and anybody can sing anything they want. It's really clear that, "Oh, the main vocal track is this color, and if I want to sing that, I can, and it's no problem." But if you want to branch out and try doing harmonies, you can.
The other thing is that we have a full training mode, much like in Rock Band, where between the tutorials and the practice mode, you can actually go in and hear a guide pitch. You can say, "I want to hear what the notes are for the main lines," or, "now I want to hear what the notes are for the harmonies."
If you just listen and practice with your own ear, you can totally pick out all the different lines and then just play. But if you can't hear those lines in the original song, we didn't want to make the game such that if you don't do harmony, you get a crappier score. That's detrimental to gameplay.
There's a bit of a progression in what you can learn from your games. You started out with Guitar Hero, and then in Rock Band you could essentially learn the basics of playing real drums, and now with this game you'll be able to learn to sing lines that are actual harmony lines to real songs.
JR: We're trying to keep it authentic. And for me, I never really sang harmony with someone before, but it just feels really good to do. And I really like that this game taught me how to do it.
I'm not that great, but the first time I sat in on a playtest session and saw three people singing in harmony together for "Here Comes the Sun," I swear I saw people tearing up at the end. Another time, I saw people hold hands -- total strangers holding hands, singing in harmony. That's what this game is all about. I really think this game has a lot of heart. We really tried to create an emotional response when you play.
That really goes back to Harmonix's stated mission of bringing the feeling of musical performance to everyone, including non-musicians.