Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 22, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 22, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

GDC Online: Surprising Lessons From  Rock Band 's Story
GDC Online: Surprising Lessons From Rock Band's Story
October 5, 2010 | By Kris Graft

October 5, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

For Harmonix, a sharp focus on storytelling played a key role in propelling the studio from relative obscurity as developers of Frequency and Amplitude to big success as the purveyors of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, a pair of Harmonix developers explained at GDC Online's Game Narrative Summit on Tuesday.

The critically well-received music games Frequency and Amplitude "just didn't connect with the public," said Helen McWilliams, senior writer at Harmonix who has worked on the Rock Band series.

What was missing is a narrative that that the players could relate to. With the creation of the Guitar Hero franchise (now developed at Activision), the studio added a light narrative about being a small-time guitarist trying to rise to fame, and people began to connect more with Harmonix's games. Players began to connect with the experience.

"We came to the realization that there might be more story in our game than we realized," said Harmonix designer Chris Foster, a five-year Harmonix veteran who was lead designer on The Beatles: Rock Band."

What Foster encouraged developers to implement is "structural narrative," or gameplay that supports story progression. With Rock Band, progression in the game relied on skill, money and fame. All of those components tie together the gameplay with a story about players' rise to virtual fame.

He said that Harmonix's games aren't the most obvious choices as candidates for story, but adding narrative did a lot to give gamers an experience they attached to.

Foster said that developers who are doing games that don't have stories to "reconsider." He explained, "revisit your standard mechanics … to reinforce that story. Think about if there's a simple metaphor that resonates with the rest of your gameplay. You might get some narrative power out of that."

Lessons Learned With Rock Band

The key to Rock Band and Guitar Hero's success seems simple now: it's wish fulfillment for people who fantasize about being a rock star. But Harmonix was surprised to see when its games began attracting more casual players.

Foster said that the goal for Harmonix's games became a focus on the player-driven story. But that wasn't so easy, said McWilliams. "The trick was with that was that we couldn't really define what the band was too much, or what the band's career progression would be. … People would have to project it through their own fantasy lens."

This meant that Harmonix had to avoid making any assumptions about the players, if the studio's games were to project individual fantasies. Writers would have to reword parts of the narrative as to not make assumptions about race, gender, class or sexual orientation. "We don't assume that we know the players," she said.

Immersing players in the experience of being in a band also meant being true-to-life, to an extent. McWilliams explained how research for Rock Band came from Harmonix's designers, many of whom are in real-life bands – the designers would sit around at their local watering hole, have some drinks and record all of their "hilarious anecdotes" about being in a band.

"If you get the authenticity right, then your story is… pulling in the same direction that your player wants," said Foster.

With Rock Band 3 due this holiday, Harmonix has pushed the idea of the player-driven, structural narrative even further with a greater emphasis on featuring player avatars through cut-scenes and loading screens, and having narrative progression proliferate through all modes of the game.

"We're not doing story-based games," said Foster. But without carefully-applied narrative, Rock Band would essentially amount to "'look you're on stage, isn't it cool to be in a band?'"

Related Jobs

Infinity Ward / Activision
Infinity Ward / Activision — Woodland Hills, California, United States

Gameplay Animation Engineer - Infinity Ward
Infinity Ward / Activision
Infinity Ward / Activision — Woodland Hills, California, United States

Lead Tools Engineer - Infinity Ward
Infinity Ward / Activision
Infinity Ward / Activision — woodland hills, California, United States

Build Engineer - Infinity Ward
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States

VFX Artist-Vicarious Visions-Temporary


Jamie Mann
profile image
Um. From personal experience, my friends and I just want to play the songs! The only time we've ever gone into the career mode on either GH or RB is to unlock additional material. OTOH, I'd guess we're the epitomy of the casual music-gamer: the plastic guitars are generally only grabbed during a party or when friends are over and having a beer or two...

Jed Ashforth
profile image
I'm a massive RB fan, it's far and away my most played game this generation. I stopped caring about the 'Career' mode and working through prescribed setlists a long time ago, but being able to earn $$ in freeplay mode playing the music I want to play will be most welcome if Harmonix manage it in RB3. But to back this up, I'm going to need a lot more unlockable outfits, tatts, instruments etc to spend that money on. But yeah, absolutely, I'd welcome added narrative resonance if it can fit round the way I want to play the game, and it sounds like that's what Harmonix have managed. Fingers crossed.

Jim McGinley
profile image
I bought (and loved) Guitar Hero 1 because of the guitars, the songs, and the 2 player mode. Getting from the basement to the big leagues was a fantastic bonus, but I didn't even realize that existed until after I bought it.

A lack of narrative was NOT the reason Frequency and Amplitude didn't connect with the audience. Relative to Guitar Hero, their tracklists were obscure. Additionally, they sounded and looked futuristic (like Wipeout), and felt like "driving" games (i.e. racing down a track). Guitar Hero 1 had the first killer soundtrack, and felt like you were playing a guitar. A missing narrative was not the problem.

In some ways, narrative hurt Rock Band 1:

- Could not play multiplayer without the band leader

- Player was tied to an instrument

- Can't have 4 players on main guitar or 4 people on lead vocals

- People are forced to play bass guitar - no-one wants to play bass guitar

"... it's wish fulfillment for people who fantasize about being a rock star." For me, it's wish fulfillment for people who can't play an instrument. The popularity of Karaoke machines proves that carefully-applied narrative is still a bonus.

I'd rather see a focus on:

1. MORE songs. If Rock Band 3 came with 200+ songs, I'd buy it regardless of other improvements.

2. Fix the horrid song selection screen.

3. Setting up a 4 player band with new people is a nightmare. i.e. "don't touch anything!!!"

4. Ensuring my avatar can do anything I want easily (switch instruments between songs in a setlist, belong to multiple bands) so I never need to switch avatars.

5. Display a complete timeline and history of everything my avatar has accomplished.

I still want the narrative, I just hope it stays a minor focus.