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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of  Rock Band

Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Rock Band

May 19, 2008 | By Staff

May 19, 2008 | By Staff
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The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Harmonix Music Systems' Rock Band. These extracts reveal how the team faced development obstacles on an ambitious project due to the studio's traditional lack of reliance on design documentation, but how the principle of developing hardware and software in tandem allowed the project to come together.

Harmonix design director Rob Kay crafted the postmortem, with contributions from fellow developers Eran Egozy, Ryan Lesser, Dan Teasdale, Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, Daniel Sussman, and Greg LoPiccolo. It was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"Witness Harmonix's transformation from a game developer to a peripheral manufacture hybrid, as the company undertakes its most ambitious game to date = one which comes close to fulfilling the studio's ultimate vision. From controller management to over-stretched leads, this postmortem chronicles the trials and tribulations of this innovative game."

Not Enough Tech Design

In this first excerpt from the in-depth postmortem, Kay describes how Harmonix had to modify its approach to technical design documentation, after going from years on smaller-scale projects to the most ambitious game it had ever attempted:

"Historically, we’ve managed without much formal technical design documentation. This approach, or rather the lack of lack of one, probably sufficed in the past because our programmers were actually superstar designer-programmer hybrids who considered both technical and design impact as a matter of course.

Expanding our code department for
Rock Band meant bringing in new programmers who were very talented but weren’t all designer-programmer hybrids, or if they were didn’t know they were allowed to be. Too often we jumped headlong into implementation of a new system without taking the time to properly examine the implications or test the edge cases of the design. This bit us in a few areas, notably online matchmaking, which had to be redesigned multiple times.

No doubt about it, jumping into development of complex new systems without a technical plan upfront was a flat out mistake. We’ve now formalized our design process to include code review and a technical design document before implementation of a new system begins.


Software And Hardware Hand In Hand

In its previous projects, Harmonix was not responsible for its games' peripherals - but it took that responsibility on for Rock Band. The studio focused first on the drum peripheral, at the time an unknown quantity:

"We began Rock Band as a software developer, but decided to take on the task of designing and manufacturing the hardware ourselves. Designing the controllers from scratch - and starting up a major manufacturing effort in under a year - was an enormous undertaking with a considerable learning curve.

The payoff though was more than worth it. For a game like
Rock Band, the hardware is at least as important as the software, if not more. We were able to design and develop the hardware and software together, taking full control over the user experience.

We began hardware development in February 2006, working with an industrial designer and a contract manufacturer. Because it was the least understood controller, we attacked the drums first. The big challenge was delivering the playing experience of a real drum kit, in a video game controller that would cost a fraction of the price. The guitar controller was less blue sky, and development started after we had the basics of the drum controller down.

Hardware was a brave new world to us. Throughout the whole eighteen-month project cycle, we made mistakes (see what went wrong!) but tried to focus on understanding the critical decisions and making the right calls. In April 2007 we began tooling for both drums and guitar (cutting the steel molds that shape the plastic parts). The molds take about eight weeks to complete, and then you have at least another four weeks of pre-production and tuning.

In September 2007 our first containers left the China warehouse. By January 2008 over two million Rock Band Bundles had shipped."


Approaching The Ultimate Vision

Kay summed up the experience as one to which the studio gave its all, and which of all of Harmonix's games has come closest to reaching the studio's ultimate goal:

"Working on a game with so many firsts was incredibly exciting. Our stall was set out early: this was to be the most ambitious music game ever made, and the spirit of confident innovation was rampant. Rock Band is full of features and moments that were born of a team committed to pushing the quality bar as high as possible. Things like the crowd singing along when you’re performing really well, the Band World Tour’s open ended play, and the Art Maker tool (that allows you to, amongst other things, design your own tattoos) would not have made it into the game if the talented people who made them weren’t so utterly committed to making the game shine.

Seeing the drumming gameplay of Rock Band come to life, and realizing how close it is to real drumming has been a definite highlight of the project. We spent a long time breaking down the skills that absolute beginners learn to become competent drummers, and applying that to our note authoring and difficulty tuning. Taking people with zero musical experience, and watching them gradually learn how to drum on Rock Band may well be the closest we’ve come yet to realizing the Harmonix mission: to bring the joy of making music to everyone.
"

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into Rock Band's development with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the May 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a roundup of current major licensed engine technologies, an examination of what industry jobs are currently in demand, and an interview with Bungie environment artist Mike Zak - plus tool reviews, special career sections, and columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, BioWare's Damion Schubert. Our new Arrested Development column also brings some levity to the magazine.

Yearly print and digital subscriptions to Game Developer are now available, and all digital subscriptions now include web-browsable and downloadable PDF versions of the magazine back to May 2004, as well as the digital version of the Game Career Guide special issue.

In addition, the May 2008 issue of Game Developer is available in digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF).


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