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Continuing Rock Band's legacy in a post-peripheral world
As painful as it may be to admit, Harmonix knows the era of plastic instruments has come to an end. Peripheral-based music games just don't rake in the cash like they used to, and audiences no longer seem interested in filling their homes with imitation guitars and electronic drum kits.
But despite all that, Harmonix has no plans to abandon a flagship franchise like Rock Band. It's supported that series with downloadable content every week since 2007, and the studio says many players are still rocking out in their living rooms each and every day. Harmonix thinks the series has a strong future ahead of it, regardless of what happens to those trademark peripherals.
Enter Rock Band Blitz, a new downloadable game launching this week for XBLA and PSN that lets users play along with their favorite songs using only a standard gamepad.
In fact, Blitz doesn't even support the classic Rock Band instruments, and instead lets one player control all the elements of their virtual band -- including vocals, guitar, drums, and more. While the goal is still to hit falling gems in time with the music, Blitz uses completely new mechanics that emphasize arcade-like play over musical authenticity.
"When designing Blitz, we made a very conscious decision to go in a new direction," the game's project director Matthew Nordhaus told us. "We recognize that the enormous popularity of plastic instruments has waned, and we wanted to just use controllers and give people an easy way of enjoying all the music they love in their Rock Band library."
As Nordhaus explained, one of the project's major goals was to ensure that all of the existing downloadable and exportable songs from the old Rock Band games still worked when players boot up Blitz. It was a risky and ambitious move, however, since the song charts and gem patterns in Rock Band Blitz don't match up to those in the original games.
Typically, Harmonix crafts new Rock Band song charts by arranging the falling gem patterns by hand, but considering the Rock Band library now includes nearly 4,000 songs, the team didn't have the resources to re-do all of that work when making them compatible with Blitz.
Instead, the game's audio engineers devised an automated system that could analyze Rock Band's MIDI files, and generate playable song charts on the fly. That way, Blitz could read the data from existing Rock Band DLC and adapt a song accordingly, saving Harmonix hours upon hours of meticulous labor.
"It was very tough to get it right, and I was very worried about it, but I'm very pleasantly surprised with how well it worked," Nordhaus said. "The charts are all automated, but in the game you actually get a strong rhythmic sense of the song that you're playing."
While Nordhaus says Blitz succeeds in giving players a new way to experience existing Rock Band content, he admitted that the game will never be able to recreate the traditional "Rock Band party," where friends can enjoy the thrill of rocking out together in front of the TV.
"The party experience with Rock Band was a special thing that I think had to do with the peripherals, so we more or less intentionally didn't try to recreate that with Blitz," Nordhaus said. "So we made a single-player game and focused on moving that social experience out to the leaderboards, to our Facebook companion app [Rock Band World], and things like that."
Rock Band Blitz hopes to replicate the social nature of the Rock Band franchise by offering persistent, asynchronous challenges online, giving friends some incentive to socialize and compete with each other even if the game only supports one player.
In particular, Nourdhaus hopes that the recently launched Facebook hub will give players more incentive to engage with each other, as they'll be able to compare scores, create challenges, and taunt their friends regardless of whether they're playing on their console or just browsing the web.
"I'm very keen on seeing what happens with our Facebook app," he said. "We're going to be adding new content, goals, and challenges as we go forward, so it'll be similar to our big DLC experiment. I'm excited to see how it all comes together."
Rock Band Blitz debuts today on PSN, and tomorrow on XBLA.