PAX East 2017 – Interview

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For the Saturday of PAX, we were very lucky to get some time with Josh and Criss from Harmonix. As part of the community team at Harmonix, we sat down with them to ask questions on their upcoming and current projects. We asked a lot of questions, some inane, so read on after the jump to find out what we talked about!

Craig: Let’s jump right in with Rock Band VR. It was on demo last night and we finally got to try it out for ourselves which is fantastic. This is the third VR game you’ve released in a year now. Is Harmonix ready to jump in with VR or would you consider this just testing the waters right now?

Josh: I’d like to think of VR of the next level of immersion. When a new tech comes along that pushes immersion to the next level, we want to be at the forefront. Guitar Hero made you feel like a guitarist, Dance Central made you feel like a professional dancer and now with Rock Band VR, we’re putting you right up on stage, and it’s a completely different feeling.

Criss: I think what’s really important as well is we’re also at the start of VR as well, it’s all new tech which is still evolving. So the possibilities of what we could create in the next few years is really exciting.

Josh: It’s a big jump. Before you had full control on what the player could see and do, down to the lighting and atmospheric touches and now with VR, and Rock Band VR in particular, you don’t have that level of control anymore. They player can look everywhere and anywhere during their performance which makes development so much more technical than before. But we’re now at a point where you can really interact with your band and the audience as well.

Criss: There’s such player agency involved that you have to anticipate what the player could do. I remember one of the PSVR demos where I was tied to a chair and as soon as I got control of my hands, I started messing around and poking my captor. It’s those kinds of details that you have to anticipate.

Dillon: Rock Band VR is something that you really need to see in person- stills don’t do it justice. If there’s one thing you could tell the fans about this game, that would make them want to go out and buy it, what would it be?

Josh: It’s the next step of the fantasy of Rock Band. With Rock Band it was “I don’t need to play an instrument” but with this, it feels so real. Our first demo last year… Some people actually got stage fright. It’s one of the reasons you can’t fail in game because when people boo you, it feels too real.

Craig: You’ve both been with Harmonix since the production of Rock Band VR. How has it been to see it evolve and grow?

Josh: There have been a lot of prototypes of this game and watching it grow and evolve has been pretty amazing. I remember the first demo we showed where we initially wanted to use the original note highway and we tested it… and it didn’t really feel right. With VR, we want players to feel like they’re on the stage and with the highway, all your focus was on that and it kinda killed the immersion. And that’s kind of how it shaped the direction we took after that. It’s great to see how it’s shaped up to where it is now.

Craig: I know you’ve broken new ground in terms of animation and feature sets in VR and it shows, but would you ever see these come back into console titles like Rock Band 4?

Josh: I wouldn’t think so. There’s a lot of complexity to both titles and they’re completely different experiences as well. Having band members in Rock Band 4 that interact with you in the same way they do in VR wouldn’t make sense because of those experiences.

Criss: For what it’s worth, there’s still a lot of content in Rock Band VR we haven’t shown yet. Rock Band 4 had a deeper level of customisation because you’re making your own band and performing. With VR, there is no customisation because it’s you. You’re playing in the band, and there’s a huge story involved. All your band mates are animated and have voice acting and it’s quite a large departure from what Rock Band 4 is.

Josh: Yeah, we have a main character in the band called Derek, who’s so much better than the one we work with.

Criss: At least that character shows up!

Dillon: Keeping on the theme of Rock Band 4, we’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of exports and entitlements over the last year. When will we see the final entitlements get pushed through for delisted content?

Josh: We wouldn’t put a firm answer to that. I think what’s important, and what we’re really focused on right now is getting those entitlements out to Europe. There’s a ton of things we’re trying to do with Rock Band 4 right now, but finishing up in Europe is our main focus.

Craig: And I know you guys aren’t giving a fixed timeline on this kind of stuff right now.

Criss: Right, we don’t want to give anyone one timing and something happens to push it back. But we are trying to give timelines with Sony Europe. Once they say it’s ready, we push it out straight away.

Dillon: The delisted content is still coming though?

Josh: Absolutely!

Craig: Rock Band 4 is the first game you guys have regularly supported post-release with content updates. We had a roadmap for them last year, would we see another?

Josh: So we have a new update next week, and it has a lot of content. And a few updates for the rest of the year, but I don’t think we’d have another public roadmap. Internally, yes, we have a road map and fixed plans on what we’re creating and updating.

Criss: Yeah, I think we had so much going on last year we needed it. And a lot of those updates focused on important features and bug fixes so it was easier to show the community what we were doing.

Josh: We have plenty of  feature updates coming, but this next one is definitely asset and content heavy.

Dillon: What was your favorite DLC of 2016?

Josh: Ooh… “Flagpole Sitta,” “Africa”…

Criss: Yeah that was a solid pick.

Josh: I’m a sucker for 90’s alt rock.

Criss: And that pre-order pack.

Josh: I was so happy with that pre-order pack!

Criss: It was a great year for 90’s classics.

Josh: Right?! Stuff like the Gin Blossoms too.

Criss: The Cranberries, too.

Craig: I squealed at that one, I’ve wanted “Zombie” for so long. I wasn’t expecting the other two. So, last year was also the first year where [Rock Band] also started not using master stems. I’ve no problem with it, but it surely went afoul with some of the community?

Josh: Absolutely, there are definitely members that would prefer masters, but then there are so many factors that could play into not getting them.

Criss: Exactly, and it’s a dilemma where we know fans want the songs but the masters just aren’t there. We will absolutely go for the master stems 100% of the time. But sometimes they just aren’t there, and the fans want the songs. And that outweighs the potential issues we could have. And it’s not like these songs are damaged or broken. Not many people would be able to notice it, unless you played expert drums and your name was Josh Harrison.

Dillon and Craig: Hard Drums Josh!

Dillon: Okay, so we had to ask this one to avoid being threatened on Twitter… Rock Band Network?

Josh: Okay, so I have a long Reddit exchange with the community on this. So, the new Microsoft XNA setup… There are two things. Yes, XNA was an integral part of the Rock Band Network, but an equally important part of that was the peer review system. If you wanted to release a piece of DLC for a game through the new system in place, there’s no way we could review it before release.

You would need to send all of the content to us for us to QA test, we’d need to check all the licensing, etc, etc. It would be like licensing and working on the content ourselves. So this is a pretty big deal, but secondly, there wouldn’t be a guarantee of it coming back because of all the maintenance and tool updating involved, it’s a huge work load with everything else that’s going on at the studio. Never say never, but right now it’s very unlikely the Rock Band Network could come back at this point.

Craig: Now, what about the content we already have? We’ve got a huge list of songs sat in limbo that haven’t come across yet. What do you think is going to happen to them?

Josh: I mean we’ve said before that we’d look into after the delisted content carries over. We haven’t made a final call on those, but given all the work and effort involved in getting delisted content up again it’s unlikely we’ll see those move over.

Craig: It’s sad for songs that maybe didn’t sell at all, but there are surely a few songs that sold like crazy?

Josh: Absolutely, and if we did get the opportunity to port, it’s very likely those would be first. But those tracks would still require a lot of work to get from Rock Band 3 to Rock Band 4

Criss: You really have to balance your workflow. Great, we have songs that we could port to Rock Band 4, but this is on top of a whole load of projects we have in the works now. Dropmix, Rock Band 4 DLC, VR, Singspace and a load we haven’t announced yet. And we have to prioritize those first. We’d love to see it happen, but it’s something we can’t commit to right now.

Josh: And even if the architecture came back into play, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Rock Band network would come back. It’d require us to update all of our existing tools, all of our existing data and putting in 10’s of 1000’s of man hours to get this up and running again. It’s a huge effort while we have so many other projects, so… Never say never, but it’s very unlikely.

Dillon: Okay, so 2016 saw a major increase in community engagement from you guys. The community team settled in, the livestreams started back up and you even stole one of our RBA writers as well.

Criss: Stole?! He chose.

Josh: He smuggled his way in!

Dillon: Where do you see that going? Do you expect to keep the momentum going forward?

Criss: Absolutely! I would say so. Community engagement is so important. And it’s really cool to see our fans play games and see what kind of people are playing them. I mean, we’re humans interacting with other humans.

Dillon: Is there anything you want from the community in 2017?

Criss: Rainbows and sparkles!

Josh: I think… Some people pre-facet feedback with “I hate to tell you this” and they shouldn’t. Because that’s not the right way to give feedback. Honest feedback is important for us to fix something that isn’t working.

Criss: Right! Oh and it’s TOTALLY OK to have different tastes in music to everyone else. I’m not a huge fan of metal. I mean, I’ll play it in Rock Band. That’s cool. But I don’t hate it enough to drag other peoples opinions for liking it. Also, if you want a song in the game, go to the request page. We will definitely see it! Rocksmith actually wrote a great piece on this.

Craig: And it still got a lot of hate for it

Criss: And you’re going to. It’s just par of the course.

Craig: And I’m sure there is plenty of sales figures our there that help guide your choices, regardless of your audiences likes and dislikes.

Criss: Yes. I just can’t really describe how complex the music industry is as well. Every one has their fingers in all the pies.

Josh: We actually had a song from an artist that we wanted to include in DropMix and we were close to clearing. And it’s a really good song that we obviously can’t tell you about, but because someone who owned 8% of the song said ‘no,’ we couldn’t use it.

Craig: Have you ever gotten really close to a tracks release, like a week or a day before, and the artist has denied the license?

Criss: No, never that close. We usually lock down the tracks about two months before we send it over to the authoring team, so we don’t usually have tracks pull out that late into the process.

Josh: For the record, there are so many reasons why we may not get a song, or why we get certain songs. There are opportunities where we may already have the stems because they’ve been in a previous project and we start working on the tracks earlier, but we haven’t had a finished track recently get pulled before release.

Dillon: How deep do you guys think you’ll go with Rock Band Rewind? We’ve already seen quite a few make it back. Could we see a return of Fake Stephen Tyler in the future?…

Josh: I don’t think we’d go that far….. I don’t know for sure. I mean the program has been really successful so far. People have been buying tracks. And it’s a great way for people that don’t have the exports to get hold of the songs.

Criss: That’s a really satisfying part of it, is just watching the newer fans getting really excited about getting these tracks. It’s really special.

Dillon: Okay, so let’s jump into the big news from yesterday.

Josh and Criss: Yes! Please, we are dying to talk about that.

Dillon: Dropmix. How did that get conceptualized? It’s a huge departure from what you guys usually do-

Josh: Well, let’s take a step back because I don’t think it’s a huge departure from what we normally do. In the mechanics of how you play it is, but it’s a new way to experience music, which is right in our wheelhouse. The tech from freestyle guitar where it would match the key of whatever you’re playing is in here. So you could play a new card in a different key and it would match the key of what you just played.

Craig: Wait, really?

Criss: Yeah, the game can change key and BPM based on what you play and collate it all to make new music. And when you have 4 cards in play and put a fifth one down, you could completely change the song you had.

Josh: The mixes are always changing, always updating.

Craig: So that first card you play, once you play the fifth you could have a completely different song by the end? That’s awesome.

Dillon:  So this game, having this around the office, does it get super competitive?

Criss: Oh yes! Very competitive!

Josh: That’s actually what one of the game modes is for. Clash mode is a competitive head to head mode. We’ve also got two other game modes that we aren’t announcing just yet. Dropping cards feels so satisfying, and that feeling combined with playing and winning points is just otherworldly.

Dillon: Okay, so a couple of community questions now. Amplitude. How did the launch go, and what are your future plans for it?

Criss: People. Want. More! I think it went well, and we’ve seen a large call out for DLC or an expansion to the game. So it’s good to know we have a call for more content.

Josh: So it launched in January last year, so over a year ago. And it was really well received from the crowd that wanted it, but it is still a niche crowd. I saw a petition going around asking for DLC. And it’s difficult to justify DLC for a game that has such a niche crowd.

Criss: And it’s not like we can jump straight into making DLC. We don’t own the IP. We have to pitch to Sony to get approval.

Josh: it’s a difficult project to work on because Sony owns the IP.

Criss: I love Amplitude, for what it’s worth. Being able to play beat match games on a controller breaks down some of the accessibility barriers our games have, but we have to be realistic about some of these projects.

Dillon: What about Rock Band Blitz? Any plans for a sequel?

Criss: Shrug man text. You can just put that as my answer.

Josh: We get asked a lot about this kinda stuff. Like, we loved blitz a lot. And dropmix is a perfect example of this, but we want to keep moving from new project to new project. We know our fans keep asking for a new amplitude or a new blitz game. But it doesn’t make sense to keep going back to our old IP’s. We want to keep our projects fresh.

Criss: Yeah we love blitz. But we want to keep creating games that are breaking new ground mechanically, or are new ways to interact with music.

Dillon: Last question, and it’s probably the most important of 2016… Pineapple on Pizza-

Josh: NO!

Criss: Yes. Yes

Josh: This interview is over.

Criss: My favourite pizza is Hawaiian. It’s got pineapple. It’s got ham. And I’m gonna eat it in front of you and you’re gonna have to deal with it.

Josh: Do you want me to barf on you? Because that’s how you get that to happen

Criss: Remember when I said it was ok for people to have different opinions… Right, Josh?!

So there you have it folks. In the hour we spent chatting with them, we got a lot of questions asked, which cleared up a lot of questions the community had. Dropmix and VR are definitely titles to keep your eyes on guys. Great stuff!

5 Responses to “PAX East 2017 – Interview”

  • MaximusDM says:

    When is that RB3 PS3 XMB patch coming?

  • Skydog says:

    Was a patch even mentioned above? I sort of skimmed because didn’t care too much about what they had to say about Dropmix or RBVR (since i’m buying neither).
    I sort of doubt they’d patch the game, to be honest I feel it was too “high tech” for them to figure out. Look at RB4… so many issues (especially the stuttering) and they can’t seem to figure out a way to fix it (yet other games I’ve played at had framerate issues got them fixed within a few weeks)

  • Croq360 says:

    Okay, so no sequel on Blitz. How about just adding the title to the backward compatible list? That would make my day!

  • Studdz says:

    Well, kind of a bummer for fans of RBN and Rock Band Blitz, but I guess not unexpected. I hope they continue to add to Rock Band 4 rather than ignoring it in favour of exclusively new projects.

  • Dananon says:

    Not gonna lie, really didn’t get a good vibe from this interview.