I’m glad I never ditched my plastic guitars, which currently sit inside an ottoman in my living room. They don’t get pulled out as often as they used to, and it’s been years since they permanently rest against the entertainment center, but I still get some use out of them. My wife and I break out Rock Band every few months, picking up a few million fake new fans with every five-star rip through “Simple Man” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Even if we don’t do it nearly as often as we used to, it’s still a fun thing that we sometimes do when we feel like doing a fun thing. If the DLC stream hadn’t dried up, we’d probably still be buying songs every month. And with today’s news from Harmonix, those guitars should be spending a lot of time outside of that ottoman.
It’s official: Rock Band 4 is going to exist. Today Harmonix is announcing that it’s making the game for the Xbox One and Playstation 4. It’s been rumored pretty heavily of late, and the developer hasn’t gone out of its way to deny it, even releasing a couple of rebirth-themed songs as the first Rock Band DLC since 2013 earlier this year. It’s definitely happening, though, and if you’re a fan of these games like I am you’ll probably welcome the news. Even more exciting, Harmonix reps tell me the plan is for the instruments and tracks you already own to be playable with Rock Band 4, so that if you have a 360 drum kit or guitar you’ll be able to use it on the Xbox One, and the same with Playstation 3 instruments and the Playstation 4.
I ask Daniel Sussman, a longtime producer on the series and Product Manager on Rock Band 4, why now was a good time to bring the game back. “As we were wrapping up Fantasia, our prototype team was working on a couple of ideas that we didn’t know where they would land, but they had to do with rock music and the rock and roll aesthetic,” he says. “We started to think maybe this is the right time. We looked back at where we launched on the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 and Wii, and we were right about the same time in that console cycle as we are now.
“As we started to interact with our audience a little bit, we found that, in fact, people were still thinking about the franchise,” he continues. “Hundreds of thousands of people are still playing Rock Band 3, according to the server stats we had. We think that it’s been enough time for the game to have been down for there to be some nostalgic interest and also enthusiasm for a game.”
The enthusiasm Rock Band fans feel for the game might be stronger than usually felt for a videogame, Sussman believes. The entire concept behind Rock Band (and, really, Harmonix) has been to encourage a deeper engagement with music. The way Sussman talks about the passion that a hardcore Rock Band fan has for the game resembles the connection felt with a favorite band or artist, or even for the act of playing music. “I don’t see it as a trending fad so much as a relationship with music,” he says, “and that’s something that has never really gone away. We’re excited to bring it back because we love this franchise and it was really fun to roll up our sleeves and start working on it again.”
Even though the new game will be on new systems, Harmonix is working to ensure that you’ll be able to still play your old songs. “It’s part of the tradition of the franchise, really,” Sussman says. “I think we’ve gone above and beyond to respect the investment that people have made in their library and their hardware. We’ve always taken a position about compatibility with one game to the next or even one title to the next as it relates to hardware. And that’s continuing to this round. So, we’re working very hard with Sony and with Microsoft to handle the content side and also to see what we can do on the hardware side.”
They haven’t worked out the kinks, but Sussman thinks it’ll probably involve a process similar to how Dance Central Spotlight worked on the Xbox One. They can validate a user’s library through their servers, and then make those songs appear as free downloads. Of course this is a much bigger scale than with Dance Central (I have almost a thousand Rock Band songs on my Xbox 360 hard drive), and Sussman doesn’t know yet exactly how it’ll work. He sounds confident that players will be able to reclaim the libraries they built over multiple Rock Band games and five years of regular DLC releases. Unfortunately Sussman can’t make any guarantees about tracks purchased through the Rock Band Network, which weren’t made by Harmonix and are subject to various licensing issues that complicate the matter.
The new Rock Band will be paring things down a bit from 2010’s Rock Band 3. Don’t expect to jam out on a keyboard in the new game. There won’t be pro tracks for guitar. The goal, Sussman says, is to “focus on the things that bring the Rock Band community together”, the classic line-up of guitar, vocals, bass and drums that sustained the game during its brief moment of pop culture ubiquity.
“There were a lot of things that in Rock Band 3 that I’m really proud of that are really cool,” Sussman explains, “but I felt like fractured the play experience depending on what hardware you had or what hardware your friends had and how you could play with them. So, kind of getting back to the core band is actually sort of a deliberate creative goal for us.
“When we went back and played Rock Band 3 after not having played it for a good amount of time, we were sort of struck by how many commands it takes you to get to another song and how complicated it is to have multiple bands and multiple profiles. We can improve a lot of that user interface and we are. There’s actually quite a lot of those high level, new features that we will be talking about over the next couple of months and also incremental improvements that we’re psyched about.”
I also write about music, and there’s an old rock critic cliché I try to avoid when a long-running band tries to recapture an earlier sound. I never say that a band’s made a “return to form” or is “getting back to basics.” That’s kind of what Sussman is saying about Rock Band 4, though. The goal is to intentionally look back to the early days of the game, when it was at its most popular, and recreate that magic while still upgrading it for the current technology.
“Our focus is really on a couple of things,” Sussman summarizes. “One is providing a recognizable band simulation experience for people that builds upon the really strong foundation that was established in Rock Band through Rock Band 3. There are a number of areas that we’re focusing on in terms of innovation, one of which is sort of a player to player dynamic and creating a little bit more awareness of what other players in your band are doing. You know, there’s this reality when you’re playing—and you’re playing on expert—you’re trying really hard not to break your streak, you’re sort of focused exclusively on what it is you’re doing. And we’re looking at ways to sort of open up your peripheral vision a little bit, and just like being in a real band, there’s value to paying attention to what other folks in the band are doing. So, that’s an area of interest for us. Another area is sort of player expression and trying to figure out how to allow a player to put their mark on the song. We’ll have some cool things to show, I’m hoping at E3, but we aren’t talking about any of those specifics right now other than to say that’s another area of interest for us.”
So that’s what we know right now about Rock Band 4. Hopefully there’ll be more to share after E3 in June. In the meantime my wife and I will be practicing to get back into our peak 2009 shape for when the Rock Band 4 leaderboards open sometime in the next few years.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.