Innovate or die. Harmonix says it’s this belief that is key to competing in the increasingly fierce music games market. And this developer is certainly not lacking in innovation.
Since producing the first two Guitar Hero titles, the firm was bought out by Viacom and MTV Games in 2006 and has gone on to build its own hugely successful rhythm-based franchise – Rock Band. The multiformat series has sold 16.1m copies worldwide to date.
Meanwhile, Activision continues to publish iterations of Guitar Hero each year – developed by Neversoft – effectively presenting Harmonix with the challenge of beating its own creation.
But not content with simply producing a similar game each year, Harmonix says introducing fresh new gameplay experiences are vital to driving and maintaining consumer interest.
“With music games we have to innovate or we’ll die,” says senior designer Brian Chan.
“We’ve only released three main Rock Band titles and each one adds significant value. Rock Band 1 was the first full band game with drums and was a total innovation, Rock Band 2 perfected that and Rock Band 3 is innovating again with Pro instruments because the band platform had been commoditised with Guitar Hero: World Tour.”
Project director Daniel Sussman adds: “People are craving that new experience, and that’s what we’re working really hard to support.”
“The challenge for Rock Band 3 was to react to a category that hadn’t seen a major shift in gameplay in quite some time, while staying respectful to the classic party experience.
“If you look at other game categories developers basically make the same game and re-sell it year after year. People will eventually get bored and there are a lot of franchises that have suffered for that.”
Harmonix rose to this challenge by introducing a Pro mode that replicates playing a real instrument, an all-new keyboard accessory, a revised user interface and improved peripherals including a 102-button Fender Mustang Pro-Guitar and Pro Drums with three cymbals. These can even be plugged into MIDI devices such as computers and be used like real instruments to create music – with some bands already taking them on tour.
“There’s nothing else on the market like our keyboard – an authentic device you can play in-game and on stage,” explains senior designer Sylvain Dubrofsky.
Sussman adds: “When we presented the Mustang Pro guitar controller to Fender, we saw jaws hit the table – everyone was excited.”
Without studio owner MTV, the Pro mode and controllers may not have existed.
“MTV is a force not just in the music industry but in the entertainment industry as a whole,” Sussman explains.
“When we need to get in touch with somebody in The Who or The Doors, with them we have an avenue to. And there aren’t a lot of publishers that would have got behind the ‘Pro’ additions.”
TWO FOR ONE
As well as the pros, the developer hasn’t forgotten beginners, either. It’s these two audiences that will help Rock Band 3 pull in strong sales, as opposed to one ‘rock fan’ demographic. And with its detailed tutorials, the game also doubles up as an edutainment package, a strong gifting alternative to music lessons, books and DVDs.
“The fact it has real world value is a bonus,” says Sussman.
“Here we have a game that manages to teach users something valuable, but first and foremost we wanted to make sure it was fun and accessible, and I think we’ve pulled that off.”
From last Friday (October 29th), users are able to purchase a keyboard and game bundle for £109.99 in the UK – a territory, along with Europe, that Harmonix has also seen huge success worldwide with its 2,000-song DLC system, with 75m downloads in the two years it has been live. The secret to its success? Weekly additions, a simple sorting system and huge variety of musical genres available.
“It’s a pretty different DLC model than most because of its regularity,” says Chan.
“Most companies release DLC which peters out after a while, whereas we constantly support the community with new content.”
Users can play each new song in regular or ‘Pro’ mode, and Harmonix is also working on adding keyboard compatibility to its back catalogue of titles. On top of this, bands can upload custom-made songs to the server and get paid each time they are downloaded.
THE FUTURE OF ROCK
Where will Harmonix take Rock Band next? Could it use motion controllers PlayStation Move and Xbox 360 Kinect in the future, considering Harmonix has embraced the latter with Dance Central?
Sussman says: “They offer fantastic technology, but I think a guitar game with a plastic controller is more fun than an air guitar game with no controller. That said, we’re very interested in what possibilities are offered by the camera.
“We have a very strong group of creative minds that are committed to bringing new music game experiences to people. I’m confident we’ll be able to think of something.”
In the meantime, Rock Band will continue to go head-to-head with Guitar Hero.
“I think the brand identities between Guitar Hero and Rock Band are more differential now than they may have been in the past,” says Chan. “So I’m curious to see where they go next.”
Sussman adds: “It’s interesting to compete against a franchise that I helped to create,” says Sussman.
“We welcome the competition.”