Led Zeppelin waited 27, Pink Floyd held on for 24 and Blur took 16: in comparison to rock and roll reunions, the five-year gap since the last Rock Band game seems like a flash. But in the world of games, it’s been an age.
There’s certainly a group of people who have played Rock Band who are now maybe a little older,” admits Daniel Sussman (pictured), project director for Rock Band 4 at developer Harmonix.
There is also an audience of people who are on Xbox One and PS4 who have never played Rock Band.
For the folks who have never played it before, we have a lot to offer. Certainly by Rock Band 3, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find someone who had never picked up a guitar and played the game. That’s not necessarily the case now, which is fascinating.”
Alex Verrey isglobal PR and communications director at accessories specialist Mad Catz, which is co-publishing the title. He sees the wait – which has included the release of a whole new generation of consoles in the PS4 and Xbox One – as a chance for Rock Band 4 to attract a completely new set of budding musicians.
Some gamers were too young to enjoy the last generation of music games or will be coming to the series with renewed enthusiasm after discarding their old music game controllers,” he says.
"Rock Band 4 isn’t just a re-skin of Rock Band 3 – there are a lot of things that are groundbreaking innovations in the category."
Daniel Sussman, Harmonix
The split between returning performers and fresh-faced players is mirrored in the new game’s approach to its genre-defining plastic instruments: new guitar, drum and microphone peripherals will launch alongside the game, but those who already own Rock Band and Guitar Hero products can simply use those.
It’s really important for us to make the barrier to entry as low as possible,” explains Sussman. I’m not going to tell people that they shouldn’t buy the new hardware – it’s great, top-notch quality, plays really well and is designed for the game – yet the old stuff works really well, too.
What I think will happen is that people will pull their old stuff out of their closets, give it a whirl and realise that its got a lot of miles. A lot of these controllers are well loved, and there’ll be an audience who want to upgrade once they pull their old stuff out again.”
It’s not just players that have matured since Rock Band 3 hit shelves. The games landscape today is far more digital-heavy, while the war for shelf space at retail has been reignited by products such as toys-to-life – an interesting challenge for a series dependent on physical accessories, as Verrey explains.
We’re very sensitive to the fact that retail is cautious over a glut of new hardware, which is why the decision was made to focus only on the essentials,” he says. We’re not pushing pro-instrument controllers, keyboards or secondary accessories. At launch, we’re going live with the game, game and guitar controller, and Band-in-the-Box bundles – nothing more.
It’s also for this reason that Harmonix was insistent on including backward compatibility for not only legacy Rock Band hardware but Guitar Hero products as well. It means that retailers unable to stock the new hardware can still list the game, safe in the knowledge that gamers can purchase the game on day one and still find a way to get playing using legacy hardware.”
Of course, it’s not just toys-to-life and the myriad Q4 releases that Rock Band 4 will find itself battling with this Christmas. There’s also the small matter of another returning music rhythm title: Guitar Hero.
As the rivalry of the warring siblings flares up once again, Verrey is confident Rock Band has what it takes to come out at the top of the billing.
With both music franchises launching anew in this generation, a reset button has been hit and Rock Band can grow market share significantly,” he enthuses.
Sussman, who was producer for the original Guitar Hero, praises the competition as beneficial for all.
There’s a lot of differences between our approach and theirs, and that’s really healthy,” he says. Developers doing creative things drives the industry across all categories.
"I applaud them for doing what they’re doing, yet I’m very confident in what we’re doing. We have a lot of gameplay that is more that just a surface-level innovation; that’s a really big deal and something that has never really been an integral part of the game before.”
Mad Catz’ European marketing manager Rachel Gordon highlights Rock Band’s focus on its titular four-player gameplay as separating it from Guitar Hero Live’s dedication to its stringed eponym, with the latter game also adopting live-action visuals in contrast to Rock Band’s trademark cartoon style.
We’re going into it with a little bit of a different angle to the Activision guys; while they’re concentrating on the guitar and Guitar Hero Live seems like more of a solus game, we’re concentrating on the band aspect of it,” she explains.
Using the term ‘party game’ is a little bit frowned upon, but it is about giving it that social, community aspect.”
"With both music franchises launching anew in this generation, a reset button has been hit."
Alex Verrey, Mad Catz
Much like Guitar Hero Live, Rock Band 4 has a lot to prove; some players will see games involving plastic instruments as an outdated concept, while others could question just how far the formula can be improved.
Sussman expresses his confidence that Harmonix’s new instalment may very well turn out to be as revolutionary as the very first entry in the series.
The time down has allowed us to reflect on what’s unique about the experience, and what was unique about it going all the back to the original Guitar Hero or Rock Band – what the spark of genius was in there that really resonated with people and allowed us to capture some of that.
This isn’t just a re-skin of Rock Band 3 – it’s a ground-up rebuild and there are a lot of things that are groundbreaking innovations in the category. This is a bona-fide sequel.
That said, we don’t want the 4 to imply that there will be a 5, 6, 7 and so on. We’ve got to get this game out and see how it does and start talking to our customers about what they want, what they like, what they don’t like and then factor that into our response plan.
We have a team committed to ‘Rock Band Forever’.”