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Dust off your drumset: Harmonix readies Rock Band 4 after a half-decade hiatus

“The rumors are true: We are working on Rock Band 4.”

Well no s–t, Harmonix. The Boston-based game studio hasn’t exactly been subtle in its many recent teases that there might be a future for the rhythm game series, which went on hiatus in 2010 after Rock Band 3‘s release. But then, that was kinda the whole point. It’s not like rhythm games are a surefire win. The whole hiatus happened because the audience was losing steam. So for Harmonix, surveying fans and gauging excitement around new downloadable content for five-year old games is very much a litmus test.

The above quote comes from Daniel Sussman, a product manager on Rock Band 4 who’s been with the studio since the days of the original Amplitude. While many details have yet to be revealed or even ironed out behind the scenes, Sussman took Digital Trends on a brief tour through some of the studio’s plans. Starting with the music.

“We’re bringing forward the entire [downloadable content] catalog and we are working with the first parties, Microsoft and Sony, to support entitlements,” he explains. “This is complicated because we’re jumping platforms. We’re on the Xbox One and PS4 [with Rock Band 4], and so there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting to rebuild a catalog that took us five years to accumulate between 2007 and 2012.”

Of course, DLC is only part of the equation. Three numbered Rock Band releases delivered their own song libraries, as did band-specific takes for The Beatles and Green Day. Even the outlier spin-off, Lego Rock Band, had its own selection of music. Harmonix knows that fans would like to see some or all of this content preserved in Rock Band 4.

Green Day: Rock Band is export-friendly, but The Beatles: Rock Band is not. “We’re still working out the nuances,” Sussman says.

“We’re still working out the nuances,” Sussman says. “The easy answer is any discs that you have exported previously — so basically, anything that you have in your song library, either as a DLC purchase or a disc export — will pull forward.” It’s both good and bad news. The numbered games support song exports, as did Lego Rock Band (though it doesn’t any longer). Green Day: Rock Band is also export-friendly, but The Beatles: Rock Band is not. Harmonix doesn’t have any additional specifics to discuss yet, but going by Sussman’s words, it stands to reason that certain music libraries simply won’t make the leap to the upcoming game.

Then there’s the hardware. Expect to see a new assortment of plastic instruments marketed alongside Rock Band 4 — the product of a partnership with Mad Catz, Sussman tells us — but in addition, fans can expect their old instruments to work as well. Probably.

“This is complicated because a lot of the tech has changed between PS3 and PS4 and between Xbox 360 and Xbox One. So there’s a big part of [support for legacy instruments] that is out of our hands. It’s a lot of wrangling on the first party side to get through the policy and politics of making that work,” Sussman says. Harmonix is committed to programming support on the software side for old instruments, but that’s not concrete confirmation. There’s a plan in place, but it sounds to us like certain details have yet to be locked down.

That said, Rock Band 4 is designed in such a way that using old instruments won’t prevent players from taking advantage of any new, as-yet-unannounced features. “Form factor will be very similar to what you saw before. We’ll still have the Fender Strat replica and a drumset with the four pads, microphone. And these are all new and improved in a couple of incremental ways, but the big thing is making sure they work natively with … the consoles,” Sussman says.

Changes to the hardware aren’t meant to be purely superficial. Mad Catz is working with Harmonix to improve performance with features like the tilt sensor — used to trigger certain in-game events — as well as the overall build quality. Multiple times during our conversation, Sussman refers to the studio’s focus on bringing back the “core” Rock Band experience. That means guitar/bass, drums, and microphones. Features like keyboards, some manner of Pro mode, and more could be added at a later date. That’s part of the longer-term plan Harmonix has for sustaining Rock Band in a post-hiatus world. Lessons have been learned.

Expect to see a new assortment of plastic instruments marketed alongside Rock Band 4.

“We envision Rock Band 4 as the version of the game for this console generation, for the Xbox One and for the PS4,” Sussman says. “We do not anticipate having cyclical, yearly releases. Instead what we’re planning to do is, through a very engaged dialogue with our customers, we want to offer incremental feature upgrades over time. Basically start with Rock Band 4 and allow players to pick and choose where they want the game to go broader or go deeper, that sort of thing.”

In short: Harmonix views Rock Band 4 as a platform, a receptacle for everything from new features to add-on music and how it’s delivered. Harmonix expects the game to grow and evolve over time, just not through multiple releases. Look at it more as a library of DLC that could potentially cover everything from music to new delivery systems to add-on features. It all goes back to the frequent shout-outs to reproducing that “core” experience. Harmonix understands the factors that led to exhaustion in 2010, and it’s taking steps to avoid repeating those mistakes.

Rock Band 4

“We’re really trying to go hard after pre-orders to make sure that the folks who really want this game can get it, but that we’re also not over-extending,” Sussman says. “We expect some of the hardware options to be fairly scarce at retail when we launch. That’s another thing that is really hard to manage about this category. There’s a lot of big boxes. We really see an opportunity to manage this much more effectively over the long run, over a three- or four-year period as opposed to blitzing our audience for the holiday season.”

Expect more news about Rock Band 4 in the run-up to E3 and the summer trade show season. For now, Harmonix hopes to bring the music back to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (if not others) sometime before the end of 2015.