In a Nordic Game 2008 keynote titled "Rock Band
: A special creative presentation of the gaming phenomena," Rock Band
art director Ryan Lesser and director of design Rob Kay discussed Harmonix's approach to designing the multiplatform rhythm game, including the importance of designing its own hardware and Rock Band's
On keeping everyone in the team happy, Lesser spoke of Harmonix's efforts to build communication between team members and have everyone feel involved: "We have full team inclusion and transparency. If we have anything important to say, we tell everybody, every intern, so everyone knows what's going on. We have a democratic approach to design in which everyone contributes."
He continued, "Everyone has an opportunity to talk about the design in our internal forums and newsgroups. As leads, we help information flow and keep things on a direction. The company philosophy is team-member support." Added Kay, "There were no designers when i joined; everyone would write the design doc."
Instruments Are Essential
Kay explained how the team met the challenge of providing an accessible drum kit that still captures the feel of a real drum set: "Rock Band
is about pretending to be a rock band, so the instruments are essential for that. We took on the biggest problem first -- we knew we had to capture the feel of playing a real drum kit. Getting the power of drumming into a real affordable peripheral would be difficult."
Continued Kay, "For the prototype, we had to prove that drum gameplay was fun. We bought components from a music store and built our little Frankenstein's monster. we had to create a symmetrical setup, unlike a real drumkit, to make it accessible for everyone. We were happy that we nailed it."
Lesser elaborated on the advantages of using a non-realistic, symmetrical setup: "The closer we got to real drums, the cheesier it looked. I don't know if uncanny valley stuff really applies with instruments, but I think we were getting into that with our drum prototypes. Eventually, we embraced the digital drum look, and I think that worked."
Setting Drumstick Records
Kay also described how the team made Rock Band's
guitar feel more real by adding an extra set of buttons near the neck for solos, making the strum bar quieter, including effects buttons, and improving the feel of the buttons.
"To be able to design the hardware to fit the game experience is a huge freedom, and it's hugely satisfying. I can't over-emphasize how important that is. We've made 13 million instruments, we've become the biggest third party peripheral manufacturer in three months."
Lesser added, "We had to provide more drumsticks than there actually were in the world, so we used all the drumsticks from all the suppliers out there, and then started making our own. Maybe one day the world will have more drummers because of us."
Becoming A Rock Band
Another challenge the team faced was making the game feel cohesive with all the possible instruments. Initially, Rock Band
felt like four games going on next to each other.
Said Kay: "The core vision is becoming a rock band, so we knew it had to include a four player co-op mode, but it had to be scalable from one to four, so there is a huge amount of game modes to support that. This meant we had to create a visual language to explain everything across the game."
"Adding co-op was about people saving each other, if someone fails, you can bring them back in. In a real band, if someone breaks a string, you don't just stop, you keep going and make it work until that person gets back into the music," Kay explained, concluding, "We want people to have their own story in Rock Band
, they choose their path, we don't prescribe a story and that means it belongs to the players."