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Interview: Harmonix’s John Drake

What fuelled the decision to make Blitz a single-player, controller based experience?
John Drake: Rock Band Blitz is an offshoot of the core Rock Band Franchise. It’s snappier, more over-the-top, and way more ‘arcadey’, all of which fits great with a single-player competitive experience! Additionally, a lot of folks still love firing up Rock Band 3 and playing with their band, but some people have put their plastic instruments away. Those folks might have a great library of Rock Band music though! Rock Band Blitz is a great way to revisit that library with fresh gameplay and without the need to summon a world of plastic!

Do you think the rise of games like Guitar Hero made developers reluctant to explore more traditional rhythm action gameplay?
JD: I think there was a swell in popularity of instrument games, for sure, and that made people deviate away from controller-based rhythm action. But there have been music games before, during, and after Guitar Hero that were played without needing a guitar. Hell, I’ve been playing Sound Shapes a LOT lately, and that’s a whole new way of playing with a controller and music!

Did making a downloadable title change your design approach at all?
JD: The design crew on Rock Band Blitz are really amazing guys who take a lot of things into consideration. Making a game downloadable instead of a big boxed retail game puts a lot of constraints on development in terms of size, time and resources. But the core of the game is the same as Rock Band – you should have a ton of musical fun playing amazing songs from the Rock Band Library.

But, being downloadable meant we could go a little bit further in the action. Without the constraints of a ‘band on stage’ venue, you can see that Rock Band Blitz brings some over the top elements into the gameplay, including a vibrant city, crazy sound effects and really over the top Power-ups. I mean, we have a giant pinball rolling around the road crashing into things… that’s pretty awesome.

How have you found player feedback to Blitz?
JD: I think people understand that we’ve supported the world of instrument rhythm games in a really deep way and we continue to support it in Rock Band Blitz! In addition to being an amazing game in its own right, the songs on the full version of Rock Band Blitz all work instantly in Rock Band 3 as full band gameplay. If you still love instrument peripheral gaming, you can rock out to 25 songs at an insane value.

Player feedback has been great. We see people staying up stupidly late and muttering ‘one more song…’ before playing for another hour. In my mind, that seems like a strong reaction to addictive gameplay.

Is the market still there for peripheral-based music games?
JD: I think that fans want to see meaningful innovation in any kind of game as sequels roll out. We have a deep love for the Rock Band series and for its fans (hence all the DLC and support). Nothing to announce now, but we’ve got a lot of rock in our DNA at Harmonix.

Do you see Rock Band as a platform more than a game series? How long can you see yourselves supporting the community with new downloadable songs?
JD: It’s equal parts, on some level. The reason it’s a platform is because of the unprecedented backwards compatibility, which we’ve continued in Rock Band Blitz and also brought over to the Dance Central series – letting you keep your music library from game to game and having that work with innovative new gameplay is what makes this a platform for fans.

So with Rock Band Blitz, that means a player has access to over 3800 great songs to choose from at the launch of the game. It means that the 25 songs they buy with Rock Band Blitz work in Rock Band 3 as full band gameplay. It means if they’ve already bought tracks previously, those all work in Rock Band Blitz free of charge. It’s pretty awesome.

As for how long we’ll support the community, we’ve been really lucky to have passionate fans and musicians take up the mantle in the Rock Band Network community. They’re still cranking out GREAT charts week after week. On our side, we’ve hit 250 weeks of constant releases. I hope we’ll keep playing that hit as long as people are showing up to the gigs.

Can you see yourselves moving more towards a free-to-play format?
JD: To make a game like that on consoles, for which most of our music catalog is based, we’d need a lot of exceptions from the console makers. At this time, that’s not entirely feasible. That said, Rock Band Blitz is pretty close – great value for the songs you get as a DLC pack, great benefits to grabbing new tracks you love for the game.

How much crossover is there between Rock Band and Dance Central, in terms of knowledge sharing and the repurposing of ideas that might work better in one game than the other?
JD: The games are pretty radically different (everything from input mechanics to art styles), but the teams at Harmonix are among the most collaborative and cross-functional groups in the industry. Needless to say, if there’s knowledge to share, it’s shared.

How much potential is there in Kinect for music gaming beyond dance games?
JD: I think that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in what’s possible with motion driven games. I’m eager to see what the development community can deliver as the devices begin to have their own lexicon of designs and best practices. We’re focused on making the best games possible for motion – right now, that means Dance Central 3, which is the sequel to the two most highly rated Kinect games, platform wide. We’re really excited for the innovation, soundtrack and fun baked into Dance Central 3. I think it’ll show off Kinect’s power in a whole new way.

We noticed job listings on your site referring to a brand new next-gen project and a new motion-controlled game. Is there anything you can tell us about these at this time?
JD: Just that we’re making crazy kickass games that aren’t Dance Central or Rock Band sequels/spinoffs. They’re new IP, they’re next-gen, and they’re going to be awesome.

Want more like this? Then look no further than X360 issue 90, available now from all the shops where information-covered paper collections are sold, as well as online for those of you rocking fancy technogadgets that do away with the whole paper thing. Hurrah.

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