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How’d Harmonix Do That? A Look At Rock Band's DLC

 

A few days ago, Harmonix pulled the plug on its internally developed Rock Band DLC. Don McLean’s “American Pie” broke the 281-week streak of content for the game, an impressive figure by any measure. Just because they managed to pull it off, don’t assume it was easy. I wrote a feature in the upcoming issue of Game Informer about some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling it took to work with musicians and publishers. That was only part of the story. Read on to learn about some of the technical hurdles the studio had to overcome.

New Tech, New Problems

From the outset of Rock Band’s development, the team at Harmonix knew that DLC was going to be a large part of the game’s formula. They flirted with post-launch content while they were still developing the first few installments in the Guitar Hero series, but it didn’t come anywhere close to approaching the scale they were looking at with their band-focused game.

“These games are all about the music and amplifying the emotional impact of the music, and so the degree which you enjoy the play experience is directly proportional to the degree to which you enjoy the music you’re playing,” says Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix. “Offering a large, diverse library of music was going to be a core aspect of the experience from the very beginning.”

Rock Band was released during a transitional period in the current hardware generation’s life cycle. By 2007, DLC was no longer a novelty in the console space, but it wasn’t as integral to gaming as it is now. That meant Harmonix would have to forge strong relationships with Sony and Microsoft if they wanted their consoles to accommodate the impending barrage of incoming downloads.

“You’re talking about these big systems that are meant to handle a map pack a quarter for a Call of Duty game, and instead we’re putting out 6-12 pieces of content every week,” says John Drake, director of communications and brand management at Harmonix. “The support we needed from the first-party side was really humongous and impressive, and to their credit, for all the conflict and struggle that went on with this, they really held up their end of the bargain a lot of the time.”

Microsoft and Sony eventually tweaked the way users browsed content on their systems, making it easier to rapidly sort through dozens (or hundreds) of pieces of DLC than when the consoles launched.

“I give those organizations credit for being willing to work with us on that,” says chief creative officer Greg LoPiccolo. “At the point we proposed it, it wasn’t really technically possible. The DLC infrastructure was like, ‘We’ll have a dozen expansion packs, tops.’ But just enumerating hundreds of pieces of separate content, just the tech wasn’t even in place, and we were fortunate to have people who worked hard to develop that tech, because a lot of it was developed for Rock Band, and then it paid off and everybody did fine.”

Getting It In

Once the contracts were signed and the master recordings were secured (if at all possible), Harmonix began the work of transposing musical compositions into something that could be played with relatively simple inputs. It’s easy to forget the necessary challenge that comes with downgrading a complicated guitar melody into something that’s playable – and enjoyable – on a plastic guitar with five buttons.

“Instead of level designers, which the typical game studio has, we had this fleet of musicians who were plying their skills as musicians to craft gameplay in these levels,” says Rigopulos. “It was almost like a manufacturing-line process of these talented musicians, day in, day out, getting in these awesome new multitracks and getting to work crafting those note patterns. It was a sight to behold.”

Rock Band grew enormously popular, and Harmonix was constantly approached by musicians hoping to get their songs into the game. After all, it was good way for smaller acts to get their music out to audiences who may have been previously unreachable. Harmonix knew they didn’t have the staffing to take on all those projects, but they came up with the Rock Band Network as a solution.

It launched in 2010, and it allowed artists to use the same tools that Harmonix employs to bring their own tracks into the game.

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