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.
One of the trickiest problems Harmonix faced as Rock Band grew was coming up with a user interface that allowed players to browse their libraries as efficiently as possible. Considering the various controllers at play, that was no easy feat.
“Straight through the entire series there was this ongoing UI challenge, where power users would immediately come back to us and say ‘No, we want to sort through all of these different categories, and we want immediate access to all these things,’” says LoPiccolo. “And we really had to be able to do it from the guitar. And it had to be as intuitive as we could make it. I remember it was a real head scratcher to see how we could do it to do everything that we needed it to do. Then there was the whole other UI challenge, where the default play experience was four people, but each one had a different controller and different abilities to control the flow and so forth. I go back and play Rock Band 1 and I’m astonished that anybody was able to power their way through that and actually have fun. You play Rock Band 3 for a while and then go back and you go, ‘God, what were we thinking?’ But it was such a complicated problem that it took us a few years to really work out how people were going to approach it and so forth, and we’re really proud of the UI and what we ended up with. Chunk by chunk we figured it out, but there was a lot to cover.”
Players understandably wanted to sort their libraries by artists, albums, the decade of a song’s release, genre – as many categories as possible, it seems – and it had to be navigable by guitar, drum, or controller. It also needed to be accessible enough for weekend rockers and nightly power users with thousands of songs alike.
One of the most appreciated elements of the Rock Band franchise is that players can migrate the vast majority of song purchases from one game release to the next. That was another core element of the series from day one as well.
“That was very solidified from the beginning,” says LoPiccolo. “It was so obvious that if you bought a Tom Petty song or something and we came out with a new version of the game and you couldn’t play your Tom Petty song, we would have had torches and pitchforks out front. We had to do that if it was going to have some longevity and permanence. We needed the ability to upgrade the game experience ideally and continue to earn a living here to sell new versions of the games, but that had to be decoupled from the songs that people bought; the library had to be persistent. And that was hard, technically. There was a whole set of issues about DLC that could access multiple title IDs, that were just some technical console-level hoops that we had to jump through to even make that doable.
“There would be songs on disc and we would have to grind new metadata for them and pack it into a file that the new game would read. So we were adding metadata under the hood as we went forward. It wasn’t just that; there was other stuff that we would discover halfway through Rock Band 2 – ‘Oh crap, for this feature to work and for the Rock Band 1 songs the game is going to need to know this extra detail about this song,’ – so we would pack it up and put in a little file such that Rock Band 2 would understand.”
For example, when Lego Rock Band was released, Harmonix had to sift through existing songs and make sure that the ones that necessitated the other games’ T rating wouldn’t make it into the kid-friendly release. That meant a trip under the hood, flagging tracks that contained potentially objectionable or suggestive lyrics.
And just because Harmonix is pressing pause on the series for now, don’t think you’ve seen, heard, or played the last of Rock Band. It’s a big part of the studio, and we could very well see a reunion tour or two in the future. If that happens, Harmonix wants you to know that library you acquired over the years won’t be lost if they have their way.
“Certainly it would be our ambition, if and when we migrate Rock Band to the eighth-generation consoles, to carry forward players’ entitlements and their music libraries to the next generation,” says Rigopoulos. “That investment that players have made over the years in those libraries is something that we would want to take great pains to protect as we carry Rock Band into the future.”