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Talking Rock Band with Harmonix's Sean Baptiste

Last Friday, the Phoenix visited the Central Square offices of Harmonix, the video game development house behind the first two Guitar Hero products, and, with help from their new parent company, MTV, the upcoming, hotly-anticipated Rock Band, which, as you may have heard, takes Guitar Hero's authentic musical simulator feel and stretches that to accommodate a drummer and vocalist. There's video forthcoming, but in the meantime, we present our conversation with Sean Baptiste, their director of community development, and one of the game's de facto spokespeople. One of the things that came across that might not come through in text, though, was just how passionate and genuinely excited about Rock Band he was. You get a clear sense talking to him that he will gladly talk about it for hours, and never lose interest. He even told us as much. Anyway, here it is after the jump:

Let’s start with the obvious. For those out there who don’t know, what is Rock Band?
Rock Band is a video game for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and then, a little bit later in December, for the PlayStation 2. You can form a band. You can play guitar, bass, vocals, and drums, and play through some of the best rock songs of the last forty years, covering pretty much all the genres.
How long has this idea been kicking around?
We’ve wanted to do a game like Rock Band for a really long time, but getting the technology and the partners that we needed to make that all happen was something that we could only do recently. 
So it was MTV’s support, then, that helped this come together?

I think we did need a partner like MTV who could give us access to a lot of the songs that we have in this game that we otherwise would not have been able to get.
When you guys are assembling a song for play in the game, what, exactly, is the process there?
We have to have mutli tracks. We have to have everything split out. The drums have to be split out – and the various parts of the drums – and guitars, bass, and vocals, and then we have each track and each track gets authored independently, so there’s a person for each one. They take ‘em all apart, and eventually we put it all back together and it plays that way. Sometimes it’s cool because we get these really old master recordings, like "this is the original sound, this is the master tape, this is incredible." A couple of “oh crap” moments, it’s awesome. 

So let’s talk about the tracklist then. That’s one of the things people are interested in when it comes to these things. How, exactly, do you go about generating a track list? Is it a matter of taking what you can get?
It’s a mixture of that, and a mixture of coming up with lists ahead of time, and then saying “we want these songs! Make this happen!” And then there’s people who go out and license music. They try to get those songs, and sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they’ll get other songs. Sometimes they just keep working and working and working to get that song. It’s this multi-tendriled beast of music licensing.
What were some of the songs that you really just had to have in this game?
Oh, we really wanted Metallica. We’ve wanted them for years for our games, but this was the first time we could really bunker down and make it happen, which is totally rad. 
What’s Steve Van Zandt’s role in all this?
It’s the Music Advisory Board. It’s a bunch of music industry vets who will help make a mixture of newer music and old music that maybe isn’t quite as recognizable, but would be perfect for the game, so that people can play these songs, and experience music that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard, really.
That’s one of the things about Guitar Hero, even, is that it starts off as a game where you’re playing songs you know, but then it turned in to something where it’s the other way around and people are finding out about all this stuff they’ve never heard before.
Yeah, the weird part about our games is the songs people don’t know. They buy it, I think, for the songs they do know, and then they keep playing it for the songs they don’t know. It’s like when you buy an album and you buy it for that single that you heard off of it, because it’s rad, and then you listen to it and your favorite song ends up being that one that no one ever talks about that is just totally sweet and totally gets you after a couple of listens. I think our games have a little bit of that in there. That said, there’s still songs that we’ve had since day one that are gigantic, awesome songs that everyone wants, and we still play them and love them more than anything.
Are there any songs you’re still having trouble getting where you just keep thinking if only we could have gotten that band?
Oh, yeah, you always do that. But the difference now is we’re a lot more optimistic that in the future we can. Because we’ve had those successes under our belt. So we can have that moment where we’re like “aw, we couldn’t get them this time. But next week…” And that’s the best part is that we really feel optimistic that a lot of the stuff we never had access to, we can get now. Which is awesome.
Does it bother you to read all these bloggers bellyache about bands who aren’t in it? Do you just think “like we didn’t try asking Led Zeppelin!”?
[Laughs] That’s the thing is that when you’re playing, it’s such a solo experience, and you start thinking “you know what would be awesome? AC/DC! I can’t believe they haven’t had AC/DC yet!” And the average person, thank God, has no idea about music licensing. They get to just listen to the music that they like, and then play our game, and play the music that they like, and they don’t have to think about all the music licensing stuff. Which is great. But yeah, I always find that funny. 
One of the big new features is downloadable content. What is your plan with that?
It’s something we’ve always wanted to have the ability to do. Our plans now are to have downloadable songs come out weekly. You don’t have to have them, but if you want, you can buy these extra songs and play them right in your game.

We want to make this game as completely valuable as humanly possible, and make it so that people think “oh cool, this game’s awesome, and I’m never going to have to put this down. I can keep playing this forever.”
In the future, could uploadable content be a possibility?
That’s something we’ve always wanted to do, but it’s really difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to pull off responsibly, so that we’re not getting sued left and right and violating all of these laws and just totally becoming criminals, but also [difficult] to make it awesome. We put so much hard work into these multi-tracks for the game so that the drums sound awesome, the guitars are awesome, the bass is awesome, the vocals are fun to sing, and everything’s fun. And trying to put out the tools so that other people can do that in any sort of easy way – it’s definitely a hurdle, but it’s something we’re always thinking about.

There are a lot of musicians working at Harmonix, how would you say that helps the game as an experience to gamers?
Given that the people here are in bands themselves and are musicians, their desire to show the authenticity of rock and to show how awesome it is to make music and how rock and roll it is – that’s first and foremost above the excess, sort of cartoony aspects of it, and that’s huge for them.

With so many people in bands, you have to wonder: how do you get things done? Not to say people in bands are lazy and shiftless, but more just how are people able to strike that balance between their professional lives and their artistic lives? How does the rock and roll thing translate to the workplace?
First of all, I will say I have never worked in a place like this. I’ve even worked at other video game companies. It’s totally different. As far as the “rock” aspect of here, I think a lot of the people who work here who are musicians are very passionate about their music, and they take that same passion for their own music to making this game. It translates very well to being another project that they can be very passionate about, like their side project is Harmonix. Which just kicks ass. Everybody is really dedicated to making our games as perfect as possible, to really putting 100% into it. But we have a really good time, too, certainly. Because everybody’s in bands [laughter].

What did you all at Harmonix take from your experience making Guitar Hero that you felt helped you with Rock Band?
I think for a lot of Rock Band we mainly went back to ground zero, to start over again and rethink the way we put together a game like this. To really look at all the design choices we’d made and make them better. Change it up a little bit. Try to get back to the roots.

The difference is [Rock Band] is such a more cooperative game. It has the competitive mode – where people can go two guitarists going against each other, two bassists, vocals, drums – you can have all of that, or you could just play by yourself. But it’s really about the full-band experience in a lot of ways, which really required a lot of going back and rethinking the way we did things.

Would you say the social aspect of things was a big factor in designing the game?
I think we’ve always wanted to make social games. Games that you could build an entire party around. I think we’ve been surprised a little bit by how successful that’s been, because I don’t know if anyone really saw that coming to the extent that it’s actually happened. I think that definitely influences it – will this be fun if you have four people [playing] and then a bunch of people around you also watching. Is it fun to look at, is it fun to listen to, is it fun to play – all of those we definitely think about. We put a lot of effort into that.

Guitar Hero
came out in 2005 and was a huge success. Talk about how things have changed at Harmonix since those days.
We’ve gotten much bigger! [laughs]. There’s a lot more people here. The office has gotten way bigger – like, twice as much floor space, and it sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s enough. I think when I started there were something like 30, 35 people here. Now there’s like 130 or something like that. So it’s really bizarre, but the fun part is, with everybody here, so many people are musicians, but also so many people respect the company and respect each other. Trying to maintain that in a much bigger company is difficult, but everybody works for that.

How closely has MTV been watching this?
Well everyone’s watching this carefully because it’s such a huge project. I showed this game off for 13 hours a few weeks ago, and I feel like I didn’t even scratch the surface. This game is gigantic. There are so many ways to play this. But they’ve been very supportive. They know that the reasons why our games are successful is because we work very hard and we know what we’re doing. I think there’s an element of respect there, and that’s great. That’s good to work with.

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