It has been five years since the last Rock Band title was released, signalling the end of peripheral-led rhythm action games... for a few years at least. In 2015, with a new generation of hardware in the form of PS4 and Xbox One in public hands, both Rock Band and rival series Guitar Hero are tuning up for a comeback.
Both series were created by Harmonix, who left the Guitar Hero license with Activision when they went off to make Rock Band with EA. They now return more free than ever, publishing Rock Band 4 themselves with help from peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz.
Rock Band 4 will be the only Rock Band title for this console cycle, and will make available all the previous games' downloadable tracks for no additional cost to those who bought them before. At a preview event in London, IBTimes UK spoke to Mad Catz's global PR director Alex Verrey about what to expect.
IBTimes UK: Music rhythm games have been in the wilderness for a few years. Why do you think that has been the case and why is now the right time to bring them back?
Alex Verrey: Maybe it's the wrong thing to do as a PR but I'll argue against you on that. It's a common misconception that these games have been in the wilderness. I'll be the first to admit that they didn't enjoy the cultural spotlight that they once did. At their height it was a cultural phenomenon, everyone was playing one and that hasn't sustained, but I don't think it can. Any form of entertainment has peaks and troughs. Interestingly Harmonix track the number of people who play Rock Band games month-to-month and over 100,000 continue to play Rock Band on a monthly basis. There's certainly this core group of people who are still enjoying this game.
Rock Band and Guitar Hero are both returning, but with different approaches. You guys are bringing everything over from old games while they are starting over. What are they risks and rewards of each strategy and why did you choose the one you did?
Obviously we keep an eye on what everybody else is doing but we try not to focus too much on Guitar Hero. It really is an incredible coincidence that they're bringing back their franchise at the same time, and we think that's a positive thing. It lends validation to the idea that there's a hunger for these games.
Nobody knows more about music games than Harmonix and they go where their gut tells them. They've been working on RB4 for over a year now and have experimented with lots of ways to bring it back. They found that the base gameplay still works beautifully. Mad Catz shared the belief that we didn't want to innovate for the sake of innovation. Other games will tell you how they're innovating through how they present the game or through a new controller – we think there are lots of other ways to innovate beyond that. That's why we started with the approach of taking what was familiar to gamers – we didn't want to alienate those guys – but expanding upon what has gone before to take things into a new direction.
Are you at all concerned that Guitar Hero Live's new controller might split the user-base where once Guitar Hero controllers worked with Rock Band and vice versa?
Well I don't think we can worry too much about that, I think it's more of a question for our friends at Activision. We look at all the ways to take the genre forward and didn't want to innovate for the sake of it. Is six buttons innovative? Perhaps it is, we'll wait to see what the gaming community says. We didn't feel it was necessary to introduce a new controller. I think some gamers will warm to that new controller, but I think a lot of gamers don't see the reason for it and will stick to our franchise.
The Virtual Reality revolution is coming and Sony's Project Morpheus is a big part of that. Are you looking at ways of making Rock Band VR compatible?
We have nothing to announce on that now but of course we're enormously excited by Morpheus, as are the guys at Harmonix. We're always looking to innovate but largely we're driven by what our fans want and tell us what they want to see.
The interesting thing about Rock Band 4 is that we're approaching it as a platform, intended to be the only Rock Band game of this generation. So we don't see their being Rock Band 5, 6 or 7, we're going to bring the game out and using today's technology we can continue to add to and evolve it. There are already a lot of things we have planned, and things we haven't talked about yet but we do have a timeline of initiatives, so who knows. If VR takes off and that's what the fans want there's nothing stopping us looking at it.
Clearly you're not going to tell me what your E3 plans are, but if I were to only watch one press conference this year which would you recommend?
I couldn't possibly say, but we are planning to be very vocal at E3 and our fans are going to like what they see.
Worth a try! You've talked about this Rock Band as a platform for the entire generation, how does that affect development and expectations versus if a Rock Band 5 was in the pipeline for 2016 or 2017?
To be brutally honest, when Harmonix released Rock Band 1 they always knew there would be a Rock Band 2. The technology was different back then, the internet wasn't as prevalent, consoles couldn't update themselves as easily. Rock Band 2 was going to be the game they wanted to make with Rock Band 1 but didn't have the time to do so.
Everything Harmonix do is for the fans and they want to be fair to gamers who aren't fans yet but could be. They don't want to say 'go buy Rock Band 4 then next year get Rock Band 5 will all the features that should have been here'. We didn't want to do that, so I want to go on record now and say if you invest in Rock Band 4 as a platform, features will be added over time and you won't be left high and dry.
I think that takes a weight off developers as well. They can push to make Rock Band 4 the most exciting title possible but at the same have a timeline of cool features they want to introduce to the game but don't have to rush to implement.
How will the greater sense of collaboration between bandmates that you've talked about before be represented in the game?
That's something that's a key tenet of Rock Band and it's different to other games that we've spoken about today. That feeling of euphoria, of playing together. There are lots of systems that they have worked on very hard to improve in Rock Band 4, where you can really feel like you're helping out a bandmate – there are vocal improvisations, there are dynamic drum fills – there's more improvisation but also more collaboration, that feeling of a team. You form a band, if as a band you play tracks well the game will remember that and the crowd will ask you later to play it again. So it really ties into the band experience and the game becomes a lot more alive because of that.
Rock Band 4 will be released in late 2015.