ESG Interview: Harmonix Talks Rock Band Blitz
Rock Band Blitz is the newest project from Harmonix that was recently announced for an upcoming digital release for both Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network. While we have seen a few screenshots and videos of the game itself, the mechanics of Blitz may be a source of initial confusion for some longtime players, as well as those who have not played an entry in the Rock Band franchise before. In order to get some clarity on what this new Rock Band offering is all about, we had the pleasure to field some questions to Matthew Nordhaus of Harmonix, to which he was kind enough to answer for us!
ESG: Can you please introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about your role in the development of Rock Band Blitz?
Nordhaus: My name is Matthew Nordhaus, and I am the Project Director for Rock Band Blitz at Harmonix. My role is to guide and direct the development of the game, from start to finish.
ESG: For those who may not be fully aware of what Rock Band Blitz is, can you give a quick primer on what the game is, and what it brings to the table?
Nordhaus: Rock Band Blitz is a brand new way of playing Rock Band songs. Rather than using plastic instruments and playing a single part of the song (for example, just the drums, or just the guitar), you use a standard console controller (Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) and you get to play all the tracks at once by switching between tracks, and matching beats and notes. There’s also a whole layer of strategy we’ve included that involves over-the-top power-ups, like Bottle Rockets and Pinball Notes.
All of the Rock Band songs that have been released as DLC, or that you can export (for example, Rock Band 1 and 2) are playable in Rock Band Blitz. If you already own the song, it just shows up in the Blitz song list automatically! Additionally, the 20+ songs that will ship with Rock Band Blitz will be playable instantly in Rock Band 3.
ESG: About how long has Rock Band Blitz been in development? Was it always envisioned as a downloadable title, or was it set for a retail disc release at some point?
Nordhaus: I began work on Rock Band Blitz nearly a year ago. At that point it had already been developed as a prototype game at Harmonix and then temporarily shelved while we worked on other projects. My team started with a second prototype phase for 3 months, and then began full development in August of 2011.
Even in this initial phase, the game was always envisioned as a downloadable title. We had a very specific set of features in mind, and we knew that it would end up being the perfect size for a downloadable title.
ESG: There are quite a few out there who say that Blitz shares some similarities with past games in your development library, such as Rock Band Unplugged for the PSP, and Frequency/Amplitude for the PS2. How would you say this new game compares to these older entries, if at all?
Nordhaus: The game, from the start, has been a part of the Rock Band platform. It shares the music, obviously, but also the visual and emotional style of Rock Band. There are obvious similarities to ALL of our rhythm beatmatch games: they all involve smashing gems as they come down the track. But when you actually play Rock Band Blitz you will find that it has a very different focus from our previous titles. It’s brighter, and louder, and faster, and it rewards experimentation and strategy.
ESG: While music video games have been on a bit of a decline in popularity in the past few years on the console side of things, there have been a few music game entries that have become wildly successful in recent years for the PC, such as Audiosurf. Did the success of these games lend any inspiration to the simplified gameplay style and format of Rock Band Blitz, or was the game always set as what we have seen thus far?
Nordhaus: As originally conceived, this game was very much as you now see it: a new way for people to enjoy the humungous Rock Band music library. We have a devoted fanbase who still plays Rock Band 3 regularly, and we felt that this was an opportunity to allow them to experience their music in a new way.
At the same time we could give people who had never tried Rock Band an easy way to get into it: no plastic instruments, not even a trip to the store to purchase a disc. And as soon as you purchase Rock Band Blitz you have over 3000 songs to choose from. Something for everyone.
ESG: Was it always a conscious decision to keep the gameplay focused with a gamepad, or were the various instrument peripherals a part of the creative process? Is there a possibility of peripheral inclusion at some point in the future, or is that completely off the table?
Nordhaus: We did go through a complete design cycle to investigate whether the Rock Band controllers could be used with Blitz. In the end, technical and design limitations meant that it just wasn’t practical for us to support as a secondary option. If the instruments had been the original focus of course we could have made them work, but given that we spent our time developing the controller as the primary method of beatmatching, it just made sense to focus solely on that.
ESG: For those who may not play Rock Band that often, or those who are new to the series, seeing all those notes and multiple lanes may seem a bit daunting. Can you give a little more insight as to how the overall gameplay works? For example, it would seem impossible to play all of a track’s notes due to them all falling down the lanes simultaneously – how does a player manage all of those notes without the fear of failing a song? In addition, can a player just stick with one lane throughout the duration of a song, or will they be forced to switch it up between instruments?
Nordhaus: It does seem intimidating at first. One thing that we realized as we started playtesting Blitz was that people who had played Rock Band were freaking out: they had been trained that they HAD to play every note, and they didn’t know what to do with themselves!
So we added some tutorials, and screen loading tips to help people understand: the focus is on strategizing how to get the best score, rather than perfect note smashing.
To summarize: each track represents an instrument (drum, bass, guitar, vocals, keys), and each track has its own multiplier. You can move from track to track as you please, and as you smash notes on each track, its multiplier increases. Eventually you hit a multiplier “cap,” and can’t increase it any further. Then, when you cross a checkpoint (in a typical song there’s a checkpoint every minute or so) the cap may increase, based on how well you balanced the individual track multipliers, and you get to start increasing the multipliers again.
At the same time, you will be attempting to gather Overdrive to deploy Power-ups, hitting special notes to activate other Power-ups, streaking to get into Blitz mode… there’s a lot going on. The strategy comes in choosing which thing to do at every moment. Do I switch tracks to grab that Power-up, and risk losing my streak? Do I grab that energy phrase at the cost of increasing the multiplier?
People have looked at the screenshots and dismissed it as a simple game, because there are only two gems per lane. But those fans who tried the game out (most recently at PAX East) realized that there’s actually a TON of stuff going on at once, and the way to get the best score is actually not obvious at all.
ESG: Can we expect to see the standard difficulty levels seen in the Rock Band franchise, or will tracks be given a more streamlined difficulty due to the faster-paced, arcade-like gameplay?
Nordhaus: One of our early choices was to ship with only a single difficulty level. The two gem design of the individual tracks didn’t lend itself well to multiple difficulties: we wanted to make the authoring as musical as possible. Also, we found that beginner players, when presented with a difficult section, switched to an easier track! That’s always an option in Rock Band Blitz.
ESG: As can be seen in the screenshots and video that have been released of the game so far, it appears as if the player is traveling through the cityscapes seen in previous Rock Band entries. What is the final destination at the end of a given track? Will there be multiple “levels” that players will get to see, in regards to locations?
Nordhaus: Rock Band Blitz always takes place in Rock City, which players will be familiar with from Rock Band 3. We do have a good variety of different buildings, and based on the intensity of the song you will see different combinations of buildings appear from song to song.
ESG: Will Rock Band Blitz have a story mode in any way, as in previous games with seeing your band rise to fame and fortune, or will it be more of a “play and go” gaming experience?
Nordhaus: We do have a progression curve: although all the songs are unlocked from the start, players start without any of the Power ups that are more or less mandatory for high scores. So as you play through the songs you’ll find new strategies unfolding as you uncover the Power ups.
ESG: So far, five tracks have been revealed for the game itself – when can fans expect to hear new track announcements for the game? Additionally, considering these tracks have been confirmed to be compatible with Rock Band 3, will these DLC additions simply fall into Rock Band 3’s weekly DLC releases, or will Blitz DLC fall independently on a different day?
Nordhaus: More info about the release plan? MWAHAHAHAHAHahahaha. Only we know the secrets… but to answer your question about the weekly releases, they will continue as they have for Rock Band 3. Since the content is compatible with both games, we saw no reason to make any changes. We’ve been releasing new content weekly since the first Rock Band shipped, and we don’t have plans to stop any time soon.
ESG: Rock Band Blitz is scheduled to release on Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network, that much is known so far. Given the game’s more user-friendly nature, will there be any consideration into bringing the game to other markets, such as iOS/Android, or perhaps even a release for the PC crowd?
Nordhaus: We would love to bring the game to as many people as possible, but at this time we don’t have anything to discuss.
ESG: And finally, when can fans expect to get their hands on Rock Band Blitz? Is there any information on the game’s pricing schema that you may be able to share with our readers?
Nordhaus: We’re targeting a Summer release for Rock Band Blitz. As for price, we’ve not confirmed anything right now, but when you break down how many songs you’ll be getting in addition to an all-new, standalone game, we think it’s an excellent value.
ESG: Thank you very much for taking the time to field our questions today, and we look forward to trying the game out for ourselves!
Nordhaus: You are very welcome. There will be a free trial game available on Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network, so we hope that people will try the game out when it arrives later this summer.