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Interview with The Beatles Lead Designer, Chris Foster

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Nintendo has been working hard to push the idea of gaming for all ages.  Regardless of which side of the Fanboy War you are on, a strong case can be made that The Beatles: Rock Band has more all-age appeal than any video game, ever.  Amidst the buildup to the game’s release, we were lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Harmonix’s Chris Foster, The Beatles: Rock Band’s lead designer, about the title.

MyGamer: Back at E3, and in a lot of the demos shown thus far, something that has been promoted is the idea of six-player multiplayer.  However, as we all know, there were four Beatles, with three of them sharing microphones while playing guitar or bass.  When designing the game, was the harmony singing designed with six people in mind?  Or was it designed with the idea of the guitarist and bassist singing while strumming?

Chris Foster: I think we really just went with what made the most sense gameplay-wise.  So it wasn’t so much about emulating The Beatles or making it so six people could play.  Three-part harmony was the goal, because that’s where harmonies really get interesting and no other game has done three parts before.  Then we have drum and bass and what we do with guitar in all the Rock Band games is combine all the guitar parts into one to give the player a more diverse experience during that song.  So in The Beatles, we combine John and George, and all the other guitar parts a song may have, into one.  So at that point, we have three instruments and the microphone.  So you can use any combination you want, with three people all on stands or with a full six-person choir.  The goal at E3 was just to demonstrate that this can be a massive party game that can support a larger group than ever before.

MG: So does that mean the vocalist “tapping” is gone?

CF: Yeah, we removed it largely because the songs had a lot of vocals and the tambourine just didn’t fit in.  Also in general, we really feel like we’re showcasing The Beatles’ music and we wanted everything to be really pure.  We didn’t add tambourine parts, we don’t have the whammy effects, we don’t have the effects switch and we don’t let you have drum fills. 

MG: I’ve got to say that I’m taken aback a bit by the lack of whammy-ing.

CF: It’s one of those things where it’s not really applicable to their music, it’s more for other artists.  And it’s something we’re doing to maintain the music, where it can’t be distorted.  It’s an interesting experiment for us and in some ways people seem to be pretty into it.

MG: That makes perfect sense…but the peripherals still have the whammy bar on them, right?

CF: They do, and that was important.  All The Beatles hardware is fully compatible with Rock Band and Rock Band 2, so we made sure that they do have a whammy bar and effects switch.  The switches are generally secreted away to make sure the peripherals still look like the signature instruments.

MG: Something that was talked about early on was the former Beatles’ solo projects, like Paul McCartney’s modern stuff and Lennon’s solo career.  Is there any word in that department?  Could we see any of that in The Beatles: Rock Band?

CF: Right now we don’t have any plans for that and really, all of the visuals and venues are for the band as a whole.  I can imagine that stuff potentially ending up in Rock Band some day, and that might be a better showcase for it, but we don’t really have any specific plans one way or the other.

MG: What is the deal with the cheaper bundle that has been flying around?  Is it The Beatles game with the standard Rock Band 2 Drums and Stratocaster guitar?

CF: That bundle actually has original Rock Band equipment and it’s an opportunity for people who want to try this out but haven’t experienced Rock Band before and want a cheaper way to get to try out The Beatles: Rock Band.

MG: How will the venues work for the downloadable songs?  Are they going to use existing ones or will new ones come attached to the downloadable songs?

CF: Well, for the ones that take place during their touring years, the songs will take place in the most appropriate historical venue that already exist.  For the ones that we would place in Abbey Road, we will be doing additional dreamscapes for each of them. There are some additional dreamscape assets on the disk that we didn’t use for any of the disk songs, and we have the ability to recolor and tweak the existing ones so that you’ll be able to see them in, quite literally, a different light. So we’ll use that material to build additional dreamscapes.

MG: Something that I, personally, would like to do is mix and match the different Beatles for each song.  For example, using bearded Paul McCartney from the rooftop concert, Sgt. Peppers George Harrison and old-school bowl cut Ringo and John.  Would we be able to mix-and-match them like that?

CF: Actually, it’s funny, because that was something we toyed with for a while and it’s one of the few things from our initial plan that we didn’t do.  The main reason we didn’t do that is largely tied to the way we did dreamscapes, where there are special customized visuals for each song and it would be hard to make those songs work in other venues, and to make other songs work in Abbey Road. Even in the historical venues there are special moments that don't translate neatly between venues. And different outfits cost more to store and render on screen, so there'd be more work to support swapping them. In the end we realized it would require lots of time we could otherwise spend polishing what we were already doing. So after working with it for a number of months, we backed away from it, but I definitely appreciate the impulse to do it.  It’s a cool idea.

MG: This is getting somewhat speculative, but whenever Rock Band 3 comes out, even though it’s just announced, what do you feel are the chances we could see three-person singing and how could it be implemented into the game?

CF: We haven’t really made any substantial announcements about what we’re going to do with it in the future and even in the interview where future titles were discussed, they were slightly vague.  But in terms of future games…we were blown away by how well the harmony part of the game has been embraced by players.  When we built it, the first priority was to do something right by The Beatles and in their music, harmonies are such a signature part of their songs and we wanted to give people access to that.  We kind of originally thought it would be for hardcore players, that it was going to be a big challenge and hard to learn, but then what we found at E3 was that people just seemed to get it.  It was an approachable enough system where it’s easy to get in and wail away, all singing the same stuff and then learn to harmonize.  I think we’d be fools to not consider that in future games.

MG: Yeah, it’s good especially for The Beatles, but even in some of the current Rock Band songs like Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones where you have a woman and Mick Jagger singing and the one singer in Rock Band ends up having to sing different parts of both of their vocals, but if they chopped them up as separate tracks, it’d end up being an incredibly fun song.  The same goes for Roam by the B-52s, where it’s two women singing and the one player with the microphone sings bits and pieces of both of them.

CF: I think you’re right that there are a lot of songs in the Rock Band catalogue that would be well-served by this.

MG: Just as another speculative question, how could it happen, just falling back on your intuition?

CF: Aside from that, there’s not really much more I can say about what we could do in the future there other than that it’s something we'd definitely be considering.

MG: Going back to The Beatles: Rock Band, are you actively going for their full catalogue of music?  You already have a whole lot lined up for downloadable songs.

CF: We already have the first three albums we’ve announced coming as DLC, but we would love to get as much Beatles music in there as we can, and it’s something we’re discussing with Apple right now.

MG: Some of The Beatles’ work is still a bit muddled, with things like Hey Jude and Past Masters getting jammed together and some things yet to even get released on CD in America.  When it comes to downloadable content, how will this get sorted out?

CF: In The Beatles: Rock Band, we have a lot of tracks released on albums, but something I didn’t even realize until I went back and did all the research is that this is from a time where singles were as important as albums.  It was only later on that you released an album, and that was where all the tracks were.  You see something like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, which are two of their classic songs that were released as a single and it wasn’t until later that they got incorporated into an album, Magical Mystery Tour.  But there are tons and tons of good songs that still exist only as singles.  But in The Beatles: Rock Band when we have a single that wasn’t released in an album other than Past Masters, we show it as a single.

MG: Something that The Beatles: Rock Band has been getting that few games do is an incredible amount of mainstream media attention.  Has this been a part of a Nintendo Wii-style strong push at a non-gamer audience?

CF: We’re trying to capture a lot of different audiences here.  We’re definitely capturing Beatles fans that may or may not have played these games before.  Now we’re trying to capture gamers who have played Rock Band or other music games and are looking for new artists to explore.  We definitely took some pains to make sure that the game was easier to get into than Rock Band, in terms of things like having No Fail Mode available right at the select screen, rather than hidden in an options menu, making it so Easy Mode has No Fail Mode on by default and having it so you can play through Story Mode at Easy difficulty and still unlock all the songs.  On the other hand, we also made sure to have an achievement system that had some pretty hardcore challenges in it.  We’ve added a browser that lets you see progress towards achievements, leaderboards which appear on the song select for every song and chapter-long challenges that are part of the Story Mode.  So if you’re a hardcore gamer, there are still incentives for you inside the game as well.  You can play on Expert and if you want a real challenge, learn to play and sing at the same time, because that really kicks your butt.

MG: Anything else to say for the fans?

CF: Getting into this game was an incredible opportunity for all of us.  If you love The Beatles, you’ll love this game.  If you love music games, you’ll love this game.  I think you’ll be able to learn a lot about The Beatles.  It’s really fun, and it’s probably the happiest gaming experience you’re going to have this year.

Make sure to keep an eye out for The Beatles: Rock Band, which is set to release September 9, 2009.  Still hungry for more information?  Check out our full preview of the game.

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