Catching Up with Harmonix and Rock Band Blitz Project Director Matthew Nordhaus
Target used to sell Rock Band underwear. That’s how popular the music game was near the end of the last decade. The series has receded from the pop culture spotlight the last few years, and maybe you dropped your plastic guitars and drum kit off at Goodwill two iPhones ago. That doesn’t mean Rock Band is dead. Boston-based developers Harmonix Music System have continued to release new songs for the full game every week, and in August released the first new game in the franchise since 2010’s Rock Band 3. And if you want to play Rock Band Blitz you don’t even have to buy those guitars back from the thrift store—the button-mashing beat-matcher works exclusively with standard Xbox or PlayStation controllers.
If you remember the early Harmonix games Frequency and Amplitude for the PlayStation 2, you’re already familiar with the basics of Blitz. The point is to bounce between lanes that represent different instruments from a song, hitting a button or joystick in perfect rhythm with the colored gems that stream ever forward. It might be disconcerting to fans of the traditional Rock Band experience, but at least all the songs from Blitz can be played with instrument controllers through Rock Band 3.
Paste tracked down Rock Band Blitz Project Director Matthew Nordhaus on the day of release to find out why this was the right time to revisit the Frequency formula and learn what exactly a director does on a project like Blitz.
Paste: What does it feel like on release day, when your game is finally made available to the public?
Matthew Nordhaus: It’s terrifying. It’s super exhilarating, but there are all these guesses you make about how it’s going to play and design choices you make. You have a vision in your head and you just always wonder if it’s going to come out. It’s incredibly gratifying when people play it and are happy with it and are satisfied and find what you wanted them to find, and then it’s a little terrifying when they find things you didn’t want them to find. [Rock Band Blitz] is a competitive leaderboard-based game so it’s always possible that somebody will find an exploit so we’re all sitting on the edge of our seats, checking out the forums, and Twitter, and watching people play and post scores and analyzing the data logs from the servers. It’s hectic but fun.
Paste: Are you bummed all your high scores will immediately plummet like a thousand spots?
Nordhaus: Oh no, I gave that up a long time ago. My first game, I was really proud because I was so good at it during development and I logged in on the first day and was crushed within ten minutes. I long ago gave up any pretension to actually being a top gamer.
Paste: What are your daily responsibilities as a project director on a game like Blitz?
Nordhaus: Sending a lot of email. Honestly what I do on a large scale is try to maintain the vision of the game that everyone at Harmonix who is a shareholder has agreed on. And that includes the senior people who run the company and includes input from everybody on the team. I take all that feedback, all those ideas, and try to coordinate them and make sure the choices we make day to day are consistent with the game we want to make, and are not sidetracking us or leading us down dead-end paths.
Paste: How many different people have had input into Blitz?
Nordhaus: Everybody on the Blitz team, and that was around 30 people. But there are a lot of people at Harmonix who have a lot of experience working on rhythm action games, on beat-match games. We have a design cabal, we call it, and we sit down and talk about problems and solutions and what the best way to move forward is. There are a dozen senior people here with extension experience making these games, and that isn’t just design, that’s things like our art lead who has a ton of experience on how to best make a user interface that works with beat-match games, so he has very specific inputs into the animations and the colors and the shape of the gems and so forth. It’s all stuff that we’ve worked out over the last fifteen years of making these games.
Paste: So you didn’t work on Frequency or Amplitude, but why was this a good time to revisit that concept?
Nordhaus: Our music library is an incredibly valuable asset, both to Harmonix and to our fans. Now that the giant tidal wave of plastic instruments has receded somewhat, perhaps it’s time to give our fans a chance to play those songs in their library again, in a different way. That was the genesis: to make a joypad-based version of the Rock Band games.
Paste: How does Blitz access that song library on a technical level? I assume there’s a program that translates the existing files into Blitz tracks. You didn’t have people actually writing the Blitz versions of all these tracks, right?
Nordhaus: We load in a regular Rock Band DLC file and convert it on the fly when you load the song. We have a fairly sophisticated algorithm that looks at the five-lane authoring on multiple difficulty levels and condenses it down to two lanes per instrument. That’s something we worked on a lot. We started on that the first day of the project and basically kept working on it until the day we shipped, kept iterating and tweaking it to make sure it was as musical as it could be. Not to brag, but really, when you play Blitz it feels surprisingly musical. Some people look at the videos, see it’s only two lanes and think it looks simplified and dumb, but you really get your head bobbing along with the music and feel like you’re interacting with the music while you’re playing.
Paste: Between the Rock Band Network songs, the thousands of downloadable songs and the various Rock Band games that have been released over the years, have you found any songs that aren’t interpreted properly by the algorithm?
Nordhaus: Not yet. Everything seems pretty good. We’ve had a lot of people playing before launch, Harmonix employees and friends, several hundred people, and I can’t guarantee that we’ve played every single song so I can’t promise there won’t be weirdness, but so far so good.
Paste: Harmonix employees are really good at playing Harmonix games. I’ve had score wars (asynchronous online high score challenges with friends) with a few employees and they just destroy me. And speaking of score wars, the game keeps recommending that I challenge people to Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”. Is that like an in-joke at Harmonix or something?
Nordhaus: I think maybe it knows that you play “Fancy” a lot so it’s suggesting that you play it. Come clean now.
Paste: Well it is a classic.
Nordhaus: We do have a pretty smart recommendation system that looks at things like the songs you own, the songs you play, the songs your friends own and that your friends play. When we first started out there were definitely some weird suggestions, but the more data we’ve gotten in to the system the better those recommendations have gotten. Typically the recommendations I get for score wars are either songs that my friends have played or songs that I haven’t played in a while that I used to have a history of playing. And that’s been fun, going back to the catalogue on my hard drive and playing the songs I haven’t played in a while, the Rock Band DLC that I bought and more or less forgotten about. It’s gratifying because you’ll forget that a song is fun, but also because the things that play and are exciting and difficult in Blitz are not what you would expect, and don’t necessarily match up with your recollection of the things that were difficult to play in Rock Band.
Paste: Right. I didn’t even realize I had some of these songs on my Xbox.
Nordhaus: That’s exactly what we hoped would happen, that it’d open up all this back catalogue stuff that people had and that people had grown tired of or had just gone stale, and now people are finding a way to go back and re-explore all that music.
Paste: I’m like, why do I have sixty Green Day songs? Oh wait!
Nordhaus: “Oh yeah…”
Paste: The score wars are a lot of fun, but I remember that Frequency and Amplitude had local multiplayer modes. Was that ever considered for Blitz?
Nordhaus: It was but ultimately we decided to move the multiplayer into the realm of the leaderboard and goals and score wars and focus on the single-player experience.
Paste: How did you decide on the power-ups in the game? Were there prototypes or ideas that were discarded?
Nordhaus: Oh yeah, we had dozens and dozens of them. We initially sketched out maybe 50 possible power-ups and then scoped it down to like 25 or so that we actually built. We shipped with 16. You always do that. You prototype and design things that just don’t work well, or are too complicated, that work well but are too hard to explain to the user through the UI, so you end up with a set of things that are fun and accessible and that work well in combination with each other. That’s another restriction we had—we wanted to make sure that it was balanced.
Paste: What are some of the balancing issues you noticed?
Nordhaus: There are a few songs where you can get insanely high scores, and everyone can get the insanely high scores, but some songs, and there are only a handful of them, with specific power-ups will give you millions and millions of points. Everyone has the same shot at getting the high scores, so it’s not an exploit, per se, just a strange behavior.
Paste: What was your favorite idea that didn’t wind up in the final product?
Nordhaus: I had this idea where we’d have power-ups that would link multiple tracks together. So like the thing that would be really good on a Ramones song, when you had this power-up active, if you played a bass note that corresponded with a guitar note, or if you played a kick drum that corresponded with the bass, both of the notes would be smashed. So it’d be awesome on some songs, like the Ramones, because the bass and kick drum are basically one-to-one, but it wouldn’t work at all on a Rush song. So there were these ways of differentiating the songs in your library more that we just didn’t ever get to. We’re saving it in reserve for the next iteration, if we do it.
Paste: Obviously there’ll be more songs through DLC. Any talks of releasing additional power-ups or other game mechanic tweaks as DLC?
Nordhaus: Not new power-ups. We have the ability to balance the game after launch via server-side changes, but we have no plans of releasing new power-ups or substantial game features.
Paste: So as a franchise Rock Band has taken a bit of a backseat to Dance Central. Can we expect more Rock Band in the future?
Nordhaus: We don’t have any specific things to announce right now. We’ll actively watch Blitz and see how it does. And we also have five years worth of weekly DLC that has continued to keep our community alive and happy. We have a vocal, substantial sized community that loves the weekly DLC and continues to play Rock Band 3. So it’s still an active, going concern.
Paste: Was anybody at Harmonix worried that some people would see Blitz as a regression from the instrument-based concept that Rock Band is known for?
Nordhaus: Like all gamers on all forums, people like to complain. So we knew we would see some criticism, and we did. But I think on the whole the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially since the songs in Blitz are instantly playable in Rock Band 3. So even if they don’t want Blitz or don’t enjoy Blitz they can still buy this as a giant Rock Band song pack. I think we were very smart about continuing the platform and extending it in a way that made people enjoy it and have it be as accessible to as many people as we could.
Paste: Watching me play Blitz made my wife want to play Rock Band 3 for the first time in about a year.
Nordhaus: The same thing happened to me. I was playing her favorite Queen song and she had to get the mic out and sing again. I hadn’t played Rock Band with her in a year or so but it was fun seeing that and she remembered how fun it is to belt out that song. I think that Blitz will spur a little bit of a revitalization of the Rock Band stuff.