It's fair to say that it's not the best of times to be putting out a music game. With Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock posting dismal first week sales and DJ Hero 2 failing to break into the UK top 20, there's a consensus that the music genre might be all played out.
Enter Harmonix with its phenomenal Rock Band 3 – a genre-defining experience and one of the finest titles you'll play this year. Eurogamer sat down with project director Daniel Sussman to find out whether creating a near-perfect game will be enough to lift the genre out of the doldrums and where the franchise can possibly go next.
Eurogamer: The game is finally done and it's been picking up some great scores. Are you happy with the finished product?
Daniel Sussman: We're very proud of the work that we did over the last couple of years. One of the things that's interesting about the way we work is that we're very secretive and protective of our products when they're in development so it's always a mystery as to how people are going to receive them.
We have a good track record and we know there is a lot of anticipation for the work that we do but we're very much in the bubble during development so it's nice to see people understanding the motivation behind the decisions we made.
Eurogamer: Were you worried it might have gone the other way; that people wouldn't get it?
Daniel Sussman: The big fear was that nobody would care. A lot of the work we put into the game was to reinvigorate the category and remind people that there are ways to innovate in the music game space.
Coming into this holiday there were a lot of sceptics looking at music games as a trend that was on the decline. We really wanted to remind people that all it takes is an innovative title to re-spark interest.
Eurogamer: Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and DJ Hero 2 have both really struggled at retail. Are you fearful of a similar fate?
Daniel Sussman: Who knows how the public at large will feel about the game? The early read is that a lot of people are waiting for our game and I hope that turns out to be true.
Our studio is all about accessibility and from game to game we've put a lot of emphasis on respecting the casual player. We've played very close attention to that in respect to the keyboard and making sure that, whether you're playing on regular five lane keys or Pro Keys, it's accessible to people who don't have any Rock Band experience. The same with the Pro Guitar.
Eurogamer: Why do you think that Guitar Hero and DJ Hero are struggling this year?
Daniel Sussman: I'm not an analyst. I know that as a game player I'm the type of gamer that would wait and spend my money on Rock Band 3. It's possible that sales of other games in the category are down because people are waiting to spend their money on Rock Band 3. That's what I hope anyway!
Eurogamer: With the keyboard and Pro Guitar, there is clearly a lot of new content for the seasoned Rock Band player. But is there any innovation for the casual player who might not be interested in those bells and whistles?
Daniel Sussman: Absolutely. We re-engineered the entire front end interface so that a player who is looking for a casual experience doesn't have to spend a lot of time configuring band sessions. The time spent in the shell is really minimal, even compared to Rock Band 2. We put a lot of effort into getting people into the game quickly.
I can be playing a song and if you come into the room and want to join in on drums, you can just press a button and join without having me quit out first. It's a lot more modular and streamlined.
We've also done a lot of work with respect to the way we track your progress. We are trying to emphasise the 'gameyness' of the experience. Not in a hardcore, 'play on expert and get five stars' kind of way, but in a way that just encourages people to care about their score and rewarding them for beating songs on whatever difficulty.
In Rock Band 2, players had to make a decision as to whether they wanted to play Quick Play, which was super-casual, or play the World Tour, which was considered more hardcore. That choice was polarising for a lot of users.
In Rock Band 3 – whether it's Quick Play or the Road Challenges – everything you're doing is contributing to your progression through the game. You can play however you want to play and you'll still progress and unlock items.
Eurogamer: Why have you only included a freestyle mode for Pro Drums? It seems a missed opportunity now that the other instruments are so versatile.
Daniel Sussman: Drums are really easy because the mapping of pads to sounds is very direct and you can do a lot with samples. Once you get into making actual music with controllers, latency becomes a humongous issue and it's technically very challenging.
To be frank, we had our hands full with the Pro gameplay and the keyboard. Everybody is wondering, 'What could they possibly do next with the franchise?' These things you're talking about here are the things that we've thought about and we're just waiting for the right product to realise it.