Rock Band 4 has been officially announced by series developer Harmonix. It's coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later in 2015.
It will support old peripherals, though Mad Catz is creating new ones as well.
Better yet, it will allow players to import all their content from previous games on PS3 and Xbox 360 into this long-awaited series resurgence. Harmonix said Rock Band 4 will support over 2000 tracks released since the 2007 launch of the original game. The previous Rock Band game, Rock Band 3, launched five years ago in 2010.
We caught up with the game's project manager Daniel Sussman at GDC for further details on why Harmonix thinks now is the time to rejuvenate Rock Band and what's changing in this latest iteration.
"After taking some time off, it was really interesting to kind of come back and play the games that we bled and sweat over for years and years and years. Two things emerged very quickly: One was 'holy motherf***, these games are FUN!' Sussman exclaimed.
"At the same time we were able to be quite critical of the work that we had done and saw lots of room for improvement. And that was really important to us as well because we are all creative people and it was important for us to be able to sink our teeth into to something that was deserving of the 4 at the end of the title. We didn't just want to rehash Rock Band 3 for new consoles. We felt it was really important for us to evolve the gameplay in a way that would be interesting."
So what's changed? While Harmonix has yet to spill the beans on the exact new mechanics to this storied franchise, Sussman hinted at some areas he found lacking in the series' previous efforts that Harmonix is addressing this time out. One of these is that the developer really wants to encourage a greater sense of collaboration between players.
"One of the most magical elements of being in a band is knowing that your drummer is listening to you and caring about what you're doing," he explained. "It's not just about playing your part with blinders on. It's really about a social vibe in the room where people are aware of and interested in what other people are doing. I think it's a thing that's kind of implied by Rock Band play, but not explicitly supported by the game.
"When I watch people play Rock Band what I see is four people sort of playing a single-player game in the same room. The relationship between the drummer and the bassist is not as connected as I think it can be. So that's an area where I think there's a lot of room for improvement from a game design standpoint."
Another place where Sussman found previous Rock Band games missed a beat was in player agency over the song. In prior games the player was merely following orders dictated by the on-screen prompts. While it's not clear the exact form this will take, Sussman hinted that there will be ways that players can put their own unique spin on a song.
"The other area that I think is really ripe for innovation is in the realm of player expression and the idea that music really is a performative art form and that the output is a reflection of the input," he explained. "If you're trying to play them the same way every single time there's always subtle differences. That's a thing that as a musician I get a big kick out of - sort of doing some little thing to make this song my own. I think that's an area where Rock Band can be improved: looking at ways to give players a little bit more sense of ownership over the content.
"What I found is that if you can figure out a way to give players a sense of ownership of the content, that improves the experience," he added. "It's a really powerful thing."
This sounds an awful lot like the territory Harmonix explored in its Fantasia game last year. When I asked if Rock Band 4 will borrow ideas - if not mechanics wholesale - from this previous effort, Sussman remained cagey on the details but admitted that non-Rock Band projects were hugely influential in helping the studio arrive at where it's at for Rock Band 4.
"I think it's been healthy for the studio to get away from Rock Band for a little bit and get our hands dirty with a couple of other really challenging creative problems to solve," he said. "Fantasia certainly had its fair share of those and I'm really proud of the work that we did to really rip the rug out from what people can expect from a music game, and to give control out to players. I think that's phenomenal. It taught us a lot about how to do that well."
The lengthy gap since Rock Band 3 five years ago means that Harmonix wants this to be more than just a numbered sequel, but a platform for a whole new generation of Rock Band. "We have a long-term play here. We're not thinking about about Rock Band 4 as a release that will be then supplanted by Rock Band 5 next year," he stated.
"We really are taking the long view and positioning Rock Band 4 as the Rock Band for this console generation. We think we can support our audience through a series of title updates and content updates that expand the feature set over time as a function of [the] dialogue we have with our community."
So why is this the time to bring the Rock Band back together? Sussman said Harmonix did its research here and noticed there was still a large fanbase for the series.
"I think the appetite never left, " he said. "It scaled, certainly if you look at sales - our sales numbers for Rock Band 3 were different than Rock Band 2 - but Rock Band 3 sold pretty well! Well enough to keep the company in business, that's for sure."
Harmonix also tried to gauge fan interest by releasing four new songs for Rock Band 3 after a two-year hiatus. And 67,000 people responded to the developer's recent Rock Band survey. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," he said. "There are a lot of people out there that are psyched for this game to come back and come back for the current generation."
Ultimately, Sussman thinks Rock Band still has legs, even if it needed to retire for a half-decade spell. When asked about its cultural relevancy, Sussman stated: "Rock Band will cease to be meaningful when people stop being interested in music."