As you no doubt know by now, when I was at PAX I had the exciting opportunity to swing by Harmonix’s office to get some serious hands-on time with Green Day: Rock Band. After a couple hours of dedicated rocking, I got a chance to sit down one-on-one with Project Lead Chris Foster and grill him for more details about the game. We covered a lot of ground, discussing intricacies of gameplay, the possibility of DLC, the reasons for the absence of anything before Dookie, and even a little bit about other single-band games. (That’s what we in the business call “a teaser.” But I can’t mislead you fine people, so I can’t help but tell you that it was a very little bit about other single-band games.)
I have a tendency to ramble in my questions and jump between topics, so I’ve edited the questions for clarity and the order of questions for flow. Beyond that, you’re looking at pretty much our entire conversation. And man, after 10 years in print it still weirds me out to be able to run an interview from start to finish. I keep wanting to trim for space. But look! It’s the internet! Space is free!
Anyway, shall we begin? Let’s.
To me, this looked pretty much like The Beatles in terms of actual gameplay mechanics. Is there anything you’re doing that’s new in terms of gameplay that may not be obvious?
I think the main thing in terms of core gameplay is reuniting Beatles’ vocal harmonies with the Rock Band 2 features that were removed from Beatles: drum fills, guitar effects, and whammy bars. We considered big rock endings and tambourine phrases, and we would have put them in, but for the music that we were doing, there weren’t really places where they fit in, so we didn’t need them.
Once of the nice tweaks is that when you bring in the DLC we actually add harmonies onto them, which is a nice way to embellish the Rock Band 2 songs that people have, and it’s something that’s unique to playing them inside of here. The “meta-game” — what we call all the progression mechanics — uses some of the same concepts from Beatles, but it’s been nicely refined. We really wanted to make it appropriate to Green Day, so it’s got three tours instead of the one narrative progression; it’s got collectibles, but they’re arranged in a different way; it has more opportunities to give you cool archival footage.
And one nerdy detail: The challenges in this, in addition to not just being repeats of chapters, we’ve also tuned the difficulty so that you have to average about four and a half stars or four stars a song in order to beat the challenges. One of the things with Beatles, people were like, “I want to get the last photo, but if I blow one song then I have to start over.” So we wanted to make it a little more of a realistic challenge.
Obviously the harmonies for Green Day have not ever been as intricate as the Beatles harmonies. But they seem like they’re handled a little differently; is that just my imagination?
I think it’s more the nature of the songs. I think we handle them the same way. They’re more like traditional sing-along harmonies in a lot of ways. The Beatles did some really amazing things, like “We’re all going to sing three things” — and that middle harmony line is always a bitch to figure out. It may be the nature of the band, where there are just two main singers in Green Day, for a two-part harmony with additional filigrees. So we authored it the same way.
But one thing we do in this, which you saw in “Homecoming,” that we also did in Beatles is, in cases where there are defined vocalists who trade off parts — like Paul sang the middle eight in, I think, “Hard Day’s Night” — that lead line turns into the harmony line. In “Homecoming,” it’s unique in that all three of them sing parts of it. That’s the only time that happens. During the “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” part of the suite, Tré is singing on-screen, and his harmony line — the third harmony line — kicks in to do the lead line.
I was actually really surprised by how much of the lyrics went uncensored. There are blatant drug references, blatant sex references…
I think the standards are close to, or identical to, what we do for DLC [in the main Rock Band store]. I think there’s not a lot that’s blatantly sexual in their lyrics, and I think that’s the stuff that tends to trip [the mute button]. And it’s always a judgment call from song to song, and we’ve been doing it for so many years that there are different people involved from time to time. But there’s nothing here that felt like it was significantly beyond the pale. I think there are about four words [that have to be muted], and all of their many, ah, conjugations — which is a word that should be banned itself for conversation.
On American Idiot, there are a couple songs that are sort of smooshed together; some songs in the set list seemed to be smooshed together and some seemed to be separated. What was the rationale for that?
That was based on artist preference, and how they provided the masters to us. There are a few songs on American Idiot that directly bleed into each other, and those are provided as paired songs. And then “Brain Stew/Jaded” was kind of released in video form as a paired set of songs. “Chump” and “Longview” are blended into each other on the album, but “Longview” was a separate single and those just ended up being delivered as separate songs.
I was pleased I could play “Holiday” without having to play “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” It’s not a bad song or anything, but I’ve heard it a lot.
It’s funny how much of American Idiot got played a lot. It’s got some real heavy hits.
I think a lot of people forget that Green Day has had a lot of radio hits. I mean, most of Dookie, but then so many songs on American Idiot…
Yeah, there were like five singles. The number of videos they made for that was pretty crazy. They made a video for “Jesus of Suburbia”! I think it was the fourth or fifth “single” — put on, like, three 45′s taped together.
So, is the archival stuff specifically tied to the albums?
Yeah, it’s different [from The Beatles] in a couple of ways. One is the DLC element: The photos are tied to songs and chapters the way it is in Beatles, but we have photos for all the 21st Century Breakdown songs, including the ones that are DLC. You can only access those if you’re playing the DLC songs.
The big difference is the challenges. The Beatles challenges were a way to have people revisit the songs, but it really just took a chapter and you played it again. With this, there are two main differences: One, the challenges are new configurations of songs, tied around a theme. They have a name that implies a theme and you’ll have three or four songs on that theme, and they mix from different chapters in the set list. And each challenge is specifically tied to a video. So we have 14 challenges and 14 videos.
And the last wrinkle is that you sort of “buy” the challenges: As you’re collecting photos you’re collecting what we call “cred.” And as you hit certain cred thresholds, you get to unlock additional challenges, and then each challenge has a prize. And you can see a little thumbnail of what that [prize] video is. So you have a chance to choose what you want to see. And they’re themed to different albums or periods of time.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but a reader asked, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the answer: It’s obviously too simple to say, “Why did you go from The Beatles to Green Day?” But what was it about Green Day that made you say “this is the next one, these are the guys we want”?
Well, “the next one” is an interesting thing in itself. You don’t “follow up” The Beatles. That wasn’t our goal, it wasn’t like, “Oh, we’ve got to top The Beatles, what are we going to do?!” There was no Indie Man in our meetings trying to figure that out. It was really just that we want to make cool games about music. And the opportunity came to work with Green Day, with a lot of their material. And we decided the best way to do that was in a [single-artist] game. It was really just that we had this opportunity: They were into it, we were into it, and we thought we could make a really kick-ass game with that.
The fact that it came out after Beatles and before Rock Band 3 is just sort of the way it goes. It didn’t stop us from doing Rock Band 3 — Rock Band 3 is going to be awesome! So if you’re a Green Day fan, this is your thing. And if you want all sorts of rock music you’ve got Rock Band 3 around the corner. So we don’t really see them competing. And Beatles is still there for Beatles fans.
Are you anticipating — I mean, obviously I know you can’t confirm anything — but do you think this is something we’re going to see more from you guys, doing a single band?
I think we’re open to the possibility of doing more. I think it all just depends on the opportunities and the artists. We certainly haven’t closed the door on it, but we haven’t announced anything else.
U2? Pink Floyd? Zeppelin?
These are…names I’ve heard before…when people ask this question.
I gotta ask!
No, clearly, there are a lot of bands that would be cool to play a lot of in these games, and…people have asked this question before.
“I acknowledge the question has been asked.”
How are you doing DLC? Are you planning to do it like The Beatles, where you have specific DLC for this game?
This is actually different. In this game we’re taking a different approach to performances: We’re building these crafted, linear sequences. One of the reasons we could do open-ended DLC for The Beatles is that it’s all tiny clips, and we could just reconfigure them for different songs as needed — and dreamscape backgrounds similarly had that. With this, we’re really creating sculpted experiences for every single song; there’s an animation that plays all the way through, pretty much. That’s something that’s not really practical to do open-ended. So we decided we were going to make DLC just about finishing 21st Century Breakdown, using the DLC that was already out. That created a great three-album game, and also let us give each of those [six DLC tracks] unique assets, more than we could easily pack into a DLC pack. Those songs have their own video-wall assets, their own [motion capture].
So does that mean that there’s no hope at all for Kerplunk!?
Kerplunk! would not show up in this game in terms of DLC. Like I was saying before, we didn’t have access to masters — so you never say never, but the game is sort of sealed off. [Restricting the DLC] also let us build spaces in the “meta-game,” have collectible photos and prize videos specifically tied to it. So we really took advantage of making it a closed set of DLC that we could support fully, and more than we’d be able to do in an open-ended fashion.
So you don’t have access to the main Rock Band store through this game?
Yeah, that was a choice on our part — we want to have Green Day performing Green Day songs. The advantage of this disc is that we have these venues and these characters and these unique performances. So there’s no sensible way to bring in the rest of your library. So if you want to play all of your library, you can export these songs into Rock Band. The export has a fee, but the GameStop preorder or the Deluxe Edition are ways to sort of get around that.
But if you want to play as Green Day, you can play all the Green Day songs [in this game], including the ones that are in Rock Band now. To get all the cool custom assets and Green Day stuff, it has to sort of sit on its own disc, and we’ve just sort of embraced that, and made that about the place to play Green Day, rather than trying to mush everything together and give you access to everything — but then you have a shitty experience, like Billie Joe singing Lady Gaga. Which, as awesome as that would be, is really not what we’re going for. Let someone else do that.
I have to ask the provocative question: Obviously this is a game for Green Day fans. Do you think people are going to be disappointed to find out that there’s nothing in there before Dookie?
I think there will be some people who wish that we’d hit some of those, and it was definitely our intention. I think the album-centric plan was, for me, a great way to give people a lot of songs they care about for different reasons. And I think by not having the [earlier] songs, we have room to do that — a bunch of hits. But yeah, it’s a tradeoff with any of these games. I mean, how many songs weren’t on The Beatles that people really wished they could play? So we’ve got a similar [situation] here, but, you know — you do what you can.