09/09/09 - that's a magic number for Beatles fans all over the world. Not only does this date mark the release of the all-new remastered CD-set with the entire back catalogue of the Fab Four, but it also will be the first appearance of the band in interactive media: The Beatles: Rock Band is about to enter the stage. At gamescom 2009 we had a chance to talk to Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos about the game and the work with Apple Corps.
4Players: The Beatles are notoriously infamous for gripping tightly to their intellectual property. How difficult was it for you to get this prestigious license to use it in a game?
Alex Rigopulos: Of course it was challenging, and it was a long process, well over a year to get to a point where all the parties had agreed and we were moving forward. Interestingly the real challenges weren't business challenges, the conversation between Harmonix and Apple Corps which includes Sir Paul McCartney,
Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix Music Systems.
Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono-Lennon and Olivia Harrison. The conversation for the longest period was really mostly a creative conversation. The challenge was getting all of the parties to share a common vision about what this game could be and should be.
4Players: Has there been some influence from side of The Beatles regarding things that the game should and what it couldn't include?
Alex Rigopulos: Oh absolutely. As a matter of fact all four of them were very much creatively involved from the very beginning all the way to the very end of the development. In pretty much everything from which songs are gonna be in the game to what the characters look like and move like and what the dreamscapes and environments looked like and what the feel of the game would be and the historical elements and much more.
4Players: Have there been game elements or songs that you would have liked to include but couldn't for whatever reason?
Alex Rigopulos: (thinks for a little while) No, I don't think so. I think we were very blessed actually to have the cooperation of Apple Corps and all of the shareholders so that we could make what I think is exactly the game that we have dreamed from the beginning of making.
4Players: You follow a certain comic style with the game. Has this been an intentional decision from the beginning or has it been something that evolved from the development?
Alex Rigopulos: Of course we debated and considered many visual styles in the game. And we considered doing a much more photorealistic style. But the problem is that of the concept of the »Uncanny Valley«: When you try to do pure realism you never get all the way there with current technology, you only get close. The result is something that is almost real but not quite right in an artificial and maybe even unpleasant way. And we thought that this would be unsatisfying with this band. Especially with The Beatles because there is so much rich imagery in their history that instead we wanted to come up with
Harmony singing is one of the main new features in The Beatles: Rock Band.
a colorful style that would allow us to explore the visual landscapes that would be very fresh, very identifyable and kind of resonate with the spirit of the game.
4Players: And your present Rock Band games had a distinct style as well. Did you build the new game from there on or has it been designed from scratch?
Alex Rigopulos: From a graphic standpoint there have been some technology elements that were common, but all of the visual assets were actually built from scratch.
4Players: You've been developing this game for quite some time. What took you the longest? The licensing or the creation of the game?
Alex Rigopulos: Well, there was a combination of factors. For example there were some early technical challenges that we had to solve. Early on in the discussions with Apple Corps it became apparent that if we were going to do this project they wanted to do it not just with a lot of music of the band but with the whole stand of The Beatles career. And the problem is of course that the early portion of The Beatles' catalogue was recorded in a time that predated modern multitrack recording techniques. So you have cases with much of their music where the bass and the drums and the guitar are all recorded onto a single track! Now for our game and because of the audio interactivity and the different instruments we need multitrack, where all of the instruments are recorded on separate tracks so that we can adjust the audio independently. And so at the very beginning of discussions we already had a huge obstacle: How will we work with this early material? There is no existing technology for separating audio tracks once they have been imported onto a single track. So it was at that time that Apple Corps introduced us to Giles Martin, son of »The Fifth Beatle« Sir George Martin, who then worked with us very closely. He and Paul Hicks and other Abbey Road engineers then actually developed custom filters that could separate the tracks. So that even though they were all on a single track we were able isolate out the guitar, the bass and the drums. That was an example of the early challenges that took multiple months before we could even start the discussion about what the game is going to be about.
4Players: Wouldn't it have been much easier to just re-record the songs?
Alex Rigopulos: In theory yes, but unfortunately we're out of Beatles, since only Sir Paul and Ringo are still with us today. And you can't have someone else other than The Beatles play the songs.
4Players: So you really wanted the original recordings, regardless of their quality.