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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Dan Bruno

When I finished fifth grade, my teacher asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up so she could put our answers in the yearbook. (It’s weird that we had yearbooks in fifth grade, right?) The answers are what you might expect from ten-year-olds with big dreams: “Football player,” “TV game show host,” “Freestyle biker,” “Famous artist,” “Sports athlete.”

Mine says “Make video games.”

Despite this early prophecy, I ignored games as a possible career option for the next decade or so. Then, in college, I took a course with a music professor whose friend was working at a company called Harmonix on a new project called Rock Band. We came to check out the game a few days before release on a class trip.

(Incidentally, my first actual song play was “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on vocals. If you get nervous singing in front of your friends, try doing it in front of a professor and a bunch of strangers, in a fluorescent-lit meeting room, while playing a game you’ve never seen before!)

Inspired by that trip, I joined Harmonix in the summer of 2008 as a QA tester on the Rock Band DLC team. Those were the days when we were putting out a ton of DLC—sometimes an entire album at once—so things were hectic when I arrived. In fact, the team was too busy to even train me at first, so my boss suggested I spend the week getting better at Rock Band. Usually QA testers are adamant that their jobs are not “just playing video games all day,” but that’s literally all I was doing at first.

I also happened to join the week of the annual company outing, so instead of coming to work on Friday we ferried over to an island in Boston Harbor and ate steaks and lobsters and ice cream all day. On the clock! That week will probably be unsurpassed for the rest of my working life.

Eventually I (arguably) began to do actual work. DLC QA did involve some fairly mundane tasks—we’d have to make sure that characters had animations, songs had album art, and so on—but the meat of the job was in the subjective decisions around song authoring. Which vocal line should we designate as the melody? What chord shapes should we use in this guitar part? Where should the HOPOs be in this bassline? Which difficulty tier should this song be in? The answers to those questions are what define the moment-to-moment experience with Rock Band, so it was immensely satisfying to be able to influence that!

I ended up sticking around on the DLC QA team for several years, during which time we became a more generalized “Audio QA” team that worked on the games themselves as well. During my tenure there I left my fingerprints on some one thousand songs in total, and on all of the console Rock Band games since Rock Band 2. I even got to use my music degree, thanks to Rock Band 3’s Pro Guitar feature—suddenly saying things like “actually I think that’s a half-diminished chord” was not only tolerated but encouraged.

After a brief (but still years-long) detour working on Fantasia and the Amplitude reboot, I came back to Rock Band as a designer on Rock Band 4. Now, instead of just working on the songs, I was helping to build the actual game! More specifically, I spent a few months helping make the campaign mode, and then a few more on the Rockudrama mode in the Rivals expansion.

During my early years in games I had the naive assumption that designers just sort of decided what a game should be like in a vacuum, and then told the rest of the developers what they’d be making. Instead I’ve found that designers mainly try to figure out what’s possible given the time and people and money available, and then decide on the best thing to create within those constraints. For instance, we had writers and 2D artists available during Rock Band 4’s campaign development, so we leaned on them and ended up with something more like an illustrated text adventure; during Rockudrama we had people with video production expertise, so we went for strange FMV hijinks.

Most recently, in the post-Rivals world, I’m now lead Rock Band designer. I’m currently working on Rivals’ updates, which is an immense honor. When I started working at Harmonix nine years ago, the idea that I would one day help steer this franchise seemed as unimaginable as the idea that I might make video games at all back when I was in fifth grade.

And so: thank you to Harmonix, and to Rock Band in particular, for making my inner ten-year-old’s dreams come true!

- Dan