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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Chris Foster


“Well, why don’t YOU do it?”

It was 2008, and I was the new design director at Harmonix, discussing how to staff the opening for a lead designer for as yet unannounced, super-secret, Rock Band game about The Beatles. I’d taken on the role after the old director moved to San Francisco, and while on the whole I preferred to be the one making games rather than managing designers, it was a job that needed doing.

(There’s also the superficial validation and less-superficial pay raise that comes from a title like “design director,” but let’s set that aside for the moment.)

I was kicking around staffing ideas with Dan Teasdale, a fellow designer who also joined the studio as part of a hiring wave in 2006. We had both been up for two parallel positions: one to join the design team for an as-yet-unnamed band game, and the other to design… other stuff. Dan ended up on Rock Band, and I got to design and help program our iPod game, Phase, as well as design one of several concepts applying the gameplay from Amplitude to create artist-specific games.

At this time we had both been at Harmonix for over a year. Rock Band was out, Rock Band 2 was wrapping up, and strangest of all, Dan and I were in a band, Speck, that would end up getting a song on the soundtrack of that game. (I say “strangest” because the two of us formed a band mainly to feel like we belonged at a studio where 70% of the workforce seemingly formed 25% of the Boston indie music scene.) Harmonix was growing and needed more designers, and as Dan was gearing up for Rock Band 3 and I was now “the management,” one of those new hires was presumably going to take on the awesome and intimidating role of lead designer on The Beatles: Rock Band. It was as I was wrestling with how to hire someone for such a position that Dan said the line that started this blogpost.

Huh. Me, designing The Beatles game?

I’d probably considered doing it at some point, but I’d been so wrapped up with learning the director job that I’d not taken the idea seriously. At the time, the design department was fairly small, and it seemed reasonable to remain involved in a project while managing 5-6 other folks (or at least I convinced myself it would be). I pitched myself to management for the role, and with surprisingly little resistance (they were probably as anxious as I was about hiring someone unknown for such an important project), I got the job!

The next year and a half was the most monumental time in my life, and I can only attempt to capture it in a series of vignettes. Here are flashes from that time:

I’m staring at a page in Microsoft Word, blank except for the heading “Project No. 9 Feature Overview.” People more important than myself – from our project lead Josh Randall and CEO Alex Rigopulos, to Giles Martin, Dhani Harrison, and (for all I know) the head of MTV Networks have been discussing ideas for the game with “the Shareholders” – Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison – and Apple Corps. The results of those discussions, as best as I can capture them, are scribbled onto at least one notepad; I now have to assemble them into an overview of a complete game.

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Turning a list of ideas into a coherent game concept is one of the more satisfying parts of the design process; it’s a type of assembling order–from-chaos akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle from a pile of pieces tipped out of several unaffiliated boxes. As I work, I try to flesh out the game with some of my own ideas, such as “Experience Remix mode” – where you can have each band member wear any costume in any venue to create your own unique Beatles visual experience. It doesn’t make the cut for such varied reasons as “it would make it more difficult to assess graphics performance in each venue” and “it is a terrible idea.”

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It’s 10:15am on a Monday morning, and a small group is preparing for our daily review and planning session. The group - two designers, two programmers, a producer, a tester, and sometimes an artist – meets every day to review the previous day’s experiments.

The other developers in the cramped office pull on their headsets. We pick up our microphones. One of the five Beatles songs currently in the game begins to play. We sing.


At this point we don’t know HOW we’re going to let players sing in harmony with each other, only that we MUST find a way if we’re going to honor The Beatles’ music. Every day we’ll try one or more small changes – new rules for deciding which microphone sings which part, what each player’s “arrow” marker should look like, how to disentangle the “note tubes” to indicate when one, two, or three parts are all stacked in close proximity or sitting on the same note. We’ll try them out, discuss them, then decide on new experiments for the next day It’s slow going, but intensely satisfying.

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In the end, we succeed far beyond our hopes; instead of building a “power user” feature for our most advanced players, we created a safe space for shy players to learn to harmonize “behind” other, more confident voices. We had a playtest where three strangers are holding hands by the time they start singing “The End.”

All it cost was the sanity of all the Harmonixers who endured our daily “singing” sessions.

It is October 30, 2008. Nearly every Harmonix employee is crammed into our meeting space – the “FreQ Pit” – eating breakfast while waiting for the speakerphone at the center of the room to activate. Apple Corps are about to start a press conference, which will reveal our new game. I look around at the hundreds of people, both on our team and on other projects; I’m proud to work with a group that cared enough about each other to keep this amazing opportunity to ourselves. Harmonix is good people.

I’m sitting in the conference room at Apple Corps in Knightsbridge, England. I’m flipping through maroon-colored binders as quickly as I can, sharing a magnifying loupe with Teddy Dibble of MK12. A photograph of late-era Beatles hangs above us, etched in colors into glass plates. Every once in a while, Teddy and I can’t help but look at each other and laugh at our predicament.

It’s late in the game’s development, and we’ve come to discuss the process by which we’ll choose historical photographs to become collectible rewards in the game, as well as find archival material to incorporate into MK12’s chapter cinematics. After months of discussions, we expect this to be approved by Apple Corps, but still the answer isn't quite what we expect: “All right, then I suppose you should start today.”

It’s midway through the first of two days of meetings, and our flights are booked, for the next night. So we have only a handful of hours to pore over the complete contents of their archive, thousands of photographs and contact sheets compiled into that stack of binders, including a handful that had just been recently scanned into their files.

I have never sat and stared so intently in my entire life.

I’m sitting in the basement of Abbey Road Studios, plastic instruments stacked awkwardly around me, a near-complete build of The Beatles: Rock Band onscreen in front of a casual but well-appointed white couch. My left hand hovers over the D-Pad of the drum controller, while the other clutches a pen skittering over an ever-filling yellow notepad.

Sir Paul McCartney sits on the couch, reading aloud bits of his band’s history in between bites of a cheese sandwich collected from the Abbey Road canteen. He acknowledges correct entries with a “yeah,” and offers corrections and embellishments to others.

I am being fact-checked by a Beatle. I am having text that I was responsible for editing and integrating into our game – I wrote very little of it but I was ultimately responsible – read aloud by a Beatle.

I am hearing a Beatle talking of himself in the third person because of this game we are making.

It is intensely surreal.

For a brief moment, the release of the game only made things even more surreal: a rooftop concert above a hip LA hotel; demoing The Beatles: Rock Band to celebrities, and having any potential star struck anxiety washed away by our mutual love of the music we were playing; getting interviewed by the New York Times Magazine, resulting in an incredibly awkward photograph of me in full “awkward gamer mode”; getting asked by my cat’s veterinarian, “Did I see you on the NEWS last night?!”

Embarassing pic link!

It was an insane whirlwind of activity and attention, and as launch day approached, I started to come to grips with how irreproducible it would be. I would certainly continue to make new games and face greater challenges as a designer, but nothing I ever did in my life was likely to have the cultural impact of this project.

Helping me come to grips with this is the fact that my first son was born during the development of the game, about two weeks before that press conference. My late nights crunching on the game and transatlantic flights for business meetings were all against the backdrop of our new family, and remained a helpful reminder that there are more important things than games… even this game.

So sure, The Beatles: Rock Band is “just” a game. But in providing a window into The Beatles’ music, it was able to reflect a bit of that greater light; and in doing so created something artistic, beautiful and moving.

I am so proud of my time working for The Beatles. I can never thank Dan enough for talking me into it.

- Chris