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The Stacks – Boston Stacks Up With Rock Band VR Devs!

Last Wednesday, the Boston Stack and dozens of local developers got a chance to sit down with two sound designers for Harmonix’s latest title: Rock Band VR. Steve Pardo and Chris Wilson discussed the challenges in changing Rock Band’s decade-old formula to make a great VR experience. Since the entire world becomes part of the game, Harmonix had to reinvent what it means to play in a rock band. From the sound of a guitar to the classic “guitar neck” gameplay, Steve and Chris worked with their teams to create this amazing system from scratch.

Steve went into great detail about what the switch to VR would mean for Rock Band’s gameplay. In the older titles, the player follows musical cues through a series of lines shaped like the neck of a guitar. Hit the associated buttons at the proper time, and the player earns points. Miss the right “notes,” and the performance suffers. This format works well enough when the player’s vision is focused on one angle, but what happens when the player can turn their entire head around and remain in the game? The biggest and most obvious hurtle Harmonix had to overcome involved replacing that pesky music bar.

So for the sake of immersing the player in the rock band experience, Steve and his team decided to throw away the traditional format and rely on the player’s musical ear. Instead of getting rewarded or penalized for hitting/missing a specific note, the developers formatted the game to pick up on matching rhythm. If the player strums along at the right time, Rock Band VR registers that as successful gameplay. Steve recognized that the difficulty level of a game that only measures timing (and not accuracy) would make Rock Band VR dramatically easier than its predecessors. To help balance out that difference in difficulty, Harmonix included a “Classic” gameplay mode that focuses on the guitar neck, just like the older Rock Band games. The compromise pleased both loyal veterans to the series, and newcomers eager to rock out in front of a VR crowd.

Of course, handling the game’s format made up just part of this new system’s challenges. Chris Wilson specializes in sound editing, and explained how a VR headset demanded that the performance sound authentic, but still entertaining. To make a performance sound believable, Chris and the other designers had to prioritize volume for different sounds. For instance, the player’s guitar sounds much louder than the drumset ten feet away, or the indistinct shouts thirty feet in the crowd. However, if the designers fully committed to a realistic performance, the music would sound terrible from the player’s point of view. So once again, Chris and his team compromised to keep the game’s audio reasonably authentic, but still “the best live show you’ve ever heard.”

After the presentation, attendees were able to try out the game for themselves. Members of the Boston Stack got a chance to talk with the presenters firsthand, and even got a chance to tell everyone attending about Stack-Up’s work both in the Boston area, and around the world. With any luck, we’ll be working with some of these great developers very soon!

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