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Interview: Dan Teasdale and Heather Wilson of Harmonix Music Systems

May 12, 2009

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted at Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade in Portland, Ore. on Tuesday, September 2, 2008. Rock Band 2 lead designer Dan Teasdale and audio producer Heather Wilson brought Rock Band 2 to Ground Kontrol’s Rock Band Tuesdays for one of the game’s first public play sessions.

Sasquatch writer Doug Bonham conducted an in-depth interview with Teasdale and Wilson that sheds light on the creative process at Harmonix, from catering to fans to picking the perfect songs to release as weekly downloadable content. Although originally published on Doug’s blog, he’s graciously offered to repost it here. Despite taking place months ago, there’s still plenty of insight to be found from two of the people responsible for one of the top music game franchises on the market. Enjoy!

Let there be rock - RB2 fires up for the first time at Ground Kontrol. (Photo by Doug Bonham)

Let there be rock - RB2 fires up for the first time at Ground Kontrol. (Photo by Doug Bonham)

Rock Band 2 is almost upon us. The game’s developers, Harmonix, had a large presence on the show floor of the Penny Arcade Expo – the line to play the game was usually at least a half hour. While fans got their hands on the game for the first time at PAX, a lucky group of gamers in Portland, Ore., got a special treat when the sequel was demoed Tuesday, September 2. Ground Kontrol (511 NW Couch St., Portland, Ore.) played host during the regular Rock Band Tuesdays to Harmonix’s Dan Teasdale, lead designer of Rock Band 2, and Heather Wilson, audio producer for the company.

Teasdale and Wilson were kind enough to agree to an interview with myself, Nick Cummings, and one of the lead volunteers in running Rock Band Tuesday, John Leslie.

Harmonix audio producer Heather Wilson and Rock Band 2 lead designer Dan Teasdale up on stage receiving applause from the crowd before rocking out to Squeeze's "Cool for Cats." (Photo by Doug Bonham)

Harmonix audio producer Heather Wilson and Rock Band 2 lead designer Dan Teasdale up on stage receiving applause from the crowd before rocking out to Squeeze's "Cool for Cats." (Photo by Doug Bonham)

How many places have you found that do a Rock Band night on a regular basis?

DT – I think we’ve lost count at how many places have done it. Originally in the earlier days with some of the earlier games, River Gods down the street was the place that did it, and was the place we knew of, and in the three or four years since then it’s just exploded. No Fail is coming out of our experience of going to River Gods every week and seeing people fail out. Even though it doesn’t really fit with a campaign mode where you want people to fail out and progress better, in a live situation, nobody wants to fail out.

HW – It also came out of people at work bringing the game home to their families and their families totally failing out but still wanting to play.

With regards to announcements and information containment, how hard is it to prevent a leak or two?

DT – It’s tough, it’s not like we’re releasing one game a year. We’re releasing 52 content packs a year, plus a game, plus however many SKUs of it. It’s much harder than any other sort of game or company I’ve worked on. Considering how much stuff we’ve done it’s been pretty good.

HW – That leak (about the PAX Pack) came directly out of the fact that we had technical difficulties the week before. Just getting the information out to everyone who needed to have it, it just didn’t make it down the chain like it was supposed to, is hard. It was a leak but at the same time, people were doing what they were supposed to.

Compared to the earlier days at Harmonix, how is the song licensing process?

HW – It’s a lot easier to license stuff now. Because people have heard of us, they want to give us content, which is awesome. With bigger bands it’s the same as it always was, there’s convincing there, you want them to want to be in your game, and sometimes there’s a barrier of entry because they may not have heard of it, may not have played it, but it’s generally a lot easier.

Nick – Back after Rock Band 1, Dan, you said your most-wanted band was AC/DC. Was that your own personal push?

DT – I think it’s everybody at Harmonix’s personal push (laughs). Everyone is fans of AC/DC. One of our first prototype songs was a cover test of AC/DC, and I think they’re such an iconic rock band.

Are bands more willing to work with you when they have new material to promote?

DT – A lot of bands are more open to giving us their stuff when they’re releasing new content.

HW – A lot of people, like Weezer for example, want to give us new content but they also want to give us old stuff too. With some bands, we’ll say “hey, we’ll put out your new stuff, can we also have this old stuff too?” and it works out really well.

How was demo-ing RB2 to bands like AC/DC?

DT – We personally weren’t close to that, it was a much higher level, but from what we understood AC/DC really loved the game and that’s one of the reasons why they wanted to be in the game.

Nick – At the panel at PAX, you said Nine Inch Nails was one of the first major acts to contribute a song voluntarily. When was that in the process?

DT – It was earlier on, before we had any songs in Rock Band. He kind of knew what we were doing because he’s on the ball with this sort of stuff, and he wanted to contribute, which was amazing because it wasn’t even like us chasing him.

HW – And Izzy, one of our audio guys, loves Nine Inch Nails and was super excited to be able to work on those tracks.

John – Speaking of NIN, it shows the song choice present in the game – not just singles like “The Hand That Feeds” but deeper cuts get into the game…

HW – We really like to go after stuff that’s we think is going to be tactful. We want stuff that’s going to play well, but is also going to be meaningful.

Will we see longer albums, more instrumentals, or even double albums released as DLC?

HW – You know, it really depends. I wouldn’t rule that out as a possibility, and with the instrumental stuff, it’s going to make it easier to release certain albums. We probably won’t go too instrumental-heavy because it is a game for four players and we want to make sure that everybody can play everything, but at the same time it’s going to make it easier to put some stuff out.

But with the amount of content in the game already and due out this year and next, it’s different than if the first DLC album released was instrumental, right?

The mic ran out of batteries at this point – CRAP! – but Dan talked about the content and confirmed they would consider things like that. Dan then was asked about the accessories to the game, and while things like the wooden instruments, the Ion drum kit, Mad Katz’s stuff, and others are outside of Harmonix, they are coming and go through the company. Unfortunately they don’t control the release dates, etc. I do remember Heather saying she wished the 3rd-party microphone with the D-pad and buttons built in was at their office!

On the accessory note…what led to the stage kit?

DT – I remember when we first got pitched the stage kit, it was like “Okay, we’ve got this hardware (that they were also pitching), and also we’d like to maybe make a stage kit,” and it was like “Wow, that is awesome.” The kit is actually labeled a controller, so on the Rock Band 1 disc songs and all the DLC so far we’ve actually authored a fog track and a lights track. So all it does is send fog and lights out to the kit. It’s an Xbox controller essentially, because that’s the only way we can get the data out, so I’m sure you can hack it to get multiple machines.

Will there ever be add-on DLC costumes, instruments or venues for the game?

DT – I think if we do stages and new guitars and stuff it’s far in the future, right now we’re focusing on the content every week and it takes a lot of our time. Never say never when it comes to Rock Band stuff.

John – When playing through BWT, I thought about how cool it would be to work through, say, all of the venues in Seattle, playing Seattle band songs, until you get up to, say, Key Arena. Have you ever thought of doing, using real venues?

DT – (Not using real venues) gives us more range to craft that sort of story. It’s the same reason we don’t have real rock stars in our game, it’s because this whole thing is about you traveling on this journey. A lot of our venues are crafted to that as well.

HW – One thing we did when we were making up the venues was we tried to craft the location we were putting it in, in terms of art style and in naming and location. We tried to place them as realistically as possible while still giving you the fantasy.

DT – I don’t think (licensed venues) really fits the direction we’re going. We’re trying to go more authentic then a carbon copy.

Nick had a question about the writing in the game; Heather did most of it, including for the loading screens, rock shop, etc. Dan confirms that the text during loading screens will return for RB2…but adding more to the game along with DLC songs?

DT – That was something we talked about. There’s a couple of technical things we’d have to get around.

How is working with MTV versus working independently?

HW – We kind of have a lot more freedom artistically, now we’re working on our own IP and can do what we want with it, which is awesome. I was there before MTV purchased us, and there’s been a real effort to keep the company culturally the same. There’s stuff now where we have to fit into their corporate mold, but it’s still really low key and doesn’t affect a lot of people.

DT – I think the big thing that helps us is it gives us this huge power to be both publisher and developer at the same time. Heather, as our audio producer, she is in-house handling all our DLC submissions and all the stuff that would be handled by a third-party publisher. Like this week, we had a technical issue, but because all our stuff was in-house, we can get content out this week. If we had somebody over in LA we had to talk to, it would be impossible for us to get it out.

John – How do you feel about MTV using Rock Band as a promotional tool?

HW – There’s room. We’ve got all kinds of content, and it’s good, because it reaches the mass market and it reaches more people than we could reach, which is kind of awesome.

DT – At the same time, it’s not a one-way street, we have control over what songs go in the game. If we don’t like the song they’re proposing, we say “no,” and if we do, then we say “yeah.”

John – What did MTV think about Boston? I’d think they’d be pushing bands like the Jonas Brothers or something.

HW – They do want to put a lot of new stuff out but they also have the same vision of what we do, and have a clear idea of what Rock Band is as a brand. I work directly with a lot of people at MTV and they’re incredibly awesome to work with and they really want the same thing we want, which is great.

How would you submit music if you wanted to get your independent band into the game?

DT – If you go to Jobs (on the Harmonix website), it pops up with a little Google maps box, if you click on the pin it has our address.

HW – Just send it to my attention, to the attention of Heather.

John – Is there any chance that music previously rumored to be released can still come out? (A couple examples are named, including “Received Your Letter.”)

HW – Well, with “Received Your Letter,” there were licensing hurdles we couldn’t get over, and we really like that song and really wanted to put it in Rock Band. Occasionally we may want to revisit stuff, especially if it’s stuff we already have authored. It’s like, it’s there, why not.

As far as the PAX Pack goes, those were my personal choices, actually. I love MC Frontalot, I love Jonathan Coulton, and I love Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. So, the fact that all three of them were playing at once and we could put the pack together was awesome. The Penny Arcade guys made those suggestions, and it was a total match. The Darkest track, “Shhh…,” was unreleased and they recorded it at the same time they recorded the rest of the album, “The Shadow Out of Tim,” and they gave us that track, and I was super-excited about it.

There was an announcement about the Japanese version…any updated news?

DT – Not really, no, that’s just the announcement – that we’re working with Q (Entertainment) on Rock Band Japan, those guys are incredibly awesome, incredibly talented, a great match. They know music. I can’t wait to see what comes out of there.

The big question you must get all the time, Dan, about Australia: What problems have there been?

DT – Anything you can imagine, actually (laughs). We’ve been working really hard for a very long time to get it out in Australia, we’re going to have some announcements soon about dates, pricing. Again, it’s getting licenses for all their songs, making sure artists get paid, we want to make sure we do it properly. We’ll announce it soon – very soon.

Any word on the future for the platform, and how the support for it will evolve or continue?

DT – (No comment on specifics, but…) At the same time, RB is a platform, we’re going to be supporting it for the foreseeable future. As long as we can see, yeah.

HW – Our schedule, we’re scheduled out to mid-spring. We schedule really far in advance. It shifts, certain weeks might not stay what we have them on the schedule now, but at the same time we have content lined up.

John – Any plans to go into different genres of music with the DLC in the future?

DT – I think we definitely want to go broader and wider on the platform. More regional content, more deep content for specific artists, more regional inside the U.S. content as well. I know we’ve hinted at indie stuff a bit, and we’ll have more announcements soon. I’ve been pushing for an Aus music pack for a long time (laughs).

HW – I don’t think it’s straining too far, we want to make it a platform. There are a lot of country fans in-house. I tested CMT Presents Karaoke Revolution: Country, and honestly, it’s a super-fun game. Singing country songs is fun. I’d like to do some of that content.

Will that content stay region free?

DT – I can’t promise it, but we’re going to do our best to make sure that everyone can play the songs.

What is the feeling at Harmonix developing what you can now as opposed to pop music games like some of the Karaoke Revoution ones?

DT – I think bands of all walks, but a lot of us play rock in our bands.

HW – There are people at Harmonix who love all genres of music. We’ve got opera fans. It’s a really broad base.

So the long and short of it, Rock Band isn’t going away?

HW – Nope (laughs). DT – It’s here to stay.

Big thanks again to Dan and Heather for demoing Rock Band 2 at Ground Kontrol, agreeing to an interview, and special thanks to Anthony and the crew at GK for throwing such a good event week-in, week-out. For more details on Rock Band Tuesday and GK, see groundkontrol.com. For more on Rock Band 2, see rockband2.com and harmonixmusic.com.

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