With five years having passed since the last Rock Band game and a new generation of consoles having released, now is a very good time for the series to make a return. Admittedly, Rock Band 4 feels a little like a greatest hits album or a reunion tour, in some ways. It’s not aiming to revolutionise the genre, but rather rekindle some of the fond memories that people had over half a decade ago, though it does have some nice new ideas to call its own.
Of course, every Rock Band game needs hardware to go alongside it, and though it’s difficult to ‘sex up’ such a design job, there’s a truly vast amount of thought and effort that goes into creating those guitars, drums and microphones.
Though these instruments might look familiar from the outside, taking the same styling of the Fender Stratocaster and the same look to the drum kit, they’ve actually been re-designed from the ground up. That’s certainly out of choice, to look at where Mad Catz could improve on the now five year old designs, but also out of necessity, with the old unused injection moulding tools succumbing to age and, ironically, being sold for scrap just months before Mad Catz and Harmonix rekindled their partnership.
“There were plenty of ideas that we had and Harmonix had ideas of their own,” Richard Neville, Mad Catz Senior Product Development Manager said of the early design meetings. “There was a big discussion about exactly what we wanted to do, and in the end the group consensus was there’s a lot of muscle memory inherent in what people are used to with the old instruments, and the thought was that people like what they’ve got already, but that we can improve upon it in ways that we’ve discussed previously.”
“To that end, the group consensus was to give them exactly what they got before in terms of the shape and design, but to do everything that we can to make sure that they’re the best version that they’ve ever been.”
Getting that distance will certainly have been a help though, so that they could look back at all of the feedback and complaints that the older hardware received in order to try and build something better than before. The neck of the guitar is less prone to being forcibly twisted by the player, and the flex that is inherent in the plastic doesn’t see the neck start to break apart, the main body of the guitar can’t be warped and popped apart, the buttons have been altered to give a better feel when pressing them and the tilt sensor for Overdrives is now using a digital chip, as you would find in a modern smartphone, rather than a mechanical one which is prone to failure.
There’s a lot of historical data for Mad Catz to draw from, as Richard said, “You just have to scout the forums and you see all of the things [people complained about]. The Rock Band 1 drums, the initial batch had a problem with unwanted double hits and there’s videos on YouTube showing people put stacks of quarters inside the drum. Again, that was a lesson that was learnt, they fixed that, then Rock Band 2 improved on that, Rock Band 3… we’ve got all this historical information that we can tap into so we know what to do to make things better.”
Of course, everything is rigorously tested throughout. There’s both custom analytical software to track every single input the controllers receive, and robots to put them through their paces for durability.
“There’s all kinds of machines built in the factories that we use for testing,” Richard continued. “We have one robot that we use specifically to test the strum bar, one robot to test the fret buttons, there’s a machine that you just lock the drums into and it’s got pneumatic pumps that just hit the drums in various locations, and then it just logs them, and then every number of cycles, they go back to check that it’s working. It’s all part of our RTP – Reliability Test Plan – to make sure that’s all working. On top of that, we just do lots of human testing, as well!”
Regardless of if it’s a new controller or not, the new freestyle guitar solos are an outstanding new addition to the formula, helping to make you feel awesome at the game, regardless of your level – and I’m rather bad at it, to be fair. Depending on which button you hold, each strum finds a different note that fits within the chord and key of the song at that point, automatically switching between them if you hold more than one button at a time, but in a fashion that lets you create a repeatable solo. It’s cleverly empowering, but does score you and guide you through regardless. It will push you to strum at a different rate, use the lower and higher fret buttons, and even get you to engage in a spot of Van Halen-esque finger tapping.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are also able to handle a lot more data at once, allowing the drum kit’s symbols to see an upgrade to being fully analogue, rather than restricted to six levels of force, alongside construction improvements that aim to reduce pitting on the plastic and the potential for crosstalk.
Testing all of this is a major undertaking, but especially when you take into account the need to support all of those old guitars. Richard revealed that “What you see on screen is calibrated to account for the audio-visual systems and any lag inherent in that, but then each instrument will have different latency. The guys at Harmonix actually take each instrument and they have someone who knows their stuff, who basically knows how to hit it, and they will sit there and hand tune the response for each instrument. […] Every single one of these instruments that has been made historically has to be tested and they have to get the right values into the main game code.”
With Harmonix saying quite firmly that Rock Band 4 is a game for a generation, rather than the first of a new series of game sequels, Mad Catz have aimed to go above and beyond what was necessary. The controllers have upgradeable firmware, for one thing – albeit not through the console itself, but through a PC or potentially a smartphone – but the new microphone has a new USB chipset that helps to avoid audio clipping and can sample at 96Khz, which goes well beyond what the PS4 and XBO can currently accept at 48Khz.
Who knows if that potential will ever come to the fore, but it’s a statement of intent for the quality of the hardware that is being sold this time around. Yet it’s backed up by an insistence on backward compatibility to as many of the old controllers as is possible, as a show of good will and inclusiveness for existing fans of the series. The same is true of allowing you to bring forward all of your existing songs and DLC to Rock Band 4, with a huge catalogue to choose from.
However, there are a few limitations to that. Wired Xbox controllers cannot be used, and with a completely new wireless protocol being created for the Xbox One, they’ve had to work closely with Microsoft to develop a new Console Legacy Adapter completely from scratch. Codenamed Project Brangus during its creation, it features a proprietary Microsoft-specific chipset to allow old Xbox 360 controllers to connect to the new console through it. It adds a $20/£20 cost to the basic game on the Xbox One as a consequence, with the Brangus box bundled alongside the disc as a necessity, but Mad Catz’ Global PR Director Alex Verrey was adamant in saying that “Neither Mad Catz nor Harmonix are making any money on the Console Legacy Adapter.” The R&D costs have been absorbed, and that price is what it costs to make and distribute.
“It was a really interesting technical challenge, it really was,” Richard said. “Like we said earlier, it did require a lot of work with Microsoft and their suppliers, to make sure we had the components needed just to make that actually work and happen. This kind of thing opens up the potential for other people to be doing things that Microsoft don’t want them to, so we’ve had to work very closely with them to make sure that can’t happen. It’s basically a device that will only work with those instruments.”
Unless you’re getting up on stage at a major press conference to unveil the next generation of games console, the task of creating videogame hardware isn’t necessarily all that glamorous, yet for music games like Rock Band, it’s vital to the experience. Get it right and few people will bat an eyelid as they happily rock out with their mates, but get it wrong and you can expect floods of complaints. Thankfully, all signs point to Mad Catz’ years of experience placing them in the former camp.
They seem to have done a decent job of it, with the exception of price. I feel like the price for the full “band in a box” bundle is a bit much at about £200. But then most peripherals for gaming are pricey.
I mean “over £200”. Changed my sentencing… But not enough apparently.