CAMBRIDGE — In roughly a decade with Harmonix, during which he served first as the musical director of Frequency, and later as creative director of subsequent rhythm games, Josh Randall has never faced stiffer challenges nor greater rewards than those offered by his experiences with Beatles Rock Band.
Listen to Blast’s Podcast interview with Randall
Present during the first exploratory meetings between Harmonix and the Apple Corps. shareholders, as well the game’s final days in production, Randall possesses a unique perspective on the monumental effort put forth by the 300+ employees at the music/gaming company to render the Beatles properly in the video game medium. We sat down with Josh to discuss the need for secrecy, meeting with Macca, and the end of the affair.
- Oct. 30, 2008: Blast reports Beatles Rock Band under development
- March 5: Beatles Rock Band gets 9/9/09 release date
- June 3: Blast interviews Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos at E3
- June 10: Blast ranks Beatles Rock Band among the best games seen at E3 2009
- Aug. 18: Most of the track list is revealed
- Aug. 25: TV Spot
- Sept. 9: Beatles Rock Band released
Josh Randall: I’ve been working on the game since we first started talking about the idea of doing Beatles Rock Band. I was on the front lines between Harmonix and Apple Corps and the shareholders — the shareholders are Paul and Ringo, and Yoko, and Olivia Harrison. So, we had most of the company working on it — we’re about 300 people now, so most of us were focused on that.
Blast editor John Guilfoil: What was the first game you worked on here?
JR: Frequency. Before Harmonix, I was with Looking Glass Studios. We did Thief and System Shock.
Blast’s Ben Lindbergh: Now that you’re so close to release, are you looking back and reflecting on all the things that had to come to come together for this to become a reality? Does it seem like something you couldn’t have imagined happening a few years ago, with all the people and companies involved?
JR: There’s definitely been some reflection. Yeah, it’s been amazing. I still kind of — I have to say, I’m still waiting to see it on the shelves before I can actually relax. Because it was so secret for a really long time, that it was really tricky to sort of, every day — like, every email that I sent, I’d have to recheck all the people that that I was sending to, just to make sure. You know, like, “ËœAm I going to blow it today? Oh, I didn’t blow it today! All right, great, it’s good till tomorrow!’ But yeah, it’s been a pretty amazing journey for everyone involved.
BL: How receptive were the shareholders initially? I know it was an idea that came, at least in part, from George’s son. Was it something that they had to be convinced to do? Something that appealed to them immediately?
JR: It’s funny, Alex, our CEO, I remember talking with him years ago, and he was like, “ËœYeah, someday we’re going to do a Beatles game!’ I was like, “ËœHa ha ha, that’s hilarious.’ And then, I guess Dhani (Harrison) had been a fan of our earlier games, and somehow met the head of MTV, Van Toffler. And Van was like, “ËœOh, well we just acquired Harmonix, you should talk to Harmonix.’ So Dhani met with Alex, and they sort of kicked around a Beatles Game.
My interaction with all the shareholders was amazing. It was like they understood, just looking at what we showed them — you know, our first meetings were just showing them Rock Band and talking about our experience with Rock Band, and how we find that it’s encouraging people to play music, or to have a deeper understanding of the music they already love.
So I think they got that, and then once we started talking about some of the creative things we could do, I think they started getting excited, when they realized, “ËœOh, this is going to be like a new edition to the Beatles catalog, this is the real deal.’ So, with that in mind, they all really pushed us to do new stuff.
BL: You put a demo together for them initially, right? Did they play it, or did they just watch it?
JR: They watched us play it. It was basically, I think it was a few (Beatles) songs that you could play in Rock Band, and then there was a video, where we had spent a few months basically sculpting all the heads of the Beatles in 3-D, and sort of stuck them into the game, but didn’t have them animating, they were all just sort of posed. But our game engine used camera cuts and stuff to make it look almost like the Budokan concert, and we showed them that. They could use their imaginations to figure out where that was going to go.
JG: Obviously this game was a challenge, and every project you take on was difficult, but what was it like having Paul McCartney kind of correct you, and say, “ËœNo, that is not how I stand, this is how I stand!’ Did that, overall, make it a lot more difficult for you? What was that like?
JR: I think the biggest challenge for us on this project was really just the fact that most video games don’t look good until, really, the last month of production. And so, we were in a situation where we really wanted to show progress, and show that, like, “ËœYou guys are going to look amazing in the game, and the whole game is going to be fantastic and look gorgeous.
But, it was more like, “ËœRight now all we can show you is that we’ve got guys on stage, and they’re kind of goofy because we might not have perfected all the technology’ or whatever. And so what we wound up doing was basically having a lot of visual milestones, where we would have to, pretty early on in production, push to have a demo that would maybe show like 3 or 4 songs, but they would be sort of like proof of concepts. Like, “ËœHere’s what the guys look like in these outfits, here’s what they look like when they move, here are some of the venues’ and stuff like that.
And every time we would get to one of those milestones, me and some of the team would get on a plane over to Abbey Road, or go to New York, or wherever we had to go, to basically sit with the Apple Corps shareholders, get their feedback, and discuss it. And then we’d get their feedback and be like, “ËœOkay, we’ll see you guys in a few weeks’ and then we’d iterate it and come back. So, trying to sort of push the visual quality earlier in the pipeline is really tricky. Sometimes you just need that time to get all the little nuances right. So, we would have certain meetings where we’d go, “ËœHey, it’s Shea Stadium, and it’s huge, and it’s awesome, and there’s a crowd, and there’s all this stuff’ and Apple’s like, “ËœYeah, but they’re not singing into their microphones.’ And we were like, “ËœOh, yeah yeah yeah. Next milestone, next milestone!’ And they’re like, “ËœYeah, but”"’ and we’re like, “ËœNo, it’ll be good!’
And after a while, those guys started to trust us. When I said, “ËœAll right, trust me, next month you’ll see all this stuff’ and then we would deliver, and then they’d be like, “ËœOkay.’
JG: Was there a specific nuance that really stuck out that one of the shareholders made happen, and said, “ËœNo, this is how you’re going to do this, this is how this is going to look?’ Was there one particular thing that one of the shareholders kind of walked you through?
JR: No, I think it was more like helping us find our way through stuff. I think that just meeting with any of them, they could sort of help, like’ Oh, actually, if you really want to capture the spirit of this particular Beatle, you should do this and this and this.’ Or sometimes they didn’t know the technical terms to be able to guide us to where we should go, but they would be able to say, “ËœOh, well”¦’ Like, our John model wasn’t that good for a while, because he was slightly stooped over a little bit, and talking like Yoko, she was like, “ËœNo, he was way more powerful-looking than that, he should look better than that.’ And we were like, “ËœOkay, what is it, what does she mean by that?’ And we went back and looked at all the footage, and you watch John when he plays, and he’s just like (mimics John Lennon). Just totally owning 50,000 people. And it was like, “ËœOh, okay, I get it.’
So we basically just took his skeleton and bent him back, and made him always sort of look down his nose, and it was like, “ËœHey, it’s John.’ It was just stuff like that that they sort of pushed to capture that spirit. Paul sat with Chris Foster, and I think we had written a few things, and he was just like, “ËœNo, actually that’s not how it happened.’ I think Paul realized, “ËœOh, now I can finally clear the air on a lot of this stuff, or I can put down how I remember it.’
It’s weird, because that’s one guy out of four, and he remembers it that way. So we had to sort of talk to him, then basically I think what Chris did was have all of his facts straight from a bunch of different books, and when he walked in or when he talked with Paul, he could be like, “ËœAll right, well this guy reports that it was this way, and this guy reports that it was this way.’ And Paul would be like, “ËœOh, well maybe it was this way.’ It was a long time ago.
JG: You mentioned kind of being part of the Beatles catalog with this game. With all the previous music games, both of the major competitors, there are dozens of dozens of bands poured into the game, there are hundreds of songs now, and it’s a game. How do you feel about how now you have all the Beatles albums — and Beatles Rock Band? It’s got all the intimate details, and their outtakes and stuff. How do you feel about this game not being just a collection of songs, but actually part of Beatlemania?
JR: It’s amazing. For us to be a part of that is really like a dream come true. And I think that when we were showing it to the shareholders, they sort of realized, “ËœOh, this is the new Anthology.’ That’s what they were saying. And “ËœThis is the way that kids are going to be introduced to us now.’ And so, they were like, “ËœMake sure this is right!’ And we were like, “ËœOkay!’ So I think what we tried to do is really sort of make the game feel like it came through them. We wanted it to feel like the Beatles in-game. It hasn’t totally hit me yet, but I’m sure in a few years, I’ll look back at this time and think, “ËœWhoa, that was really cool.’
JG: What do you think is the most epic part of the game? The one that’s really going to capture new fans, and make our moms scream and cry when they see it?
JR: Oh, yeah. Well, I think there are a few dreamscapes in there that have really had an emotional impact on people. I think it depends on what your relationship is to the Beatles. For my mom, she was more into the early pop stuff, and so when she’s seen the stuff in the Sullivan show, she actually remembers watching that on TV, or seeing the Shea Stadium concert. She gets caught up in the sort of Beatlemania, fan aspect of it. But I’ve seen other people really respond to dreamscapes. “ËœHere Comes the Sun’ that one in particular is really moving. And I think that for me, the most moving one is either “ËœHere Comes the Sun’ which still makes me smile every time I play it — I’ll get like halfway through the song, and think “ËœThis is cool’ and then something will happen on-screen, like the guys will look at me or the sun will come up or something, and I’m like, “ËœOh, this is awesome.’ The one that’s probably most epic is “ËœSgt. Pepper’ just because that was our biggest one. That one took a long time, and you’re sort of going from one place to another, and all this stuff. Another one that, for me, is pretty moving, is the “ËœWithin You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows’ that’s another that’s really trippy and has some good shots of George looking at you, and the drums are really awesome.
BL: Does the fact that you’re dealing with such an iconic band, and the fact that most people will be coming into it knowing not only the music, but the visuals, the way these guys acted, and some of the history, did that make your job easier, knowing that there would be some currency among the players, or did it make it more difficult because you had to conform to those expectations?
JR: I think it was basically like, “ËœOh, great, everyone’s going to know these songs already. That’s awesome.’ And I think that happened with the whole vocal harmony feature, where it’s like, people already know how to sing the main part, so if they want to reach and try to sing the harmony parts, they at least have that foundation there. So, there was that. But more than that, it was the challenge of like, “ËœOkay, we now have to make four of the most recognizable people in the world, and make their 3-D avatars look good.’ And that’s incredibly daunting. And then with the dreamscapes, that was another one where people have had this music in their heads for their whole lives, and every time they hear this music, they get a certain image in their head of what this song looks like. And so, we were pressed with coming up with these, basically interactive music videos, that somehow meet or exceed the visuals that they have in their heads. Which was like, “ËœI hope we don’t screw this up’ you know?
BL: Was there every any consideration of going with a hyper-realistic look, or was it always sort of a toned-down, Rock Band, cartoony version?
JR: I think that we very early on realized that the closer you get to hyper-real, the closer you get to the Uncanny Valley, where it’s like the closer it gets to human, but is not, your brain is like, “ËœHey, that’s not a human!’ and instantly picks it out. So, we were all really concerned about that. We didn’t want these guys to be creepy. We wanted them to be cute and lovable and have all the charisma that the real guys do. If you watch these guys play live, there’s just so much joy that pours out of these guys, and they’re so clever. They always seemed like they had some sort of inside joke while they were playing, little smirks and things like that. So we really tried to go in and identify that stuff, and sort of put that into our characters. But I think if we had gone for a more realistic thing, it just would’ve come off creepy. You just can’t do it yet. Maybe at some point your brain will not care, but right now, it’s like”"especially if there are still movies that are kind of creepy in that way when they try to make 3-D humans, trying to do it on a game console is really hard.
BL: Was there any consideration ever given to trying to cram a second guitar note chart onto the screen, or did you always know that you were going to try to compress them into one?
JR: Yeah, I think that early on, we sort of realized that doing our standard Rock Band thing of taking all the guitars and putting it on one track was going to be more fun, because then you’d have, you know, when you design a Rock Band “level” when you’re looking at a song, you want to make sure that each player has enough note content to last the entire song. So, if there are these big, long pauses while you’re waiting for someone else to play something, then it gets kind of boring. So I think if we had two guitar tracks, then that’s probably what would happen. Each person would have a track that was kind of spotty. So I think we all just kind of quickly were like, “ËœYeah, just put it all on one track to make it fun to play all the way through.’
BL: Did you ever worry that maybe the Beatles, despite their popularity, weren’t the band best-suited for a game like this, because of their experimentation, the unusual instruments, the fact that they don’t really fit into the “rock god” paradigm?
JR: Well, they don’t shred, right? That was one thing that was just like, “ËœOh, well, there aren’t a million insane guitar solos’ so just from a difficulty standpoint, in the beginning I was like “ËœWell, how is this going to work?’ And then once we added vocal harmonies and were basically having people play an instrument and sing in harmony like the Beatles did, it’s really challenging. So I think for people who want a challenge out of this game, it’s like, “ËœHey, the Beatles could do it — can you do it?’ That sort of thing.
JG: What’s your favorite song on the list so far?
JR: It kind of changes, you know? I think I’m still psyched about “Sgt. Pepper” because that’s my favorite Beatles song, going back to when I was a kid, and favorite album. But it depends on my mood. We definitely play the game around here a lot. When we were making the game, we’d play the game just to sort of blow off steam, which was great. I’d sort of go between, if I needed to chill out, I’d play “ËœHere Comes the Sun’ if I needed to blow off steam, I’d play “ËœHelter Skelter’ or some of the early tracks that are pretty fast and fun, and we’d sort of clear our minds to go back and finish working. But I think probably “ËœSgt. Pepper.’
JG: On the question of the two major music games out there: Guitar Hero was a phenomenon that Harmonix brought into the world, really introduced everyone to. And for the last couple of years, Guitar Hero has still been — when people think of music games, the first thing they think of is Guitar Hero. With Rock Band, you really turned a corner, and really got people thinking about the multiplayer aspect of this. Do you think Beatles Rock Band finally kind of comes full circle for Harmonix, that now you’ve kind of taken back the throne of the music gaming world?
JR: I don’t know. I guess for me, I’m still surprised that there are other people making music games besides us. When I started, there was Harmonix, and then these Japanese companies, whose games didn’t really come over to the States. So, now I think that it’s a really interesting time, that there are all these people making music games. And I think for people that love music, it’s a fantastic time. As far as the throne, or the king or whatever, I don’t really have a comment on that. I’m just really amazingly psyched that the Beatles chose to work with us, and I’m so proud of my team for what they were able to accomplish. And I really hope people will love it when it comes out. I think it’s an amazing game, and I think pairing the music and story of the Beatles with our gameplay is — well, it’s really fun.
BL: Could you see yourself doing another band-centric game in the future, or would it just be all downhill from here?
JR: Oh, it’s all downhill. (jokes) I don’t know. I’m taking a vacation. (laughs) It would be cool to work with other bands if they were cool and creative and wanted to engage with us on a creative level. I’m kind of up for anything.
JG: Is there a band that’s not been in a Rock Band game that you’d really like to work with?
JR: I don’t know. I’m actually a big techno guy, so there are a bunch of bands or types of music that I’d like to see in our games again, but I already got to make a bunch of those games ten years ago, so I’m not complaining.
BL: How much more effort goes into prepping one track for this game, as compared to one track for Rock Band, where you’re not necessarily having to tailor the video to a specific band, and maybe you’re not having to deal with audio that’s from 45-year-old two-track sources? How much more effort goes into a single track of this game than would go into downloadable content for Rock Band 2?
JR: Right. Well, Rock Band is made in a pretty modular way, that allows you to”"talking about offering stuff. Our venues are set up in a way that basically for any song, it’ll sort of look good in any venue. For the Beatles Rock Band, since we have this concept of dreamscapes, we wound up making a bunch of graphical assets that are really specific to that one song, which is just a mammoth undertaking. Also, we had never done that stuff before. You know, we’d never had guys walking through a field or anything like that. So, from that standpoint, that’s a huge production difference, custom-crafting all the graphics for each individual song.
BL: Does that limit the scope of what you’re looking to do with the DLC at all?
JR: Actually, no. What we did, which was tricky, was we made, for songs that are going to wind up in dreamscapes in DLC, there’s actually stuff that’s on the disk that you haven’t seen yet. So when new DLC songs come out, that’ll help conserve new custom assets for that. And then some stuff is going to be, almost doing a mash-up of the stuff that you’ve seen before. So you might revisit certain dreamscapes that have been tweaked out or changed in different ways. We tried to come up with a modular system that would work for these dreamscape elements as well. If there were time, it would be cool to like, for every single song, go really deep and make it totally custom for every DLC song. But I think the level of customization that you’ll see is actually really good.
BL: Are you looking at making the whole catalogue available eventually, or is that a little ambitious?
JR: Yeah, it’s a little ambitious. I think right now we’ve got three albums that we’ve announced, plus the “All You Need is Love” single. It would be cool to keep going.
John M. Guilfoil and Marc Normandin of the Blast staff and Blast correspondents Steve Bagley and Darcy Hofmann contributed to this report.