I have great memories of working out the drum gameplay during the years of R&D that we did on the original Rock Band – it was pure exploration, and 10 years later, I’m still proud of what we’ve achieved. When we started development, we had a pretty good handle on what the guitar, bass and vocal gameplay was going to be like, since we had experience developing previous rhythm/music games – but the drums were totally new. We had a hacked-up set of toy drums imported from Japan, and a Roland electronic drum kit with some “custom additions” so that it could interact with our build –we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the drum “language” needed to be.
We wanted it to be as close to real drumming as we could make it without going overboard, so we agreed pretty early on that we needed to support a kick pedal, even though that made the hardware development more complicated. There was a similar debate about whether or not to support open and closed high-hat states, but we decided to keep that simple and just go with the stock kits you’re all familiar with, at least until we decided to support cymbal and toms notation for Rock Band 2. Funny story: the audio team advocated that we support separate notation for toms and cymbals from the beginning of the franchise, even though at the time, we had no plans to use it. This decision ended up paying off for us down the road! The visual notation for most of the drums was straightforward and similar to the guitar and bass notation, but the kick drum needed its own special graphics. We tried a separate 5th lane on one side of the track (which didn’t work very well) and all kinds of other treatments until we settled on the orange stripe “underneath” the other gems. This was the version we felt had the proper visual relationship to the rest of the drums.
We couldn’t try it out until we had everything working: the hacked drum peripheral prototype, the visual prototype for the track notation, some audio tracks with separated drum stems for us to author drum patterns, and the authored parts themselves. It was all super wobbly and unstable, but there came a day when we could sit down and actually play drums to an early RB1 song, and we were BLOWN AWAY by how much it felt like real drumming! To this day, it’s my favorite Rock Band instrument – super challenging and always satisfying. It has also been really gratifying to see non-musicians tackle RB drums, level up, then sit down at a real kit and discover that they have some skills, due to their playing in Rock Band!
In the meantime, we have continued to try to push music gaming forward in all manner of games – some in the Rock Band universe, some not. Some have been more successful than others, but with every game we make, we learn new things about what is possible with music gaming. We were all super proud of Rock Band, and still are – but we never considered it an end-state; we’re still trying to improve it, and to push closer to our ultimate goal of making games that let everyone feel what it is like to perform music. Over the last year, I got to work on Rock Band VR, which is just wrapping up this week, and which is amazing. It borrows from traditional Rock Band (for instance, it uses the same guitar controller and offers Classic Mode), but it takes a completely different approach to how it simulates guitar performance, and captures that feeling more completely (IMO) than anything we have ever made. After all these years (I started working here in 1998!) I am still amazed that I get paid to work with such cool people on such cool projects, and I think that music gaming is really just getting started. Wait ‘til you see what have in store!