#519: How ‘Rock Band VR’ Accidentally Became a Music Creativity Tool

jonathan-pardoThe developers at Harmonix didn’t set out to create an open-ended music creativity tool with Rock Band VR, but once they realized how compelling it was to simulate the feeling of being a rock star on stage in VR, then they completely pivoted the production of their game. They discovered that it wasn’t compelling to force users to focus on any single gameplay mechanic, and so they focused on allowing users to look around to cultivate deep feelings of immersion and stage presence.

Rather than rewarding precision of playing the perfect studio session, they wanted to recreate what it felt like to give a live musical performance that allowed users a lot of agency in expressing their own musical creativity and giving an entertaining embodied performance. I had a chance to catch up with Jonathan Pardo, QA Audio Lead for Rock Band VR, to talk about their design process of how they were able to incrementally teach players how to play their game as well as some of the fundamental components of music theory for what chord combinations tend to work well within their set of 60 different songs.


One of the most impressive things about Rock Band VR is that they’ve actually recorded live guitar sounds of every chord type and rhythm with the proper guitar sounds for all 60 of their songs. This means that you can push a few buttons while strumming and have it sound like you’re playing the proper chords within the context of playing within a band. There are seven different chords with the following finger combinations: Single notes (1), Muted Power Chord (1,2), Bar Chord (1,2,3), Power Chord (1,3), Muted Arpeggio (1,2,4), Arpeggio (1,3,4), & Octave (1,4). This instructional video from Harmonix gives a great overview of the basic game play mechanic:

Harmonic realized that the most immersive experience would be to not have any artificial gameplay visualization, but this mode would be virtually impossible for anyone to organically figure out how to play the game if they weren’t a game developer or professional musician. So the created a Performance Mode with more instructions and guidelines. The Virtuoso Mode can be unlocked after a tutorial, and provides more explicit chord following to help train your muscle memory and understand some of what chord combinations work well together. Then the goal is to eventually be able to play the Monster Mode, which is the most immersive since there isn’t any gameplay visualizations happening but you have to know all of the music theory and listen to the band and follow along — much like a real musician would have to do in a live performance.

Fans of the original Rock Band will be happy to hear that they’ve also included a Classic Mode that can be played in VR:

Harmonix has a lot of musicians who have played a lot of live shows, and so they’ve created 15 different environments in order to simulate what it feels like to play on stage in front of a wide range of audience sizes and contexts. They change how it sounds in each environment and have different pedals to modulate the sound that are activated by looking at the pedal and using your whammy bar.

Even if you don’t want to learn and play all of the different chord combinations, Pardo says that there are other things that you can do in order to earn points by doing an embodied performance that cultivates your sense of stage presence that include things like turning the guitar upright, getting on your knees, doing a head bang, or jumping up and down.

Adding more social features is a top priority for Harmonix, but there are various network latency challenges that will make it difficult to synchronize live performances. Pardo says that they often will hold back on features if they know that it’ll make a worse networked gameplay experience, and that there are some features like live streaming of the audio that previous console versions of Rock Band disable due to sync problems due to latency. They’re actively exploring network workaround solutions as well as how to track other instruments, but these challenges explain why Rock Band VR is only launching with guitar support.

While Harmonix didn’t originally set out to create a live performance simulator emulating what it feels like to be a rock star, the unique affordances of VR slowly led them down this path. Pardo says they kind of accidentally created a music creativity tool, and that it was more about designing a game to be fully embodied and present in the moment on stage rather than the type of precision that you’d want if you were in the recording studio. The game play is not easy, but neither is being able to play music. Musicians should have an advantage in learning to play Rock Band VR, and it will be exciting to how games like Rock Band VR will help train and inspire gamers into learning how to play actual instruments.

You can learn more about the release of Rock Band VR and the compatible guitar controllers in this Oculus blog post.

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