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[PAX East] The Challenges of Bringing User-Generated Content to Rock Band

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Posted on April 6, 2012 AT 10:39am

PAX East 2012 officially kicked of this morning, and after picking up my badges, I headed off to my first panel: Talkin’ ’bout My (Content) Generation. The panel featured Rob Witko (Owner, Fairwood Studios), Carolyn VanEseltine (Associate Producer, Harmonix), Owen Douglass (Owner, Ozone Entertainment), Jeff Webster (Musician/Author), and Erich Sherman (Author/Podcaster, Rhythm Authors).

The panel was a look at the Rock Band Network—Harmonix’ platform for allowing any musician or artist to bring their music to Rock Band. VanEseltine stressed that this had been one of the dreams of the team as they were making Rock Band: That anybody from a musician making music in her garage, to big music producers and major labels could get their offerings into the game if they so wanted.

Of course, actually getting your music into Rock Band isn’t as easy as just saying that you want to do so. First, of course, are the legal concerns. If just anybody can submit music to Rock Band Network, somewhere along the lines legal issues could certainly crop up. Due to this, the process has to have a number of steps and signed agreements; submissions can’t include cover songs or samples; and the community is only available in the United States.

What about the process of re-working the music so that it’s playable in the game? It takes time, energy, and effort, especially for those elements of songs which require extra attention—such as vocals and keyboard notations, which Witko pointed out can be especially hard when it comes to getting their pitch right. In fact, in making the switch from the first to second versions of the Rock Band Network backend, between 600~700 songs were found in the system which had been abandoned by their creators (due no doubt to the effort needed to finish them).

So why make songs for Rock Band Network if the process is such a hard road? Because the community that’s grown up around that track creation, and the diversity that’s come to the Rock Band library from the community, has provided tangible results for the game’s fan base. The staff at Harmonix can only do so much, and by nature it makes sense for the company to focus on those songs or musical genres that the larger consumer base would enjoy.

Meanwhile, the Rock Band Network community can focus their efforts on the lesser-known artist or tracks or genres—anything from shoegazing to symphonic metal to chip tunes. In fact, this push by the community to bring these types of music to Rock Band have even resulted at times in the game itself including gameplay it was never originally meant to. For example, death metal songs often need double bass drums—but Rock Band was originally meant to only have one kick pedal. However, the community thought there should be a way to do it, and they worked out the option for including double bass when needed. So, now, some songs can be purchased in one of two versions: The “real” version of the song that includes everything that’s required for a Rock Band track, and a second that features that double bass option.

Of course, like any community built up for user-generated content, that content will only be as good as the community makes it. Thankfully for Rock Band, those building tracks for the game have stepped up to the challenge. One example of this is play tests and peer reviews—the checks other community members do which decide if that track will move on to Harmonix for final approval. Originally, the folks at Harmonix didn’t want to allow community members to trade reviews—as in, I’ll review your song if you review mine—as they thought it would end up in tracks being pushed forward that didn’t deserve to be. However, it ended up that the self-policing that the Rock Band Network community does is very strong, and Harmonix found that broken songs weren’t being promoted because community members wanted to maintain a certain level of quality.

There’s one other element to the Rock Band Network that’s particularly interesting—it’s one of the only examples of user-generated content on consoles where those making that content actually get compensated financially for doing so. Rock Band Network is built upon the foundations of Microsoft’s XNA—hence the reason RBN has so little showing on the PS3—and Microsoft pays out to artists and labels every quarter for sales of songs.

So, no matter who you are or how well known you are, you can get your music to be part of Rock Band—and then get paid for having done so. This new digital world hasn’t just provided budding musicians the chance to produce and sell their music themselves—it’s also allowed them to be a star thanks to gamers playing that music in a video game.

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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