New “Rock Band” game, from Guitar Hero maker Harmonix, lets you use guitar, drum and mic controllers to perform as a virtual band. Interview included

Playstation 2 Guitar Hero 2 bundle with Guitar peripheral includedOne of the biggest break out hits of last holiday was Harmonix’s PS2 guitar game Guitar Hero II, which allows players to rock out to tunes like Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe, Mother by Danzig, Strutter by Kiss, Message In A Bottle by The Police, and Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana using a unique guitar-shaped controller.

Now Harmonix, MTV Networks, and Electronic Arts have announced their newest game, which takes all that Guitar Hero is and cranks up the heat by about a thousand degrees.

The new game is called Rock Band and it is scheduled to hit the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (with a Wii version likely coming some time in the future) this holiday season.

Rock Band is described in the official press release as an, “all-new platform for music fans and gamers to interact with music like never before. Rock Band will allow gamers to perform music from the world’s biggest rock artists with their friends as a virtual band using drum, bass/lead guitar and microphone peripherals, in addition to offering deep online connectivity. Built on unprecedented deals with the world’s biggest record labels and music publishers, the music featured in Rock Band will span all genres of rock and include many of the master recordings from the biggest songs and artists of all time.

Incredibly, as detailed above, Rock Band will use three different peripherals: a guitar, a drum, and a microphone. Naturally, the guitar peripheral will control the bass and lead guitar portions, a microphone will be used for vocals, and a drum peripheral will provide the beats.

Speaking of the drum peripheral, Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos said it is, “a really impressive piece of hardware. I’m a drummer myself, so we weren’t going to settle for anything less than something that felt like a real instrument.”

Like Guitar Hero, Rock Band will feature licensed music. Thanks largely in part to its new relationship with MTV (which bought Harmonix outright last year), Harmonix was able to wrangle multitrack master recordings from the catalogs of some of the biggest record labels in the business (which means that most, if not all, of the songs in the game will be the original versions and not covers as in Guitar Hero 1 and 2).

On board to offer access to their portfolios are EMI Music Publishing, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, Hollywood Records, and Warner Chappell Music. It is currently unknown how much from each music publisher will be available to Harmonix, but the emphasis going forward will be to work with the artists themselves.

Many details are still unknown at this time. For example, will the game ship with all three peripherals? If so, how much will it cost? Will we be able to use guitar peripherals we already own from Guitar Hero? Will the game be multiplayer only, considering that it uses three instruments? Or can you play instruments separately? Will there be four-player support or only three-player? Will the game allow you to use a camera to post videos of you and your friends rocking out, ala Singstar for PS3?

As for whether there will be online play, Rigopulos excitedly told GameSpot, “Absolutely. The whole experience is actually about reaching out to other people and forming a band together and that collaborative experience…to form a band and rise from obscurity to fame.” Online content will also be vital to the Rock Band experience, “In addition to the music that ships with the game, we have very big plans for building out a huge library of online expansion content.” He even said that some of the additional online content will likely be free.

The team behind Rock Band sees the project as more than just a simple game; they see it as a new platform for experiencing music. “We’re at the very front of what will be a major transformation in music entertainment,” said Rigopulos. “I really believe that four or five years from now, this kind of active participation in music making is going to be how people expect to experience the music that they love. Rock Band is a huge first step in that direction, but the sky’s the limit in terms of the span of genres we eventually intend to reach with this.”

More details on Rock Band can be gleamed from Rigopulos’ and EA Partners’ David DeMartini’s interview with GameSpot.

GameSpot (GS): Alex, please explain Rock Band in your own words.

Alex Rigopulos (AR): Sure. I guess what I would say about it is that Guitar Hero is a game that we made with a tiny budget and a fraction of a year to build it. And we’re fortunate enough now to be in a position as part of MTV, where basically we’re being given the creative freedom and the resources to really make the huge game that we’ve wanted to make for years, which is Rock Band.

It’s essentially taking the core play premise of Guitar Hero but just expanding it hugely along every axis. We’re building it out into a complete band experience, with guitar and bass and drums and singing, including very deep and expansive online game play. Huge recording artists are going to be in the game, including original multitrack master recordings in a lot of cases, which has been amazing.

We’ve also really just amped out the graphical impact on the next-gen consoles in a way that we’re just very fired up about, because we think that this game is going to–in some ways–just fundamentally alter the way that people who play it experience music.

GS: There are going to be three peripherals with the game. How will they ship? Will there be different SKUs?

AR: We haven’t made final decisions yet about the SKU configuration.

GS: But there will be three distinctly different peripherals, correct?

AR: Yes, there will be a guitar controller for playing the guitar and the bass parts, a drum peripheral for playing the drum parts, and a microphone for singing.

GS: Can you go into more detail about the drum peripheral?

AR: I guess I can just say that it’s a really impressive piece of hardware. I’m a drummer myself, so we weren’t going to settle for anything less than something that felt like a real instrument.

GS: Obviously there is going to be a lot of downloadable content, right?

AR: Indeed. This is an area where we have very ambitious plans. Because for us, this game really blurs the line between gaming and music, and music-making. And we view Rock Band not just as a game, but as kind of a platform for consuming and experiencing music. So in addition to the music that ships with the game, we have very big plans for building out a huge library of online expansion content.

GS: Is any of that going to be free? Lots of musicians are living paycheck to paycheck.

AR: I expect it’s very likely that there will be.

GS: The players onscreen…how will they be represented? Will they have avatars, or will there be camera support?

AR: We’re not really ready to dive much more into gameplay details at this point in time.

GS: Fair enough. Because you’re bringing together a drummer, bass player, guitarist, and such, is there going to be a way for people to search for bandmates online?

AR: Absolutely. The whole experience is actually about reaching out to other people and forming a band together in that kind of collaborative experience of working with a group of people to form a band–to rise from obscurity into stardom and fame, and to go through that experience together.

So yes, [Rock Band will feature the] kind of community features that allow people to connect. You can play the game with a group of people in your living room if you want, but with next-gen consoles, we’re really excited to allow a group of people–potentially a guitarist in Germany, a bassist in Texas, a drummer in New York, and a singer in Tokyo–all get together and form a band and compete on the world stage against other bands.

GS: Will gamers be able to do their own original stuff?

AR: I cannot really talk about that at this time.

GS: Were there any other reasons why you decided to make it strictly PS3 or Xbox 360? Is it mainly the online capabilities of those two consoles?

AR: Well, the PS3 and the 360 are the two platforms that we’re prepared to talk about right now. But they’re technologically the leading-edge platforms, and we’re pushing so many boundaries with this game from a design and technology standpoint that those are the platforms that we felt we had to lead off with.

GS: Is there a possibility that it could reach other platforms?

AR: Certainly. We’re considering a lot of options, but we’re not ready to make any specific announcements about that at this point.

GS: You are obviously attracted to MTV because they were able to help you secure these really good deals with the labels.

AR: Yeah, they have longstanding, deep relationships with the music industry, and it’s been incredible working with MTV to forge these new relationships with the record companies. All of the major record companies are onboard with this project: Universal, Warner, Sony, BMI, Hollywood, even. Basically, every major label group that is significant is onboard and opening up their vaults of original masters to us for this game, which is really exciting for us.

It’s also exciting for us because the record companies have by and large not been able to really benefit financially from the video game industry over the last decade, and we’re offering them an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in the video game business by offering their content to people to experience on a deeper level.

Dave DeMartini (DD): To a large extent, Alex is creating a platform from which the music labels can launch things or even just get distribution and span generations with various titles. This is the ultimate family collaboration game, because you have the ability for people of a variety of ages to play the game simultaneously, and people of a variety of skill levels get the opportunity to play the game simultaneously.

GS: Say you play a song and really like it. Will there be a way to buy it right there from the game?

AR: Well, again, we’ll have lots to say about that down the road a little bit.

DD: That sounds like a really good idea, though.

GS: EA is going to be distributing the title and obviously has a huge reach globally. Will there be region-specific playlists, or can someone in the US rock out to some hardcore Japanese punk?

DD: Alex is making all the key creative decisions with regard to content going into the products, and we’re just trying to be a supportive partner with regards to suggestions and other things. Certainly content that is specific to different regions of the world is incredibly important, and I certainly think Harmonix recognizes that.

AR: For us, music games are at least as much about the music as they are about the game…It’s critical that when we go into international territories, we’re working with local artists in those [areas] who have the greatest meaning and impact for the audiences in those regions.

GS: Back to the labels and the catalogs. Do you know how much of their catalog they’re offering you?

AR: Essentially we have a very broad blanket relationship with all the major label groups, so at this point we’re working with artists on an individual basis to get them involved in the game.

DD: I also think Alex is moving in a direction of trying to get away from a one-off track and giving the game player the opportunity to look at a recording artist’s entire catalog of songs and potentially allow you to play the entire catalog rather than a specific song.

AR: Absolutely true.

GS: How did the music publishers react to your proposition for the deal?

AR: At this point we’re opening up Rock Band as a platform for music entertainment in making both the record labels and the music publishers major partners in that financially. So for them it’s actually an incredible opportunity to really benefit from gamers’ fanaticism about the interactive entertainment by delivering their content to gamers in a way that they’re thrilled to consume.

DD: It’s an interesting evolution in the industry, which MTV and Harmonix have largely been a part of. Prior to MTV, people listened to music. Then with MTV, people were watching music. And now Alex has basically defined a space in gaming where people are interacting with music in an entirely new way.

So, experience with music has evolved over these three revolutions, and I think it’s made people’s enjoyment of music move to that next level. People who don’t have any musical skills at all–ergo me–have an opportunity to be a rock star, and that’s something I’m never going to experience with “a real instrument” in my hands. But to have that ability to have that experience…I mean, to a large extent, Alex and the team are bringing a certain rock-band life experience to people who would have never otherwise experienced it.

GS: Rock Band is clearly ripe for some sort of talent contest or maybe even a reality show. Anything in the pipeline like that for MTV?

AR: It’s certainly the case that these are some ideas that we’re thinking very actively about right now.

GS: And any chance to expand Rock Band into other genres, like maybe hip-hop or dance music?

AR: Well, certainly. For us, this is just at the very front of what will be a major transformation in music entertainment. I really believe that four or five years from now, this kind of active participation in music-making is going to be how people expect to experience the music that they love. So, certainly, Rock Band is a huge first step in that direction. But the sky is the limit in terms of the span of genres we eventually intend to reach with this.

DD: Just from what we’ve seen in the demos that Alex and his team have put on, it is going to be the ultimate party experience. I could see Rock Band parties forming in a neighborhood near you, where people just get out there to entertain their friends and just love the music and interact with the music that they love.

GS: Alex, I saw your speech at the D.I.C.E. Summit, and you went about a dozen years in the industry before your first big hit with Guitar Hero. Do you feel any sort of pressure for your follow-up?

AR: There’s always pressure. I think the prevailing sentiment is just a sense of excitement about everything having finally come together for music games in the US.

We’ve been working at this for more than a decade and finally now to have the resources and the creative freedom to be making exactly the game that we want to make. [It’s great] to not be limited by resources, to have a partner like MTV supporting us, have a partner like EA who is literally unparalleled in the world at what they do in marketing and distribution of games. To have all the major record companies supporting us and offering up their content to us, honestly, I and the rest of the creative team here just feel incredibly privileged and excited to be able to just be swinging for the fences with such an ambitious project that we really think can fundamentally transform music entertainment.

Excitement is the prevailing sentiment.