What was it like recreating places such as The Cavern and Shea Stadium?
We were used to designing venues, so things like Shea Stadium and The Cavern were pretty easy. More difficult was Abbey Road. We wanted to spark it up with psychedelic sequences where the walls would melt away. But that left me having to basically direct 30 Beatles music videos. I’d say to Paul McCartney, ‘Visually, this is what this song stirred in me.’ He was always supportive.
Aside from security, what else did you have to negotiate when it came to licensing tracks?
Well, The Beatles’ music is the hardest to licence. I wasn’t on the front line of contract negotiations, but the publishing rights were owned by Sony and the masters were owned by EMI, so I had meetings with both. Specific prices, I don’t know, but people complained the original Rock Band game had 65 songs while The Beatles had 45. That was because the tracks were so expensive to licence – about twice as expensive as other big bands.
How did you know what direction to go in when it came to design and animation?
We got good feedback early on, because one of the first songs we finished was Here Comes The Sun, where the visuals had George and the gang up on a hill, doing the song. And we had Beatles fans come in and play it, and they would cry. It was like their heroes were alive again. After that, we dialled in on how to get the kind of response we wanted and had a much better idea of what to do. John Lennon would look in the game. I only got to meet her briefly, but later I heard that, at one of the animation meetings, she’d looked at John and said, ‘He looks like he’s brain dead; he looks like my friend who had part of his brain removed.’ That summed up the challenge we had.”
Alongside Flury and his team, Randall was also wrestling with the animation system. Harmonx had mastered audio mapping – the team could take a song and get it playable within about three days – but getting The Beatles to look right was a new challenge. “The people arranging the audio tracks for the game could put all this information in, saying things like, ‘He should look at his hands here,’ or ‘He should smile at the audience at this point,’” Randall explains. “We thought it would be easy, since we’d used that system with a few Guitar Hero and Rock Band games. But since everyone in the world knows how The Beatles look when they play, we had to really get it right. For example, they’d often lean into the microphone when they played onstage, so we’d put these notes in saying that when Paul, for example, is about to do vocals, he would lean in. But of course, when we first tried it, it went wrong – they ended up with these weird, extended giraffe necks while the bodies just stayed still.
“Also, The Beatles just looked so alive when they were playing. You could see there were these inside jokes going on, so we had to develop this smile technology, and get the eyes really right. I worked a long time with our engineers trying to get it so you’d get a real sense of them looking right at you. That level of detail meant creating a lot of stuff from scratch.”
It took time, but Flury and the programmers eventually got the animation system straightened out. Randall went back to Yoko Ono. “It was one of the most intense meetings of my life. I was constantly thinking about what would go on in her head when she saw it. It was John playing Don’t Let Me Down – such a passionate song – and we just had to do it right, had to preserve their legacy. Thankfully, Yoko gave us the thumbs-up.”
The game launched in September 2009 and sold three million copies before the year was out. Foster considers it the high point of his career. “The mission of Harmonix is to bring the joy of making and performing music to non-musicians,” he says. “And The Beatles: Rock Band, as well as doing that, was meant to affect the relationship people had to this music, this band. When I was working on it, I knew I’d have bigger and harder game design challenges in my life, but nothing would have the importance of this game.”
Randall returned to Abbey Road with Paul and Ringo to playtest the game one last time. “I had it on easy mode, because I was jetlagged and, well, I’m not that good at it,” he says. “After one track, I was about to push it up to medium when Ringo Starr called from the back of the room, telling me to do it on expert. So I was just fumbling through this thing, you know, like clink, clank, clink, and at the end of the demo Paul looked around at everyone and said, ‘You played well, you played well, and you played well.’ But then he got to me and said, ‘You, hmm, not so well.’ And all I could think was, ‘I just got ripped on by Paul McCartney – that’s awesome.’”