The Making Of…
From small beginnings to an Abbey Road swan song: how Harmonix helped The Beatles conquer the world a second time
The Beatles: Rock Band – or how McCartney schooled Harmonix creative director Josh Randall
Yes, he’d just taken the phone call he’d been waiting for, but now Josh Randall was worried. Since his earliest days at Harmonix, working first on Karaoke
Revolution and then Guitar Hero, he’d pushed the idea of a game based on a single, wellknown band. Now it was happening, and the band in question was about as big as they get.
“We’d been doing experiments with games based around specific groups for a number of years, even before Guitar Hero,” Randall tells us. “And I was involved in a series of those prototypes. Me and the other guys would joke, like, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to do a Beatles game? Ha ha. Yeah, as if.’
“But then, I guess in around 2006 or early 2007, I got called up by Harmonix and they said, ‘Hey, we’re finally going to do one of those band games. And it’s The Beatles.’ I’d been creative director on Amplitude, Guitar
Hero and the first Rock Band, but I really had to take a weekend to think about this one.”
Randall’s nerves were understandable: this project came straight from the top. Harmonix was then owned by MTV, and Van Toffler, the network president, had been hanging out with Dhani Harrison, the only child of Beatles guitarist George. The two were having lunch when Dhani explained he was a big fan of Guitar Hero. He just wished it had a microphone and a drum kit. “We’d just started working on the first Rock
Band,” Randall says, “so Toffler asked Dhani to come meet the team and sit down with our cofounder and then-CEO, Alex Rigopulos. He asked Dhani if The Beatles would ever want to do a game, and Dhani reckoned yes, so from that we started arranging a bunch of meetings with the folks at Apple Corps.”
Randall, who’d now signed on as creative director, became Harmonix’s point man. “I was flying back and forth to Abbey Road Studios for months, meeting with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison and George Martin’s son, Giles, who was producing the game on the Apple Corps side. It was a very long approvals process. We’d send packages every few months with concepts for what the outfits would look like, the characters, things like that, and we made a basic noninteractive sequence to demonstrate how we could model and move the guys. The Apple Corps guys liked it and we were able to move on from there.”
Getting the mechanics together was relatively simple, since everything in the original Rock
Band could be lifted pretty much wholesale into the Beatles project. Instead it was obtaining music licences and the blessings of Apple Corps stakeholders, such as McCartney and Starr, that occupied a lot of early development time. Lead “I WAS ABOUT TO PUSH IT UP TO MEDIUM WHEN RINGO STARR CALLED FROM THE BACK TO DO IT ON EXPERT” designer Chris Foster wanted to base the game around the various milestones in The Beatles’ career, the plan being to include photographs, videos and historical essays that would detail the lives and music of the band. However, that material proved hard to secure.
“I was working with Helen McWilliams, our lead writer, and Brett Milano, the journalist who was doing the original drafts of the essays, editing them and sending them to Apple Corps for approval,” Foster says. “That process took a very long time. The surviving Beatles wanted it all to be accurate, true to what they remembered from the time, and there was a lot of effort in assuring [them] we could handle that.”
Foster had come onto the project in 2008, after finishing work on Phase. Like Randall, his early months on The Beatles: Rock Band were spent flying from Harmonix’s HQ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Abbey Road, London.
“Between having the idea to do these essays and get these pictures and actually having them completed took about six months,” Foster says. “We were trying to do right by the band, but there’s a lot of writing out there on The Beatles and it’s easy, when you’re doing rock journalism, to embellish. We ended up compiling this thick binder full of information from various Beatles anthologies, and I took it to Abbey Road and just sat with Paul McCartney for about two hours, tapping down on a controller so I could scroll through the essays we had in-game and he could read them out loud. If they were OK, he’d just say, ‘Yep,’ and we’d move on. If not, he’d ask about our sources and where we’d heard this stuff, and then maybe try to clarify things.
“He was very generous. If there was something we’d mentioned about an album cover, he’d make sure we credited all the people who helped design it. Plus, it wasn’t like it always had to be his way. Sometimes he’d ask, ‘Did we really do that?’ and I’d quote our sources and he’d be OK with it.”
Randall had similar experiences. After seeing the original design for George Harrison’s avatar, Olivia Harrison invited him over to drink tea and go through some old photo albums, just to make sure the likeness would be exactly right. He was also managing the playlist. The Harmonix team had decided which tracks it wanted to use, but getting them out of Abbey Road proved tricky.
“The song selection came together really quickly,” Randall says. “We put together a spreadsheet of our personal favourites, then listened back to them all. Some had too much piano; some were maybe a little slow and wouldn’t be as compelling to play. But that’s how we distilled it down to a shortlist. We ran our selections past Giles – we had just one meeting where he pointed out which of the tracks would play well – and then we got to work.
“But there was a ton of security around transferring assets. We would fly over and they would give us a hard drive, but the files on there were encrypted. If you listened to them raw, they’d sound like garbage. That meant a lot of decryption and optimisation work on our end.”
“Preparing songs for The Beatles: Rock Band meant going back to the original recording sessions, recreating each song’s original mix and bouncing them out into separate audio files for each instrument,” says audio director
Eric Brosius. “That created separated ‘stems’,
George Harrison’s son, Dhani, was instrumental in brokering meetings with Apple Corps’ shareholders, eventually helping Harmonix secure rights to The Beatles’ music and assets