Rock Band 3 Sketchbook Part 1 of 3: Art Director Ryan Lesser & Art Lead Pete MacDonald Talk Rock Band 3 Art & Character Creator

By now some of you have seen the amazing new look of Rock Band 3. The venues, characters, and rock star world you know and love got an overhaul in the space between Rock Band 2 and Rock Band 3. We sat down with Harmonix Art Director Ryan Lesser and Rock Band Art Lead Pete MacDonald to talk about what inspired the new look, the story behind the vignettes, new venues, filming the Rock Band 3 cinematic, and more.

In this first installment we talk about the new look and feel of the game and the world your Rock Band characters inhabit. It's an exciting world inspired by some surprising sources. We also talk about changes made to the look of the characters and the expansion of the character creator.

Art Lead Pete MacDonald tells us that Rock Band 3's visual changes were due to two major reasons. “One, it was time to up our game, making the lighting and texture more hi-resolution, and providing more environmental lighting in the game. Two, we really wanted to focus on characters and vignettes. With Rock Band 2, we had started to make these loading screens that showed your characters off-stage and getting into some trouble, or whatever. There was a broken down van or they're on tour...just still image snapshots of your characters on magazine covers and whatnot. And the response to that stuff was really positive and we were all really into it as well. We wanted to build on that and basically take up as much of the outside-of-gameplay time and really try to showcase the characters being rock stars off-stage.”

Splashscreen Concept Art - final art can be seen at the top of the post

In order to show the time the characters spent off-stage, they needed to create an entire world where these rock stars live. On top of that, the menus and other screens needed to open up to allow players to see their characters more often and show off this world.

For the characters' world, Pete says “We wanted a film-like quality to things, and so we asked ourselves ‘what are some rock-and-roll movies that have a really strong rock-and-roll look?'” While you might expect artists to take inspiration for a rock star world from rock and roll documentaries and films about music like Oliver Stone's The Doors, that was only the start. Pete tells us the team also spent time watching darker flicks like Stone's Natural Born Killers. He says, “Natural Born Killers is actually sort of a frenzy of rock and roll color, style, animation, camera angles…Stone uses a lot of crazy tricks in that movie to be psychedelic.” Scorsese films were another surprise inspiration: “We had a couple of Scorsese pictures that really had a great nighttime, city-at-night-type stuff with beautiful lighting and the whole wet asphalt look…Bringing Out the Dead was a really good reference for us. It's a movie about ambulance drivers in New York…and it has some psychedelic qualities to it.”

A Rock Band 3 street scene

The trick was keeping the established Rock Band visual aesthetic while still branching into new territory. “We didn't want to abandon the Rock Band illustration style that John Dee had created for us. So we had him do his magic in the world. The vignettes have graffiti done by John Dee and the graffiti might animate and move in psychedelic ways. We're trying to create this vaguely New York, urban, rock-and-roll city that's kind of inhabited by psychedelic skies and living graffiti and crazy stuff like that. (For more on John Dee, see our previous features on his art.)

Rock Band 3 characters on a city fire escape

The next step was making the characters on par with the world they were living in. Rock Band 3's character creator is more robust than any of our previous games. Ryan and Pete spoke with Gamespot before launch about the changes and reiterated in our interview with them that the goal with the new character creator was for players to make idealized versions of themselves. “A lot of work was spent on prototyping and building the face creator and really working on the emotiveness of the faces…”

The key to the expanded character creator, however, was balance. While some players might like to spend hours customizing their character, the team kept casual players in mind while building the creator. Pete says, “There were actually more options. We took some out. We were really looking for a balance. It wasn't about the most possible options. We were really looking for the most effective options. And we didn't want the menus to be overwhelmed with choices. You don't need a hundred different noses to choose from.”

Ryan says, “There's always an urge to move towards to as full of a fleshed out system as you can make, but at the same time at Harmonix we typically create party games or arcade-style games and making an enormous, intense face creator that you could – or had to – spend two hours in, that's just not really our style. I think all the way back to our earliest games, we've made character creators that were just meant to be a quick, fun way to personalize your gameplay. Let people pick from lots and lots of variety, but in a quick way. If you want, you could just quickly pick a head shape, a nose, a mouth, and go. Or if you click one more time into that particular element of the face, you can manipulate it around the face a bit. But even at its most detailed, it's still kind of simpler. Which is good.”

Rock Band 3 features more body types

The team talks about Rock Band characters as doll-like recreations of the player. Where Rock Band games let the player live out their rock star fantasies on fake instruments (or in the case of Rock Band 3, real guitar and real keyboards), the character creator is where the player creates the rock star representation of themselves. Ryan tells us “It's meant to be an idealized version of a rock and roll star. It took us three years or more to get it to a place where we were finally ok with adding a bit of extra ugliness. For the first game, everyone's really ripped and really cut and slender, really great bone structure. We started easing up on that for various reasons. Some people here wished they could make more accurate representations of themselves. Some people just wanted to make characters that were a little more out of the ordinary.”

“We struggled with the ‘old head,'” Pete adds. “Even on Rock Band 2, that was sort of a controversial thing. We had these faces and everyone was 19 or 20 years old, and I was interested in seeing if we could get an older, veteran rocker-type look.”

Rock Band 3 body shapes

“The original style that was set forth in the original Rock Band had streamlined any kind of detail and made it smooth and evened out. And that's very youthful in a lot of ways,” Ryan tells us. “So when you want gaunt and wrinkly faces, it's exactly what our style doesn't do. And Rock Band 3 is a step in the direction of allowing that because we went a little more anatomical with our physique and our faces.”

You'll see more options in Rock Band 3 for making your character how you want them to look, but still keeping the idealized, almost shiny look to the characters. Giving the player more options was a key part of the team's vision of taking the player on a journey with the characters through the vignettes.

In the next installment in this series, Ryan and Pete tell us about creating the vignettes, share early storyboards and concept art, and tell us about filming the opening cinematic.


In my actual experience with the game, the "skinny" doesn't exist, because the chest is still too big.

I think Harmonix should release a book of all the concept art for Rock Band 3

Still wishing I could give my female character the Sprite face of Rock Band 1 or 2. Any chance of an update to the game allowing it somehow? As giving it to them now just gives them a very screwed up evil face. :(

Great stuff! Can't wait to read the next one.