“One thing we really wanted to focus on in Rock Band 2 was the finale,” Venue Artist David Boghdan says as he looks over the many concepts and sketches that went into the creation of Shanghai Arena, the last venue in the game. “We wanted to give people a real sense of accomplishment, and so we decided to structure it around the venue itself. We wanted it to feel…huger than the other venues.”
“Hugeter,” adds Venue Lead David Battilana.
Shanghai Arena is the first venue in either version of Rock Band without a roof – a detail that greatly heightens the visceral impact of the space. “Taking the roof off allowed us to have three levels of focus – the stage, the truss work and the arena in the background, and then the city itself in the distance,” Boghdan elaborates.
“Just to, you know, double our workload,” Battilana adds. “Just to make some more trouble for ourselves.”
The first obstacle the designers had to contend with was the context of the venue itself. “One thing we always want to avoid when we’re designing a venue in a particular location,” Battilana says, “is to go with the most obvious and hokey associations. Like, ‘Oh, Shanghai! Let’s have a ton of paper lanterns all over the stage and have the band tear through the mouth of a big dragon.”
“Yeah,” Boghdan adds, “It’s like if we were doing a venue in Chicago and we were, like, ‘let’s have the band playing on top of a huge deep dish pizza!’ But a lot of our early concepts for Shanghai were stuck in that hokey stuff, like firecrackers and dragons. When we looked at the city itself, though, we saw that it’s actually completely sleek and modern, like a clean Blade Runner. It looks nothing like the stereotypical ideas we were coming up with. So we decided to make the arena really streamlined and futuristic.”
Boghdan drew up a series of sketches that featured a series of fractured screens behind the stage. “You want to make the elements of the background as high-contrast as possible,” Battilana says of the screens, “because when someone’s playing the game, they’re not going to notice a subtle texture. You’ve got to make the background elements really stand out. And video screens are an easy way to do that. But we already had a bunch of venues that had flat rectangular screens, so we decided to break them up.”
“I was working with this idea of a meteor crashing into the stage,” says Boghdan. “I was looking at this Roy Lichtenstein painting of an explosion, and I wanted to give the stage that same effect. I drew a lot of different sketches of the screens but nothing really worked the way we wanted it to.”
“Then (Art Lead) Pete MacDonald brought in a book by this architect named Lebbeus Woods ,” says Battilana, “ which was full of these incredible drawings of trusswork that were totally unreal. That gave us the idea to have the screens really envelop the stage, so that you could see them from almost any camera angle.”
“We also started to get away from the ordered layout to something that was more purposefully chaotic,” says Boghdan. “This got us thinking about the sails on a Chinese junk, and I think the combination of those two elements got us where we needed to be in terms of creating a venue that’s futuristic but also based in tradition.”
Pete MacDonald created a final concept painting of the venue, and Boghdan began to render it in 3-D. “I showed the model to Dave (Battilana), and he felt that it didn’t quite achieve the scale that was needed for the finale. He suggested I just make the screens and scaffolding twice as big, and when I did that, we knew we had what we wanted.”
The team designed one more element to the finale to heighten the celebration: pyrotechnics. When players make it through the final song, they’re encouraged to keep playing via a set of icons that appear on-screen. Each instrument then becomes a pyrotechnics controller, allowing bands to improvise their own custom light show. “That actually took us a long time to create as well,” says Battilana. “We had to get a lot of people involved – the audio team had to create some custom launching sounds, and there were a bunch of unique lighting effects. So it’s probably a good idea to mention that people can do this at the end of the game, so that more than twenty people get to see it.”