Three years ago today, Harmonix released a videogame dedicated to the work of one of the greatest rock and roll groups of all time, The Beatles. The New York Times called it "the most important video game yet made". Fans around the world were able to immerse themselves in the music of The Beatles in a completely new way.
To celebrate this anniversary, we gathered stories from the Harmonix employees closest to the development of the game. Read on for an inside look at The Beatles: Rock Band.
Alex Rigopulos, CEO
I still play the game every year on 9/9.
One of my favorite memories from the development process was when we were pitching an early design doc and prototype to Sir Paul. As you might imagine, it was a bit stressful (presenting our creative work to a Beatle…). I think Paul sensed that, and at the end of the meeting, as we were wrapping up, he pulled out a sprig of fresh lavender and handed it to me; he said that he had just cut it from his garden that morning, and that he often kept fresh lavender on hand, because the scent helped him stay relaxed at stressful times. It was a really warm gesture and helped set the tone for the rest of the project.
Another favorite memory was when I saw the final cut scene for the first time, and my eyes watered up. It was literally the first time I’d ever had that reaction to a video game, so at that moment I finally started to exhale and feel really proud of what the team had accomplished on the project.
John Drake, Director of Communications and Brand Management
The Stress of Stepping into the Biggest Shoes
As we closed on the launch date of 9/9/09, the folks at Apple Records and their affiliates gathered a group of journalists, reviewers, families and friends in the famed Abbey Road Studio 2 to hear the first sounds from the soon to be released "Beatles Remasters." They screened some never before seen footage, played some brilliant sounding audio, and blew the audience away. Then, they brought up a band to perform some great Beatles classics in the very studio that those songs were recorded in.
Of course, that band wasn't carrying real instruments – it was a group of Harmonix employees carrying prototype instruments and frantically resyncing controllers to an Xbox 360, eager to show off a new look at The Beatles: Rock Band. Alongside a few of our developers and colleagues at MTV, I strapped on a Gretsch DuoJet, stepped in front of a crowd of hardcore Beatles fans, and selected the previously agreed upon tracks in the menus.
Backed by a towering screen that stretched to the ceiling of Studio 2, and facing a room filled with cameras, lights, and dubious eyes, I depressed my green button and waited for the clicking intro to "Something" to roll on screen. In a rare moment of panic, visions of disconnecting batteries, hard to hear vocal feedback and uncalibrated drums rushed to the front of my mind. My hands got clammy, and I froze.
Everything seemed to stop for a second. What the hell was I doing here? Over the course of the project, I'd played this game in front of huge crowds of people, met and laughed with members of The Beatles, their confidants, families and partners, and had the opportunity to repeatedly HANG OUT AROUND THE GEAR THAT MADE THE MOST IMPORTANT RECORDS OF ALL TIME. I'm a huge fan of plastic instruments and have always thought their transformative powers are incredibly meaningful – but in that moment, in that hallowed venue, I felt a little too much like a pretender. Why should I, some 20-something kid with a plastic guitar, be trusted to interpret these iconic recordings by my heroes?
But then the music dropped in. Deafened by my flash of stage fright, I pressed down the buttons on my guitar's neck cued only by the screens at the foot of the stage. I felt the give of the keys, flicked my strum bar and heard the familiar and beautiful notes ring out over huge speakers in this perfect sounding room. I saw my coworkers step to microphones and begin idyllically singing in pitch-perfect three-part harmony. I saw the corners of eyes of people in the crowd flicker, and smiles slowly wash over their faces.
Our enjoyment of playing this game – this music - was palpable to these most lofty of Beatles fans, and they were enjoying it right along with us. We were bringing the live performance aspect to this amazing studio song, and it was infectious! I was suddenly at ease. Any fear that had held me back was lost as the genius of these compositions, the power of the sounds and the heart of the music rang out in Studio 2. I looked at the piano that "Lady Madonna" was played on, the control room where George Martin sat, and the staircase that John, Paul, George and Ringo walked up and down to hear the takes they'd recorded, and it all just felt right. This music was at home in this space. A moment of pure fear and worry washed away by a moment of pure musical joy.
As we switched over to a live venue [in the game] and began a revved up track in the Cavern Club, all of a sudden the room came alive. Our stewards from Apple Records and Abbey Road were clapping along enthusiastically. Journalists were tapping their feet and laughing as we grooved on this stage, throwing ourselves into the music of our idols. Everyone could tell in that moment that we weren't kids pretending to be The Beatles – this wasn't a simple imitation or impression – this was an homage with deep respect, admiration and love. And, as the wise men said, "All You Need Is Love".
Helen McWilliams, Senior Writer
I loved researching the exact instruments/amplifiers/microphones/etc. that The Beatles used on each song, because it was the one time in my history of researching instruments for HMX that I knew there was an audience that would actually care if we got anything wrong.
Chris Foster, Design Director
One of the most intense parts of developing The Beatles game was working out the Vocal Harmonies feature. Even having solo vocals from Rock Band as a basis, there were still so many unknowns about how to make harmony singing fun without being intimidating or confusing. Each morning, a small group of us would get together, take the current version of the Harmonies system for a spin, and figure out what each person should do for the day to improve it. Then we’d repeat the process the next morning, and every day after that for at least three months. (And that room was occupied by other coders too – sorry for the months of morning off-key choral singing, guys.) Maybe the biggest sign that we did something right is that we exceeded our own expectations. We were suspicious that Harmonies could ever be more than a power-user feature for experienced singers; but instead of making vocals more intimidating, we ending up giving shy singers a way to hide in the mix while they built up their skills and confidence level. Singing together is really fun and it was great to introduce that experience to so many people.
There were so many once-in-a-lifetime moments for me in 2008 and 2009: getting to tour Studio 2 during my first meeting at Abbey Road Studios; riding in the back of a van through February snow to help demo the latest build of the game for Olivia Harrison at Friar Park; sharing a loupe with Teddy Dibble of MK12 as we spent a day-and-a-half racing through every photo in the Apple Corps archives to find material for our photo essays and story mode cinematics; listening to Sir Paul McCartney speak of himself in the third person, while reading our historical mini-essays aloud as part of a fact-checking session; watching Paul and Ringo step onto the stage during our E3 press event. Even more importantly, my son was born while the game was being developed, and though the project took me away from him a few too many times, I’m glad to have those two sets of joyful memories entwined in my head.
The Beatles: Rock Band was an opportunity for Harmonix to participate in something greater than us, to reflect a light that shone brightly well before we started the game, and will keep shining long after the last plastic Höfner rolls off the assembly line. As we move forward and tackle new (and in some ways even more exciting) challenges, I’ll cherish those memories and always be grateful for how the project changed my life.
(P.S. My son’s three now, and his favorite Beatles song is “A Hard Day’s Night.” What’s yours?)
Eran Egozy, CTO
Last year, I was asked to be a speaker at some fancy entrepreneurial conference, but the whole thing started with a crazy musical introduction: A bunch of super-talented young musicians played a medley of rock and classical tunes, including Charles Yang - like this video. The stunt was to weave in “The End” from The Beatles: Rock Band into the live musical performance. I was on guitar. [Community Manager Eric] Pope was on drums. At just the right moment, we switched from real-band to fake band. And then, during the guitar solo section of "The End," the real musicians joined in and played their own solos, trading 4s with me playing the Beatles guitar solos. It was awesome. The crowd went nuts at the end and we all took a bow, Beatles-style.
We'd love it if you'd share your memories of The Beatles: Rock Band in the comments!