Just a few days ago, Harmonix mused in a blog post about the state of the rhythm gaming market on computers. Now, the studio is looking to bring Rock Band 4 to Windows PC, which would be a first in the history of the franchise. Harmonix aims to release the game this fall on Windows, via Steam, if its 35-day, $1.5 million crowdfunding campaign on Fig is successful.
With that money, Harmonix would hire Sumo Digital to handle the PC version, which would allow Harmonix to "stay focused on building new features and content" for the game, said Alex Rigopulos, Harmonix's chief creative officer, in the Fig pitch video. Based in Sheffield, U.K., Sumo Digital is the independent studio behind games such as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and LittleBigPlanet 3. Harmonix would self-publish the PC version, about a year after the studio and co-publisher Mad Catz released Rock Band 4 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
A PC version of Rock Band 4 is a proposition with many moving parts, considering the instrument controllers required to play the game; the licensing arrangements involved in acquiring the music; and the fact that longtime Rock Band players have spent a lot of money over the years on controllers and downloadable songs. And its announcement raises plenty of questions about how it's all going to work.
Since Rock Band 4's debut in October 2015, Harmonix has delivered updates on a roughly monthly basis with bug fixes, new features and more. Rigopulos told Polygon in a recent email interview that the studio plans to "maintain parity between the PC and console versions of the game." That means that at launch, the PC version of Rock Band 4 will "include all of the then-current features in the console versions," and from that point forward, Harmonix will keep all three versions in sync.
Rock Band 4's three platforms aren't the only concern. There's also the issue of music security on PC, an open platform compared to the closed ecosystems of the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live. Asked in June 2015 about the chances of a PC version of Rock Band 4, project manager Daniel Sussman said one of Harmonix's main concerns would be to ensure that players couldn't simply rip songs out of the game.
Rigopulos affirmed that thinking. "We're currently evaluating a number of 3rd-party encryption solutions to ensure that the music in Rock Band 4 on the PC will be as secure as possible," he said.
The main soundtrack in the PC version of Rock Band 4 will be identical to the 65-song setlist that was featured in Rock Band 4 on consoles. Fig backers will receive an extra 30 tracks, the same as people who pre-ordered the console versions, along with three bonus "best of indie" songs.
Sadly, players will have to build their DLC libraries from scratch: Downloadable tracks remain tied to the console family on which they were bought (PlayStation, Xbox or Wii), meaning that any songs purchased previously won't transfer over to PC. That includes the disc exports from previous Rock Band titles — unlike in the console versions of Rock Band 4, there's no provision for importing music from older games into the PC version.
"Any song that is currently available as DLC for Rock Band 4 on console will also be available as DLC on PC," said Matthew Nordhaus, a designer on the game, in an email interview. To date, Harmonix has re-released into Rock Band 4 the music from Rock Band, Rock Band 3 and Rock Band Blitz; the studio plans to add the tracks from Rock Band 2, Lego Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band at a later date.
Regardless of the source, anybody who has already purchased Rock Band games and/or DLC will have to re-buy that music if they want to play it on PC. It's the same situation that befell people who switched platforms for Rock Band 4 — e.g., those who went from Xbox 360 to PlayStation 4.
Note that Harmonix had to negotiate with Sony and Microsoft to make it possible for Rock Band players to transfer PS3 purchases to PS4 and Xbox 360 purchases to Xbox One, respectively, at no additional cost. The idea of "cross-buy" has long been a feature of the PlayStation ecosystem, and Microsoft has started to implement it across Xbox One and Windows 10. But thousands of Rock Band songs amount to a lot of content that Valve would be giving away on Steam — and, of course, a lot of DLC revenue that Valve and Harmonix would be passing up.
Since there has never been a Rock Band game on PC, one might expect that existing Rock Band controllers wouldn't work with the PC version. Thankfully, that's not the case.
"We will support most existing Rock Band controllers, with some exceptions," said Nordhaus.
The PC version will natively support PS4 controllers from Rock Band 4, since those instruments communicate over Bluetooth; any computer with built-in Bluetooth support or a Bluetooth adapter will do. In addition, Bluetooth-based wireless controllers from the first three Rock Band games on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 or even Wii will function, as long as they're used with the corresponding Bluetooth-to-USB adapters. It's unclear at this point if the game will support Guitar Hero instruments.
Wired USB instruments don't currently work with Rock Band 4 on Xbox One, to the chagrin of many Rock Band fans — particularly those who spent hundreds of dollars on the Ion Drum Rocker for Xbox 360. But supporting wired controllers on PC "should also be straightforward," according to Nordhaus, although he noted that "we need to test further to see if we need to write new drivers."
Wireless Xbox 360 instruments "will work, but will probably require us to write new drivers [...] depending on which dongle/adapter you use," said Nordhaus. Harmonix can't confirm support for Rock Band 4's wireless Xbox One instruments yet, but Nordhaus said the studio is "working with Microsoft" on that issue.
As for PC owners who don't already own Rock Band controllers, backers of the Fig campaign will be able to purchase them as an add-on to their contribution "at a discounted rate," said Nordhaus. Mad Catz currently manufactures all Rock Band 4 instruments, and a Harmonix representative told Polygon that those controllers will work with the game on PC. However, the spokesperson added, "We are going to be making some announcements on Rock Band hardware in the coming weeks as well."
Bringing Rock Band 4 to PC allows Harmonix to bring back a popular element of Rock Band 3: the Rock Band Network, the system through which musicians could sell their own songs in the game. In the PC version of Rock Band 4, the infrastructure for Rock Band Network comes from Valve's Steam Workshop, the service that allows players to create mods and other user-generated content for PC games.
The old Rock Band Network was available exclusively on Xbox 360, since it relied on XNA, Microsoft's now-defunct development toolset. It also required song authors to pay for an XNA Creators Club account ($49 for four months or $99 for a year). That won't be necessary on Steam Workshop, which is a free service.
Rock Band 3 players uploaded more than 2,000 songs to the Rock Band Network, none of them licensed by Harmonix — the way the system worked, the tracks had to be submitted by their rightsholders, or by people who had obtained the rights to upload them. The PC version of Rock Band 4 is starting with a clean slate, so those people will have to resubmit their songs to the new Rock Band Network, although Nordhaus said "it should be much less work" to upload existing songs than it took to submit them originally.
Rock Band Network songs had to adhere to Rock Band's T for Teen rating, so they couldn't contain any profanity. That standard remains in place for Rock Band 4, and Nordhaus told Polygon that Rock Band Network authors "will have the same control over every aspect of song creation that they always did." For new users, Harmonix is "looking at ways that we can reduce the time it takes to create a playable song," said Nordhaus.
Although Harmonix hasn't finalized this yet, the studio is currently planning to sell Rock Band Network songs in Rock Band 4's in-game music store alongside the DLC that the studio puts out. Authors will receive the same cut of song sales as before: 30 percent. And Rigopulos told Polygon that Harmonix is "interested in picking the most successful songs from PC and [bringing] them back over to the consoles," which the studio did with the PS3 version of Rock Band 3.
Harmonix is looking to raise money not on Kickstarter, like it did for the revival of Amplitude, but on Fig. The Fig platform was unveiled in August of last year. It gives developers the ability to solicit money from traditional rewards-based backers as well as equity investors. Those who choose to invest receive shares, which give them the opportunity to earn a portion of a game's profits over time.
Fig launched with the participation of three independent development studios: Obsidian Entertainment, InXile Entertainment and Double Fine Productions. All three companies promised to fund their next projects through the platform, and placed members on Fig's board of advisors, where they have a say on which projects are selected to run on Fig.
Double Fine's Psychonauts 2 was Fig's third campaign, and the first project to come from one of the three founding partners. It was also the very first video game crowdfunding campaign to accept investment from anyone, not just high-net-worth individuals. In January it succeeded in raising more than $3.8 million in rewards-based money and equity investment reservations. More than $1.8 million is still uncollected, and pending U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission approval.
Fig is currently running a campaign for Jay and Silent Bob: Chronic Blunt Punch, a cannabis-infused brawler based on characters from Kevin Smith films such as Clerks and Chasing Amy. The Rock Band 4 campaign will represent the first instance of Fig running two funding efforts simultaneously.
In September of last year, Harmonix formally signed on with Fig. To cement that relationship, Harmonix placed chief creative officer Alex Rigopulos on the company's advisory board. Fig told Polygon that as part of that partnership, both Rigopulos personally and Harmonix itself were granted stock options in Fig. Around the same time, Harmonix took on $15 million in private equity investment from 14 undisclosed investors.
The campaign for the Rock Band 4 PC adaptation is seeking $1.5 million, and Rigopulos told Polygon it is prepared to accept the entire amount in equity investment if offered. This includes both the sale of shares to high-net-worth accredited investors and the reservation of shares by unaccredited investors (to be purchased following SEC approval).
Anyone can invest in the success of Rock Band 4 on PC
Investments, sold under the Fig-branded term "Game Shares," will start at $250. Both accredited and unaccredited investors would receive the same return on those shares.
Harmonix told Polygon that the total budget for the game will be $2 million.
"Harmonix would be self-funding the remaining quarter," Rigopulos said via email. "We want to be in the same boat as the rest of the Fig investors."
For more on the Fig platform, see our StoryStream.
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