High above Times Square, Green Day sits comfortably at a long table in a massive Viacom conference room. Right now, it’s a heady time for the band. On the next day, the Broadway play based on the landmark American Idiot album would premiere to stellar reviews. But on this day, Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool want to talk rock ‘n roll and games, specifically Green Day: Rock Band.
And, man, these guys know their games history. “We’ve always had consoles on the tour bus since, like, forever,” says Billy Joe Armstrong, clad in black and unshaven from the night before, but enthusiastic.
“Like, old school. Like Joust,” says fedora-wearing drummer Tre Cool. He has this piercing glare as if to say, all the f--- I need to say is the name of this classic game. That should explain everything.
Mike Dirnt, the band’s bass-playing tech maven, reminisces about playing as kid, “A long time ago? It was ColecoVision. Then, the Vectrex. Then, Pac-Man Fever, and Mortal Kombat.”
“Don’t forget the Dreamcast,” interjects Cool.
Adds Dirnt, “If you were born before 1983, forget it. Don’t even enter the room (to compete). Don’t even try.”
“Back then, though, all we needed was a fistful of quarters, and everything was all right,” says Armstrong.
Since they obviously know their video game culture, why has it taken so long for Green Day: Rock Band to become a reality? They’re certainly younger and hipper than the remaining Beatles, whose game preceded theirs. And they’re savvy enough to know the trends. Why didn’t their Rock Band game release around the time of the 14-million-selling American Idiot, which hit its peak when the worldwide popularity of rhythm-based music genre was just beginning? Billy Joe explains, “We were approached a long time ago by people who will remain anonymous. And we felt, well, that world of the gaming industry could get pretty cutthroat. We met with them. And it didn’t feel right.”
Continues Armstrong, “But I liked the idea that there were these compilations and kids could play stuff they wouldn’t normally hear. Like my kids playing “Barracuda” by Heart. They would never have heard that otherwise. But I guess it was good that we held out. Instead of getting a few songs on a compilation, we got a whole game.”
They found no dodgy executives at Harmonix, which with Demuirge Studios, designed a game in which you’ll get 47 songs, including the full versions of the albums Dookie, American Idiot, and 21st Century Breakdown. There are 110 unlockables (mainly photos as you progress in Career Mode). There are twice as many assets as in the Beatles game including 14 DVDs provided by MTV; from these, producers chose 40 minutes of video clips. Yet there are no dreamy video sequences á la The Beatles: Rock Band, which is disappointing in the sense that you always want to see creative game developers go wild.
Instead, you’ll see Green Day perform live in venues that were important to their gestation as they rose from gritty punk band to pop punk icons who reign over the rock world. In explaining their mega-stardom, Armstrong muses, “For me, I always have looked to the arc of a great career. When we made Dookie, I thought we would eventually have records that were the pinnacle of our creativity, similar to like the Stones or The Who or The Beatles or The Clash. I knew I was in it for a lifetime. I still feel that way. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Green Day: Rock Band, the band says, is both a musical and cultural microcosm of the group’s lives. Explains Cool, “It goes through the history of the band in three different stages. It skips a lot. But we still feel we personalized it and put our stamp on it. We wanted it to represent us well and to rock.”
So what did Harmonix skip? “Thankfully, they left out our fat year, fat Green Day,” jokes Cool. “Maybe that year can be downloaded some time.”
“Or maybe download Green Day on acid,” adds Armstrong. “Live at the Gorge in Washington!”
The riffing continues. Laughs Cool, “And there’s a cheat code you can enter where we’re all nude. Anatomically correct.”
In another room, Green Day: Rock Band is all set up and ready to go. I choose “Give Me Novacaine/She’s A Rebel” on guitar, and I play with Harmonix’ executive producer Chris Foster plus two affable journalists from consumer-oriented Web sites. They can’t follow along worth squat, even on Easy mode. But that doesn’t matter. Being onstage before the virtual thousands is a kick for all of us. It’s a hoot even though we couldn’t watch too much of the avatars’ live antics for fear of losing the beat, especially when the ballad “Novacaine” ends and the speed of “She’s A Rebel” gets the fingertips rocking fast. When you’re not in competition, though, it’s worth taking the time to watch. As the flashpots burst into rhythmic flame, you’ll see the signature leaping of Armstrong, the occasional clowning and mugging of Cool and the hip, punk rock stances of Dirnt. While the band themselves didn’t do motion capture, each song is motion captured by performers hired by Harmonix. And the crowd gets into it when you’re really rocking; stage diving, crowd surfing and hopping up and down in frantic unison.
After playing a few songs, Foster (whose favorite bands are Yes and They Might Be Giants) sits down to say, “I originally had a meeting with Green Day in San Diego while they were getting ready for their tour. It lasted about an hour and a half. Their main concern was that the finished game would feel true to the excitement of their live concerts and that the venues were authentic. They even talked about their early days at house parties and squats. Then, we had all these assets from MTV, DVDs, even some blooper stuff.”
It’s been reported elsewhere that there will be no downloadable content for Green Day: Rock Band. Actually, Foster didn’t put the kibosh on DLC in the future. In fact, he went further saying, “We’re not ruling out a Green Day: Rock Band II or more Green Day on Rock Band. There’s just so much in the archives to work with, including their side projects like Pinhead Gunpowder and The Frustrators.”
Back up in the conference room with the band, Armstrong makes a bold statement about the future of rhythm-based music games. He leans forward, saying, “The transition from video games to music games is like the transition from vinyl to CDs. It’s important for both musicians and fans alike. It’s another important way for music to get out there. And it’s fun, kind of like a glorified karaoke machine.
“The ultimate karaoke machine, says Dirnt, “I’ve walked in and seen people drunk and playing -- people who would never pick up a guitar in their lives -- laughing their asses off. Just tanked and having a blast. It’s infectiously fun.” How much fun will Green Day: Rock Band be? Judge the fun for yourself when you become the American Idiot on June 8. That’s when the game will be released for the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.