Harmonix and MTV Games introduced a potential game changer in the music genre last week with the announcement of Rock Band Network, a service allowing independent musicians, bands and labels to author their own Rock Band tracks, have them appear on the Rock Band marketplace and receive a cut of the profits. Getting music into Rock Band is not a simple as uploading an MP3, though -- it's actually a very complicated, time consuming task most may not be ready for.
That's one of the big reasons that Harmonix reached out to the creators of ScoreHero and CustomHero in February of this year. There's a large underground scene of Guitar Hero and Rock Band hackers who've been twisting and bending existing music games to include independents and game content that doesn't exist yet (i.e. Led Zepplin) . These guys know what it takes to take a song from a music file to a playable track in a music game.
Thus, Rhythm Authors was born.
"What Rhythm Authors [is] first and foremost," explained director of development Sean Feica in a phone interview yesterday afternoon, "is a conduit for people that either don't have the technical know-how or the time or money to put into actually developing their own songs. We can do that for them as an authoring service."
If you want your music in Rock Band and want the hard part out of your hands, these are the guys to contact. Right now, their services are being offered for free because Rhythm Authors' model involves taking a piece of the money earned from each downloadable track collaborated on. It could differ on a contract-by-contract basis, but that's the general plan right now. Feica underscored the Rock Band process is far more than drag 'n drop or even just note tracking.
"It's, uh, a little more than that," laughed Feica, before breathing an enormous sigh. "Right now, for us and most of my team, right from the get go, we've been doing this for about two years for fun and it will take us 50-60 hours [of] development time per song. And that's internal testing, all of the audio engineering, the actual MIDI create itself and then…yeah, there's a lot of work to it that a lot of people aren't seeing yet."
Such clarification is coming in the next few weeks; Harmonix has not issued the complete documentation for guiding a piece of music from a laptop to the Rock Band marketplace. But Feica expects these revelations will help ground people's expectations for what is and isn't possible for most bands, something he's absolutely hoping for, since he would want their business.
It's not just about running a business, though. The reason Harmonix contacted this community was because of its capacity for teamwork. If you believe Feica, Rhythm Authors isn't about monopolizing the market for outsourcing Rock Band music authoring, even though they're the only outfit right now. Harmonix appears to have set up Feica's crew to wield their early-access knowledge by acting as knowledge masters for the rest of the music community. That's the hope, anyway.
"One of the things that us as Rhythm Authors are going to be doing is helping train people," he said. "We don't want to obviously monopolize everything, we want it to be a community. We've been brought in to make sure the community that the stays strong."
Feica already knows what the missing pieces are, the details that Harmonix hasn't announced yet. Though he's bound to keep quiet, he would address community concerns that a free-for-all indie-centric marketplace would result in a measured drop in quality because Harmonix wasn't personally approving the tracks and laying down the colored dots that move up and down the screen. Feica doesn't think this will be an issue.
'The actual community tools and things that have been set up and requirements are very, very strict," he said. "Even something like the BPM [beats per minute] tracking isn't quite right, it's not going to get through. That's part of what the community does. Anyone that signs up for the $99-a-year XNA membership is going to have access to test these songs during the community phase and give feedback on it and everything requires a certain amount of votes. […] If something's not up to standards, it's not up to par, it's going to get flagged."
As for the underground hacking community he's been a part of for so many years, Feica doesn't expect that group will go away. It might change, it might get smaller.
"I think there's still gonna be the idea of taking songs that you don't really have the rights to and being able to do it on a personal level," he said. "That's still going to exist because it doesn't cost money."
So far, Rhythm Authors has signed two bands of the metal variety. The company isn't metal-biased, but Feica admits he's a metalhead -- thus, these bands were signed first. Rhythm Authors is currently in talks with a number of other bands to ensure material can start getting cranked out the moment the open beta begins sometime in August. He expects a two to three week turnaround on tracks, but it's hard to say until works begins.
In a few weeks, Feica's promises will have to become reality.