LOS ANGELES--If you were among the thousands of people at Microsoft's E3 press briefing on Monday, it's a pretty sure bet that the appearance on-stage there of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono was one of the most unexpected things imaginable.
But if you think about it, the very existence of the game that led to their showing up during the Xbox press briefing, Harmonix and MTV Games' "Beatles: Rock Band," is even more surprising. After all, the Beatles have, over the years, maintained a stranglehold over control of their music. For example the Beatles are still the holy grail that iTunes has not yet been able to corral.
The game will be released on September 9 (09.09.09) on the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the Wii.
So how did the game come to pass?
Since the two remaining Beatles weren't able to come to the phone for this article, I decided to stop by the Harmonix booth at E3 and ask the game's lead designer, Chris Foster, for the skinny behind what has got to be one of the biggest coups in video gaming history.
Foster said the story begins a couple of years ago, when MTV President Van Toffler ran into Dhani Harrison, son of the late Beatles guitarist George Harrison, in some random social setting.
"It was just sort of through happenstance," Foster said. "Dhani was a big 'Rock Band' fan, and there was this sort of, 'Wouldn't it be nice if...but it'll never happen.'"
But being a "Rock Band" fan, Dhani Harrison took his idea to Harmonix CEO and co-founder Alex Rigopulos and began a conversation about what a Beatles version of "Rock Band" could be. Foster said that the idea seemed like a huge challenge, but, deciding to pursue it, Harrison began evangelizing the idea to Apple Corps, the Beatles' U.K. publisher, and its shareholders, particularly McCartney, Starr, and Ono.
"So then, from that point, it was just sort of getting them familiar with ('Rock Band')," Foster said, "and getting them understanding what the game could be like."
By now, the discussions were far enough along that Harmonix put together a simple demo of the kind of music and conceptual art that could be used in the game, Foster said.
And, amazingly, inexplicably, it worked.
"At that point," Foster recalled, things "moved to (the Beatles) being creative partners" in the project. One of the most vital things to happen at that point was the introduction of music producer Giles Martin to the "Rock Band" project. Martin, the son of the Beatles' original producer, George Martin, helped Cirque du Soleil put together its Beatles show, "Love."
That was crucial, Foster said, because Martin was able to help solve one of the most important problems any Beatles "Rock Band" game would have, adding multitrack capabilities.
"We needed multitrack," Foster said, "because in 'Rock Band,' (players) need to get (individual) feedback about whether they're playing well or not. So with all those pieces in place, we were able to do a demo of what the music (in the game) would be like."
As things progressed, the developers knew that to make the game feel authentic, they'd have to offer players real Beatles venues to play in. So they worked to add famous Beatles locations like Liverpool's famous Cavern Club, the Ed Sullivan theater, Shea Stadium, the Budokan in Tokyo, and the rooftop at Apple Corps.
Then, Foster said, the development team came up with the idea for adding psychedelic dreamscape visions to the game. The game's trailer (see below) does a great job of demonstrating that element, as do some of the best pieces of Cirque du Soleil's "Love."
'We respected them and their music'
To Foster, the chief reason that the improbable game ever came together at all is that "they liked that we respected them and respected their music. I don't want to put words in their mouths, but what was important to us was that we respected them."
That's one reason that the development team made sure to include venues where the Beatles had actually played famous shows. "We weren't shoving them into live venues that didn't make sense," he said.
Another important factor was the developers' adding the ability to include vocal harmonies as part of game play.
"Their music is so much about harmonies," he said. Adding vocal harmonies was something that had never been done in "Rock Band" before, but it was considered vital to accurately representing the Beatles' music in the game.
And that also presented the developers with a hurdle they had to clear.
"The challenge (was) making it so vocal harmonies were fun and challenging, but really accessible, and finding a way to put that in the game, without overwhelming" players, Foster said. "(We didn't want to make them) feel like they failed to sing like the Beatles."
Foster acknowledged that contracting with the Beatles was a huge win for Harmonix, especially when it's been clear for some time that "lots of people were thinking about doing it."
The game is already being anxiously awaited by players, developers, and industry executives alike, and for both game play and business reasons.
"Clearly, (the Beatles) saw an opportunity of reintroducing their music to the current music-loving consumer and it makes perfect sense for them as they try and manage their brand," said Nintendo President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime. "So I think it makes a lot of sense and, candidly, what the music industry is finding is that the games industry is a great way to drive music sales."
And for Microsoft, having McCartney, Starr, and Ono take the stage at the Xbox press briefing at the University of Southern California's Galen Center was a gigantic victory. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the appearance came about because the company is always talking to its publisher partners, including, in this case, MTV Games. And that as "Beatles: Rock Band" progressed, the Beatles decided that the Xbox press briefing would be a very appropriate place to announce the game.
Note to Sony and Nintendo: Work harder at finessing those publisher partner contacts, and next time, maybe the stars will pick your E3 briefing.
To Foster, a big part of what makes the game seem authentic was that the designers concentrated on "telling the Beatles' story" but still finding a way to do so in the context of a "Rock Band" game that fans of both the band and the game franchise would appreciate and recognize. And also because the game will appeal to even the youngest Beatles fans.
He explained that the Harmonix team liked the idea of bringing new, younger audiences to the Beatles for the first time. But reality soon disabused them of that notion.
"The (Beatles') music is like the air we breathe," Foster said, "and it catches every generation...It's sort of presumptuous to think you can introduce the Beatles to anyone."