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Rock Band: The next great franchise (an interview with Harmonix)

Jared Rea

Dance Dance Revolution showed that rhythm titles had a life here in the States, but Guitar Hero proved they could also become full blown phenomenons. No one could have guessed it at the time, but Harmonix's musical masterpiece quickly became the most culturally significant video game since Master Chief became a household name.

The success was long overdue for Harmonix, having already shown off their rhythmic chops with the PlayStation 2 favorites Frequency and Amplitude. Teaming up with Konami, they quickly established their dominance of the microphone on this side of the ocean with Karaoke Revolution. With 2005's Guitar Hero, they crafted the perfect blend of boyhood dreams and American rock insanity. The next step was obvious, but how could it possibly be done?

Speaking with Harmonix CEO and co-founder, Alex Rigopulos, we look into the history of the great white hope of rhythm gaming and what goes into creating what, if everything goes according to plan, will be considered one of the greatest rhythm titles of all time. From the challenges of gathering licenses to taking on their own success, this is the story of the next great franchise.

Gallery: Rock Band | 23 Photos

Joystiq: Harmonix is full of musicians, so rhythm titles are a perfect fit for your studio. Before work began on Frequency on the PS2, was there a pivotal moment where it was decided that the focus would be on music titles?

Rigopulos: Actually, Harmonix has been focused on music since our inception back in 1995. We started the company not to make games, but to invent new ways for non-musicians to play with music. In the beginning, that meant music creativity software of various kinds. Our first product was a PC title called The Axe that let players improvise instrumental solos using a PC joystick or mouse.

In the late 90's, after the first music games appeared in Japan, it struck us that merging music making and gameplay in new ways was where we wanted to focus our energy, and that's when we started working on Frequency.

When was the original idea for Rock Band forged? Were your publishers throughout time wise to the end goal?

The core idea of Rock Band has been gestating at Harmonix for years and years as the ultimate incarnation of music performance simulation. It's not something we've been pitching to publishers over the years because we just haven't had the creative freedom or resources to turn our vision into a reality. That, of course, changed with the MTV acquisition.

Guitar Hero wasn't exactly the first of its ilk as Konami has been churning out their Bemani series' in Japan for the past decade now. Is there such a thing as a rhythm series going for too long?

I think any series, not just rhythm games, can go on for too long if the creators don't continually invest in adding freshness and innovation to the franchise. But if you do continue to push boundaries, I think a franchise can be creatively sustained for quite a long time.

Considering that Guitar Freaks, a very similar title, flopped in American arcades, what was it that convinced Harmonix that this style of game -- pricey controller and all -- would work in the Western market?

Well, back then, we weren't actually "convinced" that it would work in the Western market, but we sure as hell wanted to have a crack at it. Guitar Freaks was crafted for the Japanese audience; the visual design wasn't right for the Western market, nor was the music. We were hopeful that if we created a game with a distinctly Western sensibility, it would have a much better shot in the US than Guitar Freaks had.

Prior to the deal with MTV, was Harmonix even looking to be scooped up? Or was that a right place, right time sort of deal?

More the latter. Harmonix hadn't been actively contemplating selling the company. But when the music game category finally exploded, it became clear that the time had come for us to really "go for it" in terms of advancing the category to the next level. Doing that as a tiny independent studio would have been impossible. We'd been talking with MTV on and off for years, and when the time came, they were really the most natural partner because they're true believers in the vision that's driving Harmonix; they could see that what we're trying to do is not just develop games, but change music entertainment.

Speaking of deals: licensing. What is the process like for a song to go through the Rock Band music advisory board?

MTV Games and Harmonix will rely on the Rock Band Music Advisory Board members to pool their industry expertise and guide the development team in the selection of tracks and artists for Rock Band. Because the Music Advisory Board is a new entity, we are still determining the exact step-by-step process for selecting tracks and artists.

Is there any artist or band that is out of reach at this point? How do you think Rock Band's upcoming popularity will affect this?

There's been such an overwhelming surge of enthusiasm coming from the labels and artists and it just doesn't seem like any artist or band is "out of reach" at this point.

As Rock Band grows in popularity it may help attract even more attention, but I don't think commercial success is actually the key factor. It's more about the artists recognizing that Rock Band is an all-new revenue stream for them and is genuinely a means to connect their fans to their music in a deeper way.

Not to fuel the fire, but Rock Band will be in a position where it competes with the Guitar Hero series. A series that will now thrive on one, possibly two titles a year. Release wise, will Harmonix be entering the annual game or will downloadable content replace the need?

We do view Rock Band as a platform, onto which we intend to deliver a steady flow of high quality expansion content, both online and through retail as well. And I do think that this will go a long way towards maintaining the freshness of the play experience for quite a while. But I also don't believe we can rely on content expansion alone in the long term. For players to remain engaged, we need to continue to innovate on the feature axis as well; we need to give them new ways to play, new ways to engage with the music and with other players. As for whether these sorts of major feature upgrades come annually or at some longer interval, we haven't decided.

How do you feel the mainstream press has been treating Rock Band so far? Is there a "been there, done that" notion or do you feel as if they understand the difference between Rock Band and your previous series?

The press response has been overwhelmingly positive. As you know, Rock Band won Best of Show from the E3 judges, which the team was thrilled about. In general, the press hasn't had much difficulty at all seeing how large a departure Rock Band is from our previous work.

Rock Band sports a very robust online component, but detractors still believe there is "no point" to online rhythm titles. What would you say that point is?

Sometimes there are specific people who you want to play with-or compete against-but for whatever reason you can't all be in the same place at the same time. Online play solves this problem. In my own case, for example, I have brothers who live in other cities, and I'm looking forward to being able to play Rock Band with them.

Your distributor, Electronic Arts, has been pretty far out there as of late, offering up real-life championship rings for Madden achievements. If you could offer some sort of real-life reward for Rock Band play, what would it be?

How about... the chance for your Rock Band band to open on tour for a major real-world band?

The focus on Rock Band seems to be on realism, from the sheer amount of "master tracks" to the heavy focus on real world venues. What sort of advantages and disadvantages does this offer over the fictional slant of the old?

Actually, word of "real world venues" in Rock Band started floating around at some point, but actually, this is mistaken. The game venues are all fictional creations.

But you're correct: Creatively, we're definitely going for a much more realistic feel in Rock Band than we have in previous games. This manifests itself everywhere: in the peripherals design, the character design and animation, the interface design, the camera behavior and lighting design, the use of master recordings, etc. I wouldn't say this really poses any material disadvantages. Of course, there are things it rules out. But that is always the case with creative decisions. Most importantly, creative production requires focus, and our decision to pursue realism gives the team a clear creative focus, in terms of the experience they're trying to summon in the player. Our goal is for this game to bring our players as close to the feeling of really performing rock music they can get without actually doing it.

So far, your series' have only been available in the Western market. Has Harmonix ever considered aiming a rhythm title towards Japanese audiences?

Indeed, this is something we're actively considering right now.

Years from now, let's say you go to develop a true sequel to Rock Band. What musical instrument would you like to throw into the current mix?

Gong, definitely. Only one note to play for the whole song, but man, you'd better not fricking miss it.

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