The Secrets Behind Harmonix, the Pixar of Video Games

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For Harmonix, the developers who invented the Guitar Hero video game, I imagine it must've hurt to lose that brand name. It was one of those buy-out deals: Another company funded Guitar Hero's initial development (and owned the rights), so once the fake-rock series proved successful, everybody was sold every which way. Guitar Hero zigged; Harmonix zagged.

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Brian Wilson must've felt the same way watching the Beach Boys take a trip to Kokomo.

Yet the Harmonix headquarters in Cambridge, MA has been humming along since that 2007 schism, and when I rang up its big-wigs earlier this month, I couldn't get any of them to fess up to sour grapes. That's because they've successfully spread their music-game wings with two huge franchises—Rock Band and Dance Central—that, quite frankly, make Guitar Hero look like a little, plastic toy.

I raved about Rock Band 3 earlier this week, the ultimate culmination of the series' party-music play. It still looks a lot like Guitar Hero—colored "notes" glide down the screen, and you strum, drum, sing, or plink along—but don't be deceived. With more modes, more instruments, and more realism than other rock games, only Rock Band 3 can scale on so many levels: for the novice or the addicted expert; for the light-hearted fan or the note-by-note memorizer; for a weeknight of solo relaxation or a Saturday party with seven friends jamming at once.

Its success may soon be dwarfed by next week's Dance Central. The Xbox 360 game utilizes the new Kinect motion-sensing attachment to watch and rate players' dance moves. You may have seen arrow-coated Dance Dance Revolution rigs in arcades, or the cheeky Just Dance series for Wii, but those have been odd abstractions of dancing. Dance Central is the first legit dance simulator, and boy, does it work.

Far as I'm concerned, these two games make Harmonix the Pixar of video games. Both games are critics' darlings, yet also huge sellers. They're family favorites that adults can't help but love. And their mix of polish, experimentation, challenge, and flat-out fun have helped Harmonix achieve a sneaky goal: to make the average player just a little cooler through music.

"We as a company are engaged in high degrees of trickery," says Rock Band 3 project director Daniel Sussman. "Ours is a fun video game that actually has value and relevance to things outside of the game-oriented experience."

Harmonix's mission began in the mid-'90s: "to leverage technology to lead non-musicians to the ecstasy and joy of creating music," according to Greg LoPiccolo, Harmonix senior vice president. But originally, figuring out how to achieve that mission wasn't so clear. After a few sputtering attempts with experimental PC software, Harmonix looked at musical games that blew up in Japanese arcades in the late '90s, often coupled with dance pads or fake instruments.

The company took note and reinvented itself as a games maker, allying with Sony to release a few titles for the Playstation 2. In spite of Sony's support, and some cool ideas for the nascent music-game world, FreQuency and Amplitude—which used game-style controllers, not fake instruments—didn't sell well. LoPiccolo sighs while explaining how the techno-heavy titles failed to connect: "[The games] were really abstract, and kind of punishing. These little glowy things shot past [on the screen, representing notes]. Hardcore gamers were willing to give it a chance. Everybody else was like, 'What is this?' They were baffled."

Another project, Karaoke Revolution, was successful enough to keep Harmonix busy and paid through the early '00s. Then an accessory maker, RedOctane, sidled up with a proposition: Wanna make a rock game that'll work with our upcoming guitar controller?

"There was skepticism here about whether or not anybody would be interested in a package that was $100 with a toy-looking guitar," Sussman admits, but the company went full steam ahead, anyway. How could they not? Sussman was in a band. LoPiccolo had been in one. The staff was crawling with members of bands past and present, easily topping two dozen.

"We were dialed in on making Guitar Hero this testament to the glory of r-... of rock," Sussman says, tripping over his own words. "'Authenticity' is one of the buzz words around here, and it's not because we watch a lot of movies."

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.

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