The Secrets Behind Harmonix, the Pixar of Video Games

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Harmonix


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."

Guitar Hero's eventual success proved to be a double-edged sword after Harmonix lost the rights to the name. Much like how "Nintendo" became the catch-all for video games in the '90s, the words "Guitar Hero" became synonymous with music games. Once Harmonix regrouped to launch its new, rival series, Rock Band, their sole competition was the house they'd freaking built.

Still, Harmonix leveraged its prior experience—and a partnership with MTV—to create a style of game that the Guitar Hero name might have stifled. In addition to the fun of drums and singing, Rock Band put more focus on pop, indie, and synthy music genres, and it pioneered the concept of an expandable, downloadable song roster. The result: There's a song for everybody on Rock Band, a fact that Harmonix's staff revels in jokingly.

"We get into these arguments, like, Steely Dan or Rush: who's better?!" Sussman laughs. "It turns into one of these academic, high school or college conversations about who your favorite bands are. Talking about Yes and Elton John and Queen and all of these other bands, it takes us back to where we come from musically."

That high school atmosphere isn't helped by the Dance Central game makers now sitting across the hall. Its project director, Kasson Crooker, admits that the two teams joke between each other about their song libraries—Dio vs. Bell Biv Devoe, etc.—but that's nothing compared to the laughs his team racked up when prepping to make the company's first-ever dance game. Remember, authenticity's a priority at Harmonix, so...

"For the first several months of making the game, once a week we would go across the street to a dance studio," Crooker says, to practice dancing for hours. Artists, programmers, audio technicians, everybody. "Some people on the team were pretty good dancers. People like me were, you know, starting out as complete non-dancers."

The result wasn't just a cheesy bonding exercise; it shaped every corner of the game. Silly poses were subsequently thrown out of the design, as were dorky dances like the Macarena. "We got on the same page about what is fun about dancing," Crooker says. "It's the memorization of moves, stringing them together, and the adrenaline when you've mastered something for the first time."

Harmonix had been mulling a dance game concept for some time, but it wasn't until Microsoft approached with an early version of Kinect that the idea really took shape. Not knowing what other companies were doing with Kinect's tech—an infrared camera system that senses full body motion—Harmonix pounded away in a veritable bubble, completing the game in less than 12 months. (Among other helpful ammunition, their prior experience making a Sony camera game in 2004 meant the team already had a "what not to do" list handy, particularly in designing dances for a tiny living room.)

For such a novel game, Harmonix made sure to bring in a crucial bunch of early game testers: the children of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Boston. Crooker admits their input shaped the game greatly, particularly when the team was about to remove a "freestyle" dance mode that didn't instruct players on what to do for 10 seconds of every song.

"The first time we put it in front of kids, we wondered, are they going to hate this and stand there and do nothing?" Crooker says. "The first thing we saw was, one girl was dancing, and suddenly, all of her friends jumped [in front of the camera] to join the freestyle mode. They flipped out. Every subsequent freestyle, they all jumped in."

It's the common thread for Harmonix's offerings this year. Whether through Dance Central's party play, the old, candy-colored fake guitars, singing three-part harmonies with friends, or picking up new "pro" guitars in Rock Band 3 whose 102 buttons emulate a real guitar, every kind of player can take a Harmonix game, and an interest in music, and jump right in. Just like in a real band—of course, dozens of Harmonix employees know this—the best parts of each game come from finding a role, getting comfortable in it, and rocking out.

"The real breakthrough for Rock Band compared to our earlier games was, you understood your role," LoPiccolo says. "You pick up a plastic guitar, and you understand that you're a guitarist. The illusion is powerful enough that [players] can visualize themselves in that role. When we are able to succeed at that, we're happy."

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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 PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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