For each Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) someone influential in games is chosen to give the keynote usually dubbed as Storytime with [insert gaming nerd here]. The inaugural PAX prime in Seattle was Storytime with Alex St. John. The first PAX East in 2010 was kicked off by Wil Wheaton and in the years to follow Boston was hosted by Jane McGonigal, Jordan Mechner, and Cliff Bleszinski.
Storytime with Alex Rigopulos
The 2014 PAX East keynote was: Storytime with Alex Rigopulos (CEO and co-founder of Harmonix Music Systems, creators of Rock Band and Dance Central). In his address, gamers were given a peek into past, present, and future of the Cambridge Massachusetts based studio. He also offered up some general advice on the games industry and running a company with a creative focus. In keeping with the music roots of the studio, they had a live band playing as everyone streamed into the auditorium. The band was made up of studio employees playing original music also written by folks at the Harmonix.
Pre-PAX, Harmonix’s community team hinted that there would be a game announcement during the speech but Rigopulos started right off with addressing that the studio would not be announcing a Rock Band or Dance Central title today or anytime soon. Although then he also said they “have grand plans to bring them back at some point in the current console cycle.” So that set the twitterverse a buzz that they were working on Rock Band and Dance Central titles for Xbox One and PS4!
Storytime started with some early photos of Rigopulos and co-founder Eran Egozy at MIT together. Majoring in music at MIT is generally a path less taken but it sure worked out well for fans of music and rhythm games all these years later.
In the Beginning…
Harmonix was founded in 1995 with a mission to enable more people to experience the joy of creating music without the learning curve of an instrument being so difficult. Despite both founders having backgrounds with games and computers the company did not actually start with a specific video game focus; those just ended up being the projects that were most successful. Rigopulos walked the PAX East audience through the company history with a handy chart plotting time versus “How Much the World Seemed to Give a Shit about What We Were Up to.”
He started off talking about their first title The Axe which was more of a musical tool than game. Harmonix community team member Aaron Trites described it on a later PAX panel as a “stupid garbage machine.” The title was for PC and allowed players to manipulate instruments using a joystick. It play tested well with an initial cool factor but players seemed to grown bored and/or frustrated after about 15 minutes. Harmonix tried all sorts of creative ways to pitch it to people (like in karaoke bars and theme parks) but ultimately it never really found much of an audience.
Sony gave Harmonix a lot of help getting started when they were the only publisher to take on their first game title in 2001 with Frequency and later its sequel Amplitude. Amplitude actually had the opposite problem of The Axe in playtesting, as before playing no one understood what the game was and had no interest in it. But after some hands on action they wanted more. Unfortunately this was before the internet boom and free downloadable trials so it didn’t reach many players. The analogous infographic on the chart of how much the world cared about Harmonix showed an actual photo of mouse nuts.
Even though the games hadn’t sold well Sony seemed to have a soft spot for HMX and offered to let them develop a game for the PS2 long forgotten camera peripheral the EyeToy. The EyeToy: Antigrav project was a tough decision for the company since it didn’t really fit into their overarching music vision but they decided to take it on anyway. They then had mixed emotions when it ended up being by far their best selling title to date. Looking back now it seems like great early practice for their future with Dance Central and Kinect.
Thankfully Harmonix was able to get back to their music roots in the early 2000s when RedOctane approached them to bring Guitar Hero into living rooms. Guitar Hero sales ramped up slowly and then took off exponentially around the time of the sequel. Activision purchased RedOctane and Viacom purchased Harmonix under their MTV Games division. The chart about how much of a shit people gave went from mouse to Godzilla nuts!
Coolest Job in the World
I’m always a sucker for seeing people I admire nerd out about meeting their heroes or career wow moments and Alex shared a few of those. One was seeing just how popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band had become when South Park devoted an entire episode to making fun of the game. Another was getting to work with members and collaborators of the Fab Four on the The Beatles Rock Band title. Rigopulos shared a story of when he was visibly nervous giving a demo to Paul McCartney. Post demo, Sir Paul apparently reached into his bag and offered up some fresh cut lavender sprigs from his garden and to inhale to help relax.
Present to Future
Harmonix has also had some tough times, especially when the plastic instrument game market seemed to vanish almost as quickly as it had risen up. Rigopulos talked about the difficulty of the studio getting so big with the boom and then having to do layoffs as the market dried up. In a brighter look to the future, he spoke about the company’s present and future strategy.
While Harmonix will still be working on big AAA console games like their current in development Kinect game Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved, they are also looking to branch out into smaller projects and titles on mobile, PC, and who knows what other platforms. With these titles so far they are sticking with their core vision of making the barrier of entry to being able to enjoy creating music more accessible. Alex gets an A+ in alliteration for describing it as: “Music and magic in motion.”
What to Expect from Harmonix in 2014
In addition to Fantasia which will allow players to use manipulators to create live performances and remixes of tracks in the game, Rigopulos showed quick clips of a whole bunch of other prototypes that may or may not see the light of day. He showed all 10+ at once so it was hard to process what was going on in any one, but there was one that involved a monkey and another with dancing bacon so sign me up for those!
Chroma is a recently announced title for the studio currently now in closed Alpha on PC. Its the first time the company has released a title as an Alpha. Rigopulos explained that they are trying to work in a more collaborative model with players, allowing them to be contributors and collaborators in early development. Chroma is a “Music Shooter” and integrates a traditional FPS with a musical environment. The current incantation of the game has mechanics like some weapons only shooting on downbeats or teams working together as bands and needing different instrument weapons in their arsenal. This game is going to be Free to Play so that is another diversification and learning area for the studio.
Another diversification strategy is mobile games. In the keynote Harmonix announced their first mobile game title coming to iOS soon. Its called Record Run and is a musical take on the popular runner genre. It will contain a few licensed songs as well as some from Harmonix bands (which I really missed getting on disc in RB3!). You will also be able to import your own songs to play along to. I saw a demo of the game at another HMX PAX panel and it looks like fun. The art style fits nicely between Rock Band and Dance Central and as always in Harmonix games the characters seem to have lots of personality and really cool outfits.
Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy, er I mean Alex Rigopulos
Closing out the keynote Rigopulos did some general philosophizing about the games industry and running a company. Some highlights of the tips and quotes he coined or shared:
Another really interesting one he shared from the “weeping philosopher” Heraclitus
seems to be part of the core of how he runs the company: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for its not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
This informs how both the market place and everyone at the company is constantly evolving and past success and decisions will not always give similar resutls in the future. He also used one somewhat unfortunate euphemism when talking about how sometimes projects and prototypes don’t work out and you need to be willing to “Kill the baby in the crib” which got an audible gasp from the crowd.
The speech closed with a heartfelt thanks to gamers for marking Harmonix’s labor of love possible through the “incredible power music has over human hearts, souls and imaginations.” Then the band came back and played us all out of the theater.
-- Erin "ErinAS" Seiden