Harmonix Music Systems is breaking new ground by putting a uniquely North American spin on the music game genre. Creators of Frequency, Amplitude and Karaoke Revolution—which won Time Magazine's Game of the Year in 2003—you'll no doubt be hearing more from them soon. Alex Rigopulos is co-founder and CEO of Harmonix, and recently sat down with GameCritics.com to discuss the past, present, and future.
What is your personal involvement in music and gaming?
Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix
I should start off telling you the history of Harmonix and how we got into music gaming. My background is actually computer science and music composition. I was at MIT for seven years studying both of those things and in a computer music group in a media lab. It was there that I and my co-founder of Harmonix, Eran Egozy, who was my officemate there. We were both conducting our research on it [music gaming], and were both very motivated in [what] we perceived to be an important problem in the world.
Playing music is, I think, one of the most fundamentally joyful experiences that life has to offer. Just about everyone tries at some point in their life to learn to play music: piano lessons as a kid, guitar lessons as a teenager, or whatever. The overwhelming majority of people give it up after six months or a year in frustration, just because it's too difficult to learn to play music the old-fashioned way. Of course, some people go on to become skilled musicians, [but] that's really a tiny minority of those who try. Consequently, this profound joy that comes from making music is only accessible to this tiny percentage of the people of the world. We created this company to try to invent new ways to give music-loving non-musicians—the millions of passionate air-guitarists in the world—[a chance] to play music.
When we started back in 1995, we weren't really thinking about video games. We were making interactive music-making, free-form creative experiences. We had an early PC CD-ROM product call The Axe, which allowed people to improvise instrumental solos using a PC joystick. We also did some location-based entertainment stuff for Disneyworld, things of that sort. It wasn't gaming; it was just real-time improvisatory music-making using simple interfaces and gestural controls
Kakaroke Revolution (PS2)
Something very significant happened around 1997. Music gaming, which previously didn't exist, came out of nowhere and exploded in Japan, starting with Parappa the Rapper, created by Matsura and published by Sony for the Playstation One. It was followed shortly after by Konami's Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution games. The category went from not existing to something gigantic and mass-market in Japan almost overnight, and has sustained itself for more than five years as a major entertainment category over there. When we saw that happen, it really struck us that videogaming was the mass-market interactive medium, and it was the medium through which we wanted to achieve our mission of bringing the music-making experience to people who are non-musicians.
When we set about the process of designing Frequency, our goal was to create an experience that looked like a videogame visually, that we could present to gamers as a video game. But once they got inside it, using the skills that they already had as gamers, they
Frequency (PS2) (top), Amplitude (PS2) (bottom)
would realize that what they're really doing is making music, and what they were having is a music-making experience. Gamers have an incredibly deep and dedicated skill set that nobody gives them any credit for, which they've developed through gaming. Playing games is not easy, which you notice immediately if you put a sophisticated video game in the hands of a 45-year old who didn't grow up on video games and watch them fail to be able to deal with it. Gamers have all these video game-specific skills: responding to the symbolic and iconographic visual information with very rapid manual response. We decided to take those skills and build a video game that utilized them rather than try to teach gamers a whole new set of skills. People didn't want to learn a bunch of new skills, so we decided to use [the gaming skills] that people already had and repurpose them onto the task of making music. That's what Frequency was all about, and that's what we did again with Amplitude.
How did you come up with basic structural design of the game, the general format of it? For example, in Frequency you had a tube structure, and you changed that to a flat plane in Amplitude?
Well, it was a controversial decision, and actually a lot of our fans didn't like it. The motivation was that, first of all, Frequency was not commercially-successful in the marketplace. It won all kinds of awards and got great reviews, but wasn't commercially-successful. In fact, neither was Amplitude.. After we created Frequency, and Frequency was not successful, Sony, to their credit, said, "Alright, we don't really understand why this really great game didn't sell. Let's try again." In an industry where risks and innovation are generally avoided like the plague, Sony's head of development is a real innovator and wants to develop gaming. So he said, "Look, let's try again, but let's make some changes that will make it easier to market this."
Kakaroke Revolution (PS2)
In addition to just upping the visual polish overall, one of the things we wanted to do was open up the tube and expose a world outside of it. One of the comments we kept getting from people was Frequency felt sort of claustrophobic. People were, in video games, used to looking at a lot more eye-candy and expansive environments. We wanted it to look more like a contemporary video game with environments, along with the retro look that Frequency had."
The primary goal in opening up the tube into a flat plane was a purely visual one, driven by people's expectations of what video games are supposed to look like. It was as much a marketing decision as anything else. It affected gameplay. Whereas there was this circular, one-dimensional terrain that you could rotate around indefinitely, all of a sudden you had this terrain was a line segment where you could get trapped on one side or another. We had to be very careful in how we designed the gameplay. It was possible to execute a course perfectly by moving to one side then quickly returning like a typewriter back to the other side and continuing. The re-engineering of the gameplay was essentially a response to a visual design decision we made from a marketing perspective from what people thought the game should look like
Amplitude featured more mainstream artists than Frequency did. Are you partnering more with the music industry rather than promoting underground artists?
Again, it was as much a marketing decision as anything else. We love promoting underground artists. Several of those artists in Frequency—and to some degree, in Amplitude—are our own staff composers. We really like the idea of using video games as a venue in which to showcase new music. I wouldn't say that as a company we would take a step away from showcasing underground artists.
Kakaroke Revolution (PS2)
It's much more that we were facing the simple reality that, if we were not able to make Amplitude successful, we weren't going to be able to make more games like it, and we want to continue making more games like it. So we were trying to do everything that we could to reach as wide an audience as possible. In Frequency the music was almost exclusively electronica, which is a niche market. The staff here loves electronica, so we were building for ourselves when we chose the artists in Frequency. But with Amplitude, Sony felt there was a real need to try to reach a more mainstream audience by including artists that were platinum-sellers. That's the reason for the change in Amplitude.
Is there a sequel to Amplitude in the works?
Not currently, no.
That's a shame.
It is, because we'd like to make more of them. But in order for that to happen, we need to sell, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of units of each title, which is not a sales level we achieved with those games.
(continued in Part 2)
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