FileBlog: Rock Hurts: The Inside Story of Guitar Hero
Note: FilePlanet is no longer being updated and is in the process of being archived.

Home / FileBlog Home / Archives

FileBlog Archive


Rock Hurts: The Inside Story of Guitar Hero

February 14, 2007


I'm also a cartoon in real life. Game developer Harmonix is riding high: the company developed the breakthrough hit Guitar Hero and followed it up with the smash success of Guitar Hero II. They are, in the words of some attendees at the recent DICE summit, "Living the dream." You might be surprised, then, to hear CEO Alex Rigopulos use words like "Depression" "Despair" or "Self Doubt" when he talks about the history of his company. It's true! Harmonix didn't come out of nowhere. Prior to the modest success of Karaoke Revolution or the riot that is Guitar Hero came roughly ten years of struggling.

That struggle was the topic of Rigopulos's DICE presentation, "Behind the Music." Yep, it wasn't all sex, drugs, and Rock n' Roll at Harmonix -- but it's inspiring to know that the people who created one of my favorite games on the market today did so after a decade of swimming uphill. Pull up a chair and I'll summarize Rigopulos's presentation.

Music Geeks and a Dream

Rigopulos and a partner (Eran Egozy) started Harmonix back in 1995. The two had met at MIT, where they studied music composition and computer music at the MIT Media Lab. Together they had come to the same conclusion: playing music, assuming you're good at it, is fun. It's one of the great joys in life. But learning to play music is hard -- it takes years of grinding practice. Many people pick up an instrument only to quit in frustration. So the original goal of Harmonix was this: To use computers to bring the joy of playing music to everyone.

Alex Rigopulos of Harmonix
Alex Rigopulos: Stuck With It During the Hard Times

What followed was a string of interesting projects and financial failures. Rigopulos showed a slide of Harmonix's profit and loss from 1995 to 2006 -- it was a dismal valley, only slightly turning to profitability in 2004 or so, then suddenly rocketing off the chart with the release of Guitar Hero. Rigopulos labeled the spike as "The Dream" and then labeled the majority of the chart as "The part before that."

The company specialized in creating what Rigopulos called "Freeform, creative, expressive music experiences" ... that audiences didn't want. The company's first title was a PC CD-ROM called The Axe where players could improvise dynamic music by moving the joystick. The PC algorithmically generated melodies and harmonies based on your input. It was a cool idea but not an entertainment breakthrough (people were usually satisfied after playing around with it for 15 minutes.) Rigopulos described sales of the Axe as "microscopic." Later the company turned that technology into a theme park ride for Disney.

Around '97 or so "music games" like PaRappa the Rapper started to take off in Japan. The gang at Harmonix realized that games would be a great way to get people into music. They put together some demos and Sony backed them: Frequency hit stores in 2001. It got great reviews and really blew away game testers... but sold (in Rigopulos's own borrowed words) "Mouse nuts." So Harmonix invested even more time and effort into the sequel, Amplitude, which was released in 2003 with more recognizable music. It also got high scoring reviews... and it also sold "Mouse nuts." Rigopulos described the swings of hope and depression that his team went through with each successive release.

Turning the Corner and Rocking Out

By the Winter of 2003 the company was scrambling to figure out what to do next. Karaoke Revolution was released for holiday 2003, earning the company plenty of awards but only marginal sales. The developers plunged into self-doubt but didn't give up.

Then a company called Red Octane called out of the blue with an interesting pitch. They were going to make a guitar peripheral for the PS2, and wanted to know if Harmonix would make a game for it.

A brilliant idea? Hardly! Just about everyone assumed it was doomed to fail. Red Octane was a tiny publisher with no track record. The peripheral was huge, the price was high, and peripheral games don't sell. Plus, in an age of hip-hop and techno, people questioned if Rock & Roll even resonated with people anymore. As Rigopulos put it: "Reasonable, rational, clear-headed analysis said we should pass..."

Why do a Rock game? BECAUSE OF THE ROCK.Then he showed a slide of Jimi Hendrix totally rocking out in the glare of spotlights. "But Fuck yeah we wanted to make a rock game!" he admits. So the company built on bringing the joy of music to the masses went all-out to make "not just a guitar game, [but] a ROCK guitar game," with a rock-n-roll ethos. They made ridiculous demands but again and again Red Octane trusted the company's judgment. For example? They demanded a whammy bar. "We don't know how we're going to use it," Harmonix told Red Octane, "But we need it because whammy bars are AWESOME."

Most gamers are familiar with what happened next. Guitar Hero was lauded by the press, but this time it actually took off when it came to sales. After the holiday 2005 release, sales continued to climb even after the holidays were over. To this day, Guitar Hero remains a fixture at parties wherever I go (and if it isn't, I offer to bring it. Guitar Hero is always a hit.) Overnight, Harmonix turned around from a struggling small developer to a major player. (Recently the company was picked up by Viacom/MTV.)

It Never Stops with Success

What's unique and inspirational about Rigopulos's talk is that it didn't end there. He pointed out that the feeling of triumph after a hit game is pretty fleeting. Afterwards, the real pressure is on: now that you have a track record, you feel all the more obliged to continue your success. Plus, thanks to the MTV buyout, Harmonix has all the resources the company never had when struggling along on venture capital. There are no excuses! And while Rigopulous wouldn't give us any hints as to what they were, he promised that the company is working on "big, gnarly, and challenging" products down the line.

But at the end of the day, the success of Guitar Hero hasn't changed the "texture" of day-to-day life at Harmonix. The team is still struggling to perfect the blend of games and music. "Humans, by their nature, are seeking creatures," Rigopulos explained. Always striving for the next big thing, always working to make something better.

Doing what I do, I get to meet a lot of developers at various parts of their career, and what really struck me about Rigopulos's presentation is how relevant it is no matter where you are in the industry. If you're part of a struggling start-up, or even an indie developer looking to make it big, knowing that Harmonix scrambled for years from failure to failure but still kept the dream alive is an inspiration to never give up on the passion. And if you're part of a big company that's made a name for itself, it's inspiring to see that success is an ongoing process, not a finish line. The world needs more game developers like Harmonix.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
Mod News:
Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 11:22 AM PST
Edited on: February 14, 2007 11:32 AM PST
Permalink

FileBlog Weekly Archives

10/24/2010 - 10/30/2010
10/17/2010 - 10/23/2010
10/10/2010 - 10/16/2010
10/03/2010 - 10/09/2010
09/26/2010 - 10/02/2010
09/19/2010 - 09/25/2010
09/12/2010 - 09/18/2010
09/05/2010 - 09/11/2010
08/22/2010 - 08/28/2010
08/08/2010 - 08/14/2010
08/01/2010 - 08/07/2010
07/25/2010 - 07/31/2010
07/18/2010 - 07/24/2010
07/11/2010 - 07/17/2010
07/04/2010 - 07/10/2010
06/27/2010 - 07/03/2010
06/20/2010 - 06/26/2010
06/13/2010 - 06/19/2010
06/06/2010 - 06/12/2010
05/30/2010 - 06/05/2010
05/23/2010 - 05/29/2010
05/16/2010 - 05/22/2010
05/09/2010 - 05/15/2010
05/02/2010 - 05/08/2010
04/25/2010 - 05/01/2010
04/18/2010 - 04/24/2010
04/11/2010 - 04/17/2010
04/04/2010 - 04/10/2010
03/21/2010 - 03/27/2010
03/14/2010 - 03/20/2010
03/07/2010 - 03/13/2010
02/28/2010 - 03/06/2010
02/21/2010 - 02/27/2010
02/14/2010 - 02/20/2010
02/07/2010 - 02/13/2010
01/31/2010 - 02/06/2010
01/24/2010 - 01/30/2010
01/10/2010 - 01/16/2010
01/03/2010 - 01/09/2010
12/27/2009 - 01/02/2010
12/20/2009 - 12/26/2009
12/13/2009 - 12/19/2009
12/06/2009 - 12/12/2009
11/22/2009 - 11/28/2009
11/15/2009 - 11/21/2009
11/08/2009 - 11/14/2009
11/01/2009 - 11/07/2009
10/25/2009 - 10/31/2009
10/18/2009 - 10/24/2009
10/11/2009 - 10/17/2009
10/04/2009 - 10/10/2009
09/27/2009 - 10/03/2009
09/20/2009 - 09/26/2009
09/13/2009 - 09/19/2009
09/06/2009 - 09/12/2009
08/30/2009 - 09/05/2009
08/16/2009 - 08/22/2009
08/09/2009 - 08/15/2009
07/26/2009 - 08/01/2009
07/19/2009 - 07/25/2009
07/12/2009 - 07/18/2009
07/05/2009 - 07/11/2009
06/28/2009 - 07/04/2009
06/21/2009 - 06/27/2009
06/14/2009 - 06/20/2009
06/07/2009 - 06/13/2009
05/31/2009 - 06/06/2009
05/24/2009 - 05/30/2009
05/17/2009 - 05/23/2009
05/10/2009 - 05/16/2009
05/03/2009 - 05/09/2009
04/26/2009 - 05/02/2009
04/19/2009 - 04/25/2009
04/12/2009 - 04/18/2009
04/05/2009 - 04/11/2009
03/29/2009 - 04/04/2009
03/22/2009 - 03/28/2009
03/15/2009 - 03/21/2009
03/08/2009 - 03/14/2009
03/01/2009 - 03/07/2009
02/22/2009 - 02/28/2009
02/15/2009 - 02/21/2009
02/08/2009 - 02/14/2009
02/01/2009 - 02/07/2009
01/25/2009 - 01/31/2009
01/18/2009 - 01/24/2009
01/11/2009 - 01/17/2009
01/04/2009 - 01/10/2009
12/28/2008 - 01/03/2009
12/21/2008 - 12/27/2008
12/14/2008 - 12/20/2008
12/07/2008 - 12/13/2008
11/30/2008 - 12/06/2008
11/23/2008 - 11/29/2008
11/16/2008 - 11/22/2008
11/09/2008 - 11/15/2008
11/02/2008 - 11/08/2008
10/26/2008 - 11/01/2008
10/19/2008 - 10/25/2008
10/05/2008 - 10/11/2008
09/28/2008 - 10/04/2008
09/14/2008 - 09/20/2008
09/07/2008 - 09/13/2008
08/10/2008 - 08/16/2008
08/03/2008 - 08/09/2008
07/27/2008 - 08/02/2008
07/06/2008 - 07/12/2008
06/29/2008 - 07/05/2008
06/22/2008 - 06/28/2008
06/15/2008 - 06/21/2008
06/08/2008 - 06/14/2008
05/25/2008 - 05/31/2008
05/11/2008 - 05/17/2008
05/04/2008 - 05/10/2008
04/20/2008 - 04/26/2008
04/06/2008 - 04/12/2008
03/16/2008 - 03/22/2008
03/09/2008 - 03/15/2008
02/24/2008 - 03/01/2008
02/03/2008 - 02/09/2008
01/06/2008 - 01/12/2008
12/30/2007 - 01/05/2008
10/28/2007 - 11/03/2007
10/21/2007 - 10/27/2007
10/14/2007 - 10/20/2007
09/30/2007 - 10/06/2007
09/23/2007 - 09/29/2007
09/16/2007 - 09/22/2007
09/09/2007 - 09/15/2007
09/02/2007 - 09/08/2007
08/26/2007 - 09/01/2007
08/19/2007 - 08/25/2007
08/12/2007 - 08/18/2007
08/05/2007 - 08/11/2007
07/29/2007 - 08/04/2007
07/22/2007 - 07/28/2007
07/15/2007 - 07/21/2007
07/08/2007 - 07/14/2007
07/01/2007 - 07/07/2007
06/24/2007 - 06/30/2007
06/17/2007 - 06/23/2007
06/10/2007 - 06/16/2007
06/03/2007 - 06/09/2007
05/27/2007 - 06/02/2007
05/20/2007 - 05/26/2007
05/13/2007 - 05/19/2007
05/06/2007 - 05/12/2007
04/29/2007 - 05/05/2007
04/22/2007 - 04/28/2007
04/15/2007 - 04/21/2007
04/08/2007 - 04/14/2007
04/01/2007 - 04/07/2007
03/25/2007 - 03/31/2007
03/18/2007 - 03/24/2007
03/11/2007 - 03/17/2007
03/04/2007 - 03/10/2007
02/25/2007 - 03/03/2007
02/18/2007 - 02/24/2007
02/11/2007 - 02/17/2007
02/04/2007 - 02/10/2007
01/28/2007 - 02/03/2007
01/21/2007 - 01/27/2007
01/14/2007 - 01/20/2007
01/07/2007 - 01/13/2007
12/31/2006 - 01/06/2007