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Creating A Phenomenon: A Harmonix Retrospective
Creating A Phenomenon: A Harmonix Retrospective Exclusive
November 12, 2008 | By Tom Kim

November 12, 2008 | By Tom Kim
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive



The Beatles may be bigger than Jesus, but Harmonix is bigger than them both. That's according to impromptu "research" by game academic and former Edge magazine editor Margaret Robertson, who presented a chat with two Harmonix representatives as part of a recent session at GameCity in Nottingham.

"I can't help but question your science in this," joked community manager Alex Navarro, on seeing Robertson's series of graphs.

It is readily apparent that the company has come a long way since its founding in 1995. From the beginning, the company was built on the premise that the experience of performing music should be made fun and accessible, even to those with little experience or mastery playing instruments.

Robertson's opening certainly set the tone. The session, which included Navarro and programmer Ike Adams, took on a lighthearted mood, and Robertson's first question was a logical one for the Rock Band and Guitar Hero originators: "What are your personal backgrounds with music?"

"I've been a piano player since I was 7 and I love picking up new instruments," Adams said. "I was very influenced to create music-based products primarily through [the Sony-published PlayStation 2 games] Frequency and Amplitude."

Though Navarro had been a drummer for 14 years, he copped to being not "really into" music games. "But when Guitar Hero and Rock Band came around, I got into that stuff really hardcore."

Guessed Navarro, "I think 75-80 percent of people at Harmonix are in bands, or have been in bands at one time or another."

Robertson showed some videos of Harmonix' early efforts. The first of these was a short clip demonstrating a camera system that was installed at Disney's Epcot Center in 1998. The interface was very abstract, showing flocks of butterflies moving erratically in time with random synthesized sounds.

"What we don't have here is any kind of rationale for why you're playing or what you're playing," said Robertson.

Adams pointed out that this particular video was representative of Harmonix' approach: "One of the things we try to do is to step away from a traditional controller," he said.

Robertson then showed a clip of Harmonix' next game, a PC release called The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock, featuring characters that are based on different musical instruments, as she noted it was representative of an evolution in the studio's interface.

Next up: CamJam, which let a player trigger music sequences by moving their hands and arms to different positions on the screen.

"One of the things we discovered was that people need to be able to relate, said Adams, though Navarro noted that this particular product was never released.

"There was a feeling that perhaps we were going down a blind alley," said Adams of that point in the studio's history. "We really needed to come out with that next 'big thing' in order for Harmonix to survive."

The next video showed Harmonix's 2001 PS2 title Frequency -- and Adams' face lit up.

"I saw that on my first interview with Harmonix seven or eight years ago, and that particular game really made me want to work there," he said.

Agreed Navarro, "It's one of those games that has a sort of inexplicably addictive quality to it. I was working as a journalist at the time. My buddies were talking this up as a real high concept game. I was kind of skeptical, but they kept saying, 'no, this is awesome,' and they kept coming up with more strange explanations for it. So I had to try it out."

The game's follow up, Amplitude, made further attempts to connect the player to the game. "We introduced some elements of customization," said Adams. "You could choose an avatar, put different clothes on them and shape their style."

He also said that, "this was the first time that we had implemented 4-player multiplayer into a music game. Playing music together was something we discovered that we just had to pursue."

Not that there weren't problems, Adams added. "The onlooker was still pretty removed from having a direct understanding of what was under their control. It's hard to feel like a rock star when my hands and arms aren't flailing."

So after the success of Frequency and Amplitude and a stint helping out with Karaoke Revolution, Harmonix's next project was... EyeToy: AntiGrav, which Navarro described as a "futuristic hoverboard racing game"?

"This was the first game we did where I had to stop playing because I got too tired," said Adams wryly.

But Robertson argued that the EyeToy game brought a sense of Harmonix's long-sought physical connection. "You have an on-screen avatar which is mirroring the movements of a projected player down in the corner of the screen, all in real-time," she marveled. T"hough this is not strictly speaking, a music game."

But now, eight years into Harmonix's lifespan and no massive hit -- so they decided to take a chance on Guitar Hero. Robertson asked the panelists where they were when they played the game for the first time.

"I was still working as a journalist at E3," reminisced Navarro. "A couple guys I worked with come running in, yelling, 'there is a guitar game down in Kentia Hall! You have to go!'"

"Tucked back in this little conference room was this little area where Harmonix was showing Guitar Hero. You go in there, and there were a couple of dudes from Harmonix sheepishly showing off this game that nobody's ever heard of. I took a look at it and thought, 'this is really kind of awesome.'"

Adams added, "It was much easier for someone looking on to say, 'Oh look. He's holding a guitar. It was a lot easier for someone to grasp that, literally and figuratively."

Navarro said Guitar Hero was a major risk for its time. "No one knew it would blow up into the phenomenon that it has become."

Adams' assessment was more optimistic: "We knew it was going to be huge. The Harmonix staff were very encouraged by the success of Karaoke Revolution, and they just kind of had the sense that this was going to be a natural extension of that."

And how early on did Guitar Hero sow the seeds of its protege, Rock Band?

"From the start, there were people who were like, 'how cool would it be to make drums and pretend you were singing into a mic?'" said Adams. "Also, people just wanted to play music together."

The games take the inherently analog process of playing music and take it digital, as Robertson noted when she asked the team about the challenge involved.

"Our main audio team does all of the note charting and a pitch charting for the vocals," explained Navarro. "They also do a lot of the cues for the camera cuts, the lighting and whatnot. They're kind of directing as much as they're producing every track."

"They're actually authoring how fun the song is to play," Adams added.

Robertson went on to ask about the cultural influences of Rock Band: "How do you feel that you've changed the public's musical tastes?"

"I'd like to think that we've introduced people to a variety of different bands that they might not have been able to experience otherwise," laughed Navarro.

"I know that I wasn't the biggest Boston fan until I played Guitar Hero -- then, the first thing I did was go out and buy their debut album. The great thing is, there's always that opportunity. Sometimes, metal fans might find out that they actually like something with more of a pop sensibility and vice versa."

And what about influencing players to try real instruments?

Navarro replied, "I get a lot of community feedback saying how playing our games has inspired them to dust off their guitar or drum set. It's tough to say how many people who have never played actually follow through with the difficult process of mastering a real instrument, but just the fact that we can inspire them to attempt it can only be a good thing."

Robertson rounded out the conversation by returning to the original video clip. Compared to the polish and presentation of Rock Band, the difference was striking.

"This is a phenomenal history for a company to have," she said. "This is an extraordinary amount of technical and creative innovation. And to some extent, even social innovation."

And finishing the session, Adams and Navarro presented Rock Band's first prototype instruments to James Newman of Nottingham Trent University's National Videogame Archive, who recently spoke to Gamasutra about preserving the history of games through the University's partnership with the UK's National Media Museum.


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