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Desert Island Games: Harmonix's Greg LoPiccolo ( Guitar Hero, Rock Band )

Desert Island Games: Harmonix's Greg LoPiccolo (Guitar Hero, Rock Band)

April 16, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

April 16, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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For this weeks Desert Island Games, a column that looks at the top five games of some of our favorite industry personalities, we speak to Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of Product Development with Guitar Hero developers Harmonix Music Systems.

After working with Looking Glass Productions on projects like System Shock and Thief, LoPiccolo joined Harmonix in 1998 three years after the company was founded where he took on the project leader position for PlayStation 2 rhythm game Frequency. The game received positive reviews upon its release in 2001, and spawned a sequel, Amplitude, two years later.

The same year, the company released the first of three titles in the Karaoke Revolution series, and launched EyeToy: AntiGrav in 2004. It was Harmonixs 2005 PS2 release, Guitar Hero that really made people stand up and take notice the game won Excellence in Audio and Excellence in Game Innovation awards at the Game Developers Choice Awards, and Game of the Year for 2005, Outstanding Achievement in Game Design, Outstanding Achievement in Game Play Engineering and Outstanding Achievement in Soundtrack at the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' Interactive Achievement Awards.

Guitar Hero II followed in 2006, and was released for the Xbox 360 earlier this month. Harmonix also announced their latest project recently, a multiplayer, multi-instrument title called Rock Band for PS3 and Xbox 360 that will see a singer, a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer playing together.

LoPiccolo offered a few caveats for Desert Island Games before beginning his list, noting that the idea of listing the games he cant live without doesnt entirely make sense, as he rarely returns to games after completing them. There aren't any games I can't live without, although there are certainly games that I have loved playing and think are awesome, he says. I spend most of my waking hours working on Harmonix games or tending to the other stuff that fills up my life, so I'm mostly looking to games for stuff I haven't seen before, to help me think about design and development in new ways. And since there are always good new games coming out, I don't generally have time to go back to games I've already played.

I also have a suspicion that a lot of the games that we will end up considering the great games of our time have yet to be developed, he adds. Nonetheless, we spoke to LoPiccolo recently, and asked him about his desert island, all-time, top five most memorable games in no particular order, of course.

Thief (Looking Glass Productions, 1998): "I worked on the first Thief title, and endured many months of brutal crunch to get it done in time to ship for the holidays in 1998. I was totally burnt out when we finished it, and took a few weeks off. After I woke up, I installed it and played it end to end, and had a blast.

This is maybe a bit self-congratulatory, but I had a blast working on the first Thief game, and totally bought the whole premise. I loved the steampunk world, and how the narrative faded into the fog; there were lots of details that really weren't fully explained, but gave you the sense that the game world extended beyond the parts that were revealed to you. The gameplay really worked for me as well. I can see how some might find it a bit slow-paced, but there was for me something totally enthralling about hunkering down in the shadows, waiting for some guard to decide that he hadn't actually heard anything after all. I only worked on the first game, so I had the pleasure of approaching Thief 2 and 3 cold, and getting to delve deeper into the story and world that the first title set up. I wish they'd make more, although I'm not quite sure who "they" are anymore.

Thief has a really well-thought-out, detailed, unique narrative world that still holds up. Also, the stealth toolset - water/fire/earth/rope arrows, flash bombs, etc. - provides lots of options to stay undetected, so the player has lots of creative freedom to develop their own play-style.

The Thief series is still probably the purest manifestation of stealth gaming that has existed. The graphics are pretty crude by modern standards - although Thief 3 still looks great, in my opinion - but the player has such a great set of tools to control the environment, the game puts you into a really satisfying state of open-ended problem-solving. I was shocked to recently discover that people are still cranking out fan missions for Thief 2. That's crazy."

Total Annihilation (Cavedog Entertainment, 1997): "I remember thinking the stern science fiction narrative voice-overs were pretty silly: For a thousand centuries, the Arm and the Core battled across the galaxies, leaving countless systems destroyed and stuff like that. But once I was in the game, it was a lot more 3D seeming than Warcraft II and other RTS games of its time, and the units had tons of personality and dare I say, grace. It was just a beautiful, polished, balanced game. I played both single-player campaigns end to end.

I'm not enough of a serious RTS nerd to try to answer [the question of what it does better than other games in the genre] without embarrassing myself. The tech tree, er...I just liked the little robots, okay?

Actually, I'm not sure it is [still appealing]. You never hear about it much any more, which I find odd. It was such a big title when it came out. Maybe Supreme Commander will rekindle that same vibe. I hope so."

Half-Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004): "For what its worth, these comments all pretty much apply to Half-Life as well; it's just that Half-Life 2 was prettier and more ambitious and I remember it better. Playing through - the day it came out - I could always feel the hand of the developer making sure that every detail was as perfect as they could make it. Every time I was about to get frustrated by a puzzle, the solution presented itself. The whole game is just beautifully tuned and crafted from beginning to end, and full of emotionally satisfying moments.

Also, the story doesn't insult the player's intelligence. There is a sense of style and wit that I really appreciate. And they took some chances, which I also appreciate. There is a section toward the end where you climb into a conveyance that pulls you on a rail through a fantastic landscape for quite some time. It has to break every unwritten rule of shooter design; it goes on for a really long time, and you are pretty much a spectator the whole time. But it was a really bold design choice, and totally worked for me; it's one of the things I remember best about that game; that they had the balls to just take the player on a long trip, and had faith that they could keep it interesting.

There just aren't very many - if any - linear gameplay experiences that have had that amount of talent and love poured into them. If you want to play a linear shooter executed at that level, you simply don't have a lot of options. Most of the other ones I have played are flawed on at least one major axis. Usually well-crafted but dumb, with shallow characters and clichd story. Half-Life 2 is mature, with non-adolescent art direction and crazy amounts of polish."

Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions CE, 2002): "Lots of Harmonix guys used to play it after hours, and I sort of drifted into those games, and discovered how fun it was. Then I got my own copy and spent about a year of late evenings just driving tanks around. Now they've done a ton of those games, and it seems more commonplace, but when I first read about Battlefield 1942, I was thinking, They're nuts; no way can they integrate all that stuff into a polished, accessible game experience. But they did: it all works, which I still find astonishing.

For me, it was a godsend. As shooter players go, I am elderly, with slow reflexes, so I get my ass handed to me a lot, even though I really enjoy playing. But in BF 1942, I had the freedom to go develop a specialized skill - in my case, tanking - which allowed me to play a meaningful role in a multiplayer game and have a lot of fun. For me, net play is often about suffering through a lot of boredom and mediocre experiences in order to have the occasional amazing experience, and I've had a lot of memorable experiences playing BF 1942 - all unique. The variety of roles that can coexist happily makes for a busy, complex gameworld. It doesn't feel sterile to me.

I imagine that time is passing it by now, since it is slower-paced than Battlefield 2 or 2142. I like the slower pace, though."

Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004): "I didn't play it when it first came out, but I knew I should get to it since so many developers loved it. So I checked it out of the Harmonix game library a year after it was release, and discovered that I loved it too. Wow, a console game! Who'd a thunk it? There are two things I love about this game:

Number one: Im not sure why, but rolling stuff up is really satisfying. Can I roll that up? Nope, too big. How about this and this and this? Ok, now can I roll that up? Yes! The shift in scale as you proceed is insanely cool. At the end when I was rolling up bridges and ocean liners and buildings and sea monsters . . . good times.

Number two: it's cheerful. I mean, I also liked Resident Evil 4 (hint: not cheerful) but it was great to play a game that made me happy. I am basically okay with a world consisting of a little village on the sea shore, filled with pineapples and tricycles and fish and sailboats and such. Seems like a nice place to live. Is Japan like that, I wonder?

I think Katamari Damacy pretty much has the rolling-stuff-up space locked up."


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