The Cambridge, Massachusetts. offices of Harmonix Music sit in Central Square, within walking distance of the city's best indie rock clubs, and down Massachusetts Ave. from MIT and the Media Lab. The location is perfect for a company that's fueled by both hackers and rockers, where a poster of Frank Zappa perched naked on the can adorns the door to the rest room, and the office network is connected not by cables or wi-fi, but with a giant laser that hangs in the window next to somebody's desk.
Starting with the title Frequency in 2001, Harmonix Music has become a leader in games that turn music into play. The company broke through with the Guitar Hero series, where players equipped with a simple toy guitar could shred along with a selection of hard rock songs. A surprise blockbuster, Guitar Hero destroyed three myths: that rock is dead, that peripheral-based games cost too much for the mainstream, and that only losers play air guitar.
But in 2007, Harmonix was acquired by MTV and started a new franchise: Rock Band, which expanded the guitar-game concept by adding a drum kit and a microphone. Meanwhile, their publisher, RedOctane, brought the Guitar Hero line to Neversoft, who have taken it in a markedly different direction: Ccameos by real-life stars such as Slash and Tom Morello, a battle mode where players sabotage each other's playing, and an escalation of difficulty and finger-burning solos made Guitar Hero III even crasser-and less realistic-than the earlier game's prequels.
Harmonix loves to hire musicians. Most of the staffers play an instrument, and if you're in a band, you can take indefinite unpaid leave to go on tour and pursue your dreams, a policy they liken to maternity leave. But like most successful game studios, Harmonix demands a lot in return. Every week the company releases new songs or whole albums for sale, and they're aiming for a 500-track library by year's end. They've been working overtime to ship Rock Band 2 in September—just 10 months after the first game—and the cafeteria space in the center of the office has seen plenty of "crunch dinners." Walking around, you hear the constant sound of someone slapping out time on the game's drum kit, and playtesters and note transcribers hunch over their desks, guitars in their lap, banging out yet another solo. It's a living.
For this feature, The A.V. Club spoke with four members of the Rock Band team about the culture and style that make Rock Band what it is—and may set it apart in the upcoming rock game wars. Rock Band 2 ships just ahead of its biggest competitor, Guitar Hero World Tour—the latest edition of the Guitar Hero franchise, which will now have its own mic and drum kit. While everyone we spoke with was courteous to their rivals, see if you can catch a few jabs at the competition-and especially at their rock bona fides. Harmonix pioneered the technology; now they expect to win on culture.
Helen McWilliams: Lead Writer / member of Vagiant
The A.V. Club: What does being a writer on Rock Band entail?
HM: Honestly, trying to take the word "rock" out of the game as much as possible. Which is kind of hard to do, because everyone's first instinct is to make everything like, "And then you're gonna rock out with your rockin' guitar to rock town! Rock out!"
Basically [the writers] just have to nerd out on guitar descriptions, and band information, and everything rock-related— and try to not give it that aggressive tone that is the style that all musical- instrument companies have.
AVC: Why not?
HM: I guess everybody's sick of it. It's so cliched now. WAnd we are trying to appeal to a much broader audience, . We're trying to appeal to, you know, grandma, and the little kids.
AVC: Going from Guitar Hero to Rock Band, what did you change about the tone?
HM: On Guitar Hero people didn't need to have heard the songs before to be able to play them in the game. So we could pick [Blue Öyster Cult's] "Godzilla" over "Don't Fear the Reaper," because we were like, "Well, it doesn't matter if they know it, this song would play better. We think it would be more fun." Or we could introduce people to edgier stuff, as long as it played well and we thought it was cool. One of the things that's changed a lot with Rock Band is because the vocals are so key, we actually do have a responsibility to try to have songs that people have heard before, and know pretty well. I think it's actually worked out really well. And we've had fun with it, putting out Disturbed and Jimmy Buffett on the same week. [Buffett] was a great example. There were people in the office that were like, "Yes! Finally!" And there were other people who were like, "What the…" And that's exactly what we want. We don't want everyone to be necessarily thrilled every week with what's available for DLC [downloadable content]. It shouldn't be like that. You don't get angry at a record store for having music that you don't want to buy.
AVC: There are no real-world stars in Rock Band, as there are in say, Guitar Hero III. Have you ever considered trying that?
HM: I don't know if we would consider it. From our perspective, we want it to be about you, and your rock star fantasy. Speaking for myself, I've never in my life played a show where one of my idols came on-stage and challenged me to a guitar [duel]. [Laughs.] I mean, that just doesn't seem to me to be very much in the spirit of rock. But I understand the impulse to do it. It's funny, and it's over-the-top, and it's cool to have these artists appear. But I think we just want to have this sense of like, you're there with your band, for each other, and you're fulfilling your rock star dream together, and the audience is there for you. [It would be] a little like when Stevie Wonder would show up on The Cosby Show. It reminds me that this isn't real.
AVC: You said earlier that you grew up in New Jersey, but you moved here for the rock scene. For someone who doesn't know Boston, how would you explain it?
HM: It's so good! I think the thing that always made me psyched about Boston rock is that it's very hard to get away with bullshit. You can definitely do your own thing, and have an artsy shtick or do something weird. But if it's not genuine, people spot it immediately in Boston, in a way that I don't think they do in other places. It's that weird Boston combination of being very warm and very hostile at the same time. [Laughs.] If people see something that they like, that they see as genuine, they're very supportive of it. Although of course, support in Boston definitely looks different than other places. I play in a punk band, and if [the audience] likes us, if we're playing really well, they spit beer and throw bottles. Give us the finger. And that means we're doing great.
AVC: Could you describe your role?
MB: It's my job to push forward the musical interaction that people have, think about novel ways of having physical interfaces intersect with musical interfaces, and more or less just do what I can to aid the software designers in creating a dynamic experience for the user. I'd say my not-so-secret ulterior motive is to move these peripherals closer and closer to musical instruments with every passing generation.
AVC: Do you follow the modding community around Rock Band – for example, the programs like Drum Machine that people have written to use the peripherals on their PCs??
MB: Oh yeah. There's not a Rock Band or other music game-related mod that I probably haven't read about, at least. I'm super-proud of the online community that has popped up around [the peripherals]. I think they're an awesome and relatively cheap project box for doing all sorts of crazy, different things. We're hoping to see people plug these things into their computers, and perform in their band with them. I do a bunch of VJ-ing stuff with a friend, and we're working out stuff where we play these drums and we trigger video loops.
AVC: What do you think of the guitar, though? You've only got five buttons. Do you think that's limiting, and do you think that'll expand over time?
MB: I think it's difficult. I have a handful of patents in progress, about different novel ways of interacting with guitar controllers. Once you get to that point where you're really proficient at hitting the gems quickly, how do we take that skill that you developed and make that skill expressive? Because I don't think that what we've been doing is training a bunch of guitarists. I think we've been training a bunch of people who have an idea about guitar in relationship to the game. So we've been sort of training air guitarists. What does the strum bar represent? Is the strum bar the pick dragging across the strings? Is it the strings? Is it the pick-up and the strings? It's none of those things. It's an approximation of guitar, so it's sort of the hand holding the pick, but with no strings at all. And while we have this approximate air guitar interface, people have gotten really good at it and really smart at it, and if you look at any of the bands that started where they're playing these instruments, they've opened up the potential to be expressive with them. And I think that a big question in my mind as the designer is, how do we change the controller to allow it to be more expressive? And how do we utilize the base level of skill that everyone has developed on the instrument, for types of free playing, for its creative potential? Those are the big, open questions still.
Which I think is okay. I think it's largely the reason for the appeal of playing the guitar, or playing the bass, because you get all this musical knowledge that you would have to grind so long for otherwise, in an instant. My standard metaphor for this is, you can go to a really great sandwich shop and you can order an amazing sandwich and it just has one big name, and you eat it, and it's great. But maybe you didn't taste that they'd layered the prosciutto on top of the mozzarella with this special mayonnaise or whatever. You aren't tasting every individual element of the sandwich. You're eating the sandwich and it's a great sandwich. There are a lot of people who turn on a song, and it's a song. And they couldn't tell you what the bass player's playing, versus what the guitar player's playing, versus the synthesizer in the background, or any of those elements. They just hear a song, in the way that you might eat a sandwich. And playing this game does a really easy trick, which is deciding that the success of one event determines the muting of one track. It equates two things which are actually not equal, and does this great trick to your brain which is hugely pleasurable, and educates you in a way by pulling [the track] away. It's this simple, "One of these things is not like the other." And then you all of a sudden have this knowledge that with a lot of other people would take them two or three years playing in a band to figure out. And bang, it's there right in front of you.
AVC: What's your background?
MB: I graduated from Harvard with an art degree, but I took a fair amount of coursework at MIT. So I have a fair amount of experience in the technical end of art-making. My personal work is all done in arcades. I build arcade machines from hand, or take old arcade machines and modify them. And I build game code to run inside them, or build interactive experiences that engage with them. I had a piece that was placed in an old Computer Space arcade, which is one of the first arcades ever made, that was a recreation of a seminal piece of early video art called Stamping In The Studio by an artist named Bruce Nauman. And I recreated it in a sort of early-'80s/late-'70s video game style, [with a] very, very basic-looking interface, and had a big capacitive plate on the front of it. So when you approached this machine it began playing the game before you even touched the joystick—it could sense how close your hands were to it. I made another piece that was an arcade sort of video experience, about Sonic The Hedgehog and the relationship between Sonic The Hedgehog and the genetic allele that someone named after him. It's from the perspective of some kid whose Sonic The Hedgehog gene was messed up in some way. It's sort of a weird piece of art. So I come from a very crazy, arty side of this type of stuff. But that's where the company comes from too. I mean, the classes I took were all at the Media Lab. [Co-founders] Alex [Rigopolus] and Eran [Egozy] have the same pedigree. So, [we're] seeing eye-to-eye there.
Ryan Lesser: Art Director, member of Megasus
AVC: The visual style is very different from Guitar Hero II or Rock Band: it's a little less detailed, a little gauzier. Could you describe how you arrived at that?
RL: The look and the vibe of Guitar Hero comes from a relatively small group of people at Harmonix who led that project. And if you look at pictures of me from high school, for example, and look at Guitar Hero, you'll be like, "Hmmm, I get it." Because up until just a year ago, I had long hair, I was a total metalhead, always was, [with] sketchbooks filled with dumb AC/DC, Iron Maiden crap. And a lot of the other people in that core team are exactly the same way. And so basically I wanted that game to be really macho, and really aggressive. Very sharp edges. And I pushed this aesthetic of rock posters, which I had done before I started doing video games. But Rock Band was supposed to be a lot more open than that. Like, a lot less tongue-in-cheek, and a lot less aggro. We keep calling it this "platform." From the very beginning it was supposed to be capable of supporting anything from Radiohead to AC/DC to Slayer to U2…
AVC: …To Jimmy Buffett.
RL: Right, exactly. So I wanted to come up with a look that fit that. But I wanted something that would be stylish and interesting, just in a different way. And so we focused more on what we were calling '70s arena rock—so Journey, Boston, Rush, REO Speedwagon. Kind of crazy big shows, but naive. It was all about lights, and the lights didn't do crazy shit—they were on, or they would do a simple move. And having the people on stage just being really alive. I don't like realism at all, so that's never really an option for me in my games. So character-wise, in the design doc I put a look forward that was based roughly on stop-motion animation. I was really influenced by Henry Selick and Tim Burton, and stuff that they've done for example when you have a character that isn't in any way realistic, like James And The Giant Peach, or The Corpse Bride. In those movies, the characters don't look real. But because they're made out of cloth and clay, and they're lit with real lights, and they're in a setting that's made out of real wood and real metal, and they're filmed on real film—it works. It's believable. That's a space that's physical and tangible and tactile, and so that's what I wanted to do with Rock Band.
So the characters are very simplified and streamlined and have a style to them, but the style is not realistic at all. But their motions are realistic. We went realistic with lights, and we went realistic even with the venues, which was totally different from Guitar Hero. And I felt like the final package did what we wanted it to do, which is that it creates an immersive space with people on stage that are totally believable and entertaining, but not so far stylized that they just scream "video game." And to encapsulate that whole thing, a couple of us developed this concept of it being a recorded performance. There's a documentary of T. Rex called Born To Boogie. It's really great, very live. The cameramen are lying on the floor underneath Marc Bolan. It's really again naÔve, in that early rock way. But it was really charming. There's a lot of that going on, and I mixed that with music videos. My favorite reference that I pulled for Rock Band, to pair up with Born To Boogie, is the David Lee Roth/Van Halen videos, like "Panama" and "Jump" and "Hot for Teacher." All the time, David Lee Roth is just completely addressing the camera. He talks to the camera, he sings to the camera, he acts to the camera. And so in Rock Band, all the time, the singer or the guitarist is looking right into the camera, they'll headbutt the camera or kick it, or caress it. They do all this stuff that just makes it feel like you're watching this rock experience.
AVC: There was a good sense of audience in Guitar Hero.
RL: There was a specific camera in Guitar Hero I and II that I fought pretty hard for, which is the one where you couldn't even see the band. Like, you were in the crowd, looking through hands. And even though it made for a terrible two seconds, at the moment, you felt like you were part of the audience.
AVC: Is it strange though to try to capture the audience perspective, or to watch the band as if it's in a music video, when at the same time you're the character?
RL: That's something we thought about for a long time, when we were making Guitar Hero I. Like, "Okay, you're the guy. You're playing the music, you have a guitar on, there's your fretboard. So you're that guy. But you're not that guy—that's Axl, or that's Johnny. It's a character that's not you. And they're facing us." You have to be looking at the front of your rock star, otherwise they won't feel like a rock star. You can't do an over-the-shoulder thing with them, right? It's this weird thing, layer on top of layer, and in the end, we just picked the right combination that we thought worked for us, and went with it. And it worked. But it does break down if you think about it. Because you could have easily made it, you're the guitarist, and you're looking through the guitarist's eyes—but then all you see is audience the whole game. That's not very exciting.
AVC: Going into Rock Band 2, have you followed a similar style?
RL: Stylistically it's the same game. We basically looked at what people really liked about Rock Band 1, and we enhanced it and expanded it. So there's way more character assets. Clothing, head shapes, hair styles, body piercings. We now have masks, and bandanas, and stuff that will allow you to customize your character's face more. In the first game, I was very specific. I didn't want anything covering the character's faces. Because I thought that part of what was making Rock Band work so well was, I asked the camera artists to spend a lot more time on close-up face shots of all the characters, especially the singer. We never did that in Guitar Hero. And our character's faces are much better than the stuff we did in Guitar Hero. They were more emotive, and our lip-sync was dead-on, so I wanted to spend more time there. But now, because people are more familiar with the game, we have gas masks, and giant skull faces, and ridiculous masquerade things. We got a little bit more gnarly when it comes to character assets. There's some cool stuff in there that you have to unearth by playing the game. But it's not quite as happy-go-lucky as the last stuff we did. There's some gross stuff in there.
AVC: You mentioned referencing the '70s: Do you feel like a lot of the look and overall approach plays to nostalgia?
RL: No, we've spent a lot of energy trying to play off the nostalgia of the classic era of rock 'n' roll, while modernizing it. So whether it's the kind of outfits we made, or what the faces of the characters look like, what the hair styles are, the kind of cinematography we do—we just try and bridge the gap, and keep it modern while occasionally going retro. So like, if you're playing the Beastie Boys and it suddenly cuts to high-con black-and-white super grain, it looks very modern. But we [also] have all these post-processes that make it look like film. You cut down to 24 frames per second, it's all gritty and gross-looking… We try and do stuff like that.
AVC: What are some of your modern influences?
RL: Visually? Well, I have a website called lotsofnoise.com that's a local [Providence] music site about underground music, and actually focusing on noise. Providence has a big noise scene. And so I've been doing that for like a decade. My personal roots are in noise, and very hard music, and there's an art scene that I've been immersed in that's just a little bit more fucked up. And so I pulled from that stuff, and tried to inject it into an art style that's actually more polished.
AVC: How have your experiences in bands informed your work on the game?
RL: Oh my God, massively. Again, starting with Guitar Hero I all the way up to now, it's like everything informs it. I've been in bands, I've toured America, made records—all that stuff bleeds into the game, from just my very core. And I know it's not just me, it's lots of us. Just because we are those people, the game turns out the way it does. And I think if you look at some of our competitors' games, that weird nugget is missing. And I think that's why sometimes people look at our games and they can just tell, they can just feel it. Some people at Harmonix just started their bands. And some people at Harmonix tried forever and didn't leave town. Some people became big and were on Conan. We have all different levels, and everyone there has something to contribute, because even at its worst, rock and roll has some really awesome stories to tell, right? And so we feed that into the game. And whether it's a little thing that pops up, or something that's in the venue that's a little joke that only two percent of people will pick up on, it's there. And it matters.
Eric Brosius: Audio Director, guitarist for Tribe
AVC: You got into game development in the '90s, at Looking Glass Studios?
EB: Yeah, and basically through the band. A bunch of people at Looking Glass, including some people that are here [at Harmonix], would come out and see our band, and when they needed music for a couple of their new games, System Shock and Terra Nova, they asked me and Greg to do music. We were still in the band at the time, but we were broke, so we said, "Yeah, we'll do that." And then a few years later, the band fell apart, and we kept on doing [game work] and eventually did it full-time. I'm a guitar player myself, so when I first started working on these kind of games, I was one of the skeptical ones. Like, "Oh, this is just ridiculous. It's a toy. And I don't want anything to do with it, because I'm a real guitar player, and I pooh-pooh on this shit." But then after we had a few prototypes working, it was like, "You know what? I can actually believe this! It actually feels like I'm doing it." Because you have this very visceral thing—even though you're not [playing], it makes it sound like you're actually playing these parts. And it kind of works.
AVC: You're not adding any new instruments to Rock Band 2. But are you talking about any ideas for the future?
EB: I'm not sure. We talked about keyboards a lot. I don't think it's actually what we need to add right now. I don't think there are that many songs that are going to have interesting keyboards all the way through, that are going to warrant a new piece of hardware, or learning a new thing. That would be kind of tricky, teaching people to play with two hands. So I don't know, that's not something I would actually push for. Every year we talk about it, and one of these years it could pop up.
AVC: We've talked about the use of nostalgia in the game, and how Rock Band draws from the "golden age" of rock. As someone who's been in a band, what's your take on the fantasy that you create in the game?
EB: I think the thing that fuels our game is that you have tons of kids out there who have this fantasy about being a rock star. And that is probably not any less now than it was back in the '70s, or in the '60s, once people started to see The Beatles and Hendrix and all that kind of stuff. People were like, "I want to be that." And I think that still exists now. I like the fact that we try to go after stuff from all the different decades. And I think the record companies like it, too, because all of a sudden [the record industry] has this catalog stuff, the stuff from the '70s, that all the kids who are 15 now have never heard of. Some of the most rewarding stuff that I see on the forums is, "Oh, I never heard this song by this band" or "I never even heard of this band!" I'm like, "Really? You've never heard of this band?" And they go, "I love this song! I'm going to go find their record." And that is the most awesome thing.
AVC: Will it get to the point where a class of bands becomes popular because of Rock Band?
EB: I mean, I was able to sneak bands that I love on the disc, that are not getting heavy-duty airplay, just because I like them and I was like, "This is going to be fun, and someone who has never heard of this will play it and like it for what it is." Experiencing it for the first time in the game.
AVC: What's an example?
EB: Well, on Rock Band 2, I wanted to put the Silversun Pickups on. They get some small radio airplay and some college stuff, but not a lot. But they have really cool guitar parts, and they're right up my alley, so I wanted to see if I could get them in. Rock Band 1, we had the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with "Maps," which would not really be a first choice. [But] it was different, and the drums are really awesome.
AVC: The New Pornographers song ("Electric Version") is another great example.
EB: At first when we were at our [song] limit, we had a couple other ones come in. So I remember saying, "Oh well, we have a couple extra songs in so we have to cut some from the disc." And we had The New Pornographers on there, again basically because a few of us like them, you know? And so we sent out a company-wide e-mail, "Well, we think we're going to have to cut this song, because we have this other bigger one we could put in." And there was a giant company backlash. "No! You can't fucking cut this song!" It was going to get cut just because they were the smallest band that we put on the game. But we need some of those. In its own way it rounds out the setlist.
AVC: Would you like to open up the transcription tools, or get to the point where if I'm in a band and I'm looking for exposure, I'm going to put my stuff on MySpace, and I can get something into Rock Band?
EB: We've always been thinking about that. And that is something that we really want to do, and [we've] started actually a few things that we can't talk about, to make an avenue for indie bands to get their music heard through Rock Band. Because it's so tough for them to get heard through the major record labels. So we're thinking about that and seriously pursuing that.
AVC: On top of the music, you've also got the sound design, and the sound of the audience. Could you talk about how you designed that?
EB: Well, we wanted the whole thing to mimic what happens at a concert, right? So we have stuff like, when you're doing well, the crowd surges, and claps louder, and stuff like that. And then for Rock Band, one of our favorite things that we added, we hired a studio to go out and sing along, as if to emulate a whole stadium-full of people singing. And so they sang along to about half the songs. So when you're doing really well, like you've actually peaked the meter out on those songs, the crowd starts singing along. It has nothing to do with gameplay necessarily. [It's] just to further immerse you in the atmosphere. Everything points to the same goal, which is that you're not sitting in your living room holding a plastic toy, you're a rock star on stage. And it's been the big goal for Harmonix for like 10 or 11 years they've been around to give that awesome feeling to people who aren't musicians, who would never get to have it.
AVC: Moving from Guitar Hero II to Rock Band, what else changed from the perspective of the audio?
EB: Mostly just the song choice. When we were doing Guitar Hero, we were looking at all guitar-rock, so we were basically focusing on finding songs that have interesting and difficult guitar parts. Now that it's more of a band experience, we're still looking for songs that are challenging on the different instruments. [But] it's much more social now, so we're looking for those songs that just kind of make you smile, make the band all jump up and down together, and stuff like that. A lot of the focus is on being in your living room with a bunch of people and just feeling the love. [Laughs.] I always bring up this example: [The Who's] "Won't Get Fooled Again." You play it, it's an awesome classic song, you struggle through it, and you get to that long break where it's just the synth again. And so we toyed with that, we thought, "Oh boy, it's a long time for everyone just to sit out. But no, it's such a classic song, we can't cut it down." And when you finally kick back in, there's a drum solo for four bars or eight bars leading into it, and everyone just kicks back in—those are the kind of moments we look for. Because one of the biggest struggles—with Guitar Hero and in Rock Band sometimes, you spend so much time focusing on trying to play your notes that we always look for those moments that you kind of come out of that, and respond to the people who are in your room. When the whole band does something together, and then they all turn around and smile at each other like, "Yeah, we hit it!"
(Thanks to Sean Baptiste of Hobo Paving Company for additional background, and for the tour.)