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INTERVIEW: Harmonix

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Harmonix

When you step into Harmonix’s Cambridge, Massachusetts offices, it’s immediately clear this is no ordinary developer. The staff look more like rock star musicians than developers. The shelves lining the lobby strain with the weight of numerous gaming awards, too many to count or list here.

Like the music game developer itself, the city it resides in oozes creativity. Boston is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – two of the most respected educational facilities in the world, the latter of which is where Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos picked up the skills that would later inspire Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

CREATIVITY IS KEY

The co-founder of Harmonix is a musician as well as an accomplished engineer, so he’s all too aware of the saturation in the music games market that has occurred over the past few years. He has a one-word answer when we ask him about reigniting sales – innovation.

“The music games category had a peak in 2007 or so and it has contracted a bit over the past couple of years,” Rigopulos tells MCV.

“Some of the novelty of music games may have worn off, but we are bringing new kinds of experiences that will regenerate excitement around the category. And we’re on the cusp of doing that with two important new games right now.

“I think the most critical thing is to continue to innovate. In the case of Rock Band 3, it’s the first significant evolution in the rhythm game category from the past few years.”

But Rock Band 3 – even with its wave of new accessories, innovative ‘Pro’ mode and Metacritic score of 94 – is not enough for Harmonix.

GETTING THE MARKET MOVING

The developer has been working on Dance Central over the past year, which arrives as a launch title for Xbox 360 motion accessory Kinect next week (Wednesday, November 10th). It’s already seen as the flagship Kinect game and marks a turning point for Harmonix, its parent publisher MTV Games and owner Viacom.

“Dance Central has an opportunity to spark a phenomenon, very much like the original Guitar Hero did all those years ago,” adds Rigopulos.

“I think we will get millions of people enjoying a new experience that many of them have never had before. And we certainly have a lot of creative ambitions for the future of the franchise.

“I think we’re on the front edge of what will be a pretty big and important wave of new dance games in the West.”

But what about the motion accessories themselves
– are Kinect, PlayStation Move and Wii true rivals to plastic guitar controllers, or can they sit alongside them?

“Each of us at Harmonix are big enthusiasts of motion gaming,” says Rigopulos.

“We think the potential has barely been tapped in this area and it will usher in a new era of video game development and design.

“I actually think that Kinect as a device is a spectacular piece of technology which is going to stimulate new forms of human machine interaction – beyond the scope of games and entertainment.”

EURO TRIP

In the face of stiff competition from Activision’s Guitar Hero, which Harmonix originally created, Rock Band  has fought its corner in the US. But it has failed to perform as well in Europe as it has in North America. That is something Harmonix is keen to address.

“Honestly it’s been a real disappointment, and the ways in which we can remedy that is something we talk about constantly,” Rigopulos says.

“The UK and Europe are hugely important to us. In Rock Band 3 we’ve made a larger investment in European content than we have done in the past, but more importantly in the Rock Band Network, which lets indie artists upload tracks to play in-game, we’re reaching out to content creators all across Europe to upload regional songs, which will also help.”

Harmonix recently reached 75m downloads on its online Rock Band Store – the success of which Rigopulos says is down to giving people what they want, and meeting the needs of fragmented music tastes. More localised songs will be uploaded to the store regularly over the coming months for Europe.

He says: “Our secret is diversity – we’ve invested very aggressively in amassing a huge collection of content, now more than 2,000 songs.”

Rock Band 3 is the culmination of years of development and innovation. But if innovation is key, where does the music game category go from here?

“As huge as it already is, there’s still a lot of creative terrain we have to explore,” adds Rigopulos. “There are new forms of interactions between the player and the music that we haven’t yet touched on, so we think there’s a lot of new life in the music game category yet.

“We have big plans for the Rock Band series and also very big plans for the Dance Central franchise. It also continues to be of great interest to us to develop new music IP beyond either of them.”

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