To say the least, the past few months have been a tumultuous time in the history of Boston-based Harmonix Music Systems.
Destructoid: So there have been some pretty big changes at Harmonix -- not just over the past month, but I think over the past year -- the most recent being the split from Viacom and the eventual closure of MTV Games. Had you seen this coming? This wasn’t a shock, was it?
Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix Music Systems: It was not a shock. I think that Viacom had been weighing [options] in the videogame space for some time in dialogue with Harmonix and whatnot. So this was a conclusion that I think they came to after some analysis and contemplation. No, it was not a shock.
Had you been doing anything to sort of prepare for that split?
So, you know, for us there were a lot of almost back-office considerations in terms of, like, management and [things] which had to be attended to, which are a challenge in any transition. But in terms of most of the studio operations of making games, a big part of my job is in trying to keep those [operations] largely intact and unaffected by the transition.
I think in that regard, the relationship absolutely was what I hoped it would be, in that MTV was instrumental in laying the foundation for Harmonix's partnerships in the music industry that I think were critical for what we were trying to accomplish with Rock Band in the last several years.
You know, a great example, The Beatles: Rock Band, which was an amazing project that I think would have been impossible -- it never would have happened -- if Harmonix would have tried to make that happen as an independent studio. It was really in large part the MTV relationship that brought that together.
But at this point, videogames have blossomed into a significant new profit center for our music partners -- for record labels and music publishers -- and so now, after what's transpired over the past several years, Harmonix does have the relationships and the standing with these parties to continue to conduct our business.
Creatively, actually there's not much that much of a difference versus where we were previously with MTV and Viacom. You know, Viacom's an actually incredibly supportive parent company and gave us the creative freedom to pursue more or less whatever it was that we wanted to pursue. So there aren't creative constraints that have now been lifted.
There are other kinds of factors. As with, not Viacom in particular, with any large company there were all of these other considerations. You know, bureaucratic considerations or political considerations or systemic considerations that tend to slow down action and decision-making, again by the nature of large companies. Again, a lot of those factors really just disappear when you're a small studio that can make decisions; you can act very quickly and nimbly. That freedom of action and that feeling of being in command of one's own destiny again is actually a very exhilarating feeling for the staff here at Harmonix.
So I think that for some of those folks, definitely there's a great feeling of relief at being able to make decisions and being able to have that freedom, as I said. But for the most part, I think we did a great job over the last four years of preserving that, as you said, "indie spirit" while being a division of a really large company.
First of all, I'd like to talk a little bit about Rock Band. You know, we continue to be fully supportive of Rock Band 3; we think there's a ton of potential left in the title. It's a gigantic title with a lot of opportunity. There are tons of people still playing Rock Band 2 that haven't tried Rock Band 3 yet, and we're excited about that opportunity. Following the news of the future of Guitar Hero recently, we think there are also a lot of devoted Guitar Hero fans -- who have probably never given Rock Band a try -- who actually have a delight coming [to them] when they try Rock Band 3 for the first time.
We think that the [potential of] Pro functionality in Rock Band 3 has not yet been fully tapped. And you know, the Squier Stratocaster Pro from Fender is actually shipping [this] week, which we're incredibly excited about. There's also a ton of amazing music content that still has not yet made its way onto the platform that we're still actively pursuing and continuing to bring on to the platform.
So as a first point, we continue to be very much devoted to Rock Band 3 as a platform and continuing to nurture and cultivate that over the course of the year.
As a second point, and of greater creative interest, I think that the contraction that's taken place in the band game category -- and people often equate music games with band games, which is something I'll come back to -- the contraction that has taken place, in our point of view, really provoked us to think about how to reinvent this category, in particular the Rock Band franchise.
And you know, the marketplace is clearly demanding something very new. It's clearly demanding a dramatic evolution of the Rock Band franchise, I think, and I think that's actually exciting for us. That's a demand we welcome with great enthusiasm, and there's a lot of creativity here at Harmonix being devoted to a reinvention and refactoring of the Rock Band franchise for the future, beyond Rock Band 3. So that's one big bucket worth touching on.
The third, of course, is Dance Central, which has been tremendously successful for us out of the gate at retail. We're very excited about Dance Central, and the creative opportunity that that franchise affords. The idea of millions of people dancing with our game [who] otherwise wouldn't be dancing is incredibly gratifying for us. So obviously, a lot of our creative attention is being devoted to the future of Dance Central as well.
And then finally, it's just worth pointing out that we have a ton of new game concepts in development, as well. Our new owners are actually being incredibly supportive in that regard, in terms of of new creative development and new IP cultivation, and we have a lot of very cool new ideas in the works right now, looking out beyond both Rock Band and Dance Central.
So that's what we're focusing on in terms of what's in the marketplace this year. And then beyond this year, as I touched on, there's some far more fundamental reimaginings of the Rock Band franchise that we're thinking about right now.
You know, the second reaction, of course, was that I think it's further evidence that [this] game category is in need of evolution and reinvention, and as I said previously, we take that at Harmonix as a rallying call, and I think we're excited to rise to it. And of course, on some other level, it's an invitation for us to reach out to those Guitar Hero fans and give them an opportunity to try something new.
That said, you know, we had actually been doing [research and development] on a dance game before we even knew about Kinect. We had been using a variety of different [motion] sensing technologies out there to prototype this dance game. At some point early on, Microsoft showed us the Kinect, and at that moment we realized that it was the perfect technology for this application, and we felt very, very strongly about the potential for dance games. And when we saw the perfect technology for the app that we wanted to make, yes it was a leap of faith, and yes we also felt that it was the right technology coming at the right time for the game that we wanted to create.
Suffice it to say, we're really happy that we made that decision.
You know, of course, the first music game that became a commercial force in the United States were these band games -- Guitar Hero and Rock Band. But rock music performance simulation is one take on what music games can be. The one interpretation of that that is now on the ascent is dance games, which I also lump into the category of music games, because those games are entirely connecting you with the music in a new way. And I guess my general point there is that label, "music games," I think that encompasses an extremely broad set of additional experiences that still remain largely untapped, and of course that's a very intriguing new frontier of creative [research and development] for Harmonix as well.
It's also worth pointing out that for the first time, I see Harmonix potentially evolving past exclusively focusing on music games. That's been -- for our entire history -- our reason for being, basically. We've been focused on interactive music since the company started; we've been focused on music games for over 10 years now.
But I have to say, we're incredibly creatively motivated by motion gaming. Of course, dance games are a special intersection of music games with motion gaming. Harmonix has developed a competency and quite a passion and interest, generally speaking, in the area of motion gaming. So I think one of the things that you may see coming out of Harmonix in the future is more activity in the area of motion games.
What I can say is that we absolutely remain committed to the Rock Band franchise, and in the short term that definitely means remaining committed to Rock Band Pro and to bringing really compelling new content to the platform. Without being able to be specific, I'll say that we of course remain very much committed to the Dance Central franchise. And there's a hell of a lot of new creative work being done on new IPs that we're pretty fired up about.
[Photos of Alex Rigopulos courtesy of Harmonix]
[Special thanks to Andrew "power-glove" Benton for his input for this interview!]
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