Alex Rigopulos talks Harmonix’s past, present, and future

To say the least, the past few months have been a tumultuous time in the history of Boston-based Harmonix Music Systems.

Despite releasing two critically acclaimed games, Rock Band 3 and Dance Central, its owner, Viacom, announced last November it was in talks with potential buyers for the studio. A little over a month later, the deal was done — Harmonix had been sold to Harmonix-SBE Holdings, under the investment firm Columbus Nova, essentially making the studio independent.

2011 has been just as interesting for Harmonix. In February, company restructuring was announced, with as much as 15% of its 200-plus staff reportedly laid off in the process. And when Activision soon after declared it would be disbanding its Guitar Hero business unit, it signaled to many that the death of band games may be at hand.

But after speaking with Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos in a phone interview last week, it’s clear that internal, industry, and marketplace changes won’t be slowing the studio down. Instead, it seems Rigopulos is seeing opportunity for studio evolution at every turn.

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?

Well… I’m not really sure how to answer that question. I mean, Harmonix as a studio has been for the most part, I mean, making the games. So we’ve been hard at work building the games for the holiday season and as soon as we were done with our games for the holiday season we rolled immediately onto the next set of projects.

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.

Back in 2006, when Harmonix was purchased by MTV Networks, what were you hoping to gain from that partnership, both business-wise and creatively? And looking back on it, now that it’s over, did that go how you expected it to?

Well, yeah, I think that one of the things that lured us to Viacom and MTV Networks in the first place — as opposed to, say, a traditional game publisher — is that they seemed to get what we were trying to do from the point of view of not just videogames, but for music entertainment. And our hope was that they could bring a lot of resources and relationships to bear, particularly in the domain of the music industry and those relationships, to help us accomplish what it was that we wanted to.

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.

So looking forward, now that you don’t have that relationship with MTV, are you concerned with those sort of partnerships and licensing concerns with musicians going forward?

I’m not, actually. Because if you rewind the clock four or five years to the time when they acquired us, at that point, the music game phenomenon had not yet happened in the [United States]. So back at that point, 2005, it was actually hard to get record labels or music publishers to even return our phone calls. So MTV was hugely helpful in building those bridges over the subsequent couple of years.

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.

Do you find it’s almost sort of like when artists launch their career or even a new album, it’s just something they do, trying to get their music into the game? They want to be on iTunes, they want to get radio play, they want their shirts in Hot Topic, they want their tracks in Rock Band.

Yup. Yeah, certainly yeah. We’re at the point now where we get constant interest in recording artists who either want to be in one of our games, either Rock Band or Dance Central, or they have ideas about collaborations. I mean, now it’s as much an inbound dialogue with the recording artists.

You don’t see that cooling off at all, especially considering the “gloom and doom” surrounding the music or band game genre? People aren’t wary about partnerships now?

No, not in the least. I think there’s as much enthusiasm as there ever has been from the artists community to get in games. Because I think, as you pointed out earlier, most artists recognize that videogames are a vitally important medium in which they can reach their fans and get their music to their fans in new ways. And it’s also not just about reaching their fans, it’s also an important business opportunity.

So Harmonix has “owners,” but is considered independent now. Is that the best way to look at it?

Yeah, we’re an independent studio again, yup.

What does that mean for you creatively, in terms of studio growth, now that you’re on your own?

Well, first of all, it feels great. It’s a really exciting time at Harmonix; it’s a new beginning for us, and people are very excited about the opportunities that that affords.

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.

Talking to folks at Harmonix over the years, I’ve always gotten the sense that you’ve been an indie spirit anyhow, even with Viacom. The way you put it, that kind of spirit never went anywhere. But there has to be a great feeling, sort of like the corporate-overlord pressure has been lifted off your shoulders. Does that change the culture at all? Was there a big celebration?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that exactly. Certainly, I mean, for 95% of the staff at the studio, their connection to the mothership was actually minimal. They were actually focused on making games all day, every day. But for those people at the studio who were involved with interfacing with the mothership, [they were] sort of dealing with the aspects that all big companies have.

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.

So are gamers going to notice any change?

Well I guess what I will say — and this is something that really has nothing to do with the split from Viacom and MTV, and everything to do with this moment in time at Harmonix — right now, the environment here at Harmonix is really a kind of cauldron of creativity. There’s a ton of creative engagement and creative excitement around a number of things.

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.

Going back to the whole sort of death of Guitar Hero, at least for the foreseeable future: You talked a little bit about reaching out to Guitar Hero fans this year. How do you plan on doing something like that, pulling in these new untapped users this year?

Well, a number of different ways. Ultimately, it’s a communications burden. Particularly if you’re dealing with users who have been kind of habituated into another product franchise over a number of years, you know it’s incumbent upon us to reach them through various communication channels and let them know that Rock Band 3 is worth giving a try to. I think we have such a compelling offering — and not just in terms of functionality, but this insanely diverse library of content — that I think we have something quite strong to offer that audience. I’m hopeful that some of them will give us a try.

Certainly, Rock Band 3 was a strong offering when you guys released it last year. So there’s still a lot there. Does this mean we’re not going to see another Rock Band this year, [and that] you’re just going to focus on supporting the Rock Band 3 product?

In the short term this year, I think we’re going to be focusing on cultivating Rock Band 3, which means reaching out to new audiences, [and] bringing some really compelling new content onto the platform. Running with the Rock Band Pro functionality, which can really start to be fully realized now that the Squier is coming to market. There’s a lot of development to be done over the course of this year, with new content for Rock Band 3.

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.

When Activision recently put the Guitar Hero franchise to bed — you guys were doing stuff prior to Guitar Hero [and] you were very successful, but that was kind of a turning point — what was your gut reaction to hearing that news?

Honestly, the very first reaction was that of, you know, feeling sympathetic for the folks that were being put out of work that day. We went through a reduction of force ourselves. It’s a very painful thing to let people go, and it’s a painful thing to see people lose their jobs. So that was kind of the first reaction.

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.

With that in mind, it’s obvious that the band category is certainly cooling off, at least as far as consumers are concerned. Have you looked at other avenues and opportunities, especially for those Pro modes, like educational opportunities?

We have very much thought about that. There’s not so much I can say about it today, but suffice it to say we think there’s a ton of untapped opportunity along that [route].

Right, I’ve recently been playing with the Squier Fender Pro guitar. As a guitarist myself, a self-taught one when I was in my teens, that kind of stuff would have been a blessing.

I know, I agree.

I’m picturing that being in schools or universities, so it’ll be interesting to see where you go with that.


So Dance Central… that was more commercially successful than Rock Band 3, right?

Yeah, to date it has outperformed Rock Band 3 at retail. It’s one of the top-selling titles for the Kinect, and the Kinect is one of the most successful products in the entire videogame industry right now. So we’re thrilled with how Dance Central has performed out of the gate.

It’s a pretty big risk when you think about it, going back to last year. It was a new IP on new, unproven hardware. Did you feel that was a big gamble?

It was a gamble. There was a moment where we had to take a big leap of faith as a company to devote ourselves to Kinect, which was an unproven peripheral.

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.

Considering that success, is Dance Central the main focus of the studio right now?

Well, I wouldn’t say — I mean, look: it’s our top-selling product right now, and I would say the largest single development team at the studio is hard at work on Dance Central, without being able to be too much more specific than that. But, we do continue to have significant resources devoted to Rock Band — both in near term and far term of Rock Band — and we also have significant resources devoted to a number of new IPs and new game concepts in development as well. So there’s actually quite a lot of work underway here on a diverse variety of projects.

You are working on a 3DS project, right? Is that correct?

[Laughs] I can neither confirm nor deny!

You mentioned something earlier about how you don’t feel that music games are the same things as music band games. There aren’t many music games out there right now. Do you think it’s time for a resurgence?

Well, so I guess the point that I was trying to make was, very generally speaking, I take the term “music game” to refer very broadly to any kind of game that depends the player’s connection with music, where the gameplay is connected to the music in some meaningful way — not just from an atmospheric standpoint, but from a functional standpoint to what’s going on in the game. And from an emotional standpoint.

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.

Are there any developers out there that are sort of doing those music games that are intriguing to you? Because I don’t see that many right now.

There are not that many on the horizon right now, which, frankly, I consider an opportunity for us.

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.

But we’re not going to see Harmonix’s Gears of War, right? [Laughs]

[Laughs] Unlikely. There are plenty of companies in the world making excellent [first-person shooters]; the world doesn’t need Harmonix to be in [that genre].

That kind of leads into my next question. I mean, you guys have been making music games for 10 years. The original vision was sort of always to get non-musicians the chance to experience, play, and connect with music in new ways. I feel like you’ve accomplished that. Obviously, you feel there’s more work to do in that space. But what? I mean, where do we go from here?

We do feel that there’s more to do in that space, and that doing more involves reconception of what music games mean, and what other ways there are to connect people with music — and to connect with other people through music — that haven’t really been explored yet. So it’s an important frontier of creative [research and development] for us.

You said that now is a good time to reinvent Rock Band, but I think that was a big message with Rock Band 3 last year, especially with the Pro modes. You tried to shake things up a little bit. Do you feel that you were successful in that?

I feel like [we were] creatively successful. I feel that paradigm for merging instrument learning with gameplay was successful from a design standpoint. I don’t think that we have yet achieved the full potential of that in terms of its distribution into the world. And I think as I said earlier, we expect that’s something we’ll cultivate over a long period of time through multiple different channels, including alternative channels, like you touched on. I think we’ll continue to build on that in [a] kind of slow-burn and slow-growth way for quite some time.

When Viacom announced publicly its intentions to sell Harmonix, there was a lot of speculation as to where you would go. Was the independent route always your goal? Did you even consider any of the big players?

I would say that we were considering all options. We were certainly considering that as a possibility. You know, we had some opportunities along those lines, but I think our preferred outcome was exactly the one we were fortunate enough to achieve, which was finding a financial partner who could bring us back independent again.

So if Activision came to you in three years and said, “We need you to revive the Guitar Hero franchise,” would that be something that you’d be interested in doing?”

Well, I mean, you’d have to ask me again in a few years, depending on the way the world looks at that point. I mean, I will say the fact that we have been competitors with Activision in the band game genre in the past would not close our minds about the opportunity to work with them on the right project in the future.

Do you think maybe you could have “saved” Guitar Hero, had you continued to work with Activision? Do you think maybe they handled that series wrong, or that Harmonix could have done better to help nurture that series over the years?

Well, I don’t know about that. I’m not inclined to critique Activision’s management of the Guitar Hero franchise. I think that Harmonix had its own opportunity to manage a rock performance simulation franchise, and we’re for the most part happy with what we were able to accomplish creatively over the last couple of years. We’ll leave it at that.

In hindsight, has what they [have] done with the Guitar Hero series had any impact on sales or the perception of the Rock Band product?

Yeah, it’s possible that it did. But as I said again, I’m not inclined to go there in terms of, kind of, critiquing the competitive dynamics between the franchises over the last few years.

What can you say definitively about what we can expect from Harmonix over the next 12 months?

I think, yeah, definitively, there’s not too much I can say.

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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