And yet Harmonix achieved the video-game equivalent of the triple lutz: it took a game like Dance Dance Revolution, added a rock-and-roll slant to it, and did it in a way that didn’t come off as pandering. It seems like a no-brainer now, but a few years ago the concept would have been laughed off like a new Journey album. Previous games in this genre were fun, but they still felt like video games — you were just going for a score. As I played, I came to realize that Guitar Hero actually gave you the impression you were playing music.
Meet the new boss
This is no accident. Harmonix is a company known for employing numerous musicians, many of whom have local followings. Greg LoPiccolo and Eric Brosius, the company’s V-P of product development and audio director, respectively, were in Boston alt-rock favorites Tribe. Bryn Bennett, a programmer at Harmonix, is the founding guitarist of Bang Camaro. Audio director Kasson Crooker is a member of Freezepop. Visual effects artist Brian Gibson is in Lightning Bolt.
“Given that the people here are in bands themselves and are musicians,” notes Baptiste, “[they have a] desire to show the authenticity of rock and to show how awesome it is to make music — and how rock-and-roll it is. That’s first and foremost above the excessive, sort of cartoony aspects of it— and that’s huge for them.”
In addition to wanting to provide a game for a whole band to rock out to, there were other reasons that Harmonix developed Rock Band, the most obvious of which is that they no longer own Guitar Hero. The first two Guitar Hero games were released through a company called Red Octane, which in 2006 was purchased by Activision. Shortly thereafter, MTV purchased Harmonix. In January 2007, Activision’s in-house development people, Neversoft, announced they’d be developing the new GuitarHero games. Both the split with Red Octane and the new partnership with MTV motivated and enabled Harmonix to pursue Rock Band. Speaking to me in the Harmonix offices in October, Baptiste said it was a project Harmonix had been formulating for some time, but also admitted, “I think we did need a partner like MTV” to make it happen.
Rock Band is played much the same way as other Harmonix games that have come before it. On guitar and bass, you “play” the “notes” that descend an on-screen conveyor belt, which correspond with the controller. Players push buttons on the controller’s neck as you would frets on a real guitar, for instance, and strum on a bar where one would normally strum said real guitar. When you play these notes correctly, the result is that sweet riff or chord progression you know so well blasting out of your TV. (Bass and guitar use the same guitar controller.) Drumming works similarly: there are four columns — corresponding with the four drum pads — along which the drum targets descend toward the screen. The bass-drum pedal is part of it as well: it’s represented by a yellow line traversing the width of the drummer’s conveyor belt.