Players only

By MATT PARISH  |  August 24, 2009
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Photo: Giuliana Funkhouser
MEGA-INDIE-NOODLERS: Thief Thief will be part of the Harmonix show on August 20 at the Middle East downstairs.

It's hard to overestimate the cultural heft wielded by that modest office on Mass Ave. After blowing up worldwide in 2005 with the first Guitar Hero game, Harmonix set its sights on full-band cooperative play in Rock Band. (The Guitar Hero franchise was bought by Activision and has become Rock Band's chief rival.) The company is now owned by MTV; Viacom reports it's shipped 10 million units of Rock Band, and the more recent addition of downloadable songs (50 million sold this year) is threatening to poke another big hole in the already sinking ship of the music business. When Mötley Crüe released its single "Saints of Los Angeles" last year, the Rock Band version of the track outsold the one on iTunes. The company now has more than 300 employees; last year it popped up on the Globe's "100 Best Places To Work in Boston" list.

In store for this year is The Beatles: Rock Band. But Harmonix is also rolling out the Rock Band Network, kind of a DIY coding platform that gives anyone in the world the ability to code and upload songs of his or her own for distribution to gamers everywhere.

It's cool to imagine something this big coming out of our backyard — I mean, I know there's a history of stuff like the genome project, disposable razors, and Good Will Hunting here, but this is something I can use to impress my nephews. That a video-game company focused on music-themed games employs a ton of local musicians seems almost too good to be true.

I'm talking to Smith and Harmonix publicist Stephanie Meyers over lunch in Central Square. Meyers moonlights as Green Line Greta, a wrestler in the Boston League of Women Wrestlers (BLOWW), and she shows up in a tangle of medical wrap and slings, having broken both wrists at a match two weeks earlier at Great Scott. "I tried to get a job here for two years because of what I'd heard about it," she says. "Everybody's really, really good at what they do, and the interview process is super-selective. It herds together people who aren't only involved in this stuff professionally but who mesh well and live their lives the way we do."

Harmonix PR coordinator John Drake is spending a week in NYC on what seems like a never-ending press campaign for the new Beatles game. He's just finished a three-hour session on the QVC channel when I get him on the phone. A two-year veteran of the company, Drake has seen the employee base increase by 300 percent since he started, and he's maintained his spot in indie-pop band the Main Drag.

"The weird thing is going back and forth between band and work stuff," he says of the way his work duties tend to outshine the real-life rock ones. "I play Rock Band in auditoriums with thousands and thousands of people. I'm on TV for it. When I get back to Boston, I'll play a show with the Main Drag at the Middle East in front of like 30 people. Both are totally valid parts of the rock experience, I think. The former is just newer than the latter.

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