Harmonix Interview

Harmonix Interview

In the fall of 1997 the phone rang on Greg LoPiccolo’s desk at Looking Glass Studios, the game design boutique in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the guy on the other end of that call was me, Randy Smith . LoPiccolo was the project lead of the game that would eventually be titled Thief, and soon afterwards he gave me my first job in the industry. The day Thief’s gold master was approved, LoPiccolo announced he was leaving for Harmonix Music Systems to take the helm as director (now VP) of product development.

Over the past ten years, he has played a central role in guiding Harmonix, step by step, through a series of games whose highlights include the runaway success of Guitar Hero all the way through to the highly anticipated release of Rock Band 2. Join me as I talk with one of my biggest role models and mentors about the patient, bold and highly focused creative vision behind Harmonix.

Complicated Games for Complicated People

How did you get involved in Harmonix?

A couple of Looking Glass employees had moved over to Harmonix. I had been a musician before getting into the games industry and was excited to move back in that direction. Thief was creatively super rewarding, but it was a brutal death march. I had a family and small children, so that lifestyle was not compatible with my personal goals.

What was your earlier career as a musician like?

I played bass in a band called Tribe. We never made the national stage, but we were a prominent Boston band in the late ’80s and early ’90s. We got to tour with The Psychedelic Furs, we were on Conan the first month the show was on the air, and we opened for Pixies and Throwing Muses.

What did you think about working at Looking Glass?

Looking Glass had a ton of intellectual ferment. They had a very clear understanding that this was a medium whose boundaries could be expanded, and they were going to be the people to do it. All kinds of ambitious things were being attempted in different domains, and there was very little process. It was very chaotic, and they were figuring it out on the fly.

It’s worth noting that Looking Glass tended to produce sophisticated gaming experiences that appealed most to people who could get through the barrier to entry.

That was something the staff was aware of. To a great degree, it was in the DNA of the place: complicated people making complicated experiences. I think Thief was actually pretty accessible compared to some of the stuff we’d done before. I certainly took away that to be commercially successful you needed to make games that people are actually able to play, and I came away with a strong respect for the importance of process, of actually shoving stuff out the door.

What was Harmonix like the day you walked in the door?

We had this high-level directive that the founders, Alex and Eran, had concocted to which we’ve remained true to this day, and that was to use technology to allow non-musicians to experience music. We believe music is this incredible human joy which is denied to most people because they don’t have a decade or more to put into mastering a conventional instrument. So we wanted to use technology to cut out the huge learning curve and plug people right in to the awesome experience.

What was the first game you settled on, and why?

We settled on something that ended up being Frequency. I had a half-baked idea from my Looking Glass days about a cyberspace world with a musical component where you would zoom through and interact with data. We looked at the beat-matching gameplay we saw in games like Parappa and thought: ‘How can we turn this into an immersive 3D experience and make the gameplay a little deeper?’

How did it turn out?

My sense is that the gameplay was pretty decent, but we learned some hard lessons about how to present that sort of thing to a mass audience. It was really opaque. Serious gamers who could grasp the mysterious interface got a lot of enjoyment out of it, but it was hard to market.