Interview: Alex Rigopulos
For Prince – or indeed the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince – it took a silly change of name, some even sillier face paint and some good old courtroom drama to break free from his label. For band game pioneer Harmonix, Viacom saved it the effort. Announcing its exit from console gaming following a downturn in the music game business, the MTV owner put the studio up for sale before shuttering its entire MTV Games division.
Now owned by investment firm Columbus Nova, Harmonix finds itself back in the indie section with much to consider. The demise of Activision’s Guitar Hero, the future of Kinect hit Dance Central, the profitability of Rock Band and a legal spat between Viacom and its former shareholders. In his only European interview on the matter, CEO Alex Rigopulos sets the stage.
What unfinished business remains between Harmonix and Viacom?
There really isn’t unfinished business. Those lingering disputes are between a group of former shareholders of Harmonix, from the pre-acquisition days. There actually aren’t any disputes between Harmonix and Viacom at present. It’s a historical matter.
How did you feel about John Riccitiello’s remark that buying Harmonix would be like “catching a falling knife?”
The press kinda had fun with that and made, in my opinion, much ado about nothing. That’s an age-old analogy that’s been used for decades by investors. It’s no secret that the band-game genre has been going through a period of contraction, and John Riccitiello was simply making a comment about that being a challenge. It was an absolutely reasonable one which was dramatised in the way the press ran with it. From my point of view, as a practical reality, Harmonix has the good fortune of being at a place right now where we’ve found the bottom – we’ve found a stable place in the Rock Band business.
How do you regard the sales of Rock Band 3?
Well, there’s no denying that Rock Band 3 hasn’t yet sold to the level we hoped it would out of the gate. But on the flipside of that we also believe that it’s a product that has a lot of life. It’s an incredibly huge product with a lot of functionality that people haven’t experienced yet; a key peripheral, the Squier, is shipping next week. And we have long term plans to support the platform indefinitely. We have some really compelling content to come and we want to nurture the Pro functionality. So while the sales were somewhat disappointing, we have a lot of faith in its future potential. It’s also worth pointing out that there are a lot of people still playing Rock Band 2 who haven’t given 3 a try yet, and with the recent news about Guitar Hero there’s still a large addressable market we haven’t tapped into.
Rock Band 3
What was your first instinct when you heard about Guitar Hero?
Honestly, it was sympathy for a lot of excellent people who lost their jobs. Having just gone through a round of lay-offs ourselves, that was our first reaction. In terms of strategic opportunity, I do think there’s been a lot of Guitar Hero loyalists over the years and we have an incredible game waiting for them.
Would it be counterproductive to try and court the Guitar Hero audience with changes to Rock Band?
The typical characterisation of the Guitar Hero core is players much more focused on metal, high-end difficulty and aesthetically harder-core music. And the reality is that we have this gigantic and incredibly diverse library of content that very directly meets those needs. Incredibly challenging material, tonnes of metal – we have quite a diverse menu for those people.
How about Dance Central? Are you satisfied with that game’s performance?
It’s done fantastically well. We’re very happy with it in a number of ways. From a business standpoint, it’s one of the top selling titles for Kinect and Kinect is one of the hottest items at retail right now. There’s a very bright future for that franchise, and from a creative standpoint there’s a lot we’re very excited about. I think Microsoft’s opening up an important new frontier in game design here, not just for the casual audience but the hardcore as well. The input means the Kinect affords are just going to break down a bunch of walls for their game and non-game applications, and it’s a brilliant strategy for expanding the Xbox marketplace. It’s one we’re paying a lot of attention to.
Would you deviate from music games if a great idea required it?
There’s a high degree of creative energy here right now about motion gaming. Historically our focus has been almost exclusively on music games. Dance Central is a bridge from music gaming into motion gaming, we’ve developed both a competency and preoccupation with the creative potential of motion gaming, and it’s safe to say you’ll see a lot more in that domain from Harmonix beyond Dance Central. We’d be absolutely open-minded about that. I think there’s staggering creative potential that’s largely unexplored.
How poisonous was Activision’s update schedule for Guitar Hero?
I think that when there’s commercial pressure, particularly in the context of a fierce market share battle, as you saw with Guitar Hero versus Rock Band, there’s enormous pressure to do yearly updates. Because the consequence of not doing one is potentially lost market share that you’ll never regain. It’s a pressure that can be counterproductive to the pace of innovation because you can only do so much when trying to support annual updates – or, in Activision’s case, what often amounted to much more frequently than annual.
Was it even remotely likely that Activision could have ‘rescued’ Harmonix, or was it politically impossible?
Anything was really possible, by which I mean that we were adversaries with Activision but that doesn’t naturally preclude us from collaborating if it made sense to do so. Would it have been politically impossible? No, I don’t think so. That said, we’re frankly not in a situation where we were in need of rescuing. This is an incredible time at Harmonix and it’s incredibly invigorating – it’s a new beginning and a new chapter in our lives. We’ve made some very painful adjustments but we’ll get the Rock Band business to a much healthier place, we have an incredible new franchise in Dance Central, and right now there’s just a cauldron of creativity here in terms of new IP. So I guess my point is that, in a certain sense, Harmonix has never been in a better place than it’s in right now. We’re very fortunate to have ended up with financial backers who’ve been very supportive.
Will Harmonix scale back up if the need arises?
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. It’s also entirely possible we’ll stay at this scale while developing new IPs. It’s so dependent on the specific timing and circumstances, but we’re not averse to the idea of growing again.
What’s the biggest change when going indie? Freedom?
There’s certainly an invigoration that comes from being in control of your own destiny. I mean look, none of us is really in control of their destiny but there’s a freedom and nimbleness of action you have as an independent, to take certain kinds of risks, creatively and otherwise. They’re freedoms we’ve not had in the past several years as part of a large company. But it’s important not to dismiss the opportunities we had as part of MTV, certain things we never could have done. The perfect example is The Beatles: Rock Band, the kind of collaboration that without the relationships and assets of MTV never could have happened.
Was anything on the cards at MTV that no longer is, then?
I don’t think so. MTV was absolutely critical to forging the relationships with the music industry that were required to support the Rock Band business between 2006 and 2009. Those were transformative years. But so much has happened since then – music games in particular are quite an important source of profits for the music industry; suffice it to say we have their attention now – that Harmonix has the standing now to collaborate with the music business itself.
You recently announced the end of Rock Band Network support for Wii. Has Wii support generally become an albatross for Rock Band?
Actually, it’s been a pretty important platform for Rock Band; a significant percentage of Rock Band consumers are on Wii. One of the reasons Wii was so explosively successful was that it brought into the world of console gaming a lot of people who didn’t consider themselves gamers. Similarly, Rock Band brought in a lot of people who didn’t consider themselves gamers. There’s a fascinating overlap there. The issue of support for Rock Band Network is really one that’s just related to some – I won’t bore you with the details – technical specifics of what was required to support RBN content on the platform compared to the actual appetite for it. It didn’t make sense so we had to make that call and be very direct about it.
How big a part do tablets and smartphones play in Harmonix's future?
Honestly, the portable devices are outside of our core focus. Our core expertise as a studio is creating the kinds of immersive sensory experiences that you can do on your consoles in your living room, and our strategy will continue to be to collaborate with thirdparties whose expertise is in the mobile sphere. So we’d work with them to bring adaptations of our IPs to mobile devices when it makes sense.