Interview: Alex Rigopulos
What’s your relationship with the Guitar Hero franchise now? Do you try to ignore it and just focus on your own agenda?
I wouldn’t say we ignore it entirely because it would be foolhardy not to pay attention. But, by the same token, we view it as our responsibility to decide where the category should be evolving towards, and that it should be looking forward rather than back. In that regard, we don’t spend a lot of time looking at what Guitar Hero’s doing.
Does Activision’s attitude make you worry about its commercial threat, both to Rock Band’s slice and the genre’s vitality?
I place a high degree of faith in the notion that if we focus on quality, and on creating the most compelling experiences possible, that will pay off in time. And in fact, even if you just look at the trajectory of market share over the last few years, Rock Band started out as a substantial underdog but has gained every year since we launched. And I’d like to think that’s in part a testament to our focus on quality above all else.
Presumably Harmonix is happy making music games. Is there no itch to try something like AntiGrav again?
Not really. Honestly, our reason for being is making music games. There are already countless very talented developers out in the world making other kinds of games, and our calling is to make the very best music games we can. Frankly, we were struggling as a studio when we made AntiGrav. We had released Frequency and Amplitude through Sony which, while critically successful, were not commercially successful. And Karaoke Revolution, which fared similarly.
We had a great relationship with Sony but at that point they came to us and said: ‘Look, we love you guys and you make great games, but we can’t keep funding music games that don’t sell. So we have this new device, the EyeToy, that’s been quite successful in Europe, and we’d like you to help us launch it in the US. Could you guys do something different to what’s been done by the European studios?’
We had to do a lot of soul-searching about that, because we’d made ourselves as a music company. But we had bills to pay and a good relationship, and it hurt to take that project. And what hurt even more was the reception to it – our lowest-rated game from a Metacritic standpoint, but which sold more by a factor of about four than our best-selling music game. That led to a profound moment of self-doubt in around 2004; were we just nuts? Why were we devoting ourselves to making games no one buys? It was a pretty dark period, but fortuitously around the time we were given the opportunity to make Guitar Hero.
And five years from now?
We could spend the next hour on that question, depending on what happens with console hardware and all that. But there’s a lot of creative terrain to explore with Rock Band: new forms of interaction between the player and the music. We still have some very exciting things planned.
On the Dance Central side, the appeal of dancing is so broad, and it’s such a joyful experience, that the opportunity for cultural impact is at least as high as with Guitar Hero in the beginning. And finally, we also have a lot of ideas about new forms of music play beyond the purview of Rock Band and Dance Central. So our hope is just that Harmonix continues to push the envelope, and if we can entrench in the minds of the public that expectation of being able to play with the music they love, we'll have been successful.