Interview: Alex Rigopulos

Interview: Alex Rigopulos

Being the founder and CEO of Harmonix apparently earns you one of the few office spaces not buried under heaps of music paraphernalia. Which is not to say that Alex Rigopulos doesn’t have any, he just has a bit more room to spread it all around. Like the people he employs, his passion for music is such that we’re afraid to test it for fear it might erupt, showering us in band names so obscure we’ll have to burn all our Gringo Records albums in shame. So we ask him about boring old videogames instead.
Being the founder and CEO of Harmonix apparently earns you one of the few office spaces not buried under heaps of music paraphernalia. Which is not to say that Alex Rigopulos doesn’t have any, he just has a bit more room to spread it all around. Like the people he employs, his passion for music is such that we’re afraid to test it for fear it might erupt, showering us in band names so obscure we’ll have to burn all our Gringo Records albums in shame. So we ask him about boring old videogames instead.

 

How has the culture at Harmonix changed over the years? Walking around, it looks more like the studio you’d expect to have made Rock Band than Frequency.
First of all, I think the cultural atmosphere here has remained remarkably intact over the last ten years. We’ve grown dramatically over the last four, but the culture’s pretty much weathered that expansion. In terms of the degree to which the studio seems steeped in rock culture, that’s very much a consequence of spending the last five year focusing most of our creative energy on Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

It’s also the fact that many of the people in the company are rock musicians, so the focus on the Rock Band franchise has let us invest that aspect of ourselves into the environment. But there are a lot of people here who love dance music, electronic music, or who are active participants in music outside of the rock sphere. So, when Dance Central gets airborne, you’ll see a lot of those elements start to assert themselves again, and I think you’ll see increasing momentum over time. There’s a lot of unexplored terrain, and as we go there over time – which we will – you’ll see those cultural elements come back.


Frequency

Will you ever consider taking a step back and revisiting Frequency and Amplitude?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. Those early games were near and dear to our hearts. We loved those games and of course have been focused on other areas in recent years. Rock Band’s been focused on rock music, Dance Central has the luxury of focusing on all kinds of other music, but in terms of rhythm-action-type games focused on electronica, that’s something we’d love to come back to at the right moment in time. Or something completely new focused on that style of music.

Why were they so niche? Was it just the youth of the genre or because they were so scientific? Are they just too narrow for you to consider now?
I don’t think they have to be. Our earlier games were. I think it was a combination of factors. If you look back at Frequency and Amplitude, first of all, at that point music games were still nascent in the west – most gamers had no idea what a rhythm-action game was. Furthermore, a lot of the music chosen for those games leaned toward the underground; the cool kids knew it but the mainstream certainly didn’t. And visually, the way those games were presented was forbidding to the uninitiated. There will be an opportunity to come back to experiences like that, but where the presentation’s a little more accessible to a wider audience.

Was Pro Mode on the cards from the very earliest days of Guitar Hero?
I think some elements of it were. From the beginning, we’ve seen this spectrum between fully simulated music-making and real music-making, and it’s been an ambition of ours to move along it with each iteration. When we moved from Guitar Hero to Rock Band and started doing drumming gameplay, we saw that as an opportunity for more authentic simulation. And the singing is really singing, of course. I wouldn’t say the specifics of the design were apparent to us way back then, but the ambition to bridge the gap has been there, and an acknowledgement that the guitar would be the hardest instrument to do it on.


Rock Band 3

How do you stop growth turning into bloat?
The challenge we face as game designers is that, at this point, the Rock Band audience is so large and diverse that it’s not one unified voice. When you’re making a game like, I don’t know, Halo, as a designer you have a pretty clear idea who you’re making it for, and you can make feature-set decisions in a very targeted way for that one flavour. When you’re making Rock Band it’s very different. For example, at one extreme we have really competitive, hardcore players who only play on Expert and want to see how their score stacks up against friends. That’s a minority of our audience but an extremely important and vocal one, and, man, you want to keep those guys happy.

But at the same time, the majority of the audience are really social, casual party players. They want to have a few drinks, invite their friends over and just put the game on to have fun. Most of them don’t even pay attention to the score. That group of people has a very different set of design needs. There are all kinds of ways you can slice the audience, and each axis has all kinds of needs they’re very vocal about. We could, as designers, make the decision to write off a portion of that audience.

But I think the potential applicability of the platform is broad enough that it’s our burden to create a platform that can accommodate different audiences, and compartmentalise the feature-set in such a way that if you’re a casual player who doesn’t care about competition, it’s just hidden from you. It doesn’t feel like Microsoft Windows where all this functionality’s thrust upon you.