Bittersweet harmony: Amplitude’s Kickstarter campaign is hitting only bum notes

Enthusiasm, ambition, innovation: these are qualities that Cambridge, Mass studio Harmonix (Music Systems) has exhibited in spades since first its first rhythm action games, the PlayStation 2 exclusives Frequency (2001) and Amplitude (2003), drew critical acclaim aplenty, if not phenomenal sales. They would come later, when the company introduced its Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, followed by Dance Central come the Kinect era.

Luck, though, is something they can’t count on. On May 5th, the studio launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a new version of Amplitude – a rhythm action game requiring a controller only, still exclusive to Sony platforms. Their pitch video saw company co-founders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy expressing palpable passion for the project, and explaining that many team members who shaped the original are still at Harmonix and raring to go on its revival. Two days later, $170,000 of the $775,000 target had been raised – a great start.

But with four days left on the Kickstarter at the time of publication, over $400,000 is still required to fund this high-definition reboot. It looks unlikely that it will go ahead without achieving its crowd-sourced contribution, around half of total projected development costs. When we contact the company, director of publishing John Drake is very clear about what missing the $775,000 means to the new Amplitude. “If we don’t hit $775,000, we get none of the money raised,” he says. “And to be direct, we see no path forward to developing the game [without that money].”

Those in the press and public who have questioned why a company as successful as Harmonix requires a Kickstarter campaign at all are directed to a very honest blog entry on the studio’s website, written by Drake. Much of what he tells us, in response to numerous questions on the thought processes behind the project, is equally frank.

The Harmonix team.

Drake acknowledges that the music industry has changed dramatically since 2003, with license-holders far wiser today to the benefits of videogame exposure than a decade ago. Costs, too, have changed. For Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar is said to have paid just short of £10,000 per song, all in (as in, the total paid to label and publisher, combined). Times that by the 240 songs that appear across that game’s colourful radio stations and the total is substantially more than Harmonix’s overall development costs for the new Amplitude.

Which explains why the emphasis this time around is very much on internally composed tracks to play along to, rather than licensed material – the original Amplitude featured music by David Bowie, Garbage, Weezer and more. “Part of the reason we’re focusing on an original soundtrack is the cost of licensing popular tracks, for sure,” says Drake. ”We have great relationships with artists and labels, and if an artist is a fan of Amplitude, then [we might be able to license a song for less money]. But, typically, that’s not how it works. It is the music business, after all.”

The Kickstarter business model has previously proved a successful one for games developers and musicians alike. New York singer Amanda Palmer raised well over a million dollars to fund her Theatre Is Evil album in 2012 (from a target of $100,000), while Double Fine’s point-and-click title Broken Age began on Kickstarter. But these are exceptional highs. Only around half of music projects on Kickstarter achieve their goals, and gaming has seen a good many campaigns stall short of their targets: Dizzy Returns, for example, saw just seven per cent of the requested $350,000 pledged.

Drake tells us that the idea to bring back Amplitude arose “a few months back”, but “we weren’t able to secure funding for the game”. He continues: “We figured that the [original] game had such a dedicated fanbase that crowdfunding might help fill the minimum amount of funding the project needed to roll forward as a sane pursuit.” Evidently the studio’s optimism was misplaced.

It’s probable that compromises Harmonix has been forced into – such as focusing on original music over crowd-pleasing popular hits, and only releasing for PS3 and 4 – hamstrung its Kickstarter chances from the outset. Drake admits that Harmonix would “love to bring Amplitude to a broader slate of platforms, specifically PC, but the game is required to be Sony only, as they were the original publisher of the title and own parts of the IP.” He stresses that Sony will see none of the Kickstarter money – “100 per cent of the money raised goes directly to the development cost of the game.”

It’d be a shame if a game as phenomenally fun to play – easy to pick up, but hellishly tough to master at its higher levels (“Dark Souls, with music,” is how Drake describes the original’s difficulty spikes) – as Amplitude didn’t get a chance to appeal to current-generation audiences. With the appeal of limited-use peripherals waning – see Microsoft’s recent Kinect-as-a-box-in U-turn – a music-based game using a standard DualShock pad has clear potential. And yet, it’ll almost certainly fail to make market.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” says Drake, of the current Kickstarter shortfall, “but we still have hope. It would certainly be disappointing for us, and for fans and backers, if we didn’t get the chance to make this game. There’s an audience who never had a shot at being exposed to Amplitude back in the day, who we think would love this game. We’re hopeful that fans of the original will help us spread the gospel to the uninitiated.”

Right now, those fans may be wondering what it’d cost to license Hot Chocolate’s 1975 smash single ‘You Sexy Thing’ for DLC potential, but more likely how much faith they can place in its lyrical hook: “I believe in miracles…”