The Midlife Gamer’s amongst us often forget sometimes that we are in fact mere mortals. Yes, when we pick up our plastic guitars and strum away to high-def notes that fall to the hit zone, we’re often swept up in the moment, nodding our head to the rip-roaring track and jumping around the stage/living room in order to feel like the rock legends we all crave to be. Whether it be through hitting the virtual high-hats and bass of our drum kits, or picking up the mic for some ear-deafening singing, Harmonix have created some of the most influential and most exciting party games ever to be released onto consoles for the home.
Reading the back story of Harmonix- or Harmonix Music Systems, to be entirely correct- is a portrait of idealism and enthusiasm. Founders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy weren’t in it for the games, the money, no. In fact, as Rigopulos concludes on Harmonix’s official site, “everyone is born with an innate urge to make music. It’s one of the most profoundly joyful things in life. Yet the challenges are such that few people really get that far. We thought that was a significant problem, and we set about exploring new ways to solve it. Our mission was to show non-musicians how it feels when you finally get to the other side. And hopefully, to inspire them to start making music the old-fashioned way.” Having met whilst studying at MIT (Rigopulos was a music composition major who was also interested in programming, Egozy was a computer engineer who also had a shared interest in music), the company was originally funded with $100,000 once they finished studying, and the two were immediately intent on seeing how to work a joystick into a computer algorithm that created music on the fly, eventually leading to their first release- The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock for the PC. As software developers, Harmonix then created software that would trigger musical sounds through tracked movements by the user. “CamJam”, as it was called, was used in several Disney Theme Parks although the company later moved over to full videogame development after seeing the prospect and popularity of karaoke games such as Parappa The Rapper and Beatmania.
What followed was their first major videogame release funded by Sony- Frequency allowed users to mix music samples together through moving through the octagonal tunnel in order to hit notes. It was the first example to the baying public that Harmonix had something to deliver in the music game space and was a signal of intent of what was soon to follow. It’s sequel, Amplitude (released in 2003), can also be fondly remembered for its music based game play that further improved on the original concept imposed by Frequency. Introducing the ‘note highway’ into their games and the energy bar, Amplitude is actually very similar in style to modern band music games, albeit with a ship to track the notes! Rigopulos has also highlighted that he’d love for the team to work on a sequel to the game, and in an interview with Ars Technica expressed, “I’d love to do a sequel to Amplitude. It’s an issue of prioritization [although] I would love to do it right for the Playstation 3.”
A karaoke game for Konami (Karaoke Revolution) and project for the EyeToy later (EyeToy: AntiGrav), Harmonix were then approached by plastic peripheral manufacturers RedOctane to design software based around inputs from their instrument controller design, initially inspired by Japanese title GuitarFreaks. The rest they say is history as one of the most successful videogame franchises of all time was born. Guitar Hero was received well both critically and commercially and lead immediately to its sequel, Guitar Hero II, which is still one the most fondly remembered of all rhythm-action games for its exceptional track list and innovative game play that reinforced Guitar Hero as a brand to contend with. But Harmonix ended up doing just that when Activision acquired RedOctane early 2006, which ended up meaning Harmonix were on the search for other publishers. MTV Networks quickly snapped up the developer for a cool $175 million and began working closely with the then expanding team on an extension of music games to incorporate even more instruments and even more quality tracks from the leading artists in music. We all know of Rock Band and what has become of the brand- now with one full sequel, several spin offs (one with one of the most successful acts in musical history, The Beatles), and with Rock Band 3 on the way at the end of this year to continue to progress the rhythm-action landscape. Not only will Rock Band 3 include for the first time in music game history a keyboard, but controller manufacturers are also producing add-ons for instruments to support ‘Pro Mode’, further bringing the lines between ‘fool on a plastic peripheral’ to ‘rock legend’ closer together.