Interview: Reinventing Harmonix

Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos gives Gamasutra an inside look into his studio's newfound independence, a reinvigorated sense of freedom and creativity, and wide-ranging plan to enter new markets and attract more music lovers.
Best known for the Rock Band series, Cambridge, MA-based Harmonix has bestowed upon itself the responsibility of placing the love of music at the core of meaningful gaming experiences. And with the successful launch of 2010's Dance Central for Xbox 360's Kinect motion sensor, the studio has only begun to show its Madonna-like proficiency at reinventing itself to appeal to new audiences and markets. Gamasutra recently spoke with Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos, who revealed that the 200-person studio is actively exploring and developing new products for a surprisingly wide array of platforms and audiences. That means the studio is looking beyond its core console-based businesses and exploring social gaming as well as mobile. It's a sign that the studio is stretching its legs since Viacom sold Harmonix to a senior partner at investment firm Columbus Nova last year, essentially giving the developer its independence back. Rigopulos told us that the studio is readying the launch of its first iOS project called VidRhythm. But that's just the beginning of Harmonix's reinvigorated drive to dominate the anything-but-dead music and rhythm game market. How have things changed at Harmonix, going from being owned by Viacom and MTV Games to being sold back into independence? Well, it's actually been an incredibly invigorating change. We feel like it's a new beginning for the studio. There's a ton of creative activity and excitement at the studio. We're working on a lot of new IP, on many different platforms. We're hiring and growing again. Our most recent release, Dance Central has been a phenomenal success. So we actually have the wind at our backs with that franchise, and as you know we are releasing a sequel this holiday. Between all the new activities here, the sense of freedom and independence again and the success of our recent release has really made it an amazing time at the studio. Was Harmonix's creativity stifled at all by Viacom or MTV Games? To be clear, Viacom really never put any creative influence over Harmonix, I think they did quite an admirable job of not tinkering with the creative. We had pretty much complete creative independence as a studio when we were with Viacom. You know, there were other issues that are typical to any big company -- it's just harder to get things done at a big company, decisions take a much longer time, it takes a longer time to turn the ship. There's bureaucracy, politics, etc. That's the biggest contrast with being independent again -- we can make decisions very quickly, we can change course, and we have this nimbleness that is just impossible within a big company. From a creative standpoint, we had been primarily focused on the Rock Band franchise for many years, pretty much since 2006 through most of 2010. Now with the Rock Band franchise having contracted considerably, and now that it's clear that the category needs some material reinvention, we have turned our attention elsewhere. I should mention that we do continue to support the Rock Band business, which is actually now quite a profitable business for us in terms of the downloadable content, and we have fairly ambitious plans on where we want to take the Rock Band franchise in the future in what I think will be some big, unexpected directions. In addition to our plans with Rock Band and Dance Central, we actually have several new console IPs in development, and we also have the first of what will be many iOS IPs in development as well. Several new IPs? Yes, and that's one of the reasons we're in a growth phase and we're hiring again. Did Harmonix have any inkling that the bottom would drop out of the peripheral-based music game business as quickly as it did? During this period of 2006-2008, the ascent of the band game genre was literally unprecedented, it was insane. It went from a tiny niche market to a multi-billion-dollar business between Rock Band and [Activision's] Guitar Hero. Over essentially a couple-year period, it was crazy how rapidly that genre exploded, and then it contracted almost as precipitously over the subsequent couple of years. Many people have theorized as to why that was the case. I think the most common theory is that Activision oversaturated the genre with too many releases, and that may be partly true. I think there may be other factors, not the least of which is that the contraction of that genre really started to pick up steam in the holiday of 2008 on the heels of the global recession. And these games [suffered] because all the plastic and the packaging made these things the most expensive games you could buy, which I'm sure did not help in a recessionary environment. The point is that there were a number of factors coinciding to lead to that outcome. But I think that by 2010, the writing was on the wall, and peripheral-based music games were really just a shadow of what they were a couple years ago. You said that the peripheral-based music genre needs "material reinvention." Where does the genre need to go? Without being able to say too much about it, I guess I'll just say that what those games were all about for many years was rock performance simulation. That play experience had a great run, but obviously, it's not the only music-related play experience. Obviously, dance games have become an immediate successor to rock performance simulation. Our new dance game is doing very well, and there are several others that are doing well. But what I think you're going to see is many new types of play experiences. At Harmonix, we're working on a number of them, both large and small, and I'm sure other people are as well. The basic point is that music is a profound part of who we are; people always have and always will listen to and care deeply about music. And to whatever extent people can create play experiences that deepen peoples' connection to that music, I think there will be constant reinvention of the music game genre going forward. How substantial are the Rock Band DLC sales in the grand scheme of Harmonix's business? It's a meaningful source of profitability for us. There's still a dedicated core of Rock Band fans that come in week after week to buy new releases of this content. So it's an important source of business that we will continue to foster for quite some time, independent of the more substantial reworkings of the Rock Band franchise that we have in mind. Do you have a philosophy that goes across all those IPs at Harmonix, where you identify what you think people want? Performance is something that we talked about, and both Rock Band and Dance Central have performance in common. But I don't think performance is a requisite ingredient for a successful music game. I think the common theme among various music play experiences that we work on here is that they have to amplify peoples' emotional connection or emotional response to music in some meaningful way. And we find that when we invent play mechanics that accomplish that, that's when we're successful. What about games like Frequency and Amplitude -- those more "core"-gamer focused music experiences? Is that a business you might want to revisit? I certainly wouldn't rule it out. As I said, we're working on a rather broad and diverse range of potential products right now, and we want to accommodate a pretty diverse set of audiences with these new products. Obviously, elements of our earlier games that we felt were successful, we don't want to ignore. What about social network gaming? Anything going on in that area? I'd think you're looking at that as well. We are. Really, we're looking at all of the emerging platforms, social as well as mobile, and doing a lot of creative development on where we create music experiences that are meaningful on all of these emerging platforms. So suffice it to say, we're looking closely at it.

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