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Amid a struggling Kickstarter, Harmonix reflects on Amplitude

As the clock ticks away on the crowdfunding campaign to bring Amplitude to a new generation, Harmonix tells us what makes the game so special to the studio as a whole.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

May 19, 2014

11 Min Read

As of writing, Harmonix's Kickstarter to reboot iconic music game Amplitude has four days left. It's raised over $360,000 -- but that's less than half of its relatively steep $775,000 goal. This is a complicated objective, to be sure, but also a deeply personal one for the studio and its fans. If the fundraiser doesn't make it, there's no other way for a new Amplitude to get made. Ryan Lesser has been art director at Harmonix for 15 years. He was officially the original game's art lead, and is Amplitude's creative lead now -- not that titles mean tons on Harmonix's projects, where leadership on projects tends to be collaborative and lateral. 2001's Frequency, funded and published by Sony, put the studio on the map. It was uncommonly stylish at the time, fruit-punch cyberpunk, sending the player careening down a geometric tunnel gathering sequences of notes to complete musical tracks. Amplitude, released in 2003, was an attempt to make that game even better. "We felt Frequency had missed the target in a couple ways," Lesser tells Gamasutra. "It was really difficult, and not... solely in a game design difficulty way. It was broken, we thought." Frequency's tunnel structure was isolating, the team realized, and visually-noisy. And for a game that relied so much on precise timing, splitscreen multiplayer with such low visibility was "kind of brutal." Importantly, in the days before prolific game websites, internet trailers and trial downloads, Frequency's abstract look made it hard to sell -- back then the most important component of a game's pitch to fans was often simply the pictures on the back of a box. "There was an urge to get a friendlier face on it," says Lesser. That's why the team added the Beat Blaster -- a little spaceship with guns on the front that would navigate Amplitude's tracks, making the visual language instantly more familiar to game fans. Sony also wanted characters in the game, human-looking touchstones, which the game originally addressed by adding customizable little figures to the HUD.

"We loved that game so much it almost didn't even matter what anyone else said about it."

"We were all a hell of a lot younger, and that meant a lot of things," Lesser reflects. Harmonix has always aimed to build a studio full of artists and musicians -- a passion for creation and a well-rounded attitude to media can be more important there than the "eat, sleep and breathe games" philosophy associated with traditional development. Many of Amplitude's original team had strong games development pedigrees, but many did not. "It was very fresh, experimental and fun," Lesser recalls. "We loved that game so much it almost didn't even matter what anyone else said about it. We wanted to make that game regardless, and we were lucky to have had really good critical reviews for original Frequency. It didn't sell very well, but people really liked it. And we knew the game could get better." The original Amplitude was more successful than Frequency, but was "peanuts in the big scheme of things... it wasn't a financial success for us." And yet the game has been loved deeply by many for over a decade. People regularly petition the studio for a remake, and internally the desire to return to that beloved design comes up often. Especially as Lesser says the team has grown so much in the intervening years: They now have, he says, the ability to make a more visually sophisticated Amplitude. And unlike with the first game, new Amplitude will not license tracks to be played, but develop music in-house from the ground up to be engaging to play across all its tracks. The team hopes for a stronger overall experience aimed at that fascinating space that music games touch -- a sense of flow that defies logic. "It's this mesmerized, zen state that is sort of impossible to describe, but if you talk to people who have played Amplitude a lot you hear it often," says Lesser. "Your body goes into auto-play, your hands take over, you're listening to the music and it's all making sense in a way that logic isn't helping you with. I want to have that feeling again." But the period since Amplitude's release has seen a number of massive transitions for Harmonix. The last console cycle in particular was seismic -- the plenitude it launched with Guitar Hero and sustained through Rock Band and its sequels first swelled and then ebbed, and in the wake of the passing of the boom, the studio had to change. Or change back, more aptly, to a smaller company with multiple agile teams working on projects of all sizes. The plastic-instrument-less Dance Central helped lead the transition, and in addition to Fantasia: Music Evolved, the studio is experimenting on mobile with titles like VidRhythm and Record Run, and has announced Chroma, which is set to reimagine the first-person shooter genre as a musical experience.

"The traditional funding models are unraveling. The whole industry is in a tremendous disruption."

"We've been thinking about modern ways of developing games, and crowdfunding is one of them," says Lesser. "Looking at our roster of things we could crowdfund, we thought it would make the most sense to put out a game people could remember. All of our other titles made their mark in a bigger way, and didn't fit the Kickstarter model." There are some hopeful upsides to attempting to revive a game that wasn't profitable even in its heyday: Thanks to the developing-in-public environment crowdfunding has helped build, and thanks to the myriad of new ways developers have of giving information about games to new audiences, Amplitude could have the opportunity to find a new and bigger audience. But on the downside, there's an information war that Harmonix will need to win: the Kickstarter climate is in flux in terms of what people think the service should be used for -- what people will fund, and how much money they believe projects should ask for. John Drake, Harmonix's director of publishing and PR, had to take to the company's blog to explain that the reputable studio didn't have the funds itself nor was some publisher waiting in the wings to rescue the project should crowdfunding fails. And the estimable $775,000 is less than half of Amplitude's proposed budget, a tough pill for an environment where people believe that great indie games get made regularly on tiny budgets. Furthermore, Kickstarter and the concept of "console games" don't often tend to mix well, and there is no PC edition of Amplitude in the works. This is because although Sony would be unlikely to again fund the development of a game that lost money across two versions over 10 years ago, as sponsor of the original IP, Sony still owns part of Amplitude. Thus Harmonix can only create a PlayStation platform version. The lack of a PC edition presents a formidable wrinkle for the type of audience that takes an interest in crowdfunding and open development. Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos believes in Kickstarter: "In a way, it's the purest form of product financing," he tells Gamasutra. "There are no executives and marketing departments deciding whether or not a game gets to be brought to an audience... developers can champion and articulate their idea to an audience, and if it resonates, then the audience can empower that developer to bring that kind of vision into existence." "Amplitude is a game we're dying to make," Rigopulos says. "In some respects, I think Amplitude is the best game Harmonix has ever made. There's powerful chemistry in this game, and almost no one in the world has ever heard of it or played it, which we view as tragic. On the other hand, the first title was not commercially successful, which makes it a very difficult game to get funded through traditional means. We really haven't been able to find a publisher financing option for this project, and it's too expensive to do ourselves."

"We're moving toward a model whereby we have a larger number of smaller independent teams led by their own creative leadership."

Trying to accommodate a spectrum of project types and team sizes has indeed been a challenging shift for the longstanding studio. "We used to be a studio that did a small number of big things, and we're transitioning into a studio that does a larger number of small things, which necessitates greater delegation and independence. We're moving toward a model whereby we have a larger number of smaller independent teams led by their own creative leadership, on smaller teams operating more autonomously than they have historically." "It's always difficult learning to do new things well," Rigopulos says. "The flip side is there are so many talented people at the studio with new ideas for new kinds of games that we're very passionate about -- that creates an incredible opportunity for us to learn and to create new kinds of games that would not have been possible under the old model where things were more centralized." Even if Amplitude fails, Harmonix will "absolutely" keep exploring nontraditional funding models like crowdfunding. "The traditional funding models are unraveling," Rigopulos says. "The whole industry is in a tremendous disruption. We'll continue to operate under traditional models for most of the work we're doing, but the opportunity to engage directly with an audience not just for funding, but as a creative dialog... is something we're going to be exploring pretty aggressively." "The industry, and to some degree the market, has very specific notions of what a music game is, based on the games that had already been made. I see it as Harmonix's responsibility to invent new interpretations of what those words mean," he continues. "What is a 'music game'? From our vantage point, there are dozens of different ways to interpret those words that we've just barely begun exploring." "When you craft something compelling, it expands the notion of what a music game can be," adds Rigopulos. "It's why we exist." Although becoming a smaller, more flexible studio is liberating, in the volatile entertainment business, uncertainty about the future seems to be a given. "I think a lot of the audience just assumed there are big piles of Rock Band money still sitting around we should use to fund all of our new games. As a factual matter, that's not true -- we're a newly-formed, scrappy, small independent studio as of a few years ago when we spun back out of Viacom. Like any small studio, we need to find the way to fund the games we want to build." When Amplitude was close to launch back at the turn of the millennium, Sony marketing decided to do some focus testing, with about a dozen PlayStation fans. Each tester was given a "sell sheet," full of pictures, facts and bullet points about Amplitude, and was asked questions about it. Then, they actually spent about half an hour playing Amplitude, and were asked questions again, including about their intent to purchase.

"I think a lot of the audience just assumed there are big piles of Rock Band money still sitting around we should use to fund all of our new games."

Rigopoulous got a call from a Sony production manager: The pre-play "interest score" was the lowest of any game Sony had ever tested. Yet the post-play "intent to purchase" score was higher than any game Sony had ever tested. "You don't get it," marketers told Rigopulos. "We can't market this game: No one wants to buy it unless they've played it." Playing Amplitude before purchase was an impossibility in 2003, but things are very different now, and Harmonix is counting on that difference, hoping for a vanguard of early adopters who can help Amplitude succeed via social media -- even in spite of the perception challenges game Kickstarters currently struggle with, and in the face of a new wave of pushback. But it's always been challenging to change publisher perceptions about companies and market categories, suggests Rigopulos. In that regard very little has changed at all. Ryan Lesser says that no matter what happens, the impact of this Amplitude revival looms large over the studio. "People on this project are fired up in a way I honestly haven't seen in a while," he explains. "This has a different kind of spark, because of its history and the people who are working on it. And Kickstarter is actually really exciting, even though it's also terrifying, and you're very exposed. It's almost like a game in and of itself." "This is the happiest I've been at work," Lesser says. "I'm very hopeful for the Kickstarter. Even if it doesn't succeed, we've learned an enormous amount, and part of our experimentation with Kickstarter was just this: See what people want, see how many people are willing to get invested. We're psyched about it in a lot of ways, even as it's a struggle to make our way to the finish line."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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