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Q&A: Harmonix's Dornbrook & Sussman Tell All

Guitar Hero has weathered both a $175 million acquisition by MTV last September and a switch of GH3 developer to Neversoft - we talk to Mike Dornbrook and Daniel Sussm
Guitar Hero developer Harmonix has been much in the news of recent, thanks to its $175 million acquisition by MTV last September. The subsequent passing of the Guitar Hero franchise to Neversoft, thanks to publisher RedOctane's acquisition by Activision, stirred things up a little more - Harmonix confirmed to Gamasutra that the company is not developing Guitar Hero 3, and is "working on a different music game project, one that is a bigger and more ambitious endeavor". Therefore, Gamasutra caught up with Harmonix COO Mike Dornbrook and producer Daniel Sussman to find out about the company's acquisition and future plans, the firm's hiring practices, and why music making is an underutilized part of today's culture. How did this deal with MTV go through, because it seems pretty unprecedented, in terms of the amount of money that was paid for a developer without IP? Mike Dornbrook: Well, we have been talking to MTV for many years, obviously, focusing on music and music video, with them being the premier music media folks. It seemed to make sense to keep that communication open. About a year and a half ago, we started talking about some sort of major strategic partnership - we had a whole bunch of discussions and negotiations about that. Then, when Guitar Hero was underway, they got interested in doing some marketing support with that, with their art team. It really has just flowed over time. It seemed like a sensible next step for MTV as an organization, in terms of keeping the young music crowd attached to the brand. That I think made a lot of sense to all sides. It makes sense for us, in that we had a lot of ambition as to where we think we can go within interactive music. It is very difficult for a tiny little company to pull all of that stuff off. Is it basically based on the direction that Harmonix is going to be headed? Is that what MTV was sold on? Because it's obviously not simply the Guitar Hero franchise, because you do not have that anymore. MD: Well, I think that years ago, it was almost a hundred percent where we were going, but we do have some ownership over the Guitar Hero franchise. You still have some IP retention? MD: We still have a big interest in that product line going forward. How is that working logistically with MTV, since they are not a publisher - is it more like a venture capital type investment, or will there be some sort of mandate to integrate MTV content? MD: We work pretty independently. I think one of the reasons that we like the idea of MTV as our parent is that they are actually quite good in the way they look after the acquisitions they have made, over time. They have been very good at understanding our talents - if you want to have a successful acquisition, you don't mess around with something that is working. They are bending over backwards, they try to be helpful and not affect our culture or what is working here. All indications are that they are kind of an ideal parent. I'm not just telling you that because that has to be the spin. I have been involved in other acquisitions and this is pretty unique, I think. Where, if you can say, are you going to go from Guitar Hero? I was going to ask how it feels being apart from the franchise, but I guess you're not completely? MD: We still are working with it - there's only so much I can talk about, but we are, certainly, still doing work on Guitar Hero, but I can't tell you how long that is going to be the case. I can tell you that the team here that created Guitar Hero - and Frequency, and Amplitude - is going to continue to create that kind of interactive music experience. I don't think we have lost anybody with the merger and we aren't fearing losing anybody. People are very happy with the way things are going to work, and what they are working on. It's an exciting time for us. Daniel Sussman: In fact, I think that is a good point: if you map our progression, all of it, back to Frequency, we have a lot of the same people who worked on all of these games. I think that nucleus of creative talents is kind of the thing that MTV bought. Are you interested in more alternate control type games like EyeToy: AntiGrav or those kinds of strange, pushing the limit type games? MD: I think, in general, we like challenges and we like having ability to push the envelope with what is coming in the future. That said, do we have something like an EyeToy thing in mind right now? I can't really go down that path, but we are always open to exciting opportunities. I think we are probably going to more likely focus in the music space, at least in medium term future. That is where our real expertise is. The demand is for us to do music products, I imagine that's where we are going to focus most of our efforts. Does Harmonix want to do anything other than music games? I mean even aside from the business aspect, is there any desire on the part of people working there? MD: Oh, there are certainly people here who loved creating Antigrav, and if we have the bandwidth to work on non-music games, there are people here who would like to do that, but I don't know that we are going to have that bandwidth for a while. DS: To that end, we have a lot of musicians on staff that work on our games, the reason being that's a passion that a lot of people here share. You do seem to be pretty well integrated into the local Boston music scene and art scene - was that just a natural thing? MD: I think it was kind of an evolution really. We hire a lot creative people who have a musical background - a lot of those folks are in bands, or want to be in bands, and end up wanting to be once they are here or whatever. Daniel, you're in one, you could probably talk more, you were in one when we hired you, weren't you? DS: Yeah, I was, and I think that a lot of creative people are attracted to Harmonix, because we value extra-curricular activities. Specifically, artistic things - a lot of people on our art staff have fine arts that they do on the side, a lot of photography, painting, and that is very attractive to our art director. And on the music side, having people who know music and are passionate about music, and can play instruments - that has a huge value, as far as I am concerned. MD: I think it is also a good recruiting edge, we can get really talented people who want to work here over other game studios. How is your area, the East Coast or Boston, for game development? There's not a lot of you out there, is there? MD: Boston is a little bit of a backwater, and it's funny, because I have been in the business here for 27 years, I think - I hate to admit that. Go back twenty years, and actually Boston was probably number two or number three in the U.S., with publisher/developers like Infocom, and now I bet we are at number nine or something like that! We are way down the list, behind Seattle, and Austin, and Vancouver, and any number of other places now. There is still a core of people in the area who are doing game development. There is Turbine, Blue Fang, and Irrational - there are actually quite a few local developers. I think one advantage we have is there is a lot great talent in the area - we have got the computer science folks coming out of Harvard and MIT and so on. We've got the Berklee College of Music right down the street from us here, two miles from us, one of the best music conservatories in the world - they've probably got the best computer music program anywhere. We've got the Rhode Island School of Design, Massachusetts College of Art - a lot of great recruiting ground. If somebody wants to stay in this area, it is really an attractive place for them to work. Do you think that generally universities raising game developers is a good thing? I know that some of you have come from MIT- what do you think of game development in universities? MD: We don't specifically go out and hire people out of game development programs, but that's not to say we never have or never would. What we look for primarily is, if it's a programmer, what is their raw talent as a programmer? We don't necessarily care that much whether they have some sort of game development training. We really want them to be fantastic programmers. Obviously, if they are working on graphics systems, we look to see that they have graphic programming experience or whatever. For musicians, again we are not looking at actual game experience, we are looking at, say, how good are they with audio tools? How good are they with music? And artists, again, we look at primarily how talented an artist is. You know, being a good fine artist is more important than being a computer artist - you can learn computer skills - so we really haven't been recruiting that much out of the game development programs per say. DS: I think my take on a lot of the curricula out there is that it's still actually a young major. I think you'll start to see more and more high-powered talent coming out of game development university programming, in established schools. But, especially in the Boston area, there is such a host of raw talent that is pretty easy for us to find. There are great artists, great musicians, and great programmers who are interested in games because they like to play them, and then we give them the skills they need to make games. It sounds like you guys must have to do a lot of training if you hire that way. Is that true? Do you have specific training programs? MD: We've got a mix of people who have come in - a fair amount who've been at it for many years, have experience doing games before they came here, but we also have many people who started off here. Junior artists, junior testers, have grown over the years - like Daniel, sitting right next to me for instance, started as a tester, and is now a project lead on a major project. How big do you think this kind of casual/hardcore market that you have tapped into [with Guitar Hero] really is? It seems to be pretty widely accessible - people are very into it, and are playing on traditional consoles? MD: Honestly, I think that the market for what we are doing is a lot bigger than what we have seen so far. When I first talked to Harmonix staff nine years ago before I started here, and heard their vision for allowing the non-user to get thrill of musical performance - about how music is really a instinct, a basic instinct, something that is really deep down in our genes, going back to tribes who hundreds of thousands of years ago sat around fires made music in the evening - it's a deeply rooted part of humanity. We have lost that in the last century, that music-making, we have become mostly music listeners because of reproduced music. We listen to CDs. We listen to the radio. But many fewer people than a century or two ago are actually making music. And we've lost something, I think, in that. We're trying to get that back. I think that's a much, much bigger goal than simply making games. I mean the market is much, much bigger potentially than the games market is currently. With Guitar Hero of course - people feel like they're actually playing music. It seems to inspire something in people. It actually it seems like a similar demographic to Nintendo's efforts with the Wii, in terms of getting people who aren't necessarily gamers to experience interactive entertainment. What do you think of that particular platform? DS: I'm very excited by the Wii. I love that they're coming at the gamer with a device that levels the playing field. I actually think that there are similarities to what we did with Guitar Hero. Nobody who picked up Guitar Hero for the first time had an advantage over anyone else. It was very much a level playing field, and that's true for the Wii as well, where my mom has just as much good a shot at hitting a home run as I do. I think that's very interesting and I think it's great for the industry. Do you think it would be a good platform for music games, considering you might not have to build new peripherals? MD: We're excited about the Wii. I think you can expect to see something come up at some point. When we first saw the announcement of the Wii, we were impressed that Nintendo was willing to take that kind of a risk that obviously could really pay off for them. The way it gets past the trend of just adding more graphics capability, adding more computing capability - they really went off in different direction to try to bring in a new audience, and I think that's a good thing. This might kind of be off the beaten path, but if you can say how did Konami reacted to Guitar Hero considering they have their Guitar Freaks franchise in Japan? MD: I'd have to say no comment, but you can imagine that they weren't thrilled. The U.S. team at Konami had been wanting to do something like Guitar Freaks for a long time, but when they brought Guitar Freaks over from the Japan on arcades, I don't think it succeeded very well in the U.S. I think the Japanese parent company had the impression that that whole category of games just doesn't work in the U.S. But I think the real problem was that they brought it over without localizing it. They really just had Japanese music, and it wasn't that appealing to the U.S. with Japanese music. Not to mention there aren't that many arcades to begin with. MD: Yeah, arcades were falling off pretty rapidly when they brought it over. I think they just got a false read on the U.S. market opportunity and therefore decided not to pursue it. We had talked to them a couple of times about doing something with some of these other Japanese properties. This might again be something you can't answer, but if you were to make a new guitar game would you have to make new peripherals? Would you want to? Or do you retain the rights to use the controller? MD: One thing I can say is that when you make a peripheral for PS2 or Xbox - in order to be a true peripheral - Sony won't let you make a peripheral for just one game. You have to make a peripheral that works with anything that runs on that platform. So the guitar peripheral works with any game on the PS2? MD: Well, you've seen that there are other peripherals that people have put out - a company put out some guitars that work with Guitar Hero. As long as it conforms to what peripheral parts have to put out in the way of signal or whatever on the PS2, it's going to work with a PS2 game. Do those third party peripherals cause you any consternation? MD: I don't think they cause us any consternation. I think we like to see the creative input of as many people as possible. If there's a demand that's not being met that somebody else can meet, then more power to them. This might be too far off, but is there anything you can say about things that might come from the MTV deal? I know people have been envisioning things like downloadable songs with MTV videos in the backgroundand so on for music games. Is there anything you can comment on? MD: There's not really much I can comment on. A lot of what we're seeing online in terms of folks who are fearing the worst cause us to chuckle here, though. On that note, is there anything else you want to put across about the acquisition? MD: Sure, following up on that last question a little bit more - MTV and Viacom are not in the business of ramming things down their creative partners' throats in terms of what they're working on. South Park's been running how many years? Forever. Do you really think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone would still be doing that for Comedy Central if they were being force fed what they had to do. They understand that creative folks need to be given the freedom to do what they want to do, if you're going to get the best output from them. We fully expect that the future of Harmonix is not going to be dramatically changed in terms of the kinds of things we would be doing by this acquisition, and, in fact, there are all sorts of resources we have at our disposal to make our games better.

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