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Music for the Masses

Technology Review talks with Harmonix cofounder Eran Egozy ‘95 about the long road to a music game that people could understand.
February 24, 2009

The Rock Band game series and its predecessor Guitar Hero have given a whole new meaning to rock-star fantasies. Through these games, millions of people have gotten a taste of what it’s like to perform popular songs including Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” and Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box.” The company that created these games is Harmonix, which Eran Egozy ‘95, MEng’95, and Alex Rigopulos ‘92, SM ‘94, founded on the basis of research they started while studying at the MIT Media Lab. Technology Review assistant editor Erica Naone talked with Egozy about the long, difficult path from research project to blockbuster video game.

Technology Review: When you were working in Tod Machover’s group in the Media Lab, what question was really driving you?

Eran Egozy: Alex and I got interested in the question “How do you get average people to be able to express themselves musically by using technology?”

TR: What was involved in building something that could do this?

EE: There were two steps to that process. The first one was writing an expert system for music–[a system] that could take the knowledge and abilities of a master musician–and try to codify that somehow. The second was figuring out how to control this in a way that was intuitive and made sense.

TR: With those pieces in place, you built research prototypes that were popular demos at the Media Lab. How did this become a company?

EE: We joke around about how no one would hire us, so we started a company. The honest answer is, we wanted to keep doing what we were doing. But it wasn’t just that; it was that we saw the appeal, the sparkle in people’s eyes and the smile that came to their faces when they touched this thing and were able to express themselves. We thought, “Wow, we actually have something here.”

TR: But success didn’t come immediately.

EE: We built a joystick music system called the Axe, but you couldn’t really explain it to anyone. People would actually have to physically sit down and try it to see what it was doing. We could guide them through it, and then they’d smile and we’d know they got it, but of course that is no way to market a product on a large scale. It had that problem, plus it had this other problem, which is that it didn’t have very much longevity. There were certain people, ourselves among them, who could spend hours on this stuff, exploring all the different regions of musical improvisation–just like you can go and hear a jazz concert where the sax player’s going on for 20 minutes in some orgasmic jazz solo. That’s appealing to some people, but I think most people aren’t exactly into that type of musical expression.

TR: Maybe you have to be a musician already to be interested in that.

EE: Maybe. I haven’t thought about it too much. But what we did know is that people liked it for about five or ten minutes and then said, “All right, that’s cool.” [Our later products] Frequency and Amplitude introduced the notion of game play. That was another big turning point. The root of this whole thing was combining music with joysticks, which was really a gaming thing, but it took us about four years to realize that we should actually be building a game.

TR: Guitar Hero–a game that lets people make music with a toy guitar, scoring them on performance–does seem instantly accessible that way. But it wasn’t the first to use a toy guitar. What did you do differently?

EE: It’s all about how you implement it, and it’s all about the details of getting it right. If you look at Guitar Hero, there were so many elements of that game that took real rock music and rock culture and the sort of self-mockery aspect that you see there, and tied it all together in this humorous and satisfying way. But if you dive into some of the details there are some concrete examples of how it’s better. We added a whammy bar. We knew we had to have a whammy bar even before we knew how we would incorporate it into the game. We had the five buttons and the strum bar. There’s something particularly good about having five buttons, because you only have four fingers that you can use. So automatically, it introduces the notion of shifting.

TR: And it gives you the feeling, too, that you’re doing something that you’ve seen guitarists doing.

EE: Playing power chords. We actually specifically authored chords that have this kind of pattern in them, so it really feels like you’re playing a power chord.

TR: You founded Harmonix in 1995, Guitar Hero came out in 2005, and this hit led to the company being bought by MTV. What did your investors do during the time you were struggling to find a product?

EE: [They were] seriously patient. Most of them had forgotten about us and written it off.

TR: Then you showed up with the money.

EE: “Oh, by the way, here’s a whole ton of money.” Yeah. That was a really great moment, hearing from all those investors.

TR: What’s next for you? You’ve got a formula that’s really working.

EE: MIT really instills in you the notion of wanting to do original work, and not being satisfied by copying what someone else has done, and building new things. I think it’s been sewn into the fabric of the company that being creative and original and innovative is just the way to do things. It’s just kind of second nature. You look at the products that we’ve made, and we’re always trying to do new things in new ways.

Harmonix is currently working on a game featuring the music of the Beatles.

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