Harmonix keeps innovating with a lasting impact. MIT News

Every holiday season, a popular new video game causes a disproportionate amount of hype, anticipation, and last-minute purchases. But some of them offer a completely new way of playing the game. Even less has ripple effects that reach far beyond the gaming universe.

When Guitar Hero was released in 2005, challenging players to hit notes for classic rock songs on guitar-like controllers, it grew from a holiday hit to a cultural phenomenon that inspired a new generation of rock. Taught to love ‘n’ roll music. Along the way, it showed the video game industry the power of innovative, music-based games.

Guitar Hero and the related Rock Band franchise were developed by Harmonix Music Systems, formed at MIT’s Media Lab more than 25 years ago after a pair of friends set out to help people interact with music. technology began to be used. Since then, it has released over a dozen games that have helped millions of people experience the thrill of making music.

“The thing we’ve always tried to accomplish is to innovate in musical gameplay,” says Aron Egozzi ’93, SM ’95, a professor of practice in music and theater arts at MIT, who worked in the company with Alex Rigopulos. was co-founded. ’92, SM ’94. “That’s what the company is constantly trying to do – creating new types of compelling music experiences.”

To further that mission, Harmonix became part of industry giant Epic Games last month. It’s a major milestone for a company that has seen its game go from small passion projects to ubiquitous sources of expression and fun.

Egozi has seen harmonics games on the tour buses of famous bands, at the offices of tech giants like Google, in bars hosting “Rock Band Nights” and being featured in popular TV shows. Most importantly, they are heard from music teachers who say that the games inspired children to play real instruments.

In fact, Egozi just heard from the principal of his son’s school that the reason he plays drums is a rock band.

“This is probably the most gratifying part,” says Igozzi, who plays the clarinet professionally. “Of course, we had high hopes and aspirations when we started the company, but we didn’t think we’d really make such a big impact. We’re completely surprised.”

mission driven launch

As an undergraduate at MIT, Egozy majored in electrical engineering and computer science and majored in music, But he didn’t even think about combining computers and music until he attended an undergraduate research opportunity program in the Media Lab under then-graduate student Michael Hawley.

The experience inspired Egozzi to earn his master’s degree at Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group, led by Todd Machovar, where he began building software that produced music based on intuitive controls. He also met Rigopulos at the Media Lab, who quickly became a friend and colleague.

“Alex had this idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if we took a joystick that had a more friendly interface and used that to play the parameters of our generative music system?” The ego remembers.

The joystick-based system immediately became one of the most popular demonstrations at the Media Lab, prompting the pair to participate in the MIT $10K Entrepreneurship Contest (today MIT $100K).

“I think MIT has filled me with the feeling that there’s no point in trying to do something that someone has already done,” Egozi says. “If you’re going to work on something, try to do something inventive. It’s a widespread attitude around MIT, not just in the Media Lab.”

After graduation, Egozzi and Rigopulos knew they wanted to continue working on the system, but doubted they could find a company that would pay them to do so. Harmonics was born out of that simple logic.

The founders spent the next four years working on the technology, which led to a product called the X, which Egozzi describes as a “total flop”. They also built a system for Disney at Epcot Amusement Park and attempted to integrate their software with karaoke machines in Japan.

“We endured many failures trying to figure out what our business was all about, and it took us a long time to find a way to fulfill our mission, which is to make everyone in the world experience the joy of making music. As it turns out, that was through video games,” Egozi says.

Many of the company’s first video games weren’t huge hits, but by iterating on the core platform, Harmonix was able to continually improve the design and gameplay.

As a result, when it came time to create Guitar Hero around 2005, the founders had music, graphics and design systems they knew could work with unique controllers.

Igozzi has described Guitar Hero as a relatively low-budget project within Harmonix. The company had two games in development at the time, and the Guitar Hero team was small. It was also a quick turnaround: He finished Guitar Hero in about nine months.

Through its other releases, the Harmonix team was trained to expect most of its sales to come in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, and then essentially close the sale. With Guitar Hero, the game sold out incredibly quickly – so quickly that retailers immediately wanted more, and the company that made the guitar controllers had to multiply their orders with manufacturers.

But what really surprised the founders was that January sales surpassed those of December. …then February surpassed January. In fact, month after month, the sales graph looked like nothing Harmonix’s team of 45 people had seen before.

“It was mostly shock and disbelief within Harmonix,” says Egozi. “We just love making Guitar Hero. It was the game we’ve always wanted to make. Everyone at Harmonix was involved in some sort of music. The company had a band room so people could go and jam. And so the fact that it also sold really well was extremely gratifying – and very unexpected.”

After that things went fast for Harmonix. Work on Guitar Hero 2 began immediately. Guitar Hero was taken over by Activision, and Harmonix was acquired by MTV Networks for several years. Harmonix developed the Rock Band franchise, which brought players together for lead guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and vocals of popular songs.

“It was really wonderful because it was about a group effort,” says Egozzi. “Rock Band was social in the sense that everyone was playing music together in the same room, not competing, but working toward a common goal.”

an ongoing legacy

Over the past decade, Harmonix has continued to explore new ways of musical gameplay with releases such as SingSpace, which offers a social karaoke experience, and Fuser, a DJ-inspired game that lets users mix and match different tracks. lets you. The company also released Rock Band VR, which makes players feel like they’re on stage in front of a live audience.

These days Egozzi, who has been on the board since becoming a full-time professor at MIT in 2014, teaches 21M.385/6.185 (Interactive Music Systems), a class that combines computer science, interaction design, and music. “This is the class I wish I was in here at MIT as an undergrad,” says Egozzi.

And every semester, the class visits the Harmonix office. They are often told that it is the students’ favorite part of the class.

“I’m really proud of what we were able to do, and I’m still amazed and humbled by our cultural influence,” Igozzi says. “There’s a generation of kids who grew up playing these games that have learned about all this music from the ’70s and ’80s. I’m really glad we were able to introduce kids to that great music.”

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