Harmonix continues to innovate, with lasting impact | MIT News

Every holiday season, a popular new video game causes a disproportionate amount of hype, anticipation, and last-minute shopping. But few of these games offer a whole new way to play. Even fewer have ripple effects that go far beyond the gaming world.

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

Guitar Hero and the associated Rock Band franchise were developed by Harmonix Music Systems, which formed over 25 years ago in MIT’s Media Lab when a pair of friends began using technology to help people to interact with music. Since then, he’s 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 innovate in music gameplay,” says Eran Egozy ’93, SM ’95, a practicing professor of music and performing arts at MIT who co-founded the company. with Alex Rigopulos ’92, SM ’94. “This is what the company is constantly trying to do: create new kinds of fascinating musical experiences. “

To continue this mission, Harmonix joined industry giant Epic Games last month. This is an important step for a company that has seen its games move from small, passionate projects to ubiquitous sources of expression and pleasure.

Egozy has seen Harmonix games on the tour buses of famous bands, at the offices of tech giants like Google, at bars hosting “Rock Band nights” and featured on popular TV shows. Most importantly, he heard music teachers say that games inspire children to play real instruments.

In fact, Egozy has just learned from the principal of his son’s school that the reason he plays the drums is because of Rock Band.

“This is probably the most rewarding part,” says Egozy, who plays the clarinet professionally. “Of course, we had high hopes and aspirations when we started the company, but we didn’t think we would have such a big impact. We were totally surprised.

Mission-driven beginnings

As an undergraduate student at MIT, Egozy majored in Electrical and Computer Engineering and majored in Music. But he never thought of combining computers and music until he joined the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program under then-graduate student Michael Hawley at the Media Lab.

The experience inspired Egozy to pursue his Masters in Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group, led by Tod Machover, where he began creating software that generated music based on intuitive controls. He also met Rigopulos at the Media Lab, who quickly became a friend and collaborator.

“Alex had this idea: wouldn’t it be cool to take a joystick that’s a more user-friendly interface and use it to control the settings of our generative music system? Egozy remembers.

The joystick-based system immediately became one of the Media Lab’s most popular demos, leading the couple to enter MIT’s $ 10,000 Entrepreneurship Contest (MIT’s $ 100,000 today).

“I think MIT made me feel like there’s no point in trying to do something that someone has already done,” Egozy says. “If you’re going to be working on something, try to do something inventive. It’s a pervasive attitude throughout MIT, not just at the Media Lab.

Upon graduation, Egozy and Rigopulos knew they wanted to continue working on the system, but they doubted they could find a company that would pay them to do it. From this simple logic, Harmonix was born.

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

“We have had multiple failures trying to figure out what our business is, and it took a while for us to figure out how to fulfill our mission, which is to allow everyone in the world to experience the joy of making music. In the end, it was thanks to video games, ”explains Egozy.

The company’s early video games weren’t a huge success, but by iterating on the main platform, Harmonix was able to constantly improve 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.

Egozy describes Guitar Hero as a low budget project within Harmonix. The company had two games in development at the time, and the Guitar Hero team was the smaller one. It was also a quick turnaround: they completed Guitar Hero in about nine months.

Through its other releases, the Harmonix team had been formed to expect most of their sales to occur in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, and then sales to essentially stop. With Guitar Hero, the game sold out incredibly fast – so fast that retailers immediately wanted more, and the company making the guitar controllers had to multiply orders from the manufacturers.

But what really surprised the founders was that January sales exceeded December sales. … Then February passed January. In fact, month after month, the sales graph looked unlike anything the 45-person Harmonix team had ever seen before.

“It was mostly the shock and disbelief within Harmonix,” says Egozy. “We loved creating Guitar Hero. It was the game we always wanted to make. Everyone at Harmonix was somehow involved in the music. The company had a music room just so people could go jamming. And so the fact that it also sold very well was extremely gratifying – and very unexpected. “

Things moved quickly for Harmonix after that. Work on Guitar Hero 2 began immediately. Guitar Hero was bought by Activision and Harmonix was bought by MTV Networks for several years. Harmonix then developed the Rock Band franchise, which brought together players to perform lead guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, and vocals to popular songs.

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

A permanent legacy

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

Today, Egozy, 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, music interaction design and music. “This is the class I wish I had as an undergraduate here at MIT,” Egozy says.

And each semester, the class visits the Harmonix office. He is often told that it is the students’ favorite part of the class.

“I am really proud of what we have been able to do, and I am always surprised and touched by the cultural impact we have had,” says Egozy. “There is a generation of kids who grew up playing these games who learned all this music from the 70s and 80s. I’m really happy that we were able to expose the kids to all this great music. “

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