The band broke up this year. Or it went on “indefinite hiatus,” like R.E.M. or The Pixies—titans that didn’t flare out in a blaze of glory but simply went to bed after a slow, strong fade. Harmonix, the Boston-based developer behind Rock Band (and the entire plastic-instrument-game phenomenon of the last decade) released its last downloadable songs for the game on April 2, two and a half years after the release of the final game in the series, Rock Band 3.
Don McLean’s “American Pie” closed out 281 consecutive weeks of new songs for living room partiers, each one almost rewritten from the ground up by the studio to be played by amateurs with plastic instruments. Classic songs, underground indie bar burners, metalhead thrashers—they were all reimagined as video game feats of dexterity, each one adapted for all kinds of skill levels.
“Rock Band turned into this social game, this kind of collaborative experience,” Harmonix’s Greg LoPiccolo said. LoPiccolo was one of the project leaders on the series from the start. “We got a lot of emails from people, like families who didn’t get along and teenage kids who couldn’t get along, but they could all play Rock Band together, and that was a common ground. You know, Mom would sing and whatever. There’s precious little of that in the world. Insofar as we were able to create an environment where people could do that and enjoy each other’s company, that was a big deal for me.”
It was a big deal for a lot of people. Rock Band was a phenomenon when it came out in 2007, selling hundreds of thousands of $200 boxes that included the game and drum, guitar, and microphone controllers. It racked up $1 billion in sales over its first 15 months.
Forget the money, though. Playing Rock Band was an incomparable good time. Instrument games had existed in arcades since the ’90s, but Harmonix blew the scene wide open with the solo fun of Guitar Hero for PlayStation 2. Playing a plastic guitar along to classic rock tunes like Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” wasn’t fundamentally different from games like Konami’s Guitar Freaks, but it was a hell of a lot cooler. Simpler to understand, less cutesy, and boasting a better selection of songs than its predecessors, Guitar Hero exploded when it came out in 2005. By the time Harmonix had finished Guitar Hero 2 in 2006, its publisher, Activision, was ready to turn the series into a milkable cash cow.
Like Peter Gabriel going solo in the ’70s, Harmonix had some crazy new ideas, and it didn’t need Activision, the Phil Collins of video games, holding it back. The studio essentially ceded development of Guitar Hero to Activision so that Harmonix could pursue a grand evolution of its music game dream. Harmonix found a partner, MTV, that could both broaden its reach in the music world and fill its pockets with cash. The Viacom network acquired Harmonix before Guitar Hero 2 even shipped after completion.
Harmonix’s bigger goal was to move beyond the guitar into the full band experience. That feeling of playing songs with a room full of people was downright transcendent. Each tune was a shared moment, more direct and approachable than fighting games and more gripping than the quiz games that let less aggressive players get together. There simply wasn’t anything like belting out Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” with friends and family—and then doing it again to beat some other group’s score online. No one looks sexy while playing Rock Band, and that’s part of its genius. Everyone looks like a weirdo, but a weirdo having the best time.
The painstaking development process of the game wasn’t sexy either, but it was often as strange as any classic Behind The Music episode. “We were making a tremendous amount of instruments, and the stakes were really high,” said Dan Sussman, the hardware producer at Harmonix. If Harmonix were a band, the Berklee School Of Music alum would be a cross between lead guitar and sound engineer. When Harmonix got in the plastic instrument game with Guitar Hero, Sussman was a producer, someone who supervised quality control and made sure everyone on the team was doing what they needed to do. For Rock Band, though, Sussman took over the business of producing the game’s instruments, coordinating with both the designers stateside and the manufacturers in China.
Sussman reflected on the moment just before Rock Band hit in 2007, when the Harmonix team was unsure whether Rock Band could compete with their former series, Guitar Hero. “We have a boat that’s going to leave with 30,000 bundles on Monday, but only if we can actually get [Chinese] customs to stay open Sunday to inspect our packages. So that means I have to hang out in a karaoke bar with a customs official who doesn’t speak any English, and light his cigarette all night. I sit next to him, he puts his cigarette in his mouth, I light that cigarette. That’s what I do Saturday night. And Sunday, our warehouse is open for business. On Monday, the boat leaves with 30,000 bundles.”
Because of the need to protect trade secrets from now-rival Activision, Sussman said, “it was all very cloak-and-dagger. In fact, the miracle of it all is that we pulled it off.” The relationship between Harmonix and Guitar Hero’s inheritors at Activision never got to Blur-vs.-Oasis levels of antagonism. They didn’t get into brawls or public feuds. But some of the most exciting moments in making Rock Band came from trying to keep the other band from knowing just what the hell the other was working on.
Dan Teasdale, one of the founding Rock Band team members, explained that he and the rest of Harmonix’s secret B-team were already working on Rock Band while development on Guitar Hero 2 was wrapping up. Part of that work was keeping the new game hidden from RedOctane, a hardware company that collaborated with Harmonix on Guitar Hero . (RedOctane was acquired by Activision in 2006 and would inherit the management of the series’ development after Harmonix left.)
It was a challenge to keep Guitar Hero’s left hand from learning what the right hand was up to. Teasdale said, “We had a lot of fun issues with that, you could say, because we were developing Activision’s Guitar Hero 2 around the same time as we were doing Rock Band preproduction. We’d have RedOctane flying out, and we would have to hide anything drum-related. We had the thing called the Star Chamber, which was basically our Rock Band demo room, and whenever they came, we would move paper all over the windows. We would be as a team on lockdown for a day while they were here and pretend to work on something else.”
The subterfuge and desperate customs politics may not be evident in the Rock Band games, but they hardly feel effortless. Rock Band 3, the final entry in the series, still feels like a game made by people still trying to figure out the very best way to deliver their good news to the audience. The instruments in the first package were flimsy, navigating the song library was clumsy, and the store was poorly integrated into the game. Even getting the original Rock Band to a point where two people could sing together was a non-stop challenge for the team.
“A lot of our initial discussions on Rock Band kept coming to: You’d form this band, and you’d all be in different locations playing online, and you’d meet up every Thursday at 8:00 to play,” Teasdale said. The internet, not the living room, was going to be the game’s venue. Harmonix envisioned a world of players meeting up online as a band. There was no way that many people would all want to buy the full band set and play in the living room! It would be too expensive, they figured. The instruments would take up too much space.
They were very wrong. “We started building all the infrastructure to support that. Like, online bands, a lot of the world tour stuff got its start in that scope. Bringing in bandleaders, customization. You have no idea how people are going to react to it, or the thing that defines the game until people are actually playing it at scale. The idea that nine million people would buy a $200 bundle to play Rock Band—it wasn’t something that was even in the scale of what we were thinking of.”
When I asked Teasdale what he considered his greatest success in making the series, his answer was simple: “The fact that it exists at all.” It was almost impossible to have a plan in place. There were issues of scale in the creation of the Rock Band series that the team didn’t take into account because nobody had done it before. Playing it by ear, as it were, was the only way to make these games.
Early in the game’s development, Teasdale and his team struggled to figure out how vocals would work for online jam sessions. “For Rock Band, we had this idea of having this multiplayer experience where you have someone singing, but also zero latency because it’s pitch-corrected and stuff,” says Teasdale. Under that prototype setup, Rock Band would make you sound like you’re singing as well as the original singer. Great idea in theory, a mess in execution. “Basically, you had Kurt Cobain singing, and then it would sound like drunk karaoke time on top of ‘Smells LIke Teen Spirit.’ It was one of those moments where you realized it wasn’t going to work.”
That’s to say nothing of the instruments themselves. Harmonix learned from Guitar Hero that people were going to go full Pete Townshend on their gear. Still, even though they knew people were going to batter the instruments, the game developers had a hard time convincing the rest of the production chain that ruggedness was key. “We all understood all the crazy stupid things people will do when they’re playing games,” says Sussman, “The folks in the factories, both the engineers and the workers, they’re working to spec. They have no idea.”
“We had this amazing moment where we invited the head of our factory to our office in Cambridge to hand-deliver the golden sample,” Sussman recalled. It was the long-awaited arrival of Rock Band’s first axe—a beautiful moment that turned ugly quick. “He comes in, and he’s like, ‘Here it is! It’s just about done.’ And Alex [Rigopulos], our CEO, grabs it and starts playing it. And the look on this engineer’s face was like, ‘You’re going to break it!’ And it’s like, ‘No, no. This is how people will use it.’ It was this jaw-dropping moment. All this stuff about ‘feel’ means nothing. We’ve got to make sure these things will work.”
And they did work. They only got better across the games. All those problems, from durability issues to sussing out how the singing functioned, were worked out, and while new bugs crept into the mix as the games went on, it always worked smoother the next time out. Like Paul McCartney sings in the beautifully psychedelic The Beatles: Rock Band, “I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better. It’s getting better all the time.”
It kept getting better, but it wasn’t enough to keep people interested. While Rock Band was no one-hit wonder, by the time The Beatles: Rock Band dropped in 2009, the series’ prominence in the cultural zeitgeist had peaked. The Beatles entry sold just 1.1 million copies in its debut, a performance that had Rock Band’s corporate backers at EA and Viacom grumbling, since Rock Band 2 had moved nearly double that when it debuted in 2008.
By the time Rock Band 3 came out in 2010, Harmonix’s series was no longer seen as a hitmaker, and its slow fade out began. The game’s poor sales hit Harmonix hard, and the studio had to lay off about 15 percent of its staff three months after Rock Band 3 shipped. Viacom shut down its MTV Games label. Publisher Electronic Arts dropped the series. When asked if he planned to buy the studio a month after Rock Band 3 shipped, EA’s then-CEO John Riccitiello said the purchase would be like “doubling down on yesterday.” Harsh.
What happened out there? Rock Band was as good as it ever was; there was just too much of it. The mainline Rock Band games and the Beatles release were the flagship games for the series, sure, but there was a mess of unnecessary spinoff discs in stores. Among them were Lego Rock Band, Rock Band Mobile, Rock Band Unplugged, and seven disc compilations of downloadable songs. Rock Band fell in part because people had too much of a good thing way too fast.
“We had Activision pumping and dumping on Guitar Hero titles, releasing one every 45 days, but on our end, we thought we weren’t doing that. In retrospect, we were obviously doing the same thing,” Teasdale said. “We knew there was a saturated field, but it wasn’t until I left and got a sense of, ‘Holy crap. We released 30 Rock Band titles!’ That’s ridiculous. That was something I’m not saying as a negative, like, ‘We should have been better at perceiving this thing.’ It was just that we were so close to it.”
When all was said and done, there were actually 18 separate Rock Band games released either on disc or in full-priced downloadable packages, and that’s not counting the games that Harmonix developed but canned before release. During a panel at the PAX East convention in March 2013, Harmonix manager Aaron Trites said the studio was working on everything from Pearl Jam: Rock Band to Rock Band: Japan, which would have been a smorgasbord of J-pop tunes. Licensing problems were cited as Rock Band: Japan’s premature death—“Licensing is hard!” Sussman shouted during our conversation—but given how little money people were spending on discs rather than single downloadable songs, it’s hard to imagine it would have been anything more than a lost cult hit at best.
Faith No More
“Next big thing” syndrome was also a chronic illness that snuck into Harmonix. In big-studio game development, it isn’t always enough for the sequel to just be a subtle improvement. It needs some crazy new feature, and for music games, that meant convincing people to buy more and more instruments. With Rock Band 3, the idea was to take the game’s aspirational qualities out of the realm of fantasy. No more pretending to be a rock star: Rock Band would teach you to play real instruments. The tech worked, but the so-called “pro” mode added a layer of complexity far removed from the game’s central pleasures.
“At the start of Rock Band 3, we knew we had to do something different. Going pro and continuing that path of progressing past expert is the most beneficial thing we could have done,” Teasdale said. “In terms of getting across the pro experience, of ‘This is the way you can learn how to play guitar or the keys,’ I think we were super successful. I’ve learned guitar from playing Rock Band 3.”
The real-instrument angle flopped with an audience whose living rooms and closets were already cluttered with plastic guitars. “It’s hard to sell another four controllers at that point,” Teasdale said, but he maintains it was still the right way to evolve Rock Band. “We were talking about other proposals at the time, maybe going into a fake massively multiplayer thing. Maybe we’d go through and beef out other things. The fact that it introduced a good subset of people to playing guitar is totally worth it.”
Sussman doesn’t have any regrets about pro mode, either. “The promise of Rock Band is in this fantasy that you can don this rock star identity and do things for whatever reason you have a hard time doing in your real life. It’s not about the difficulty or making a more complicated experience for a player. It has to do with a visceral connection to the music. I feel like we were able to communicate through easy and medium difficulty levels. We got people playing drums on easy who felt like they were doing something remarkable, and they were. I think that idea behind the Pro Track was exactly that. We’re not trying to turn people into Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. We’re trying to get people to jump through the gate and realize in fact if you apply yourself to really anything, you can get good at it. Whether that’s playing a game, or playing an instrument. If we could do it again, I would probably do the same thing.”
Which isn’t to say that the team doesn’t have some regrets. Who doesn’t when it comes to Rock Band? They stopped releasing Beatles songs before people got to scream out “Mr. Postman.” They never added any Pavement! The only version of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was the crappy live version!
“I was such a fucking Led Zeppelin fan in high school, and their stuff was so epic and huge, and they have eluded our grasp for years,” Sussman said. “It’s not for lack of effort. They’re hanging out there, tantalizingly. There’s all sorts of indie stuff, and a lot of that stuff we were able to sneak in, but Zeppelin is out there as the one who got away.”
Songs aren’t the only lost dreams sitting in the Rock Band ashes. “My greatest regret that we never got in—and it’s my deepest regret because we were so close to getting it into every Rock Band game—was singing along with guitar solos,” Teasdale said. “We had all the information in for it, especially for Rock Band 3. We had the accurate note charting for the pro guitar that we could match pitch-wise into the vocals. I think it would have been amazing, the same way we had other cool vocal scoring methods, if you could just sing along with the guitar solo like anyone does anyway.”
All That Remains
Making Rock Band, playing Rock Band; none of it was ever especially sexy. But like singing along to that sweet-as-hell bass line at the beginning of Interpol’s “PDA,” it’s always been a hell of a good time. For now, Harmonix is off to other projects, the first of which is Fantasia: Music Evolved for Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Played with the Kinect, you wave your arms around in time with popular music, like Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” but without the symphony orchestra. Even if it’s not the sexiest thing in the world, it’s still pretty whimsical. Harmonix may be entering its prog rock phase. It has multiple prototypes in the works and a flush of new investment capital.
The people at Harmonix aren’t naïve—they know that like most great rock bands, just because people have lost interest at the moment doesn’t mean they won’t come back later on, whether because of nostalgia or rediscovery. “We would love to continue working on this,” LoPiccolo said. “We have a lot of creative ideas about where to take it. It’s more a question about what’s the right time and what’s the right implementation to bring it back. We don’t have anything specific to announce about when and how that might take place. I guess I’ll just say we would love to do it.”
There’s the link between making Rock Band and making rock music. Maybe it wasn’t sexy, but it was an act of love. Loving what you do, loving music, and loving to share that music with people. It’ll be back.
Correction, Sept. 10, 2013: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated that Activision acquired RedOctane after MTV purchased Harmonix. The RedOctane acquisition took place in June 2006; MTV announced its acquisition of Harmonix in September that same year and completed the transaction in December.