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Harmonix's Chris Foster

Harmonix director of design Chris Foster talks about the wish fulfillment and role-playing of music games

When examining changes in the videogames industry over the past few years, two things stand out - the enormous success of the Nintendo Wii among casual gamers, and the popularity of music games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Despite the extra costs associated with peripherals - and incompatibility issues of said peripherals - Guitar Hero and Rock Band brought in combined revenue of USD 935 million in 2007 according to NPD and Nielsen SoundScan data. That's more revenue than digital music download services such as iTunes.

Harmonix' director of design Chris Foster, himself a musician, spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about how videogames have become a platform to deliver music to people.

GamesIndustryHarmonix has significantly contributed to the changing face of videogames in the past few years - what's your view on the way that increasingly casual and social titles have taken hold?
Chris Foster

Well I have a particularly unique view at Harmonix, because I joined two years ago, when the first Guitar Hero was out and the second one was in development. So I was at the point of witnessing the transformation from the inside, of everybody realising that this was going to be a permanent occurrence.

When I joined the company there were 70 people, which was huge for Harmonix, and now it's well over 250 - it's like a little industry.

One of the things that stood out, listening to the DICE keynote at GDC Paris, [Ben Cousins] was talking about how the future is potentially moving towards this thing on PC that has a lower barrier to entry. We've sort of found this surprising doubly complicated niche on consoles, with these unique instrument controllers.

And I think I would probably have never even looked at the game, historically, for the extra money, something this huge in the store, as well as this instrument that can only be used with one or two games…it's been really interesting to see that rock star wish fulfillment, that role-play, has really borne out.

And the strange parallels of that and the Nintendo Wii - the way it takes that concept of wish fulfillment and role-play, in a more condensed, abstracted form of motion controls. It does seem that there's some strong need that people have that games weren't fulfilling, and it's been really interesting to see that, and how far you can take it.

GamesIndustryIt must have been an amazing feeling for the studio to begin to understand that what they'd been working hard on was going to have a big impact on the videogames business?
Chris Foster

What I find fascinating in that is that the founders of Harmonix, the first games Frequency & Amplitude, you can see a lineage through those games. You can see a searching in the wilderness for a way to bring this to people. So I like that it's not like the company took a right turn into success - it found its way and continued on its mission.

GamesIndustryIt was iterative really?
Chris Foster

Yes, and that's where a lot of the best ideas come from. It was something mentioned in the BioShock keynote - great games are found by failure. For me, the art of design - the craft of design - is making bad decisions in search of good ones. I think as a company we've gone through these different things in search of the magic formula, and it's just great to have gotten there.

GamesIndustryYou mentioned Nintendo with the Wii - I'm not sure too many people would have pinned their current level of success on that project in the early days, but in the same sort of way they had a vision that they went out to create.
Chris Foster

And we're still being dogged by that. People are saying that the bottom's going to fall out of their market, or that they've sold this many games, but who cares because there's fewer titles…it's like, they've sold so many consoles, they've transformed so many people's concept of what a game is, no one can try to take that away from them.

GamesIndustryYes, and after all, they've written their own entry in the Great Book of the videogames industry, and Harmonix has done the same in a way?
Chris Foster

What I find interesting is that Rock Band has started something - the concept of using a game as a platform to deliver music to people is something that's actually started to happen. You're seeing people downloading all these songs and have this experience of getting music in this way, on top of the gameplay. It's amazing to think that's possible.

GamesIndustryAt Games Convention Asia Conference last year it was said that a music track in Need for Speed would be heard 1 billion times, because of the number of copies sold and the amount that people play the game - something that network radio, or even iTunes, would struggle to match. And then there's Sony with SingStar, a kind of similar thing - what sort of reaction have you had from artists, from bands?
Chris Foster

Well I can speak about it in general, because I haven't really been involved in those parts, but you can see in the history of the games the sort of cautious involvement of the record labels, from not having access to master tracks to getting that access, and then seeing bands going all the way to releasing new singles for the first time inside these things - day and date releases, and things like that.

I think they're seeing that potential, they're seeing that clearer connection. I think one of the things that I imagine, and this isn't on the business side, but I play a little bit of music - in fact I fulfilled the cliché of forming a band with other members of Harmonix when I joined the company - but what I found interesting as a musician is that when you play the songs, from the simple art of the note patterns following the music and when you hear the occasion notes drop out, you're actually sort of understanding the music from the inside.

It's not talked about a lot in terms of the games, but you're experiencing the music like you can't in any other way - you're given these breadcrumbs into the composition itself, into the skill of the individual artist, that I just think is a wonderful opportunity.

And I suspect some musicians actually see it that way - it's not just putting the package out there, you're actually letting people appreciate their contributions to the song I guess.

GamesIndustryIt's interacting with the music, rather than passive listening? And you have to pay a lot more attention to a track if you're playing with it, than if you're just listening - surely it embeds itself more?
Chris Foster

I wonder if it creates a deeper emotional bond. You're right, in the same time frame it's much more intense. I think it helps people to love the music. You can see it in the forums, people are asking why they'd play this old classic rock song, it's not their thing. But then you see people with lists of 30 bands that they now listen to thanks to playing Rock Band - you just earn, or learn, an appreciation of these things.

GamesIndustryDo you think there was a natural progression from Guitar Hero to Rock Band?
Chris Foster

Speaking generally, I think Harmonix games have been about the individual instruments, of deconstructing a song and then letting a player reconstruct it - I think you can see it getting back there by giving each person ownership.

One thing that's interesting to me is that if you look like a game like Frequency & Amplitude, you are one person trying to zip through from instrument to instrument, like keeping these spinning plates going - there's much less of a direct connection to the instrument, and the gameplay comes through this other process.

In a game like Rock Band each instrument is this rich, fulfilling experience on its own, and it's not that much more complicated than these other things. There's the physicality of it, there's the emotional investment of what you're doing, but it's a very different style and depth of gameplay that can come from fundamentally the same roots.

The director of engineering bet me five dollars that he could load up a venue from Frequency in the current engine - because it all shares common roots and common technology.

GamesIndustryRock Band has to be fairly self-selecting in a way, because of the price point - it's more of an investment than picking up Call of Duty 4, for example.
Chris Foster

Certainly, and one that definitely we're all collectively nervous about - even with our earlier games it was the same thing. Those were more expensive, and you even wonder about retailers being willing to devote that much space to a game. You look in the shops now and it's almost like you can build snow forts out of the collections of these games that are scattered about.

But because everyone loves sharing the game, there's this weirdly viral element to it. It is self-selecting, but it seems to invite people that otherwise wouldn't have picked up games, to pick up consoles.

GamesIndustryA bit like the Wii.
Chris Foster

Totally - it's an experience they've not had anywhere else, and they'll go and get that experience, and then share it with other people.

GamesIndustryPlus with a slightly older demographic for videogames now, there tends to be more disposable income, and thanks to replayability games offer better value for money.
Chris Foster

I think the fact that Rock Band is the sort of game that is perfect for parties is one of the things. Because it's an excuse to socialise and enjoy yourself, it's not "I wanna get to the end of this shooter game".

It's more that you can go back and play that song again, or go and download the new album from the Pixies, and continue to refresh the experience.

GamesIndustryPlus you want to get better at it as well - it's the art of performance and demonstration.
Chris Foster

Absolutely. People do love showing off, and they love feeling good about themselves, which is a positive thing - having that reflected in other people, having them cheer you on. One thing I love about Rock Band is that it's co-operative, it's not a fight between people. It's this thing where everyone is pulling together, and you can save somebody out of the fire.

And everyone is watching - they're not just listening to the music, they're watching this group of people make it through this song, and rooting them on. There's a bar called River Gods in Cambridge, Mass, where our company is at, and they have Rock Band nights - so we go to visit.

You see all these people, and when somebody chooses a song, and you can hear in the room when the survival meter goes into the red, and when it comes back out, and it's just the sort of shared, almost communal experience. And it's good, there's joy in it. There are not many games that do that - maybe Wii Sports, and that's a competitive thing - but it just produces joy. It's wonderful, I feel really lucky to work on that.

GamesIndustryWhat's your view on the peripherals themselves - they're more difficult to manufacture than a standard game, so it makes the game more expensive and more prone to stock shortages.
Chris Foster

Well, the only view I have is that I think it would be interesting to see with each generation of games - as much as developers allow compatibility across titles, and backwards compatibility - you have a lot of potential for people to be able to take on new experiences with their hardware.

I have limits in my living room of how much plastic I will leave in there, and so I really hope we get to a place where there's a certain stability in at least the core functionality. We have instruments other people can use and I'd love to see something like an Xbox Live Arcade game that uses a guitar controller, or the drums, for another experience.

And really make it so that it's less about getting that new shipping crate of peripherals, and more about maybe taking the old guitar out to do this new thing, and play these new songs.

Chris Foster is director of design at Harmonix. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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