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Going Up to 11

Ryan Lesser on Harmonix's business relationships and the future of the Guitar Hero series.

In part one of our interview, published last week, Harmonix's Ryan Lesser revealed more of the company's plans for forthcoming title Rock Band.

Here, in part two, he talks about the importance of maintaining Harmonix's independence and what he's hoping for the future of the Guitar Hero series.

Guitar Hero was published by RedOctane, which at the time was a relatively small, unknown company - which perhaps helped to make the game seem a bit indy, a bit more underground. But now you're teaming up with EA for Rock Band - isn't that a bit like the White Stripes doing the Coca-Cola ad? Are you worried people will think you've sold out?

We're very worried, not so much that people think we've sold out, but that we sell out. Harmonix has a very interesting group of people, we're all fine artists and musicians and people who are not used to being big. It's very important to us that we stay true and that's why we're focused on keeping a small company mentality inside our walls.

One thing we were very cautious about was our partnerships. We would have preferred to not partner with anyone and stay indy rather than partner with someone who we thought was going to impact us in a negative way.

MTV and the EA group that we're working with are very hands-off. Other than having way more funds, they're very similar to how RedOctane was with Guitar Hero 1 - which is to say that they came to us and said, 'We know that you guys are doing your thing. We just want to help you, we just want to facilitate it.'

So those guys are going to help us market and do PR and distribute, but they're completely hands-off when it comes to the game development. We're pretty deep into Rock Band right now. I don't think anyone has actually gotten any details on how long we've been working on it, but it's been a little while now, and it's all been Harmonix - no meddling by anybody.

In some ways we trust MTV and EA, they do certain things really well; but I think so do we, and they trust us to do that stuff.

You were acquired by MTV last September - what changes has the company gone through since then?

None at all. In the last week or so we've been getting pamphlets through about new healthcare schemes and stuff, but like I said, part of our deal with everybody was hands-off - no relocation, no getting rid of employees, no injection of new employees. It's basically Harmonix as it has always been.

The only difference is it's a little bit bigger. We float around 90 people now, where we used to float around 70, and it's just because Rock Band is so gigantic. We're really hoping it will be a powerful, immersive device, so we've got a lot of people working on it. My art team alone is dozens, around 40 people.

Going back to RedOctane, did your relationship with them change following the success of the first Guitar Hero?

It did. They were pretty hands-off for Guitar Hero 1, and with Guitar Hero 2 - particularly with music choice - they were a little more hands-on. Not in a way that was detrimental or anything like that; it's just it's hard to sit back when your company's future relies on it.

I forget exactly the timing of everything, but maybe they were being talked to by Activision, and stuff becomes very important to everybody so they wanted to have more to do with it. As the art lead of the company there was very little impact on that end - occasionally tiny little things, but... Since our very first game, we've been very lucky in that everyone's respected our intent to stay kind of artsy and do our thing.

Even Sony, I give them a lot of credit. When we started working with them on Frequency, they really let us do our thing. Frequency at the time was really different from everything else that was out there - it was very abstract, and all about electronic music. To their credit, the guys over at Sony were very supportive, and it set a standard for Harmonix.

We were like, 'Okay, people will leave us alone!', so we went into deals basically like, 'You have to leave us alone!', and it's worked.

Neversoft is producing the next Guitar Hero game. Whereas Harmonix is a music specialist, they're best known for the Tony Hawk titles. How concerned are you that they're going to take your baby and, you know, rip its head off?

I'm only talking personally, I'm not talking as a representative of Harmonix. I love Neversoft, I love their games, for the most part. Tony Hawk was for a long time my favourite game.

But Harmonix was specially suited to make Guitar Hero. A huge portion of us are in rock and roll bands; many of us, including myself, have been touring rock musicians, making records, we've really lived the lifestyle of a rock band.

I think the part of Guitar Hero that was so special was that it was really sincere, and the people who played that game understood that it wasn't some big company pretending to know about rock and roll.

So I can only hope that Neversoft will do that too. They're very sophisticated developers and Tony Hawk was very sincere in that way, so I'm hoping they can do the same thing. I think they probably can.

I want Guitar Hero to continue being good; I just don't want to keep making Guitar Hero games for the rest of my life.

You also mentioned earlier that you don't like making sequels - but of course EA is famous for putting out new instalments in long running series every year... Are you worried that you'll be stuck in the same situation with Rock Band?

We'll see what happens in time, maybe I'll eat my words, but I'd like to think they're going to support us in continuing to evolve and event. Maybe we'll have a team that continues to make Rock Band sequels, but I'd imagine that someone like myself would continue to be on the leading edge team, giving them new experiences.

We actually have a bunch of them sitting in the queue, waiting to be born...

Orchestra Hero perhaps, with a cello peripheral...

Accordion Hero [laughs]... No, just brand new things that we're psyched to do. It's just time.

Ryan Lesser is art director at Harmonix. Interview by Ellie Gibson. To read part one of this feature, click here.

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Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.