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Leader of the Band

Harmonix' Greg LoPiccolo on how the music/rhythm genre became accessible and his ideas for the future of the Rock Band franchise

Greg LoPiccolo's earned credits for music and sound on classic games such as System Shock and Descent before becoming the project leader on SCEA's Frequency and Amplitude titles. More recently, he was an executive producer on Konami's Karaoke Revolution games and project leader for Guitar Hero.

MTV Networks acquired Harmonix in 2006. The company's latest music/rhythm game, Rock Band, was released last fall.

During the recent GDC in San Francisco, LoPiccolo met with to talk about why it took so long for the genre to catch on in the US, the music industry's response and some of the company's future plans for the new franchise.

GamesIndustry: According to NPD data, Rock Band outsold Guitar Hero III in January on the Xbox 360 console. Is the Xbox 360 the lead platform for RockBand sales?

Greg LoPiccolo: That's been true to date, although the PS2 version came out more recently and then was supply constrained for a while. We are just now getting to the point where we have the kind of numbers there that we need to fill the demand. We expect it to be very successful on that platform as well.

What are the sales figures for the stand-alone version as compared to the bundle? And what was the idea behind releasing the stand-alone version of the game well ahead of releasing the peripherals?

Tracie Snitker: That was one of the things that Alex [Rigopulos] was talking about - splitting up the bundle. If you had a band, and you bought the bundle together, someone could take the drums home - did they want their own software?

LoPiccolo: Most of the action has been with the bundles, which is sort of the philosophy. It's like, okay, this is sort of a complicated concept. Let's just give people a big box with everything in it they need. And then, as we become less supply constrained and as people's familiarity with the system improves, then we can go to stand-alone which is now starting to happen with the guitars and the drums.

Speaking of which, I am on my second guitar and my second drum pedal. Customer service was excellent - they were replaced almost immediately - but I was wondering how widespread those issues were and if you are now on top of the problem.

We had a few start-up glitches which - for something of this complexity - I think was not that surprising to us. We put a lot of work into turning around replacements for people quickly and efficiently, and that seems to have gone well.

At this point, I think we're in a pretty good place.

Why do you think it has taken so long for this type of game to become popular here in the US? Guitar Hero only caught on in the last couple of years, but in Japan they've had music rhythm games for more than a decade. And your own Frequency and Amplitude games are more than five years old now.

We put a lot of work into Frequency and Amplitude, which were somewhat ground-breaking concepts in their time. I remain really proud of them - I think they're great games - but the thing we learned from those games is that an abstract concept is very hard for people to get their heads around.

Our takeaway was, we believe in this gameplay, we think this gameplay is relevant to an American audience. How can we present it in a way that is more accessible? It took us a couple of tries, but once we figured it out...I think that's really what it was. I think that the gameplay all along has been there and has been accessible. It just took a while to present it in a way that people would grasp what it was about.

Do you there was any hesitation on the part of publishers as well, in that these games weren't first-person shooters, they weren't what the publishers were used to, and perhaps they were afraid to take a chance on the concept?

I think they were difficult to market. In the case of Harmonix, I have to say that we have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for the publishers that did roll the dice on us. Frequency was a pretty big bet in 2001, and Sony stepped up and funded it, and they stepped up with Amplitude as well.

I don't think we have any real complaints to make about the publishers. I think we've gotten a pretty fair shake in terms of publishers being willing to bet on our concepts.

It's a high risk business and you never know. We didn't know. When we built Frequency, we thought it was going to be huge. We totally believed in it. We've liked everything we've built. It just took a while to find the right kind of formula.

The obvious breakthrough was that...If we put an instrument in your hands, then you are able to make that mental leap. "Oh, I'm playing the part of a guitar player or a drummer, and this is what I am supposed to do." I think that was really what made it work.

This seems similar to what Nintendo has been able to do with the Wii. By concentrating on an interface that everyone understands - waving your hands - they were able to attract people who would never have played a game using a complicated controller.

Absolutely. I think that is completely true. It is driven from the same place. Bridging that gap and making it a little more accessible and a little more familiar to people is a big deal.

Do you think the music industry's response to your games has evolved or changed over time? For example, the type of artists you were able to license for Frequency and Amplitude compared to Rock Band - it seems that more "big name" artists are interested in having their music included these days.

It has, especially with the success of the last few games we've worked on. For one thing, it is a revenue stream. They get licensing money.

I think a lot of the forward-looking people in the music industry are aware that they're in trouble. Their traditional models are starting to collapse, and right now they are very receptive to people coming to them and saying "Hey, here's a different way to distribute your catalog that's a revenue stream and that might lead to other interesting things."

We certainly haven't been able to do everything that we've wanted to do, but by and large we've gotten pretty good receptiveness from people - particularly on the DLC front. When we started selling songs, we sold a lot of songs in not very much time and that had certainly got a lot of people's attention.

Yes, that seems to be going well for you. Have the DLC sales been more than you anticipated?

Who knows? We throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks, you know? [laughs] A lot of projections are worth what they're worth. We're well above what our official projections were, but I think we had an instinct that it was going to work.

The delivery media are mature now. You can go on Xbox Live Marketplace and buy stuff. It's not hard, a lot of people do it, and this seems like the perfect kind of application for that technology.

Are you worried, though, that perhaps all the downloadable content might dilute the market for a sequel? People are used to buying the songs they like, and now you put out another disc but people might have already purchased the songs or they don't like the overall content as much as buying single songs.

I think what it will evolve into over time is a whole spectrum of purchasing opportunities. Sequels - hypothetical sequels - have the advantage of...You can change the experience. You can put more...You can augment it in various ways.

You can put out discs like "hit packs." It's the same thing for the music industry. You can go to iTunes and buy a single, you can go to the store and buy a CD, you can buy a DVD. There are a lot of different ways of packaging things.

Can you talk about any plans to release hits discs, genre discs or single band discs - similar to the recently announced Aerosmith for Guitar Hero - for Rock Band?

We have nothing specific to announce, but certainly that philosophy makes perfect sense for this kind of franchise. It is certainly the kind of thing we would be receptive to looking at.

When looking at the music/rhythm genre, it sometimes seems that - other than getting new content each year in terms of new music - there is not a lot that can be done in terms of evolving the gameplay. Are you worried that you may hit the wall creatively?

Oh, no. We have a long list of things...Our problem is more like choosing between the different opportunities that we want to pursue. There are a couple specific directions that we'd like to go.

We would like to make it possible for people to introduce their own music into sort of the Rock Band ecosystem, which is a pretty complicated topic. It isn't easy to achieve - there are IP issues, ratings issues, and so forth. So there are a lot of things to work through to get that to work, but that seems like a natural direction for the franchise to move. We'd love to have it be a vehicle for people to be able to express themselves in terms of creating their own music and bringing it to a wider audience.

We also think there is a lot of potential for personal self-expression within the constraints of the game. Right now, the game does a really good job in bonding players together. That emotional feeling you get if you are in a band and you are succeeding is really powerful and we're very pleased that it worked as well as it did.

But we think there is a lot more potential for personal self-expression within that envelope. You can see just little bits and pieces of it - there are drum fills, rock endings. There are ways for people to play distinctive roles and express themselves, but only a tiny fraction of the overall experience. We see a lot of potential for expanding that.

We've done a bunch of R&D and prototyping over the last few years and we have learned that it is a very hard problem to solve. But we are really excited about working on that.

Any chance of expanding into other instruments? Perhaps a keyboard?

We get a lot of requests for the keyboard. Who knows? It may happen one day. It is actually conceptually pretty difficult to build in. Most consoles are set up for four peripherals, not five, which means you have to drop something. Which means that the song offering is more complicated.

You know, it is a big commitment. And then the question is, are there enough rock songs with compelling keyboard parts to make it worthwhile? And maybe the answer is yes, but we've been pretty busy [laughs] and we haven't really gotten there yet.

Obviously, you have spent a lot of time taking existing songs and fitting them into your technology. In the future, do you think the music industry may look towards releasing new CDs that have tracks on the disc "pre-formatted" to work with Guitar Hero or Rock Band?

Due to physical format issues...Having it on the same disc, I'm not sure if that would ever happen. But I can certainly imagine a future of coordinated releases, where some given band may release their content into Rock Band at the same. I think that would make a lot of sense.

Both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 have cameras. Have you ever thought about integrating that technology into your game?

We've talked about it. I think it is the kind of thing that sort of seems cooler if you think about it briefly. Part of the problem is that we present this very idealised, polished rock world - where you get to create your character and trick your character out, and you get awesome rock moves on stage and so forth...

But then you'll have camera images of these 40 year-old pot-bellied guys...

It is a little bit of a contrast with this poorly lit living room with, you know, you in your shorts. [laughs]

A lot of it really is this fantasy, wish fulfillment. And so it is like a toolkit to have you be your idealised self and then go out on the Web and participate and play with other people in that environment.

So, I think that is more of the focus for us - to increase the toolkit, allow people to have this idealised, fictional band. To make that into a bigger thing.

Well, perhaps the cameras could just be used for facial image capturing, allowing players to customise characters to look a little more like them.

I could imagine something like that, yeah.

Now, you've also released a game on the iPod...

We did. It's a game called Phase. It came out about the same time as Rock Band. It has the unique property of using your existing music. So basically it does an analysis pass on all the songs on your iPod and creates rhythm/action tracks from the music.

Has there been any thought about porting that to the PSP since it allows owners to store their own music on a memory stick? Or any other plans to expand into portables?

It has certainly occurred to us. There has been nothing announced at this point. Nothing I can talk about.

Are there any legal restrictions that would prevent you from accessing the users saved music on the Xbox 360 or PS3 hard drives for use in Rock Band?

There are issues to work through, but we've had pretty constructive talks with both Microsoft and Sony, both of whom get that and have [user-created games] initiatives that they've announced at this show.

Again, we have nothing concrete to talk about at this point, but we are interested in going that direction and first-party appears to be as well. So, I'm hopeful.

Greg LoPiccolo is the VP of product development for Harmonix. Interview by Mark Androvich. Special thanks to Tracie Snitker, VP of public relations for Reverb.

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