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Musical Chairs

Harmonix boss Alex Rigopulos on life after Guitar Hero.

Between 1995 and 2003, Harmonix Music Systems failed to turn a profit. The following two years were slightly profitable, but it was in 2006 that Harmonix hit the big time with the release of Guitar Hero.

MTV acquired the company in September - but not the rights to the franchise which had proved so popular around the world. Those had already been snapped up by Activision in May along with publisher RedOctane.

So what's next for Harmonix? sat down with CEO Alex Rigopulos at the DICE Summit last week to find out, and to discuss what he thinks the future holds for the Guitar Hero series. Were you surprised when Activision bought RedOctane?

Alex Rigopulos: I would not say I was surprised, actually. When it became clear that Guitar Hero was beginning to snowball, I expected the big publishers to wade into the ring at that point. I didn't know which it would be.

You didn't own the IP for Guitar Hero, did you?

No, we didn't. The norm is, whoever's writing the cheques owns the IP. If we'd said, âHey, keep your money, we'll just finance this game on our own,' that would have been a different conversation.

But they were coming to us as company that was basically the same size as us, and they were writing the cheques to finance the game. And betting the farm on the game. So I think they're rightfully the owner of that IP.

What did you think of the news that the names Guitar Villain and Drum Villain have been trademarked?

Just because they've filed a trademark registration, doesn't actually mean they plan to create games with those names. For example, they could be locking up those names so that someone else can't use them to create competitive products with kind of a different take on it.

Tony Hawk developer Neversoft will be producing the third instalment in the Guitar Hero series. How do you think they will do?

It's hard to say. What's clear is those guys are really talented, capable game developers. They don't have experience in the area of music games, so I think they'll have some challenges.

But they're really talented guys, and the franchise is in capable hands. And a lot of the hard design problems of Guitar Hero have been solved. I think those guys are capable of taking it and running with it in a way that fans of the franchise will be happy with.

Were you concerned when your publisher was sold and you lost the license? Or did you already have a strong relationship with MTV at that point?

Nothing was comfortable about last year. Because of what was happening with Guitar Hero, it was a very emotionally intense year. What was apparent was that our world was changing. After a decade of trying, music games were finally exploding in the US.

That meant a number of parties were going to come into play, to try and stake out territory in that area. So it was actually a very tense, complicated year for us.

Last year, Guitar Hero picked up five awards at the DICE Summit. How did that feel?

First, I was totally stunned. It was early enough at that point, in February, we really didn't know it was going to become a hit game yet. We knew it was going to be more successful than any of our previous music games, it was still early enough that it was an exciting time, but the way it was all going to play out was not at all clear.

Isn't business inherently un-rock and roll?

It depends on how you approach it. I think a lot of people view, for example, a business negotiation as a tug of war where the idea is to gain the greatest advantage over the person you're dealing with.

Philosophically, I approach business a very different way. For me, it's all about setting up a framework in which two or more parties can enter into and just rock and roll together.

Just say, âLook, instead of fighting over this or that number, let's just try to set up a framework where both of us are just motivated to go crazy, and just knock this f**king thing out of the park.' When you take that approach to business, it doesn't feel like your at war with your business partners.

Did you ever imagine that you'd be an executive at MTV?

It's funny, but really early on at Harmonix, when people were asking us, âWell, if you were to end up getting acquired someday, who might that be?' Actually, MTV. Even ten years ago, MTV was on that short list.

So what's next for Harmonix?

All I would say is that Guitar Hero is just the tip of the iceberg. I really think that music games are going to become a hugely important facet of music entertainment in general. Being able to play with music is going to be how people come to expect to enjoy music that they love.

This is the change in the world that Harmonix will be attempting to catalyse over the next several years, through a number of projects we're working on.

What about creation? Would it be interesting for people to create music, through games?

Absolutely. That's absolutely something that we're going to - over time, and in ways that make sense - reintegrate into our games.

Alex Rigopulos is CEO at Harmonix Music Systems. Interview by N. Evan Van Zelfden.

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