Greg LoPiccolo didn't have to leave his office in a brick building near Boston this year to see how two of the biggest trends in the last half-decade of video games were playing out. There were doubters outside. Inside?
In the offices of Harmonix Music Systems, the place where the hit Rock Band games are made and where LoPiccolo is vice president of product development, a team of a couple hundred developers were creating two games this past year.
In the early part of 2010, both games were secrets to the outside world.
Each would prove late in the year to be among the best in their class.
One, Rock Band 3, was the next in a long line of games you play with a guitar-shaped controller in your hand. The other, Dance Central, was going to be a new entry in the field of games that involve jumping around in front of your TV, a field made popular by Nintendo's Wii.
The public didn't know to wonder about Harmonix's dancing game. Most people didn't know it was coming. But Rock Band 3 was obvious. Harmonix had been making music games before they were bought by the conglomerate Viacom in 2006 and made a sister company to MTV. Rock Band was what Harmonix did. Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Green Day: Rock Band, The Beatles: Rock Band, etc.
Music games weren't as hot as they'd been in 2006 or 2007. Rock Band, Guitar Hero and the competition the series spawned had collectively been a sensation but then dropped. The year - a year by whose 357th day would see Harmonix sold by Viacom of the year - began with murmurs outside Harmonix: maybe the music gaming thing was over?
LoPiccolo was aware of that kind of talk. Of course he'd heard that music games might have been a fad. "It affects what we make," he said in a telephone interview with Kotaku earlier this week, "but not as much as you'd think. We're trying to do what we think would be good."
He remembered where his mind was at early in the year.
"We had laid the groundwork for all the stuff we're doing in Rock Band 3 really like a year before then. [The game] was like two years plus in development." He couldn't rely on the outside world's sense of what was happening with music games. They weren't playing the stuff Harmonix had in their offices. "The main thing is trying to focus on things we think are good and ought to exist and maybe worry less about what people think, particularly before they have had a chance to experience it."
Early in the year, from LoPiccolo's perspective, the doubts outside didn't much matter. He liked that part of the year — that part of any year, really, when creating a video game is a more private affair. "It's fun to be in the bubble and working on it, where the only thing that matters is making it better and you're not worried about people's perceptions," he said. "That's all going to come in the future. You're just worried about trying to make it awesome."
The big things about Rock Band 3 were that it was going to support keyboards and, optionally, an actual electric guitar. Back in February, the team had a Yamaha plastic guitar wired up to the game. It worked, they were playing Rock Band with a stringed guitar. The Yamaha set-up worked all right, but the new game could be confusing to play.
You play Rock Band by pressing buttons and strumming on a switch on a guitar-shaped controller, following along to the command prompts that cascade down your TV screen. You're being given a waterfall of instructions from the moment the song starts until the end. If you had a real guitar in your hands, the directions would have to be more complicated.
"It's fun to be in the bubble and working on it, where the only thing that matters is making it better and you're not worried about people's perceptions."
"We had been struggling with the idea that there was a third kind of axis to build into the user-interface," LoPiccolo recalled. "We had fret number and string and time, whereas before all we had was button and time and that was it. We tried all of these different things, and all of these obvious solutions didn't work."
Then, as people who have played the finished game know, Harmonix solved their problem and figured out what kind of info they needed to scroll down the screen. The eureka came early in the year. "That was exciting, the day where the best players could sight-read it."
Dance Central was another puzzle. It was being made for the Kinect, a new piece of Microsoft hardware that wasn't going to be done until far into the development of the game. Harmonix had early Kinect prototypes in 2009. The early ones were kind of "band-aided together," LoPiccolo said. At least it functioned.
"We had hardware early on that worked well enough to do what we needed to do," LoPiccolo recalled. Dance Central was going to be a dancing game that didn't use a mat like Dance Dance Revolution nor a controller like Just Dance. the dancing genre's two biggest hits. The Kinect sensor would read your body movements as you danced to pop songs in front of your TV. It would know just by electronically seeing you if you were hitting your steps and really waving your hands in the air like you just didn't care.
In the winter the game was just barely getting out of its tech-demo stages. "There was a lot of struggle around getting the choreography authored and getting the filtering system such that, if you were doing poorly, it would know that - and if you were doing well, it would know that. There was a long period where you would play it and get a lot of false positives and you'd get a lot of false negatives. It wasn't really clear the game had any idea what you were doing." That came together as well early in the year.
By the end of the winter, the big things Harmonix's two games were supposed to do were working. Soon, any skeptics would get to see them.
In the spring Harmonix started showing their games to reporters. They revealed Rock Band 3 to a small group of gaming journalists first and even gave them a live demonstration of the game played on a Stratocaster, a stringed guitar controlling a Rock Band game. "That thing was very much soldered together by hand," LoPiccolo chuckled. "But it worked!"
The response was good. Gaming reporters had long been kind to the Rock Band games. But what would they make of the other project? Did a bunch of mostly male reporters who aren't universally physically fit, socially outgoing and interested in spending time in front of a game console showing off their dance moves want to play Dance Central?
Harmonix's Kinect game debuted at E3 and, in fact, was a hit. Gaming reporters got in front of the Kinect and danced. Harmonix rejoiced in the positive reaction, noting our own editor-in-chief's "shit-eating grin" after he played it at E3.
The summer that followed was "kinda spiky," LoPiccolo remembered. The games had to be finished and that's not always a smooth process.
"Rock Band 3 was a slog," he said. "I don't know if it's evident from outside but that game is so enormous now. It's not just the game itself. It's got to work with all the legacy DLC [downloadable content] and it's got to work with all these peripherals, including the new ones and the old ones. Half of development was keeping all the prior stuff working and not breaking. … We had been working on that game for two years, so that was just an exercise in determination to get it zipped up and finished."
Dance Central had its own problems. A manageable game in scope and ambition, it suddenly was was a marathon that had to be finished in the time of a sprint. Harmonix had received clearances for many of the game's key songs late and, with three weeks to go before finishing the game, had to re-tune the whole thing, testing over 600 moves across all the tracks. "We were recruiting people from all departments to just dance, dance, dance," LoPiccolo said. "Our [game testers] were just wrecked because they had to dance for 12 hours a day."
Another byproduct of working on the games that intensely: creators of music game get sick of hearing certain songs from those games, songs that keep having to be played during development again and again. For LoPiccolo in 2010 that song was "I love Rock 'N Roll," the classic anthem made famous by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. "I've heard that song enough," he laughed. "It served us well."
Rock Band 3 came out in October. Dance Central shipped in November. The music game got rave reviews, including here at Kotaku. The motion game was regarded by critics as one of the best, if not the best, launch games for Kinect.
Critically, Harmonix had pulled it off, which based on LoPiccolo's experience could even have been considered a surprise internally. "When you're making [a game] you're just flying along," he said. "You're just adding features and fixing bugs. You're playing each thing just long enough to confirm that it does what you wanted it to do. But the game you intended to make, you only get to play for about three weeks before you ship it. The other two years you're playing various broken, buggy versions with various features missing, so you actually haven't had a lot of experience playing it as intended until very shortly - it only really comes together late and then, three months after you ship, there's all these people who have logged three times as much time with the game than you ever did. And they know the game way better than you know it. And that's where we get the really interesting feedback."
The feedback has been good, but the toughest reminder about the clouds of doubt regarding music games emerged just as Rock Band 3 and Dance Central were clicking with fans. In November, Harmonix's parent company, Viacom, revealed that they were going to sell Harmonix. It appeared that the very company that had enough faith in music games to buy the makers of the best one in 2006 had decided that wasn't so important anymore in 2010.
LoPiccolo said he didn't focus on that, and he declined to comment to Kotaku about Viacom's decision. It was an odd position to be in, no doubt. Harmonix's top people had long talked about the company's mission to use video games to give regular people a chance to experience the joy of playing a musical instrument. With Rock Band 3 they'd done that with a real stringed guitar. They'd made their best Rock Band. And their parent company was going to ditch them.
Whatever concerns Viacom had for music games, LoPiccolo says today he and Harmonix don't have them. "I think we all have a deep and abiding faith about the future of music games as a category, but by no means do we think the games that we've made or that Activision has made have explored that space fully. Music is a big, diverse, deep topic that you can approach from a lot of different angles. Certainly, it's been true that Guitar Hero took off and then, after that, we moved to Rock Band and that took off.
"We have a deep faith in the idea of music gaming as a permanent concept … Rock Band is not the only manifestation of music gaming that needs to exist either by us or by anybody else."
He feels good about Kinect too. Harmonix has had more than a year now to understand the thing and learn its strengths and weaknesses, what it can do, how it can fit into a world that also has the Wii, PlayStation Move and a whole lot of motion-controlled games. "I think the kind of games people are going to end up making for Kinect are not necessarily what people will assume," he said. "It's not good at everything. It's good at specific things and those things are very powerful, but figuring out what those things are is a lot of work." He described Dance Central as a "good first stab."
Eight days before the end of the year, Viacom said they had sold Harmonix. The company for which LoPiccolo works is now independent again, for the first time in four years. Their new owners are an investment group. Harmonix can still make Rock Band and Dance Central games if they want, it seems, though they're back in the secrecy stage, with new shades installed in the office, since July, that shielded walls covered in ideas for the new games.
"We're very excited about the next set of games we're making," he said. "I've been relieved that the transition process hasn't really affected that too much. We've been able to keep our eye on the prize. The aspect of being at Harmonix is the interesting aspect. The other stuff is just… stuff. Making games is the fun part."
It keeps going, then, at Harmonix, whether or not the outside world condemns the games the company makes as fads or not. The gaming world looks different in the Harmonix office, anyway. Take LoPiccolo's experience of Rock Band, which is not quite the same perspective on the games you or I have. "I think of it as one big continuous game," he said. I don't even draw a distinction [between Rock Band 2 or 3]. It's weird. If your'e a consumer or a reviewer you buy one. And a year or two later you buy the next one, and they are like these points in time, whereas for me it's like, no dude, we work on Rock Band and we occasionally spin out a disc and then we go back to working on Rock Band. It's like one big curve."
That curve had its bumps in 2010, but in 2011, with luck and good new secret projects behind the shades, up it may go again.