Eran Egozy and Alex Ringopulos didn’t set out to rock the gaming world, literally or figuratively. In fact, the MIT-educated duo didn’t even intend to produce video games when they opened Harmonix Music Systems in 1995. Their idea was simple enough: find a way for the untalented masses to enjoy the sensation of playing music.
Eran Egozy and Alex Ringopulos didn’t set out to rock the gaming world, literally or figuratively.
In fact, the MIT-educated duo didn’t even intend to produce video games when they opened Harmonix Music Systems in 1995. Their idea was simple enough: find a way for the untalented masses to enjoy the sensation of playing music.
“We always knew we wanted to create products with music and technology,” Egozy said. “Essentially, we were creating technologies that would let users experience the excitement of playing music and performing music without having any musical training.”
Twelve years later, Egozy, 36, and Ringopulos, 37, find themselves the creators of one of the most successful video game franchises in the world — “Guitar Hero” — and are poised to unleash one of the most anticipated games of the year, “Rock Band,” just in time for the holiday season.
“Honestly, I’ve been so freaking busy, I haven’t really had much time to pay attention to it all,” Egozy said of Harmonix’ rise to gaming celebrity. Next week, Harmonix plans to release “Rock Band,” the long-awaited follow-up to the “Guitar Hero” line of games.
For those unaware, “Guitar Hero” employs the principal elements of karaoke to guitar playing. Players use guitar-shaped controllers to simulate playing along to popular rock songs such as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and Megadeth’s “Hangar 18.”
“When we started it, we were just making another game,” Egozy said of the game’s initial release in 2005. “We didn’t really anticipate that it would become this huge hit. It was really amazing to see it unfold in front of our eyes.”
Harmonix rolled out “Guitar Hero II” a year later to rave reviews and astronomical sales. Neversoft Entertainment — the studio behind the wildly popular “Tony Hawk” series — bought the studio that had co-produced the “Guitar Hero” franchise with Harmonix, and released the game’s third installment three weeks ago.
Ironically, Harmonix now finds itself in the unique position of having to compete with its own genius. “Rock Band,” which ships on Nov. 20, is the next logical progression from “Guitar Hero.” It incorporates the same guitar simulation from the original franchise, but adds bass, drums and vocal simulation as well. Players are graded on how well they match beats and notes to the on-screen readouts, while a computer-animated band thrashes and wails in the background.
Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development and an eight-year veteran of the company, said while “Guitar Hero” will always be considered one of the company’s greatest successes, he hopes its successor will fare even better.
“[‘Guitar Hero’] put us on deck to make the game we really wanted to make, which is ‘Rock Band,’” LoPiccolo said.
LoPiccolo said watching the cult of “Guitar Hero” grow from the typical rank of devoted gamers into a national sensation has been rewarding, if not a bit humbling.
“It’s pretty gratifying,” LoPiccolo said. “When we built that game, we had no idea it was going to be the game to put us on the map.”
The game’s rise to fame may have reached its peak last week, when it was parodied in an episode “South Park.” The plot of the show highlighted the increasingly blurry line the game draws between virtual play and actual performance. That the game even caught the attention of a show notorious for lampooning the most popular bits of American culture is a mark of success, Egozy said.
“When [‘South Park’] is making fun of you, that means that you’ve made it as a cultural phenomenon,” Egozy said. “It’s been an unbelievable year.”
“[The game] is in bars, and it’s replacing karaoke night,” he added. “People are actually going out and drinking, and playing ‘Guitar Hero’ in bars competitively.”
Things weren’t always rosy for Harmonix. Its first two titles, “Frequency” and “Amplitude,” though critically acclaimed, were not very commercially successful. Indeed, Egozy said, Harmonix has been humming along on Mass. Ave. thanks in large part to a dedicated staff of artists, programmers and, naturally, musicians.
“We started with about 70 employees, and now we have about 140,” Egozy said.
The swell of employees, many of whom have been with the company since the first day, is also the reason the company recently changed addresses. Harmonix is now at 625 Mass. Ave., in the space formerly occupied by Harvard’s Center for East Asian Studies.
“One of the first things we did when we moved into this space is bought a bunch of scooters, because we figured out that from one end of the space to the other is about a quarter of a mile,” said John Drake, one of the newer employees at Harmonix, and just one member of the more than 30 local bands among the Harmonix staff.
It seems fitting that Harmonix was purchased by MTV last year. Like the network, Egozy and Ringopulos may not have initially intended to tinker with the mechanics of the music industry, but merely to open a new channel of delivery and interaction with music. As it happens — or rather, will likely happen once Harmonix launches its own online server of downloadable content — “Rock Band” just may become the new benchmark of a band’s success.
“Just like MTV, back in the 1980s, created the music video and created a cultural shift in the way people thought about music,” Egozy said.” “What it means to be a band now is that have a music video. What it’s going to mean to be a band is that you’ll be on the ‘Rock Band’ platform.”