At the Loch Ness shop in Inverness, you’ll find every kind of Nessie merchandise imaginable. What most tourists fail to notice about the assorted plastic keyrings, bath toys and fridge magnets is that very few of them are manufactured in Scotland. Instead, they’re stamped: Made in China.
Thousands of kilometres away, factories located in Shenzhen and Dongguan in the Guangdong province churn out the souvenirs alongside toys and toasters. It’s a hub of the plastic manufacturing industry, a place where you can have almost anything mass-produced to order.
The Haiyatt Garden Hotel is where American, Canadian and European product developers stay. There are buyers for Walmart, military contractors, and product managers stocking up for Christmas. There are even reps from the sex toy industry. But in 2007, an even stranger group arrived: a team from the Massachusetts-based Harmonix Music Systems. When business cards were swapped in the hotel bar, eyebrows were raised. What were guys from a software company doing in an an area known for plastics fabrication? It turned out they were putting together a band.
Eventually, Harmonix would employ 13,000 contract manufacturers and fill warehouses with mammoth boxes brimming with plastic instruments. Yet the manufacturing process was just the final stage of a long period of prototyping and development back in the US. Those combined labours (more on them in a bit) resulted in Rock Band, released in November 2007 in the US and in 2008 elsewhere, which shook up musical simulators with a new level of interactivity and redefined the relationship of games with the music industry.
You can’t tell the story of Rock Band without mentioning Guitar Hero, though. Built by Harmonix and indie peripherals developer RedOctane, the shredding sim proved a surprise hit upon its 2005 release. But success brought changes, and Activision bought RedOctane for $100 million in 2006. Harmonix didn’t own the Guitar Hero IP, and so found itself cut loose.
While Activision built up the Guitar Hero franchise, Harmonix took the less obvious path. It wanted to create a co-op band simulator that was also a digital music distribution platform. Just as MTV had redefined the way music was listened to in the ’80s, Harmonix set out to challenge the passive consumption of music with Rock Band.
Batting away offers from traditional game publishers, Harmonix partnered with MTV/Viacom. “MTV were very supportive of what we were doing as a music entertainment endeavour and not just as a videogame endeavour,” explains Harmonix CEO and co-founder Alex Rigopulos. With MTV behind it, Rock Band took its first step towards becoming a music platform with a library of songs and a lucrative set of track-based DLC.
“We thought of ourselves as the curators of rock for a casual audience that wasn’t as familiar with rock and roll or as committed to it as a lifestyle as the people at Harmonix are,” says project lead Greg LoPiccolo, who is also the former bassist for the Boston band Tribe. “We tried very hard to cover every genre and have representative examples, so that if you played Rock Band you could explore the history of rock from its origins to the present within the game.”
At the time, Guitar Hero licensed its compositions and used studio covers for its soundtrack. Rock Band was the first game to request the original multitrack master recordings of songs. “It completely changed the dialogue with the music industry, including the recording artists,” says Rigopulos, who credits MTV’s clout as a partner in getting the company’s requests heard. “Prior to Rock Band, recording artists basically wouldn’t even return our calls. Generally speaking, the recorded music industry as a whole viewed videogames as this kind of fringe thing that wasn’t really relevant.”
From left to right: Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos, Rock Band project lead Greg LoPiccolo and hardware director Daniel Sussman
“We put a lot of effort into showing the artists we weren’t trying to rip them off or do ringtones,” LoPiccolo says. “Part of our pitch was: if you let people play your song in this game, they will develop a deeper understanding of your song’s craft. People listening to music don’t think about things like basslines or drum parts, but if you play a bassline or drum part in Rock Band you get a much greater understanding of the creativity and the craft and the performance that went into it.”
Harmonix had soon caught the music industry’s imagination. Now all it had to do was build the game to fulfil the promise. Being in a chart-topping band is about more than music, it’s about attitude, energy and a sense of fortuitous chaos. It was a feeling the staff at Harmonix’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found enveloping them in 2006, as the company scaled up from 90 to 300 staff in just 24 months.
“It was an insane period,” Rigopulos recalls. “We actually burst out of our offices right in beta for Rock Band. That’s how bad it got. We literally had people sitting in the hallways with their laptops resting on skateboards on their laps doing software development, because there weren’t any desks for them to sit at.”
Thanks to the game’s huge scope, the new hires were essential. Rigopulos: “We’d built Guitar Hero on a shoestring budget in a very short period of time. In Rock Band, we had to build a complete guitar game and a complete drumming game from scratch, and a complete singing game – plus a layer of band gameplay that unified them all together, along with the digital distribution platform for digital music, and a character creation system. All of this in one package.”
Underpinning that package was the music. The Rock Band disc would include 58 tracks – including such hits as Suffragette City by David Bowie and Reptilia by The Strokes – with the ambitious promise of weekly DLC to come.
But converting master recordings into playable levels was a complex process that challenged even Harmonix’s crack staff of musicians-turned-developers. First, the raw 16-, 24- or 48-channel multitrack sessions had to be collapsed down into sections that were a good representation of the drums, bass, vocals and guitar parts. Then each part needed to be represented as ‘gems’ on an onscreen timeline, with various configurations for different difficulty levels, and all while retaining the musicality in the original performance.
“Even for a guitar, that can be kind of a challenge,” LoPiccolo says. “Any given multitrack song could have a multiplicity of rhythm parts and lead parts. The stems mixing had to take all of that into account, so you’d have a simplified, accessible and – musically and gameplay-wise – interesting part to play along with. Plus, music is full of ambiguity, particularly rock music. It took a lot of trial and error, and a lot of effort, and craft for us to figure out how to consistently represent this big, blurry audio mess.”