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Games people play
North America’s only independent music-video-game-development studio is flying under the radar in Central Square

I NEVER imagined I’d be performing on a rooftop with a scruffy, soul-patched guy in a potbellied teddy-bear costume. But here I am on a Friday afternoon with this sketchy stranger, singing "I Got You Babe" for hundreds of people, as a helicopter hovers above us. When I hit the notes dead-on, the crowd cheers. Red helium balloons rise into the cerulean sky. The world seems brighter. I am a star.

Actually, it’s not me who’s the star. It’s Sorrow, a sultry goth chick with pale skin and Medusa hair whose sole function is to allow me to sing vicariously through her in the PlayStation 2 video game Karaoke Revolution 3. The dude in the bear suit is Joe, a character partly inspired by actor Steve Buscemi, partly by the dancing-bear Aphex Twin music video "Donkey Rhubarb." Right now, Joe is being controlled by Josh Randall, creative director of Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, the only independent music-video-game-development studio in North America and the company responsible for KR3, ranked Game of the Year by Time magazine in 2003.

To demonstrate what happens when a player doesn’t perform well, Randall stops singing along with the recorded voice. The words "Lousy" and "Poor" float across the screen. The fickle spectators boo and hiss, then start to leave. If we continue to croon miserably, Joe and Sorrow will collapse on their knees, mortified, and the song will end. If we hit the notes precisely, we’ll score points for accurate imitation, eventually earning gold or platinum records.

Thus far, Harmonix has kept a relatively low profile: when the Boston Globe recently published a story about home karaoke and KR parties, the piece didn’t mention that the video game’s creators sit right in Central Square. In addition to its trilogy of KR releases, Harmonix has created three other video games, two of which are musical: the critically acclaimed FreQuency (2001) and its sequel, Amplitude (2003), which had the 10-year-old company collaborating with the likes of David Bowie and Herbie Hancock. The studio’s latest game, Eyetoy: AntiGrav, is its only non-musical release. But it’s another feat of innovation, forcing stereotypically lazy gamer-nerds off the sofa: players stand facing the television, moving their heads and waving their arms to steer a virtual hoverboard.

Gaming is currently a dominant force in the entertainment industry. According to the Entertainment Software Association, computer and video-game sales reached $7.3 billion in 2004, a figure that’s more than doubled since 1996. (By comparison, the Motion Picture Association of America reports that the film industry brought in $9.54 billion the same year.) Although the video-game business is criticized for publishing violent products, 83 percent of all the games sold in 2004 were rated either "E" for everyone or "T" for teen — just the kind of games Harmonix makes — by the industry’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board.

"What we’re doing is new," says Harmonix CEO and co-founder Alex Rigopulos — true, considering that of the top-20 selling video games in February, only one, Mercenaries, wasn’t an overwrought sequel, according to the Variety-owned Video Business magazine. "The reason we exist as a company is to create these game experiences that are about evoking joy from people. There are plenty of great game-development studios in the world right now that create violent games and dark games. That’s fine. I love those games and I play those games, but you know what? Those bases are sorta covered. What the world does need are studios creating play experiences that are more about celebration and joy."

"Video games literally will overtake all other forms of entertainment, I think," opines Harmonix audio director Kassoon Crooker. "As video games become more cinematic and incredibly lifelike and immersive and complicated, that’s just where people want to go because they have all this control. They can decide what kind of game, they can choose their character, and they basically create their own novel. People really want to be involved, and if the game industry doesn’t figure out how to cater not only to 15-to-25-year-old guys, they’re going to get stuck. But the minute it becomes a more broad in terms of games, things will explode. And that’s where Harmonix comes in."

BEYOND THE games it creates, Harmonix is a story in itself, a kind of artists’ colony that challenges the game-developer cliché of flabby, Dorito-eating slobs who live at their offices. Randall — a/k/a "Robotkid" — not only recently helped make a video for 8-Bit, a robotic chem-suited four-piece that raps over video-game sounds, but once fronted his own industro-punk droid band, the Institute of Technology. Audio director Crooker, 33, is better known as the Duke of Pannekoeken (the Duke of Dutch Pancakes), the programmer behind the synth-pop trio Freezepop. Art director Ryan Lesser teaches at RISD, helped design artist Shepard Fairey’s original OBEY/GIANT street-art campaign, once played bass for the Laurels, and runs LotsofNoise.com, a site about Providence’s noise/rock scene. Working for Lesser are special-effects artist Brian Gibson, bassist for Providence noise demi-gods Lightning Bolt, and artist Chris Saraullo, who sings back-up and plays percussion for Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores. Producer Daniel Sussman plays with pop-punk trio the Acro-brats. Rigopulos, the company’s 35-year-old CEO and co-founder, played percussion-driven Balinese Gamelan music at MIT, where he studied musical composition. Co-founder Eran Ergozy is a classically-trained clarinetist. Also on staff are members of the now-defunct bands the Amazing Crowns, the Model Sons, and two members of Tribe. And though not a Harmonix employee, local rapper Akrobatik was hired to record the instructional voice on Amplitude.

Their company didn’t always design video games. The mid-’90s invention of Rigopulos and Ergozy, two musically inclined MIT grad students who met at the school’s world-famous Media Laboratory, Harmonix initially set out to solve what co-founder Rigopulos calls a "very big and important problem in the world." That weighty concern? Many music fans can’t actually create music.

"Playing music and performing music is really one of the most profound sources of joy that life has to offer," explains Rigopulos, who professes to understand the difficulty of mastering an instrument. ("I’ve been playing music in one form or another — percussion, guitar, sax and other stuff — very badly for many years," he says modestly.) "But it’s too damn difficult to learn to play a musical instrument, and most people don’t have the time or talent or patience." He and Ergozy believed they’d identified an unmet demand: "Ways to let music-loving non-musicians have access to this pleasure that comes from making music." They decided to supply the solution.

As a nascent Media Lab offshoot attempting, via technology, to recreate the fulfillment that comes from playing musical instruments, Harmonix first produced The Axe, a CD-ROM that allowed users to improvise guitar and piano solos using a PC joystick. Later, they turned their attention to developing interactive musical attractions for theme parks, including one for Epcot Center that composes music to the rhythm of nearby human movements.

Then, in 1997, a pivotal shift occurred across the world. Music-video games started to filter into the United States from Japan, specifically rhythm-music titles like Beatmania and PaRappa the Rapper, a game based conceptually on Simon Says. Harmonix’s leaders recognized that the increasing ubiquity of video games, both overseas and at home, presented huge possibilities. "At that point it became clear to us that [music-video games were] really the way to reach a mass audience and achieve the goal we were trying to achieve as a company on a much larger scale," recalls Rigopulos. "The music-game category became a huge category in the Japanese market. We decided to bring that phenomenon to the US."

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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