MIT Spinout Harmonix Keeps Innovating, With Lasting Impact

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Harmonix innovates music gameplay to create iconic video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band.Credit: Provided by Harmonix of Rock Band 4

The MIT Spinout has released iconic video games for over 25 years.

Every holiday season, popular new video games cause disproportionate amounts of hype, expectations, and marginal shopping. However, some of those games offer a whole new way of playing. Fewer will have a spillover effect that goes far beyond the game world.

When Guitar Hero was released in 2005 and challenged players to note classic rock songs with a guitar-like controller, it was a cultural hit that taught a new generation to love rock and roll music from a holiday hit. It has grown into a phenomenon. In the process, he showed the video game industry the power of innovative music-based games.

The rock band franchise associated with Guitar Hero was developed by Harmonix Music Systems, which was formed over 25 years ago at MIT’s Media Lab when a pair of friends began using technology to help people interact with music. it was done. Since then, millions of people have released more than a dozen games that have helped them experience the thrill of making music.

“What we have always sought to achieve is to innovate music gameplay,” said Eran Egozy ’93, SM, MIT’s professor of music and theatrical arts practice, who co-founded the company with Alex Rigopulos. ’95 says. ’92, SM ’94. “That’s what the company is always trying to create, creating a new kind of fascinating musical experience.”

To drive that mission, Harmonix became part of the industry’s giant Epic Games last month. This is a big milestone for companies that have seen the game transform from a small passionate project to a source of ubiquitous expression and fun.

Egozy has seen famous band tour buses, tech giant offices like Google, bars hosting “Rock Band Nights”, and harmonics games depicted on popular TV shows. Most importantly, I heard from a music teacher that the game encouraged children to play real musical instruments.

In fact, Egozy just heard from his son’s principal that he played the drums because of the rock band.

“That’s probably the most satisfying part,” says Egozy, who plays the clarinet professionally. “Of course, when I started the company, I had great hopes and aspirations, but I didn’t expect it to really have that big impact. We’re completely surprised.”

Mission-led beginning

As an undergraduate student at MIT, Egozy majored in electrical engineering and computer science, and majored in music... However, he had never thought about the combination of computer and music until he attended the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program under Michael Holy, a graduate student at the Media Lab.

With this experience, Egozy earned a master’s degree from the Opera of the Future group in Media Lab and, led by Tod Machover, began building software that produces music based on intuitive controls. He also met Rigopros at the Media Lab. Rigopros soon became a friend and collaborator.

“Alex came up with this idea. Isn’t it cool to drive the parameters of a generative music system using a joystick, which is a more friendly interface?” Egogy recalls.

The joystick-based system quickly became one of Media Lab’s most popular demos, with pairs taking part in the MIT $ 10,000 Entrepreneurship Contest (MIT $ 100,000 today).

“I think MIT has given me the feeling that it doesn’t make sense for someone to do what they’ve already done,” says Egozy. “If you’re going to work on something, try something creative. This is an attitude that pervades MIT as a whole, not just the media lab.”

When the graduation ceremony came, Egozy and Rigopulos wanted to continue developing the system, but they didn’t think they could find a company that would pay them to do it. Harmonix was born from that simple logic.

The founder worked on this technology for the next four years, creating a product called Ax, which Egozy describes as a “total flop.” They also sought to build Disney’s system at Epcot Amusement Park and integrate Japanese karaoke machines and software.

“We have failed many times trying to understand what our business is, and how to fulfill our mission to enable everyone in the world to experience the joy of making music. It took me a long time to find it. After all, it was a video game, “says Egozy.

The company’s first few video games weren’t a big hit, but by repeating on the core platform, Harmonix was able to steadily improve its design and gameplay.

As a result, when it was time to create Guitar Hero around 2005, the founders had a music, graphics, and design system that they knew would work with their own controllers.

Egozy describes Guitar Hero as a relatively low-budget project within Harmonix. The company was developing two games at the time, and the Guitar Hero team was small. It was also a quick shift: they completed Guitar Hero in about nine months.

Through other releases, the Harmonix team was trained to expect that most of the sales would be generated in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, after which sales would virtually stop. With Guitar Hero, the game sold incredibly fast. Retailers soon wanted more, and companies that made guitar controllers needed to increase orders from manufacturers.

But what really surprised the founders was that January sales exceeded December sales. … After that, February exceeded January. In fact, the monthly sales chart looked like something Harmonix’s team of 45 had never seen before.

“It was mostly shock and distrust within Harmonix,” says Egozy. “We loved making Guitar Hero. It was the game we always wanted to make. Everyone at Harmonics was somehow involved in music. People went to the company and jammed. There was a bandroom so that we could, and the fact that it sold really well was very satisfying — and very unexpected. “

Since then, the situation at Harmonix has changed rapidly. Work on Guitar Hero 2 started right away. Guitar Hero was acquired by Activision and Harmonix was acquired by MTV Networks for many years. Harmonics developed a rock band franchise that brought together players to play lead guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and vocals of popular songs.

“It was really great because it was about the group’s efforts,” says Egozy. “The rock band was sociable in the sense that everyone played music together in the same room. We’re working towards a common goal, not competition.”

Ongoing heritage

Over the last decade, Harmonix has released new music gameplay with releases such as SingSpace, which provides a social karaoke experience, and Fuser, a DJ-inspired game that allows users to mix and match different tracks. I’ve been searching for a mode. The company has also released rock band VR. This allows players to feel like they are standing on stage in front of a live audience.

Egozy, who has recently been a full-time professor at MIT since becoming a full-time professor at MIT in 2014, is a class that combines computer science, interaction design, and music at 21M.385 / 6.185 (Interactive Music Systems). I am teaching. “This is the class I wanted as an undergraduate here at MIT,” says Egozy.

And every semester, the class takes a tour of the Harmonics Office. He is often told that it is a favorite part of the students in the class.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done, but I’m still surprised and humbled by the impact we have on our culture,” says Egozy. “There is a generation of kids who grew up playing these games that they learned about all this music from the 70’s and 80’s. I’m really happy to introduce them to great music.”

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