Game Over?

By Michael Fitzgerald | Boston Magazine |

Photograph by Tom Schierlitz

CENTRAL SQUARE LOOKS like a grimy remnant of pre-knowledge economy Cambridge, dotted with aging storefronts and fast-food joints. But right in the heart of the neighborhood, above the grit, are the gleaming headquarters of video-gaming rock stars Harmonix Music Systems. And it’s here that I find myself on a mid-October afternoon, overcome with awe as I take in what Harmonix calls the Star Chamber.

I’m surrounded by a stunning 64-inch television, a fire-engine-red couch, purple leather folding chairs, and a rack with just about every video-game console you can think of. The Star Chamber is where employees test-run the music-based games that just a few years ago made Harmonix one of the most-watched companies in the world. Out of this room came Rock Band. This room is a gamer’s paradise.  

And I’m really trying to enjoy paradise right now, but that’s getting harder and harder to do, because a young Harmonix staffer named Annette Gonzalez is kicking my ass in Dance Central 2, a new game the company will be releasing in a couple of weeks for Kinect. We’re in Battle mode, and a song called “Technologic” by the French electronica group Daft Punk fills the room. As Gonzalez and I dance to the song, a camera is scanning us, comparing our moves with the animated rug-cutter we’re supposed to be imitating on the giant TV screen. The better we mimic the virtual dancer — whose steps were created by Harmonix’s own professional choreographers — the more points we earn. I execute a perfect pushback move and “Flawless” flashes on the screen. At round’s end, I’m feeling pretty good about myself, if a bit winded. I’ve accumulated 29,000 points. Then I notice that Gonzalez’s score is 752,798.

A bit later, I sit down with Harmonix CEO and cofounder Alex Rigopulos, who is excited about Dance Central 2. “This is the game I wish Dance Central 1 had been, if we had had the time and resources to make it,” Rigopulos says. If he’s right, then the sequel could be a certified smash, considering that the original sold 2 million copies in the States.

Rigopulos, a rangy 6-foot-2, is wearing a corduroy sport coat over a T-shirt with cover art from his company’s hit Rock Band game. The 41-year-old is a former music major who went on to the MIT Media Lab to get a master’s degree in computer music. While there, he met Eran Egozy, a computer science and electrical engineering major who plays classical clarinet. The two came up with a simple idea: Create a new type of video game that would give non-musicians the sensation of actually making music.

They spent nine years failing for the most part, though there were a couple of tiny successes along the way. Then, in 2005, they teamed up with a company called RedOctane to release Guitar Hero, a game that let people “play” along to popular rock songs by mashing on buttons on a plastic guitar. Guitar Hero became an instant sensation, selling millions of copies. In time, the gaming giant Activision bought RedOctane, which owned the rights to Guitar Hero. So Rigopulos and Egozy created a competing game, Rock Band, which incorporated drums, a microphone, and a bass guitar. It, too, was a giant hit. In 2006 the college buddies sold their company to Viacom’s MTV Networks for $175 million. Two years after that, the pair made Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

But then somebody sent the needle screeching across the turntable. Sales of music games tanked, in part due to the ferocious price competition between Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Harmonix released a much-hyped version of the game, Beatles: Rock Band, but it was a dud. Maybe gamers were tired of playing fake instruments; maybe with the advent of Facebook and smartphones, they were simply moving on to different types of video games altogether. Whatever the cause, the bubble had burst, and in late 2010 Viacom recorded a $260 million write-down on Harmonix — the corporate accounting version of a bitch-slap. Just a few days before the year ended, Viacom sold Harmonix to a private equity firm for $50, plus the assumption of $100 million in liabilities. A disaster.