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A Reflection on Harmonix’s Guitar Hero Days from Rock Band 4’s Product Manager

For years, people have written about the Activision/MTV Games feud, the battle for music game dominance between Guitar Hero and Rock Band. A lot of people have STRONG opinions about which franchise is better or which guitar has the better strum bar, with a somewhat polarizing perspective that, as a passionate gamer, you are obligated to pick a side. That’s difficult for me. I’ve been making games here at Harmonix since 2001 and have worked on both Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I was the producer on the original Guitar Hero, and the Project Lead on Guitar Hero II before moving onto the Rock Band franchise. I named a bunch of the original Guitar Hero characters and labeled the venues with addresses of friends’ practice spaces. I worked to figure out which concert poster artists we wanted to commission for shell screens. I demoed Guitar Hero at E3 in 2005 off the main floor in the back corners of Kentia Hall (with a crookedly hung poster-board sign that kept falling down) where no one had any clue what the idea would turn into. There’s a lot of my own (and my Harmonix colleagues’) personalities embedded in the Guitar Hero franchise – it’s got our digital DNA. So, when the conversation turns to how much better Rock Band is than Guitar Hero I get really introspective and feel . . . weird. I loved working on the early Guitar Hero games.

The transition from Guitar Hero to Rock Band is worth a discussion in and of itself. I’ve read articles that peg Rock Band as a project that was created explicitly to compete with Guitar Hero. In fact, that’s categorically false. We viewed Rock Band as an obvious and natural evolution from Guitar Hero. Moving from a guitar only experience to a full band was “the future”. In fact, it opened up so many great possibilities for musical interactivity – both in terms of peoples’ relationships to the music and also (maybe more importantly) in terms of peoples’ relationships with each other. A game that encouraged you to play like you were really in a band – with drums and bass and vocals, and characters you customized to be your unique musical avatar – turned out to be a lot more fun than just a guitar game. Rock Band was designed, from the ground up, to be its own thing: the best band simulation game in the world.

As I sit here reflecting on the Harmonix Guitar Hero years, and remembering a set of games that were incredibly fun to build, a few thoughts come to mind:

  1. More than the product, I remember the process. I loved MAKING those Guitar Hero games.
  2. As part of the process, I remember the people. That team was SO good.
  3. I still work with a lot of those same people!!

Guitar Hero Leads 2005

Leads 2015

The Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II teams run like a roll call of the Rock Band 4 team. Not to say everyone is still here (or working on the new Rock Band), but a lot of the key folks are, including artists, musicians, coders and gameplay designers. There are also a lot of folks that have moved on to other companies, as well as some amazing new people who have joined the team, but there’s a vibe on the Rock Band 4 team that totally takes me back to the feeling we had when we were developing those first games. It’s that vibe that I covet – a sense that you are working on something special, a confidence that permeates through the team.

Game development is not so different from other creative, artistic enterprises. The final product is a reflection of the people that contribute – good teams are filled with creative, committed people who can make good decisions on their own. That’s been a fundamental principle of game development at Harmonix – we applied that principle to FreQuency in 2001 and Amplitude in 2003, to Guitar Hero in 2005, to Rock Band in 2007, and we are applying it Rock Band 4 in 2015. Coming to work every day and trying to create the greatest interactive music experiences in the world has been the name of the game here at Harmonix since the inception of the company.

So, yeah, I love what we’re doing with Rock Band 4 and think we’re creating the best game we’ve ever made, a product that will set the bar for what a music game can and should be. However, that’s not the (whole) point. I love that Activision is planning to release a new Guitar Hero game. It’s a validation of our decision to bring Rock Band back now – it’s a sign that people are ready for music games (and rock music) to reclaim their spot in our cultural fabric. I’d like nothing more than for music gaming to dominate the charts once again. And I hope that the development team that Activision has working on the new Guitar Hero game is having as much fun as we are. Long live Rock and Roll!