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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Andy Sage

It’s 2007. I’m riding the campus bus, awkwardly cradling a big cardboard box in my lap as I try to make room for the other passengers. It’s unseasonably warm for November, but coats are in evidence anyway, because it’s Indiana and you never know. The box is mostly blue, with four silhouettes and a big logo. Across campus in my dorm room there is an Xbox 360 with no other games, just some pre-installed DLC, waiting for me to arrive. I am 19 years old, and I am very, very excited.

Every so often you have the good fortune of experiencing something that just…clicks. It reaches out to you like a freshly-baked pie to a cartoon hobo, and you make it part of who you are. In 2002, I was staying over at a friend’s house and a package arrived from eBay. It was a dance game for the original PlayStation®. You know where this is going, though; a short “One Month Later” interstitial later, I knew that you should play on the right side of the game, because the left side’s up arrow was no good. That was one of the biggest “clicks” of my life, up there with meeting my wife, who will be absolutely thrilled at that particular comparison. Most nerds have an area of expertise and I had found mine in music games.

It’s 2008. Music echoes through a sterile hallway in the basement of a building on Purdue’s campus, but muffled, as if from a low-pass filter. Someone opens a classroom door and it spills out into the hallway, a well-known rock song speckled with the THWACK THWACK THWACK of drum sticks on hard plastic. I’m in the room, but not playing anything; I’m sitting in a desk in front of the drums to keep them from sliding all over the tiled floor.

Many of the great people at Harmonix are musicians who like games, but I am a gamer who likes music. To the surprise of no one who knew me, I approached music games with the intensity and tenacity of a dog in a peanut butter mine. I discovered ScoreHero, the OG website for overly serious plastic guitarists, and quickly graduated from “wow, you’re good!” to “get a life, nerd”. But I hungered for more songs to play, and more ways to experience my rapidly-expanding personal universe of rock music. Thankfully, Rock Band’s weekly DLC model came and changed everything. It was the beginning of a six-year relationship that would define my schedule, follow me through six U.S. states and five jobs, and cost more than a light drug habit. And hey, I just realized I’ve followed Rock Band DLC longer than I’ve known my wife, even with the two-year DLC break! ha ha she’s gonna read this what am I doing

It’s 2009. Three figures pour out of an apartment in a cloud of fog, coughing and sputtering. “Maybe we should just use the ‘light show’ part of it,” one of them says. Fast-forward to September 9 –It’s 2 AM, and several voices attempting to sing “Back in the USSR” can be heard through the wall. A woman puts a pillow over her head to block it out, like in a cartoon, and contemplates murder.

OK, put on your favorite montage soundtrack and buckle up! Printing karaoke booklets for my 500 songs. Keeping my 300-pound 40” CRT TV, because it has less Rock Band lag than a flat-screen, to the chagrin of everyone who helped me move it. Over 100 weeks of hauling a full band kit in and out of that building from two italic breaks ago. Printing karaoke booklets for my 2,000 songs. Getting the vocals icon tattooed on my clavicle, followed by light mockery on the Rock Band Facebook [ed. Note: we love and hate you for this.]. Spending Friday nights coding an online song database instead of…well, literally anything else. Seeing Bang Camaro at Lollapalooza, getting the center spot, and one of them signing my guitar with “SAGE 4 DRUGZ”. Watching some cool guys play video games on QVC. Feverishly refreshing Twitter to win DLC codes. A winter holiday where all of my gifts were Microsoft Points cards, and a summer in Florida struggling in a games internship because I wanted to make something half as good, half as impactful. The joys of fellowship, years of being immersed in music, the occasional crushing depression of failure…ooh and that Pepsi promo where you could get DLC, do you all remember that?

It’s 2010. I’m listening to a few seconds of an isolated vocal track over and over, trying to correctly identify every note. Luckily, I like the song, so constant repetition’s not a big deal. Fast-forward about ten minutes. The song is horrible. Everything is horrible. This is the most annoying sound I can think of. I picture the man who recorded this nightmarish banshee shrieking, and I, too, contemplate murder.

Are you new to the series? Take a second to read up on the Rock Band Network, ye mighty, and despair. The fact that RBN happened at all is nothing short of miraculous, and I’m still honored to have created songs for it. For a while I was part of Rhythm Authors, one of the “authoring groups” of the time, and I had the heady experience of bringing Third Eye Blind, Meshuggah, and dozens of others to Rock Band. For a few years after that I got to play at being a music scout, signing a handful of bands into the game, and it was wonderful. (Well, mostly. Twice, I was in the final stages of negotiations when things fell apart, including a decent-sized record label with some of my favorite bands.) I met some great people through RBN, and it was the catalyst for many things over the next few years. We got to party with Harmonix at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. We released over 2,000 songs by over 1,000 artists. We banded together to survive the long, cold void after RB3, launching efforts like the Rock Band Harmonies Project, which added vocal harmonies to all of the old songs that didn’t have them. Through a very reasonable, ordinary, and professional series of events that I’ll explain some other time, I helped make those 1,000+ harmonies playable in Rock Band 4 – and hitting that bullseye made the rest of the dominoes fall like a house of cards. I developed the official Rock Band companion app with my heterosexual life partner Andrea Orchesi (shoutouts!), and now I’m writing a blog post as a full-time Harmonix employee.

It’s 2015. I read over the Facebook message one last time, trying not to think about this crazy Hail Mary play. Do I not have any other senior contacts at Harmonix? Why is Alex Rigopulos my Facebook friend, anyway? No way he’ll remember me from San Francisco, right? I send the message, and a day later I’m knocked on my ass: “The project leaders for RB4 are intrigued…”

Over the last few days, you’ve read posts by talented people with much more Harmonix cred than I could ever have. (For God’s sake, the current schedule has me after Chris Foster! Chris Foster!) So what’s the point of this self-aggrandizing piece of purple prose? Let’s circle back to the “click”. I have enjoyed a lot of privilege and a lot of luck in this life, but I’ve also spent over half of it dedicated to music games, and it has paid off. Is there anything better than taking your passion, the thing that clicked with you, and making a career out of it? Earlier I talked about nerd specialties. You can be a nerd about anything, really; it hinges on your excitement, your wide-eyed enthusiasm, and your intensity, not your subject matter of choice. If you have this trait, embrace it! Pursue the sublime feeling of your nerd-focus, and leave your detached composure behind. It’s worth it.

It’s 2016. I step inside a big building, shivering from the piercing Boston cold. I join a small crowd of people waiting for the elevator, and we eventually shuffle in. The doors close with a whir, and I nervously adjust my laptop bag on my shoulder. The stark blue of the Harmonix logo is revealed as the doors slide open, and I take a deep breath before stepping out. I am 28 years old, and I am very, very excited.

– Andy Sage, Network Programmer