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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Ethan Yetton

Hi there. I’m Ethan, part of the IT team here at Harmonix. More specifically, I’m sort of the hands-on hardware guy. We have smarter folks who do things like Systems Administration, license maintenance, networking, and software provisioning. What I do is basically figure out ways to make our computers and consoles work, oftentimes when they really don’t want to and sometimes when they probably shouldn’t. I also perform a lot of the mundane day-to-day IT “necessities” like replacing printer toner and asking people if they’ve tried turning their PC off and back on again. None of that stuff is terribly interesting to read about. The other part of my job, though, is a bit more exciting. Namely, over the past couple of years I’ve gotten to travel around the country with Harmonix, helping to set up the tech at shows like E3 and PAX.

Let’s talk about that, because it still amazes me.

In 2014, I remember walking around PAX East as a fan and telling myself “it’d be really cool to work at a show like this.” In 2015, when I, now an employee at a video game company, was hurriedly replacing components in a busted PC at our booth ten minutes before the doors opened, I remember saying “oh, how naive you were, 2014 Ethan”.

But in truth, for all the insanity that goes along with setting up convention booths, it’s hugely rewarding to see people enjoying our games. What makes it even better, at least for me, is that Rock Band, well… Rock Band and I go back a ways.

It started with Guitar Hero, which I first read about in an actual print magazine(!). And, man, people didn’t get it at first. I picked it up at my local mall and more than a few folks stopped me on the way out to ask, “What is in THAT box?” A few weeks later, though, it seemed like everyone had it. Ditto for Guitar Hero II. Then I heard that Harmonix, those purveyors of unfiltered digital joy, were stepping it up and putting out a music game... that four people play together? “OK,” I thought, “now I need friends”.

I recall having the hardest time ever finding Rock Band on launch day. I scoured about ten stores looking for it, and just when I was about to give up, one copy magically appeared in the electronics section of a local department store. I don’t think the clerks had any clue what they were selling me. I brought it home and enjoyed trying out all of the instruments on my own, but where the game really ruled was in a social setting.

Let’s talk about that, too. I’m a walking “IT guy” stereotype. In other words, social interaction isn’t my strength. I do make friends, but it’s usually a slow process and games tend to be involved. At the time Rock Band came out I worked at a small university and I can unequivocally state that it helped me find common ground with my coworkers. I was usually the one introducing people to the game, and it didn’t take much to get them hooked. Rock Band nights became a thing and, even outside of work, I found that social gatherings were way less painful thanks to the game. Awkward Christmas party with people I barely knew? Let’s play Rock Band! Awkward family get-together? Let’s play Rock Band! You get the idea.

My other strong “Rock Band” memory is a downer, but hey, we’re all friends here. One night I was driving home from game night and I passed by the nursing home where my grandmother was living. My parents divorced when I was three and, subsequently, she helped my mom raise me. She was a difficult lady and our relationship was frequently… complicated. Despite that, having to move her into the nursing home was hard on everyone. On this particular night there was an ambulance outside and something in the back of my mind told me it was for her. It occurred to me that I hadn’t been by to visit in about a week and a half, which was probably the longest I’d gone without seeing her. During our last visit she was practically her normal self again, which meant she was being, well, hard on everyone. I shrugged off my sense of foreboding and told myself I’d stop by that weekend.

A few hours later I was woken up by the news that she had passed away earlier that evening.

What struck me most when I heard the news, aside from conflicted feelings about, well, everything, was that my grandmother was in many ways directly responsible for me being into gaming. The “good side” of our relationship, at least as far as my younger self was concerned, was that if there was any video game I wanted she made sure I had it. I can actually remember an instance in the late 80’s where she’d been out shopping with my aunt and a particularly anticipated game was due to be released. A store they happened to stop into said they were unloading it “in a couple of hours”. My grandmother dragged the trip to the mall out until they opened the boxes in front of her, just to make sure I got a copy.

Man. Okay. Moving on...

I didn’t have to show off Rock Band 2 much. Everyone I knew pretty much had it pre-ordered ahead of time. The appetite for that title was voracious. My favorite memory from these days is of annoying everyone I knew by posting song-by-song updates online as I played through all of Pearl Jam’s “Ten” from start to finish.

Rock Band 3 taught me important lessons about myself, most notably that while Pro Guitar seems like a great idea, I’m terrible at it and should stop trying. That being said, I loved the sheer scope of that game.

Which brings us to Rock Band 4 and loops us back into present-day Ethan and his quest to not screw up all of the Harmonix event tech.

I started at Harmonix a few months before we announced Rock Band 4 to the world. My initial impression upon seeing the company’s office was, “OH MY GOD, THIS IS REALLY REAL! THEY MAKE GAMES HERE!” When I got my first Help Desk ticket from Alex Rigopulos, who should need no introduction, I calmly said, “I’ll take it” as my brain screamed “HE GAVE A PAX KEYNOTE! YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”. And I totally did make a fool of myself, but Alex didn’t seem to care. I mean he still talks to me, which is nice. And he seems to take my general state of grumpiness in stride. The point is that I suddenly found myself as a fan, both of gaming in general and Rock Band more specifically, trying to show the creators of that game series that I wasn’t an idiot. And someday I might actually succeed! [Ed. Note: He succeeded long ago.]

Anyway, after a trial run at a small press event, I was brought along to help out with PAX East 2015 where, as I mentioned, I found myself racing against time to rebuild a PC. Thankfully I could, and the event went mostly smoothly from that point on.

E3 2015 was the big one, at least from my perspective. A full band stage and two single-player stations set up outside in the Los Angeles sun for three days straight was the easy part, even if we did quickly figure out that consoles really hate prolonged exposure to direct scorching sunlight. We also threw a party at a downtown nightclub and had to rig the place to work with our game. Setup took hours and required the blood, sweat, and tears of a bunch of dedicated people (including the amazing venue staff) to pull it all together. The results were pretty spectacular, though, and a few of us on the setup side were overcome by emotion before it was over (okay, I was -- I cried like a baby). ANYWAY.

At PAX West 2015, an overzealous individual plugged a photo printer into the wrong outlet, causing our entire main stage to black out, and then, when it came back online, to have no audio, which is kind of a bad thing when you’re showing off a music game. Of course, right when this happened one our emcees told me in his calmest possible voice, “The press is filming.” That was also the show where a broken guitar strap led to a dropped guitar which, in turn, led to a smashed television set.

A small Rock Band party in Colorado was notable for being the event where the fire marshal told us an hour before our start time that one of our band setups was blocking a fire exit and had to be moved, necessitating a frenzied relocation of the game, instruments, televisions, and A/V to the roof of the bar we had taken over. Halfway through the process a dev pointed out that one of our displays had begun to smoke. I think it was at this point that Nick Mudry asked if he should file a support ticket. I love that guy. Yet again, though, we somehow pulled off a successful evening.

There are more hilarious and horrifying behind-the-scenes anecdotes like this, but I was told to keep this post under 1500 words. To wrap it up, then, I’ll just say that, for me, Rock Band has worn a lot of hats -- it started as a fun game, grew into a tool for social interaction and group play, and now it’s part of my career. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience this wonderfully strange journey and I look forward to the events and electrical fires to come.

- Ethan