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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Nate Stoddard

The Harmonix Hardware team formed out of necessity. After we were acquired by MTV Games, Harmonix was thrust into the position to need to make hardware for ourselves. Not only did we need to figure out how to make the standard controller that everyone expected, the guitar, but we also needed to make a controller that hadn’t been made before, the drums. So the Harmonix Hardware team formed and grew quickly. I officially joined the Hardware team at the end of 2007, just after the initial release of Rock Band for the PlayStation®3 and Xbox 360 (the Wii release would be a couple of months later).

Pulling up to the hotel in Dongguan city for the first time is still a vivid memory. It was after spending a couple of days in Hong Kong, meeting our distributor, Li and Fung (that is the name of a company, not the name of a couple of people). Our consultant, partner, and handler (all one person, named Andy Rifkin) was a career toy inventor and electronics wizard. He had spent a huge part of his career making things out in South China and was the guy who organized most of the stuff for us. I don't know the full story of how Harmonix got hooked up with Andy, but I knew after having worked out there for a little while that we never would have been able to pull off what we did without him. Since we were new to the business, we didn’t know that what we were trying to do was crazy—it was an attitude that both caused problems for us because of our inexperience and also enabled us to try things that others wouldn’t have done.

For Rock Band 1 and 2 we had four factories: Early Light, Qualiman, Contel and Sung Lih. Each of the factories had a specialty, so we didn't really have any one factory making everything--they were divided up by platform and instrument type. Early Light was the biggest and also the first one that I can remember visiting. It is a huge toy manufacturer and their meeting room was right next to this massive showroom. This showroom had shelves and shelves and shelves of sample toys that Early Light had made. After walking through it for a couple of minutes you begin to see that the toys on the shelves go back a number of years. Not only that, but almost all of the toys that you can remember as a kid were somewhere on those shelves. This factory was where pieces of popular culture came from. It was a crazy realization that we were there now too. Early Light focused specifically on Xbox 360. They were big, and 360 was expected to be our biggest platform, so they were the quantity-makers at the time. They had huge warehouses and could store lots of stuff, so we packed guitars into drum boxes to make our band bundles here. However, since they were a toy factory, the electronic engineering side of things was not as much in their wheelhouse, which was another piece of what we needed.

The 2nd of the four was Contel, a consumer electronics factory. At the time (late 2007/early 2008), Blu-Ray was just taking off as the PlayStation®3 had only come out the year or so before. Contel was, as I heard it at the time, one of the few manufacturers that was licensed to make Blu Ray players. They also made TVs and some smaller electronics-- the types of things you'd see if you could still find a Radio Shack around somewhere. Contel was our guitar expert. They built for all platforms, though primarily Xbox 360 and PlayStation®3. Wii development was a little offset from the other two, and since the inner-workings of the Wii instruments was almost identical to the PlayStation®3, the need for the other two was much greater. The Contel guitars are still the gold standard of what we were able to make during those first couple of years. It was with their help that we could find the reed switch strum bar solution to the strum bar problems in the very early months of RB1, and during RB2 they helped us prove out Calbert, the auto-calibration system [ed. Note: Which you may have heard of in our previous 10th Anniversary blog post!]. Contel was a smaller factory than Early Light, but they were growing while we were working with them. They were even building a new, gigantic dormitory right near their main building, and over the course of a couple of months we got to see it get constructed, completed, and inhabited.

Contel made our guitars, and Qualiman the third of the four was all about drums. The first thing that I noticed about our trip there was that it was much further off the beaten path than the others. It took a solid two and a half hours to get there, and we ended up staying at a different hotel closer by. It was the only time I can ever remember in my life where I had a hotel room in two different places for the same night (it would have been much more expensive to cancel our rooms at the Haiyatt in Dongguan City than to just keep the rooms and stay an extra night elsewhere).

Rock Band occupies an odd place in the software/hardware and consumer electronics/gaming industries. On one hand, we’re making toys. On the other, we’re making sophisticated instrument controllers that needed to be precise when used with the game. Making the game obviously requires many different disciplines to get right. Not just the game itself, but everything about the experience had so many people working and contributing to it. Getting the opportunity to build controllers for Rock Band gave me a new appreciation for how much goes into everything that we use, see, or consume in our everyday lives.

- Nate