The Oral History of Guitar Hero

At the height of its popularity, a song featured in a Guitar Hero game could boost its individual downloads by as much as 843 percent. In the case of Dragonforce, the inclusion of the band’s song “Through the Fire and Flames” in Guitar Hero 3 boosted their CD sales by 126 percent. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith made more money for the band than any of their studio albums. Every time Stephen Tyler buys something, part of him should thank Activision.

Which is impressive, sure. Until you consider that for Guitar Hero this is just a notch on the belt. Since its debut in 2005, the Guitar Hero series has sold more than 25 million units, making more than $2 billion, and cementing itself as one of the best-selling video game series of all time. It was also a watershed moment culturally, with some of the largest bands in the world seeking out their own deals with Activision, hoping to cash in on the Guitar Hero boom. Guitar Hero left a sizable crater in the music industry and pop culture in general. 

But it all had to start somewhere.

The story of Guitar Hero is one of a small developer and publisher, Harmonix and RedOctane, respectively, putting all their cards on the table, trying something new and unproven, with no track record or previous success to back them up. Over the course of just nine months in 2005, with no notions that the game they were working on would do more than break even, the two companies developed a game that altered the course of not only the game industry, but the world. Getting there required going behind people’s backs, ignoring the adults in the room, and learning how to focus a project and kill your darlings. It was guerilla, rag-tag, and made by people working for passion rather than financial gain. It didn’t hurt that the latter came in spades.

But things change and people sell out. Shortly after the success of the first two Guitar Hero games, Harmonix and RedOctane split up, both companies being purchased by separate publishers—Viacom and Activision, respectively. The former partners became each other’s biggest competition, as Harmonix went on to make the Rock Band series and RedOctane retained the rights to the Guitar Hero series, bringing aboard Neversoft to take over development. Regret and bitter feelings ensued. All the while Guitar Hero and Rock Band continued receiving out multiple yearly games, thousands of songs, and making billions of dollars each.

Until they didn’t. By the early 2010s, both series’ sales were on the decline. In 2010, Activision closed RedOctane. In 2012, Harmonix announced it had no plans for new Rock Band games—though it’d put out two new, less-successful Rock Bands a few years later—and was focusing on developing other titles. The whole thing burned fast and hot before fizzling out. Ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you lack of innovation and oversaturation was the killer of both series. The genre never fully recovered.

To understand how Guitar Hero happened, you need to understand Harmonix and RedOctane. You need to dig back into their history, their ambitions, and their failures to understand why this game was a risk and why these companies were the only two that could make it what it was.

In an effort to tell the whole story, VICE has spent the last year tracking down and interviewing more than 30 people with a hand in the creation of Guitar Hero. From Harmonix and RedOctane, to Activision, to the musicians, retailers, and artists that made it all happen, this is the story of how one company with a lot of failures to its name and another company without a single hit to its name came together to accidentally change the world. 

PART 1: THE LONG, WINDING ROAD TO UNCERTAINTY 

The Axe

The brainchild of Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, Harmonix Music Systems was founded in May 1995 with no intentions of being a video game development studio. Harmonix was established to deliver on a dream its two founders shared, something they’d been talking about and working on during their time as students at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they’d also base their company. Rigopulos and Egozy, both musicians and lovers of music, wanted to bring the joy of making music to everyone—especially those with no musical talent. That was, and has always been, the mission statement of Harmonix.

It’s a statement that sounds great on paper. In practice, though, it was a failure at first. And that failure starts with the company’s very first project: The Axe.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): Alex and I were graduate students together, sitting in the same office at the Media Lab at MIT. [We were working under the director of the Opera of the Future group] Tod Machover, who was our professor at the time. We were working on all kinds of different music systems, but the one that we were most excited by was this idea of creating technology that lets anybody feel like a musician, or lets anybody create music like a musician, even though they might not have the skills of a musician. That was really fun. 

When it came time to graduate, we really just wanted to keep doing that type of work, and of course no one would hire us to do that kind of work [laughs]. You have to realize, this is in the mid-90s, where, I think, the tech landscape was very different than it is today. And so Alex and I thought, “Hey, if we wanna keep doing this fun work of making cool music technology we should start a company doing that.” 

And in fact, it was Alex’s idea to start the company. I thought that I might just go and get a standard, boring job at some software company. But Alex said, “Hey, let’s start a company. Would you want to join [me doing] that?” I didn’t have to think very long before saying, “Of course, that sounds amazing.” 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): You know, when we started the company—and this was back in 1995—we weren’t thinking of ourselves as a game studio at all. The co-founder Eran and I started the company to solve what we believed to be a problem in the world that needed solving.

Which is that just about everyone is born loving music and they’re born with this innate desire to make music, and just about everyone tries at some point in their lives to learn to play an instrument or learn to make music.

And almost all those people quit after a little while because they just don’t have the time or talent or patience or perseverance to muscle through the very protracted, laborious process of developing enough facility on a musical instrument to actually have a joyful music-making experience with it. And so the world is full of all of these very passionate music lovers and passionate air guitarists who have this innate yearning to make music, but just really don’t have an outlet to express themselves musically, so we founded the company in 1995 to try to solve that problem.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix):  The Axe was essentially Harmonix’s first project, and it was also the thing that was most similar to what we had worked on at The Media Lab. Essentially this way of letting someone create music by using a joystick.

Doug Glen (director, Harmonix): It seemed really intriguing that you could take these new technologies and they could be applied to allowing people who loved music but had no real training in music to create, compose, modify music in ways which were pretty profound. To do something that was more than just changing the beat or changing instrumentation, but actually changing music by telling the music what mood it should reflect and what tonal aspects it should have—organic or mechanical. 


Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): They wanted it to be to music like PhotoShop is to just screwing around with [pictures]. 

It was this app where there would be a musical backing track and then you would play a guitar, or piano, or saxophone, whatever, solo on top of it using a joystick to play higher notes or lower notes or faster or slower, and so on. The tech involved—and I worked on a bunch of that tech as well—it was really cool technology. It was kind of this music AI stuff [that tried] to take what you were doing with your joystick and turn that into something that sounded musical but was also basically following your instructions at a broad level. 

That was the original product that the company was founded to make, and we finally got it out the door and it sold like 10 copies [laughs].

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): The Axe sold only a few hundred copies, despite us spending an enormous amount of effort both developing the product and trying to get it out there. I have to say, it was one of the more sobering moments of disappointment in our career as entrepreneurs [laughs]. 

Doug Glen (director, Harmonix):  It didn’t [sell] because while it was really intriguing for about 15 minutes, after that, most people had tried it and chuckled at it and been amazed by it and were ready to do something else. And so they came to the conclusion that, at least in that particular version, they’d invented something that people would enjoy for a short period of time and then move on. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It wasn’t until a few years into the business that the first music games started to appear, coming out of Japan and Korea. Games like Dance Dance Revolution and Beatmania. For me, the big one was Parappa the Rappa. I clearly remember the room that I was sitting in the first day that I booted up that game and started playing it and just had a grin on my face from beginning to end. That was the moment that I realized that rhythm action was an incredibly compelling framework for us to pursue the mission of the company, of bringing that joy of music making to the world. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I remember playing that, and that might’ve been the first music game that I played. Certainly on console. We were playing that game and thinking, “Huh, OK, that’s pretty interesting.” It’s a music game, it has a lot of interesting story lines, it’s funny. The music interaction part is actually not particularly complicated—it’s just a sort of very simple call and response model.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It was right around that time—when we decided to become a game developer, music game studio as opposed to just an interactive music developer—we started recruiting a lot of talent from the game industry. One of the earliest hires that we made was Greg LoPiccolo […] who came from Looking Glass Studios [developer of Thief and System Shock]. Before he was a game developer he had a storied career as a bassist in this rock band Tribe in the Boston area who I had seen many times live as a college student in Boston. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Yeah, I joined in 98, sort of in the beginning of the games phase. Before they were not really a game company to begin with, and then I showed up late 98, and then early 99 a bunch of other Looking Glass people came over and we kinda pivoted into games. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I remember this one meeting that we had, it must’ve been in either the late 90s or early 2000s, where Greg went up to the board and essentially drew a three-dimensional representation of the music track, with the idea that you could represent musical data in 3D, and maybe you could have these surfaces that were visible in a 3D scene and maybe you traveled across them or through them or something like that. […]

Normally, the way you think of music is that it’s sitting flat in front of you. Maybe it’s on a sheet of paper as musical notation, or if you’re using a digital audio workstation then you’re used to seeing these thin horizontal lines that represent the music or waveform audio. But here the idea was, “Well, let’s add a third dimension and have you traveling through the music.” We really liked that idea and essentially started developing some core concepts around it not even necessarily knowing what the game would be, but just knowing that this was the visual representation that we wanted for our music playground. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): [Greg] had a very specific vision of this game that we started prototyping and going after, and it was the game that eventually became our first published music game, which was Frequency

Betting the farm

In 1999, as Harmonix was setting itself up as a game developer, on the other side of the United States in Sunnyvale, California, two brothers were starting their own company, an internet-based video game rental service called RedOctane. Founded by Charles and Kai Huang, the company functioned like rental services such as GameFly or Netflix. But as RedOctane’s former vice president of marketing Dean Ku recalls, “Their business took off, this one did not.”

RedOctane’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Shortly into the company’s history, the dot com bubble burst. For an internet-based start-up like the Huang brothers’ company, that was bad news. So they looked for new directions to take their business, holes in the marketplace they could fill. What they found was a video game genre that was big in Japan, but still niche stateside. A genre contingent on physical peripherals. 

A year before RedOctane was founded, Konami put out the rhythm-based dancing game Dance Dance Revolution in Japanese arcades. To play, players stood on a small dance platform with four directional buttons they pressed with their feet to correspond with on-screen prompts. Dance Dance Revolution was a massive hit in Japan, prompting the publisher to make an at-home version for Sony’s first PlayStation console in 1999 complete with its own dance mat. While the arcade game also came to the United States in 1999, the PlayStation version of the game didn’t make it stateside until 2001. To play the game at home, people had to either find a bootleg copy or rent through a service like RedOctane’s. Only problem with this was they were only able to get the software. The hardware, or dance pad, wasn’t included. 

It was a small hole in a niche genre, but a hole nevertheless. So RedOctane refocused its business plan.

Chares Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): At that time, we had an office on a street, it was probably a two block-long street. When the bubble burst, everybody started going out of business, to the point where that two block street, which probably had, I’m going to guess, maybe 12 to 15 buildings, there were only, like, two companies left standing [on that] block. Everybody else went out of business [laughs].    

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): But even during the dot com boom, and then bust, we almost ran out of money a couple times. 

Chares Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): [We] needed to find some business that could be immediately profitable because there was nobody investing anymore; we had to run the entire business off of our own profits. At that time, we were renting games online, and this was, if you remember in the era of PS1, you could mod the PS1s to play import games. […]

And so people could play games from Japan, the Japanese versions of PlayStation 1 games, and so we were renting some of the Japanese PS1 games. At that time, the music games were hugely popular in Asia. Especially DDR. Dance Dance Revolution was hugely popular in Japan, but it had not made its way to the U.S. But people could rent them from our game rental service. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): We recognized early on, there was an employee, Andrew Kim, actually, who came to us and said, “Hey, there are these dance pads that people are looking for for Dance Dance Revolution, but in the U.S. you can’t find them.”

[Andrew Kim did not respond to VICE’s request for interview]

Chares Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We couldn’t rent them the dance pads, but we thought, “Well, we could sell dance pads.” That was literally how we went from the game rental business, although we continued that, to discovering, “Oh, [there’s] this little niche market in the U.S. of people who wanna play these kind of crazy Asian music games.”

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): So kind of just to try, we actually started sourcing some dance pads—put our logo on it, just because—and it actually did very well. Then because we realized there was a market for it it, we started developing this dance pad with a lot of different features that the hardcore players wanted. 

From that, we kind of developed a name, did really well, went into retail, and that generated a lot of income and profits for us.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): If you went into a store in those days, there were probably two game peripherals that would sell for a $100 or more. There was the LogiTech steering wheels and there was our dance pads.

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): We actually had a very good relationship with Konami for the most part because we helped sell the game significantly. They were not putting out dance pads at all, we proved that, hey, there’s a market here in the U.S. 

We had this hugely successful PR campaign that essentially connected Dance Dance Revolution dance pads to kids losing weight, so there were a lot of schools who actually bought the combination to help kids in PE play games and then get healthy. That generated a lot of interest from the PR side and helped us, I think, foster a good relationship with Konami. But still, they were somewhat reluctant.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We actually met a Konami executive on the U.S. side, and we said, “Hey, are you guys ever going to bring Dance Dance Revolution to the U.S.?” His response was, “Eh, I don’t think there’s much of a market for that in the U.S.” My brother and I looked at each other and said:

“If they don’t bring the game to the U.S., we don’t have a way to grow our dance pad business. And even worse yet, if they just decide to stop making DDR then we’re out of business.”

And that was when we realized, “Oh, I think we need to expand from just being a peripheral manufacturer, dance pad maker for someone else’s game to making our own game.”

At that same time, there was an arcade dance game released called In The Groove. We all saw it and everybody thought, “Hey, this is a pretty good game.” It was probably the best of the dance games that followed [Dance Dance Revolution]. It turned out it was made by a studio in Austin, Texas [called Roxor Games], and so we just kind of reached out to them out of the blue and talked to them. That’s how we ended up as a publisher—working with the developer in Austin to bring that game from arcades to consoles [in August 2004]. 

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): Not knowing that in general, because they [RedOctane] didn’t have the background of looking at sales numbers because they were still new to the industry, music games don’t sell. If you knew anything about business at the time, you’d be telling yourself that’s a crazy, crazy business strategy right there. But they didn’t know any better. 

Dean Ku (vice president of business, RedOctane): And then that game was not very successful. And so we were thinking, “OK, we want to continue and look at other opportunities. So what would be another opportunity?” I think with dance pads, it never went completely mainstream in the U.S. Well, it did to some extent, but it was much more [popular with the] Japanese than for the American audience. So we thought, if you’re going to develop an instrument-based game with a hardware peripheral, in the U.S., probably the guitar or the drum makes the most sense. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): We were renting import games at the time, and a bunch of us liked playing some of the Bemani-style games like Guitar Freaks and stuff like that. We enjoyed Guitar Freaks but it is not a rock game. At all. Like, it has no rock sensibility. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Even if you looked early on at say Guitar Freaks or Drum Mania, some of those games, you were holding a guitar and playing but sometimes you were playing to a jazz tune and you were playing to the drum track or you’re playing to a pop tune to the vocal track. There was no real theme except for you were holding a [plastic] guitar. 

We had this idea that it should be about rock and metal and it should be about guitar, and sort of celebrating that legacy of famous guitar riffs and being a rock star on stage holding a guitar.

And so we had this idea that it wasn’t just about a crazy music game, but it was about letting people live that experience of being a rock star. And everything should be about that—the music should be about that, the characters and the game should be about that, the experience. 

Dean Ku (vice president of business, RedOctane): We had these regular meetings where we talked about the business. I do distinctly remember that we came to a point where we had to decide, you know, what’s the next title. And I think for most of us, it made sense that we’d move into either a guitar or a drum-like peripheral. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We knew that everybody wants to be a rock star. There’s nobody that’s like, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to be on a stage adored by fans just rocking the hell out.”

Dean Ku (vice president of business, RedOctane): But obviously it’s hugely risky; you’re committing millions of dollars towards getting a developer for the title, plus all the money required to actually build out the hardware. I mean, it’s a tremendous amount of money, so in many ways you’re kind of betting the farm on this next game. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): For us, we were like, “Oh my God, this could really break the company.” 

Dean Ku (vice president of business, RedOctane): I wouldn’t say it was one single person that said, “Hey, this is our next idea.” It was just kind of a natural thought that, hey, if we’re going to do it in the U.S., it only makes sense to do it with a guitar or drum. But it took a lot of conviction on the part of the co-founders to say, “Yes, we’re going to bet the farm on this.”

In May 2005, Konami sued Roxor and RedOctane over what it alleged was an infringement of its dancing game patents. The suit was later settled in October 2006, with Konami acquiring the rights to In The Groove. 

Who in their right mind?

Back in Boston, despite the fact video game development seemed like a better fit to achieve its mission statement, by the fall of 2004, things still weren’t going well for Harmonix. After shifting focus, staffing up with employees from other Boston-area studios like Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, and putting out the rhythm games Frequency and Amplitude, released in 2001 and 2003 respectively, the company had yet to reap any real successes from its labor. In fact, by and large, Harmonix had a lot more failures on its hands now. 

But things were about to change, even if it meant making what, on paper, appeared to be the dumb decision. The two parties of this story, Harmonix and RedOctane, were about to come together.

Alex Rigopulos (founder and CEO, Harmonix): Frequency was very addictive. You really got into this kind of hypnotic music flow state. It was hard to put down. In the early playtesting, our playtesters were getting super addicted to it, and then the early reviews were incredibly positive and glowing. And then we managed to talk Sony into a television ad campaign for it. They spent millions of dollars on a TV ad campaign for that game. There was a moment where we thought that, finally, after years and years of struggling, we are gonna have a commercially successful product. We were very excited. 

But then the game flopped. 

There was actually an interesting story from Sony’s playtest process. Their process at the time was that they sort of created a one sheet, a sell sheet for the game with a screen shot and a few sentences about what the game was, and then they took all their playtesters and they asked them to rate their interest in the game before playing it. Then they let them play it for half an hour or so and then they had a survey after they played it and basically asked them about their intent to purchase the game after they had played it. 

After they did that playtest session, the results that we got back from Sony and their report were that:

The pre-play interest score was the lowest score that they had ever received for any game they’d taken to test and that their post-play intent to purchase score [was] the highest of any game they had taken to test.

At the time we thought, “This is incredible! We got the highest score they’ve ever gotten coming out of playtest, this game’s gonna be a hit.” Right? But their marketing people said, “No, you don’t understand. This is terrible news. When we describe this game to people, no one wants to play it.” And they were right. You know, it was a game that, as fun as it was to play, it [was] incredibly difficult for them to market, then went on to be a commercial failure. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): OK, and honestly, the other issue was that Frequency was just kind of ugly [laughs]. I look at that thing now, and it’s like, “Oh man, that is not a pretty-looking game.” 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Sony, God bless them, gave us the opportunity to make a sequel, Amplitude, which did a little bit better. But not too much. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): That game did look better. It still had this problem of being somewhat abstract. Like, “Who are you? What’s the player supposed to do? Are you a character in the game? Are you a spaceship? Like, what’s going on?” 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Then Konami, who had been a fan of those games, gave us an opportunity to make singing games. We went on to make [the] Karaoke Revolution series for them and those fared a little bit better commercially. I think we did four or five titles for Konami after the subsequent several years. None of them were big hits, but they were turning a very modest profit. I think they didn’t have anywhere near that intense addictive gameplay of our earlier games, but they were much easier game[s] to market. You know, [if you saw a] sentence and a screenshot and if you were into Karaoke and games, you probably wanted to give this a try. Right? 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix):  When Konami came along with Karaoke Revolution, the idea of having a live stage show performance where the player was the pop star in that case, that was a huge watershed moment, I think, for just how to bring music games to more people. Because obviously in Frequency and Amplitude, you were not a musician on stage, you were a spaceship blasting beats. It was inspired by old school arcade games, not by the fantasy of being a musician. 

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): Sony came back to us, we’d made Amplitude and Frequency with them. They said, “Well, we don’t really want to make another music game with you, but we have this EyeToy camera.” We basically demonstrated that we could make kind of wacky games, or unusual, novel games on a budget and on a time table. So they gave us the freedom to make a game called AntiGrav, which was our one and only non-music game. It’s basically SSX in the future where you did everything in front of the camera. The rule was you weren’t allowed to touch a controller.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): We released that game in 2004, and it was OK. It was fun, it was cool, you were controlling the character on screen with your body. But in most respects, it was a pretty mundane extreme sports game, right? What then happened in the marketplace was that we got the lowest review score on that game of any game that we had ever released. It was, like a 72 or 74. Not bad, but not stellar. We were used to glowing reviews.

We released this kind of middling reviewed game for the EyeToy and then commercially it went on to sell four times better than the best music game that we had ever released.

That was a real gut punch for us. At that point we were nearly 10 years in. We were about nine and a half years into the existence of the company and we had just released our one non-music game and it was our worst reviewed product that sold four times better than our best reviewed, best game had sold. At that point there was this real moment of doubt where we’re just wondering, like, “Why are we even doing this? Does the world just not want what we’re selling?” We were having furious conversations about whether we just needed to, I dunno, close the studio or reinvent the studio and go after something completely different. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I don’t think we were talking about closing the studio, because actually, as far as the business side of it goes, we were doing fine. It’s not like we were doing amazing, but deals were coming in. We were working on games, we were working on them pretty effectively. But what had happened was after EyeToy: AntiGrav sold, we had a fairly decent chunk of the studio focusing on creating other types of games and using the EyeToy as a platform. We were toying around with ideas like, “OK, maybe we should not necessarily be a music-focused studio, but a studio focused on innovation or a studio focused on creating new kinds of experiences with new hardware.”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): But it was right at that dark moment that we got a call from RedOctane, who wanted to talk, and that was the moment that kind of changed the course of our history. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We met Harmonix before we even published In The Groove, and were kind of known as this weird little dance pad manufacturer. But people were saying, “They’ve made high end products.” […] By that time we were in Best Buy and GameStop, and so because of that reputation, actually Sony, who was the publisher for Frequency and Amplitude, one of their producers actually called us and said, “Hey, we’re making a game with this studio. We’re making a music game, you guys might be interested in making peripherals.”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): As it turned out, they were also big fans of Frequency and they thought, “You know what? This game would be way better with, like, a custom peripheral, arcade cabinet-type input controls rather than a game controller. Could we manufacture a custom peripheral for Frequency?”

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We had probably one [call]. There wasn’t any sort of big ideas that popped out, but that was how we first met Harmonix, through [Sony Computer Entertainment of America] in Foster City.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): We were excited that they liked our game, but realistically the sales numbers weren’t there and it was a Sony-owned property. It wasn’t in the cards at the time. So no business actually got conducted, but we met them a bit around that time in 2002. Fast forward a couple years to the fall of 2004, and at that point they had made a strategic decision. At that point their main business, I believe, was making dance pads for people at home to play Dance Dance Revolution and In the Groove and other dance games on their home consoles. But they didn’t want to just make peripherals.

They approached us in fall of 2004 and said, “Hey guys, we’ve decided to become a game publisher, and you know, we’re sure you guys have played Guitar Freaks,” which of course we had and they had as well. And they said, “You know, if we make a guitar, would you guys make a guitar game for us?”

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Kai ran into Alex Rigopulos somewhere—it was either GDC or either E3—after we published In The Groove, and mentioned to him we had a license. And at the time, we had floated an idea, it was very vague, of making a guitar game. We had played Guitar Freaks, we had played BeatMania, and a lot of the other games, and several people in the company had talked about making a guitar game conceptually. I think Alex responded, like, “Hey, we’re thinking of making a guitar game!”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): After we had shipped Frequency and had been disappointed in the sales and were doing some of this dreaming about how to package that gameplay but in a form that would be easier to market, we actually started thinking about a guitar game. And in fact the name “Guitar Hero” and the concept of a guitar-based rhythm game was sort of born in that period shortly after we had shipped Frequency. I remember the meeting with Greg [LoPiccolo], actually, where he came up with that name “Guitar Hero” for the sort of Guitar-ified version of the Frequency experience that we had done.

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): That was the first [developer] we reached out to, and that was really [the only one]. Because at the time really, from Western developers, there weren’t really very many people making music games. Harmonix was head and shoulders better than anybody else that was doing it at the time. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): You know, it’s funny, I remember the conversations that we had after they came to us with that basic idea. First we had, like, our adult hats on, and we were looking at all the reasons not to do it. Which includes:

Peripheral-based games were never commercially successful, at least in the U.S. Music games had never been commercially successful, at least in the U.S. So you marry one genre that’s never successful with another genre that’s never successful, it’s like, that’s not a recipe for success.

The product [was] going to be at a very high price point because of the peripheral. It was going to take a lot of space at retail which is always difficult even if you’re a big publisher. Meanwhile, RedOctane is a tiny company with very little resources, no experience with game publishing. No capital, no networks, no anything. 

So you take all these reasons, and we’re just looking at it and we’re just like, “This is never going to work.” Tiny, inexperienced publisher, marriage of two unsuccessful genres, this is a terrible idea. That was the adult conversation. 

And then on the other side of the ladder—fuck yeah we wanted to make a guitar game! This is the game we were born to make. 

Doug Glen (director, Harmonix): Alex, with his typical humility and his thoroughness made a presentation to the board, where after identifying an opportunity to work with RedOctane said, “OK, here are the reasons why we shouldn’t do it: RedOctane has no money, they’ve got no track record as a game publisher. Frequency and Amplitude bit the dust in humiliating fashion. With the guitar peripheral, it’s a huge box and retailers hate huge boxes. Neither RedOctane nor Harmonix has the capital to build much of an inventory, so we can only ship a few and probably only ship to one retailer, maybe a few specialty boutiques. And if history is our guide, it’ll probably fail. Those are the cons.”

On the pros side, he put up onto the screen where he was presenting a picture of a blissful Albert King hitting a guitar riff that put him into total euphoria. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I remember the board meeting actually where we were having this debate among our board about all the pros and cons and all the reasons not to do it, et cetera. And at some point one of our board members [Doug Glen] just turned to me and said, “Well, Alex, so we have to make a decision. What do you think?”

My response was, “I think we should do it because it just feels right.” And so it was not a rationally derived decision. It was an emotionally derived decision, explicitly. 

Doug Glen (director, Harmonix): The board—Walter [Winshall] and Manny [Gerard] and me—in addition to being hugely entertained by Alex’s presentation, of course we supported it. But we supported it with the sort of tough love that your board is supposed to give you. “OK, you can do this, but you can do it without stopping what you’re doing to pay the utility bills, the rent, and the salaries of the staff.”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Because they came to us with this opportunity, because it was the exact game, the game that we felt born to make, it was easy to say yes. Despite all the reasons not to do it, it was the project we decided to throw ourselves into.

A fucking guitar controller?

Once higher-ups at Harmonix told the team about Guitar Hero, developers were split on whether or not they were excited—at least initially. However, when Dan Schmidt, the company and project’s game systems programmer, got a playable prototype up and running within the first couple weeks of development, opinions started to become unanimous. It took a little while for some, but once people actually played Guitar Hero, they were excited—even if they thought it’d be another flop. 

The whole conversation started one day at lunch, when Rigopulos told his team about the company’s potential upcoming projects.

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): We used to have these meetings, that back when it was 40-something [people working there] we could all sit in one large conference room and have lunch every Friday. We called it a “Weely” because it was supposed to be a weekly meeting but the first time a post was sent out they accidentally left out the K, so it became known as a Weely. 

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): I think they were going down possible things we were going to work on and I remember they brought up […] a movie [franchise], a game for a movie that was this animated movie. I don’t remember. None of us were excited about it at all. It was just like, “Oh God.”

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): You tell me if you heard this from other people, but if memory serves, he had said something like, “Hey, we got an opportunity. We can either do this […] guitar-based rock game or we could do the Disney franchise Ducktales.”

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): I feel like out of the blue Guitar Hero sort of popped up. It was like, “Hey […] we’re gonna do Guitar Hero.” When they told us that we didn’t think anything of it. You were just like, “OK, what’s a Guitar Hero?” 

We had done a Karaoke game, it almost seemed like a [different version of that]. Like, “We’re gonna do kind of a karaoke game but we’re gonna do it with a guitar peripheral?”

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): I remember thinking, like, guitar karaoke? That sounds really dumb.

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): I love the culture and the presentation and soundtrack and all of it, but who on Earth is going to buy a game with a fucking guitar controller? This is so goofy.

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): My initial thoughts around the controller were that it was goofy and it wouldn’t work, but I was also super excited because I’d much rather work on something that has to do with rock and roll and punk rock and music than DuckTales

Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): I mean, give credit to the people at RedOctane who wanted to make this game in the first place. I think most of us at Harmonix were like, “Thank you so much for giving us money to work on this thing, but um, you know, it probably is not a very good business decision [laughs].” 

Eric Brosius (audio lead, Harmonix): I wasn’t that excited about it.

Philip Winston (lead programmer, Harmonix): I think everyone was like that.

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): Until the day that we actually got a controller in our hands, and then everything changed. 

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): I remember our team lead programmer Dan Schmidt made the first prototype. We had this beat match engine, which gave him a way to make a 2D test representation of it. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): It was the first milestone.I can’t remember how many milestones we had. But it was a nine month project, so it was like a month of work or [something]. It was super quick.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Yeah, it was super fast. I mean, he’s amazing, and we also were really smart about finding the core nugget of fun in something. We didn’t ever get bogged down with all the extraneous stuff. Dan built something that was very, very—I wanna say simple. I mean, it’s simple to look at it. You know? But the emotional impact that it had on us, for something that was seemingly so simple, was just incredible. I mean, it looked simpler than Asteroids. 

Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): Well, we had a fair amount of music game technology already because we had been making these other games. So I was the person who went and made this first prototype. I was just trying to remember when it was and I couldn’t even tell you that. But basically I got handed a plastic guitar and some audio tracks, and you know, people said, “We want it to basically work this way. Go ahead and make it.” 

I think it probably didn’t take more than, like, a week to have just something very—it was 2D. What later were gems were just little horizontal lines sliding down the screen. They were like triangles with some vertical extent. If it was a held note, you had to hold for a while. The guitar, as far as we were concerned, was basically a joystick as far as the code works. It was imitating the joystick with buttons and stuff, so I was just listening to button presses and I had some little MIDI file that I probably made myself that was the song authoring that denoted when you were supposed to hit buttons and [that] turned music on and off when your button hits were close enough to the ones in that file.

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): It basically proved that having a guitar controller paired with beat-matching and being able to mute and unmute the guitar track was gonna connect the player to the guitar piece and make them feel like they’re playing the guitar. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I remember the tiny—it was, like, a little 15-inch CRT television in the common area at the company where I played that first prototype. Which, amazingly, it was like, butt ugly. It was 2D, black and white graphics, coder art prototype that was already immediately fun and addictive to play, even in its hideous early prototype form. 

Greg Lopiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Which never happens, right?

Usually you work for months and months, there’s no fun, and you keep changing things and you’re looking for the fun. That was a game where it was like, the first week of development it was fun.

Chris Hartelius (character animator, Harmonix): All it was, it just counted how many notes you hit. So like, a high score would be 500 notes or something. [We had] internal competitions going to see who could get the highest score or whatever.  

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): I think they actually wanted to ship a version of that as an Easter Egg.

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): It was a really good sign that people wanted to play the game that we were working on, right? Like, you didn’t get tired of it. You might have beers on Friday and then keep playing it. That’s always a good sign. 

Keith Smith (quality assurance tester, Harmonix): I told them early on that they were going to change video games, and that they were going to be huge, and they needed to stay humble. And the response I got back from [Alex] and Eran was, “If you mean sell 600 to 900 copies as changing the world forever, then yeah, we totally think you’re right.” 

And I said, “You have no idea what’s coming.” 

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): I know Alex has said this a lot, like, “We’re going to make a hundred people very happy.” [That] was his thought about the game.

Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): I think it was a couple orders of magnitude more than 100. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I think I remember having a conversation with the dev team where I basically said, like, “Well, you guys should all be really proud, this game’s great, and we’re about to make 80,000 people really happy.” And it was sort of a joke because that was the numbers that all our earlier rhythm games had sold. A little better than that. I think we had broken 100,000 units on our earlier [games], Frequency and Amplitude, but I figured, “Ehh, small publisher, higher price point, peripheral, big box, whatever.” I just did not have any illusions that the game was actually going to be a hit.

Chris Hartelius (character animator, Harmonix): That kind of just like, I dunno, it bummed me out to hear that because it didn’t make any sense to me [laughs]. I just remember hearing that, and I was just like, “That’s just crazy.” I’m glad it was wrong, because it was one of those things where I was like, “This game is awesome.” 

At RedOctane things were different. Employees talk as if they knew they’d struck gold. When Harmonix sent over its first prototype, it seemed to vindicate the staff at RedOctane, indicating to them they had made the right choice. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We had the first meeting with them, and they showed us a video of basically taking Amplitude but setting to rock music with some random characters that they pulled from Karaoke Revolution as mock stage characters. And yeah, so we saw that and then it was like a week later we had the Atari prototype version. And then it was just full speed ahead.

Dean Ku (vice president of business, RedOctane): Harmonix would FedEx a copy of that week’s build [throughout development]. And the first playable one, you know, we were super excited waiting for that disc, it showed up […] we all gathered around, opened it up, and started playing with it, and we’re like, “Holy shit.”

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): When they first got that very first drip of Dan’s build, I think the next day or something like that, we got a photograph of one of their producers smiling in front of that black screen, but it had a really high score number [laughs]. So that was pretty cool.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): It was a huge confidence boost for all of us. I remember it went in a very short period of time from people saying like, “Wow, this build is a lot of fun,” to people saying like, “Wow, I think we can sell a lot of units of this.”

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): It was definitely kind of a high-five moment at that time. Then it kicks in that it’s real, and it’s like, “Oh man, we have to get these guitars made, like, ASAP.”

The case of the unknown song(s)

For Guitar Hero’s soundtrack, Harmonix and RedOctane would end up employing a music production company in Fremont, California called WaveGroup Sound to produce cover versions of songs they’d licensed. However, before that process got underway, to test the game, Harmonix, made up of musicians and people in bands, produced its own covers. 

However, while reporting this piece, we were never able to fully nail down exactly what songs those were. A lot of people remember the earliest track in Guitar Hero being a cover of “Back In Black” by AC/DC, but others remember a whole hodgepodge of different tracks used to test the first playable versions of Guitar Hero. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I wanna say it was AC/DC or Joan Jett. It was probably—do you already know the answer to this? 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Oh, I can’t remember the songs. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): Yeah, boy, I dunno. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): “Back In Black.” AC/DC. I remember it really clearly because I don’t think we—yeah, we didn’t get it into Harmonix games until a lot later, but it was the first song that we all played on the guitar controller. 

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): Eric [Brosius], our audio lead, is this wizard of music. He would just sort of go home, he had a studio in his home, and he would record stuff, soundalikes basically, that we would then level around, or design around. It was all your rock standards. I think we had “Walk This Way” and “Back In Black” and the biggest songs in rock and roll [laughs].

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): Our prototype songs were “Back In Black,” by AC/DC, and we wanted to put a new song in. At the time I was really into Audioslave, I’ll own up to that, so we put an Audioslave song in there. Those were fun because Eric made the AC/DC soundalike and I made the Audioslave one, which was just cool to get paid to record a song. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I think what we did was we made a cover version of an AC/DC song in-house, with, if I remember correctly, Jason Kendall, the singer of Megasus [the band Lesser is in other former Harmonix employees Jason Kendall, Paul Lyons, and Brian Gibson], singing the parts. God, I can’t remember. Maybe it was “Highway to Hell,” or something by AC/DC. 

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): We had to do covers ourselves, so we just went ahead and formed a band and did “Back In Black,” and I think we did “Sweet Emotion” from Aerosmith. And “Back in Black” is from AC/DC. So of course they had me sing it, right? So I did my best Brian Johnson. It was annoying to hear my voice coming out of every single monitor every day for a while while you’re trying to get the animations correct [laughs].

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Brosius went home and banged out, I think it was “Walk This Way.” He just covered “Walk This Way,” played all the parts, he programmed the drums, came back with a backing track and the guitar part for “Walk This Way.”

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): “Walk This Way!” That’s what it was. It wasn’t “Sweet Emotion,” it was “Walk This Way.” Sorry.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): I think it was a Weezer song.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): I still remember pretty vividly—the first build was basically a black screen and three colored dots coming down and it was set to a Weezer song. A Weezer song called “Dope Nose.” That was it. One song.

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): I don’t know about “Dope Nose.” I mean, I obviously know the song, right? But I know for a fact that Eric Brosius, I, and a few other people put the songs together for “Walk This Way” and for “Back In Black,” and those were the first two that we, like, really started hammering on. 

[Weezer’s “Dope Nose” was featured in Amplitude, so it stands to reason this might have been the song mentioned in Harmonix’s initial pitch video. We can’t say for sure, though.]

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I guess it would make for a better story if we knew what the song was. 

Short on time, short on money

The deal between Harmonix and RedOctane to develop Guitar Hero was sealed around late 2004, early 2005. But it came with a caveat: In just approximately nine months, Harmonix had to be ready to ship this new game; RedOctane wanted it on store shelves for the 2005 holiday season. Not only that, Harmonix had to do it for less than $2 million—a tiny budget for a video game, even at the time. 

According to the people who worked on the game, these constraints largely benefited the project. There was no time to meander on extra ideas, mechanics, or features. So the team only worked on what it deemed absolutely essential to the Guitar Hero experience. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): The budget for Guitar Hero 1 ended up being, I think, $1.75 million, which at the time was a huge risk for us. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): I remember afterwards talking to people—it was just unheard of in the industry.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): The year we had released In The Groove, even at that time we had only done a total of a little over $9 million in sales. Not even profits, that was our sales, and we’re taking on this gigantic financial risk [with Guitar Hero]. At the same time, $1.75 million I think for Harmonix was smaller than their other budgets. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It just so happened that they reached out to us in fall of 2004, and they wanted to ship the game for holiday like every publisher does—or at least in that era. I mean, now with digital releases, holiday is less critical than it was in that time. But in that time, it was all about the holiday. Particularly for a game like this, that is a perfect Christmas present. They had to be on shelves for holiday. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): It was either gonna ship Christmas 2005 or Christmas 2006. 2006 was way far from where we both wanted to ship, so we sort of planted the flags and shrunk the project down to where we thought it was shippable in 2005. 

The original concept, people were talking about online versions, online modes, and there was a whole bunch of other things that we just decided in the end, “Alright, none of this would allow us to ship in 2005.”

And honestly, another limitation of that development schedule was just financially for both sides, we kind of needed the game to do well and to ship.

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane):  I think if Guitar Hero had been a failure, we probably would’ve closed our company. We were still doing dance pads and things like that, but sales on that were starting to come down. That’s why we were trying to find the next big thing. So yeah, it really was, for us it was kind of a make it or break it.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): It’s kind of funny as I think back to it how much of it was sort of this great big creative vision being whittled down by the financial challenges, the technical challenges down to, like, “Alright, this little product is manageable for us.”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): We loved the fact that they were basically betting the farm on this project. 

Chris Hartelius (character animator, Harmonix): The scope, however handful of venues that went in, the six to eight characters that went in, it’s all related to that timeframe. It’s built around scheduling to make sure we can fit it in. Not only is it motivation to finish it in that timeframe, but it’s also built so that it’s not going to have hundreds of characters or hundreds of venues that we can’t actually finish in time. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): That’s why the newspaper reviews came out. I remember being inspired by The Incredibles. They had a scene in The Incredibles where the hero’s looking at his walls of all the newspaper cuttings of his life. It’s like, “Oh, we could have newspapers!” That’s a very cheap way to tell a story. You kind of show a newspaper cutting, and it could be the review of the show.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): For example, go back and look at the drummer animations in Guitar Hero 1. It’s comically awful. Compared to, like, by the time we were making Rock Band, for example, we had this incredibly sophisticated animation system that made the drummer play every note in the drum part sort of drum perfect. And the guitarist, their left hand is in the correct fret positions on the neck of the guitar. And the animation—it’s all this sophisticated stuff. Rewind to Guitar Hero 1, and it was just like butt simple, barely functioning animation [for] the other musicians on stage because, again, limited time, limited money. We had to. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): It’s hard to imagine making that game right now with that amount of money, but I think because it was a scrappy little company and it was just sort of the right time […] a lot of the decisions in that game did not have to be difficult ones, because we all were like-minded and knew what we wanted to make. I think that helped us make such an influential game with such a short amount of time and money. 

PART 2: THE RIGHT PEOPLE FOR THE JOB 

Under the hood 

In game development, making a new series, or intellectual property (IP), is notoriously difficult. The game industry thrives on sequels, which are able to iterate on the ideas of an established brand, building on something that’s a known quantity. It keeps a developer from having to start from scratch every single project. 

But Harmonix also had a solid foundation it could build on top of: its previous games. 

Even though it had made Frequency and Amplitude for Sony, and had developed the Karaoke Revolution series for Konami, Harmonix, an independent developer, was able to retain a lot of the under the hood technology it’d used in previous games on Guitar Hero. It also, of course, had a lot of music game development experience at this point. So even though Guitar Hero wasn’t a sequel to Frequency, Amplitude, or Karaoke Revolution, and despite the fact that it was published by a different publisher, it was able to build upon all the lessons the team had learned and the tech they’d built up to that point. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): [O]ne of the advantages we had at Harmonix is that we basically owned our own code. The technology that we developed from our first game, which was Frequency, and then all the way up through all of the games, we had an internal engine that we used. Which means that a subsequent game that we made would be able to take advantage of innovations that we had created.

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): But we also had just proprietary everything else—the tools, the graphics, the rendering. Back in the day, we didn’t have Unity or Unreal; [they] weren’t as accessible or powerful as they are now. In later days, in the past five years, Harmonix has moved to those things and carried their core audio engine over to those, but back then we just made everything from scratch. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I don’t know specifically what it’s like in other studios, but I do know that we made it a point to have clear distinction about what Harmonix owned and what the publisher owned. And in general, our deals were structured such that the publisher owned what’s known as the “look and feel.” Essentially, the graphical assets and what the game looks like. Whereas the underlying technology—the code, or what we call the engine—was always something that Harmonix retained ownership of. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project lead, Harmonix): Basically, we had developed a whole beat match library and a set of design insights from Frequency and Amplitude, and then we figured out all the character animation and crowd and cameras and venue rendering in the Konami games, in the Karaoke Revolution games. When Guitar Hero showed up, it was like, “Oh OK, we have all the stuff we need!” 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Guitar Hero was the first game where we were able to merge the kind of fiendishly addictive rhythm gameplay from our early games, Frequency and Amplitude, with the very superficial marketability of the Karaoke [Revolution] games, where one screenshot and a sentence or two and you just know what this thing is. 

Kasson Crooker (audio director, Harmonix): If Guitar Hero was Harmonix’s first video game, first music video game, it probably would not have been that good. […] It wasn’t until Karaoke Revolution where you put a mic in somebody’s hand and you say “It’s karaoke, just sing,” they know what to do, and suddenly the barrier is broken and people get into it. That was a huge lesson learned for Guitar Hero, which is, if you’re going to do a guitar game it has to be like karaoke.

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): I think that was a massive part of Guitar Hero’s appeal; you could see somebody playing it and you instantly understood the fantasy and what you would get to do in the game. You’re like, “Oh, I get to be a guitar god because I can see that I’m going to be holding this guitar and making those kind of motions.”

Freaks

There was another unique advantage Harmonix had when working on Guitar Hero: it was a studio full of musicians and people in bands. In fact, for a long time, it was almost a non-official prerequisite for working at the company. Speaking to people for this project, it was rare to hear anyone say they weren’t a musician in some capacity. 

Similar to its mission statement of wanting to bring the joy of music making to everybody, with Guitar Hero, Harmonix wanted to give players the unique experience of playing music on stage in front of an audience. Of being, well, a “guitar hero.” To do that, Harmonix would look to one key place for inspiration: itself. Guitar Hero was inspired by the real-world experiences its employees had of playing in and touring with bands. 

With the people making the game so ingrained in the culture it was trying to imitate, every facet of Guitar Hero was meant to be an homage to rock and roll, to do the genre justice. The game is full of references to developers’ own experiences playing music and nods to musicians and people they were fans of. According to the people we talked to, if Guitar Hero wasn’t made from a place of authority, at the very least it was made from a place of sincerity.

Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): Oh, completely, yes. Take that sentence you just said and pretend I said it to put it in the oral history. We definitely felt like we were the people to be making this game. This was a company of rock musicians, basically, and I think that’s one reason that it turned out so well. 

Daneil Sussman (producer, Harmonix): We had enough people who’d experienced [the band life], had been on the road in their own bands, had slept in vans, and had shitty practice spaces, and had guitars of their own. There was a really strong affinity for the culture, but not to a person. And then we had people who were like, “Guys, I don’t know what the fuck a whammy bar is. Like, what are you talking about?” So you know, there were people that kept us in check from getting too deep down the rabbit hole.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Music made its way into everything in our corporate culture. If you stuck around for five years, you got, among other things, a reward of $500 to spend on music gear. People loved it at Harmonix so much that we had to invent a 10 year one, because we were having all these 10 year anniversaries, so we gave $1,000 to go buy music gear. And then 15, I got my 15 year one, and so on. Little things like that made their way into every little nook and cranny of the company. 

Probably to the detriment of the company as the years went on, because I have heard, now that I work with other studios, I’ve heard people complain that they never even applied to Harmonix because they had to be a musician. In some ways, that may have even hurt us in ways we’ll never know. But at least in the early days, it was nice to know that if you started talking about some random Fleetwood Mac b-side, almost everyone would know what you were talking about. 

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): We were all freaks.

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): There was a venue right down the street called T.T.’s, T.T. the Bear’s. That was awesome in that it was just a few blocks away from the office, but oftentimes somebody would post into general chat or send out an email or something and say, like, “Hey, my band’s playing down at T.T.’s,” or some other venue, “Please come.” Whenever you’d go, there’d be many faces you knew from work who were also going to the show. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Harmonix did create bands. People at Harmonix would join together and make bands. Either experienced [people], like Megasus, we made that band while we were all working at Harmonix, [or] bands would be born out of new players that are starting to get better because they’re surrounded by music all the time and kinda growing into a band themselves.

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): And we had a practice space, too. We all got together and we actually used Outlook to schedule practices for bands down there.

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): You look at the writing and there’s a lot of inside jokes—the basement address is Greg’s practice space studio. You know, it’s like we were all pulling from the life experience that we’d lived. For a lot of us, it was really that cool that anybody gave a shit. It was like, my life has [been] validated in some weird way. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): We loved it. We were into it. And we very much had that sense of like, “Let’s try and introduce people to the things about rock and roll that we love.” You know? It was a lot of inside jokes, like the loading screen tips, and details about stuff on stage. We would try and jam as many inside jokes and rock references as we could into it. 

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): We realized, like, “Hey, for loading screens, we want to have tips. But we don’t want to have just Guitar Hero tips, we wanna have real tips [for] if you’re actually touring in bands or if you’re playing shows. We need to gather actual tips.” An email chain went out like, hey, add your tips in, send them in. 

I sent a bunch, I remember a couple of my tips got chosen, but the one that got chosen for the loading screen that I’m always proud of because I think it’s hilarious and true is just this—”Always keep an empty bottle in the van. You’ll see [laughs].”

Dinner Horse

The influence of Harmonix’s music history is also reflected in one of the most visible facets of Guitar Hero: its art and presentation. 

Led by Ryan Lesser, the small team, made up of a lot of people Lesser hired from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he also taught, was in charge of getting the characters, venues, guitars, and all art across the board into the game. But the team didn’t have to look far for inspiration for things like characters. Sometimes they just needed to look a desk or two away. Sometimes they needed only look in the mirror. 

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): You know, [the Guitar Hero] team was so heavily influenced, I would say, by the art staff. It wasn’t a lot of this new code being written. Ryan Lesser, our art lead, was coming from Providence [Rhode Island, about an hour from Boston], like a lot of our artists did, and he was also into the music scene down there quite a bit.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): The cool thing was that most of the art team were rock artists—rock musicians—so they also grew up with the same things. We could have meetings where we were talking about all these references and they just totally got it. If we said, “This is going to be our CBGBs,” everyone there knew about it because we had played there or we had seen shows there. 

Chris Hartelius (character animator, Harmonix): It was just like six of us [on the art team] in this not super small room, but we were all pretty close together.

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): It was a really tight crew. It was great, everybody was sitting next to each other. I think it was a really great environment for just giving each other lots of feedback; people could just sort of bounce around and bounce ideas off each other. It was easy to stay aligned on art style because we were all so close.

Chris Harterlius (character animator, Harmonix): I did talk to Matt Gilpin prior to this, and he reminded me that they gave me my nickname, which is “Horse.” [laughs]

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): He was playing [World of Warcraft] and another guy, [artist] Scott Sinclaire, was also playing, and Chris named his character “Dinner Horse.” Chris has a good sense of humor, so he just made this crazy name. His character’s called Dinner Horse. He just slowly started becoming referred to as Horse. And to this day he’s Horse. I don’t ever call him by his real name [laughs].

Chris Hartelius (character animator, Harmonix): Over a short amount of time, that nickname just kind of expanded beyond the art pit to the upper managers and the CEO calling me “Horse.” They’d call me Horse in a meeting. It just made me laugh every time, just the fact that they were shouting Horse, and just saying, “Horse do this.” Or, “Horse can do that!” It was just very entertaining for me and pretty cool to see how everyone was comfortable just calling me that and that it went beyond the art room. I still have that nickname today.

I mean, a lot of people don’t actually know my real name at the company [laughs].

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): Yeah, that actually was a problem on Slack when it got implemented. People didn’t know how to contact him because Horse wasn’t in the directory. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I would say I had two main influences for [Guitar Hero’s art] style. One was I’ve always been a poster artist, like silk screen posters for rock bands and metal bands and stuff like that. So I wanted to bring in the gig poster vibe, which at the time was really getting hot again. It died out for a couple decades and then was really picking up back in the days when GigPoster.com was still alive and all the first wave, second wave gig poster artists were making their stuff. I wanted to bring that to the game, I thought it was really unique and didn’t look like every other game out there, and was really related to rock and roll in a way that was atypical. 

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): We had a shared art forum where we would keep tons of reference imagery. You know, there’d be rock posters from hundreds of different bands, and thousands of different shows, and we’d sort of be collecting references that way.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I called my friend Shepard Fairy [founder of OBEY Clothing and designer of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster] and he put some posters in. And we called Tara McPhereson and Brian Ralph and a bunch of other people. So there are actual rock posters in those games in the shell. If you’re in the menu system for Guitar Hero, it’s all rock posters. 

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): The art style, pretty early, I think we decided to set up the menu system to be inspired by rock posters—and there was just so much fun and varied art style[s] to work with there. A lot of that was influential in the characters and environment as well.

Ryan Lesser (art directory, Harmonix): And then the second influence was similar but a little bit earlier. It was the general feeling that I got being a metalhead in high school in the 80s. The kind of meat-headed, macho, but big heart that 80s heavy metal had. The way I transformed that pseudo-machismo into the game was [with] big, top-heavy shapes and really thick or really thin extremes, and all the rooms, we called them the clubs, basically our levels, they were all kind of off kilter and wonky. Nothing was plum, nothing was square, everything would be on an angle, kind of swollen and top-heavy, and looked like it was sort of falling over. [It was] stylized almost like Edwards Scissorhands in a way.

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): Actually we called the art “wonky,” that was the term we would use. Like, you know, a speaker or an amp wouldn’t be squared off. One side would be a little more tilted and curved. So we always called it “wonkifying.” The guitars we tried to do that with, but they’re such a weird shape to begin with that whatever you did didn’t work. I think the only place we could sort of wonkify it was the headstock. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Ryan Lesser had a very specific idea of what he thought it should look like. Which I, quite frankly, didn’t totally understand. I was a little skeptical. But I was like, “He’s smart,” and I was like, “OK, Ryan. Go do your thing.” And he killed it. He was totally right.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Not everyone was on board with that kind of weird art style. They didn’t think it was palatable. They didn’t think it would be as pop as it needed to be. But I felt really good about it, and being a huge rock fan, I just really felt like it spoke to the style of the music. In the end, when we were done and we released it, those folks came up and they were like, “You were right [laughs]. I was wrong, I’m sorry.” Which happened a lot! You know, we were a good group and we didn’t hold grudges. When people were right or wrong, it was not a big deal to be like, “Yep, you had it.”

Another influence from my rock years in the game was the character designs. Those are based on people that we knew growing up, or even as adults in the rock scene. So like, Axel [Steel] just was basically me in high school. 

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): Axel Steel definitely started from just both Ryan and I, the era we grew up in. There was a lot of kids into Megadeth and Anthrax. I was young enough that those were kind of older kids, and they would scare the shit out of you and threaten to beat you up all the time [laughs]. For me, that was what he was. When we designed him, we were both pretty much on the same page with that guy. He had a couple variations where we just were trying a few things, but you know, he settled on what he looks like based on [our past with] kids who were really big fans of those bands. 

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): Actually, there was this terrible incident where during the concept phase I had unknowingly included an icon that was, like, controversial and I hadn’t known the meaning of it. […] 

It was, like, a rightwing, nationalist—it was not a Nazi thing. But it was, I dunno, similar to a shape on a—it was a white supremacist kind of thing. Yeah, it was not good. It actually made it onto the guy, onto Axel’s teeshirt, and then someone in QA was like, “Woah! This needs to change!” It was embarrassing. 

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): I know Axel Steel started out as—this is the one I was like, “This name is not great”—[he] was going to be Hair Matheson. We worked with actually a really good guy named Dare Matheson, and I was just like, “That’s a little too on the nose and too goofy.”

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Judy Nails, interestingly enough, was based on Judita Wignall who was a musician and in bands that we wound up hiring to be a mocap actor for the game because we really like her and everything she did on stage and stuff. I wound up reverse engineering that and putting her right into the game as Judy Nails. 

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): So I’m actually Eddie Knox. Eddie Knox was based off of me. I don’t know if you know who Eddie Knox was, he’s like the rockabilly-ish guy. […] [He] was originally called “King Kendall,” which is actually my name in [my band] The Amazing Royal Crowns if you look on Wikipedia.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Pandora was loosely based on [D’arcy Wretzky]. I really loved the bassist from Smashing Pumpkins.

Matt Gilpin (lead character artist, Harmonix): Izzy Sparks was—there is a guy we worked with named Izzy. That’s not a very common name and it fit the character. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): There was one day in particular that I came in, and I was tired and not a hundred percent with it, and I walked by the meeting room and I hear everyone’s talking about me. They’re saying like, “Yeah, Izzy doesn’t look that good. He’s kind of emaciated, his face looks all messed up.” And I’m freaking out thinking, “What are all the managers, like, doing in the office talking about me and how I look?” And you know, eventually I put it together, but it was a fun morning [laughs]. 

The controller 

On top of developing the actual game portion of Guitar Hero, Harmonix had to design what would become the selling point of the title—the physical guitar it’d ship with. While RedOctane would be responsible for manufacturing the hardware for the peripheral, it was up to Harmonix to figure out just how this thing would work in tandem with gameplay. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Well, you know, a lot of the earlier conversation [was] about all of the ways that we wanted it to be different from Guitar Freaks, actually. We wanted to break away, for example, from the 2D UI that characterized so many of those early games in Japan. We wanted to break away from the three button constraint [that Guitar Freaks had] that felt very, just too confining and [limiting].

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): We also really wanted to try and give people the feeling of playing a real guitar. It was important to us when we started designing the hardware, the very first sketch that I did for that SG [model of Gibson Guitars that the controller was based on]—which started as that because that was my guitar at the time, I was a Gibson SG fan for a long time—[to think about,] “What would the buttons be like?”

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): I remember after one of the early meetings we had, where we were talking about the guitar controller and how many buttons it should have, Ryan was quite excited about the idea that if we had five buttons on the controller we could get three power chord positions that players could play with their fingers.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): You might think that’s strange because, you know, really you can only use four fingers to essentially fret the guitar, but adding that fifth button actually was really important, I think, because it made for more interesting gameplay. You actually had to think about shifting your hand to be able to play the faster passages, which made for a better game. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): That was important in two ways. One is that it created an extra challenge for people, especially if you were not a guitar player, and two, it simulated the feeling of playing guitar. Let’s say you’re even in a simple punk rock band, you’re going to be banging out power chords. It’s the same chord position on your left hand, so there’s not a lot that changes there, but the way you move it around on [the] neck of your guitar changes everything. It’s where all the magic is. So being able to give the players now multiple positions made them feel more like a guitar player, rather than playing like, a simple video game interface. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): As he explained this, the first alarm bell went off in my head, which is like, “Wait a minute, we’re going to expect people to be able to have that level of dexterity?” Right out of the bat that was kind of setting up accessibility alarm bells. So I was initially thinking, “Oh, maybe we just need three buttons because otherwise it’d be too much for people to get into.” And then during that conversation it emerged, “Well, of course we can start with three buttons, then work up to four buttons, then five buttons. That can be part of the skill progression of the game.”

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Oh, and then we needed another game mechanic, and we came up with the whole [Star Power mechanic]. We wanted a physical component. It’s like, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if you lift your guitar and that did something?”

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): You wanted to wail on this controller, you wanted to swing it around, pretend to bash them on the floor. […] I just remember seeing Greg for the first time pick the guitar up and say like, “We’ve gotta turn this into something special in the game, a trigger for something.” He just wanted to do it, and that was never a feeling we’d had with a hand controller. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It was a secondary mechanic that added some tactical depth and variety to the game. This whole idea of creating special moments where Star Power phrases would appear that you really wanted to not miss those notes because you wanted to earn that power and special moments where you chose to deploy. For example, saving up for the solo because you want to deploy to help you get through the solo and not fail out, or if you had already mastered the song but you were trying to just squeeze out the highest possible score. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): Of course at first it was just a button, because we didn’t have guitars with tilt sensors. I remember it being a real pain in the ass to try and time when you move your hands so you can start the Star Power. And then when we got the guitars with the tilt sensor, it was really cool and it felt right. It felt like, “Yes! I’m a musician, I’ve done this pose before, this is in fact what it feels like.” Of course, the initial tilt sensors were pretty terrible, so you’d [have to] tilt your guitar up, you’d shake it, you’d tilt it even further back, you don’t know why it’s not triggering. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I remember there was some kind of comical early conversations where we just knew we wanted a whammy bar on the guitar [laughs]. We were telling this to RedOctane, like, “Hey, can you guys put a whammy bar on the guitar?” And them saying, like, “Um OK, that’s going to be kind of difficult and expensive, what do you need it for?” And we had to say to them, “We don’t know yet, we just know the guitar needs to have a [whammy bar]. Trust us, we’ll find a way to put it in the game.” 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I remember sitting in Greg’s office many times trying to sort out what it felt like, what it sounded like, what it did, what it looked like, and so that one really went through a pretty rigorous prototyping phase. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): They just loved the idea that a whammy bar from a real guitar could come in and change the pitch of the guitar track. They’re like, ” If we get something in there that changes the pitch of the guitar part as you hold down the whammy bar, that’s going to sound great and it’s going to lead to some expressivity.” 

Eric Brosius (audio lead, Harmonix): You give a guitar with a whammy bar to any non-guitar player and the first thing they’d do was yank on it and try to make funny noises. 

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): And then there was also a crazy freestyle mode where you could just go nuts. But that didn’t make it in. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer): It was very much about going back to the core mission statement of Harmonix of bringing the joy of making music to everyone. It’s like, “Well, making music involves creativity. How do we give players a way to be creative?” 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): They did make some functioning demos. I imagine you’ve seen, they were all pretty terrible in my opinion. 

Danel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): It was pre-recorded samples that had icons like “Press the triangle, and then the square, and then the guitar pick, and that makes the little solo sequence.” 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): It’s a huge problem. There’s several problems encapsulated within it. One is how do you motivate people to do anything? You give them a creative musical toy, how do you motivate them to do that within the game integration? But even before that, it’s how do you make a creative toy fun and sound like a synthesized guitar in a way that it sounds good enough that it feels like it’s part of the recorded guitar track as well? I’m not even sure we got past that hurdle. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): That was where it really lost its expressiveness, because if you played it really slowly [with] nice held out wholenotes, it would sound alright because we used guitar samples and they were kind of okay. But then you’d wanna do something fast and it sounded terrible. So we sort of built the system that I think is very similar to how the scrolling works on Roku or any device that has scrolling, where it plays a single sound effect when you move from one to the other but once you are doing [continuous] scrolling it actually switches to a stream so it’s not just hitting the same sound effect over and over again. 

So we had this idea that, yeah, once it detects you’re playing above 16 notes or whatever, it starts selecting from a pentatonic scale so that you get some heavy metal stuff. Which like, again, was cool but the transitions just never sounded good and when you started playing faster it started to sound more like a keyboard and less like a guitar. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): We actually did a bunch of the R&D for that. In fact, there was a GDC  we actually brought the lead guitar thing to demonstrate it to everybody. And then it actually made it into Rock Band 4, a different version of it. It ended up years later—like 10 years later—shipping.

Scratch tracks

Arguably the most important part of Guitar Hero, licensing the game’s soundtrack required the help of parties outside of Harmonix and RedOctane. Randy Eckhardt, a contract music licensing expert, was brought on board to help acquire licenses for the real-world rock and roll songs the game would feature. Because it was cheaper to reproduce those songs, WaveGroup Sound in Fremont, California—which also worked with Harmonix on some of the Karaoke Revolution games—was hired to record covers of almost every song in the game. 

Doing so required building out a soundtrack. So Harmonix developers made a list of songs they wanted in the game. And then they argued about that list.  

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): So we had people at the company who are very opinionated about their music. Greg LoPicolo being one of them, Daniel Sussman being another, Eric Brosius being a third. Also Ryan Lesser, who was our art director and art lead on Guitar Hero. And I’m not one of them, by the way. I’m, like, a classical music nerd. But we had a lot of people in the studio who felt very passionately about their rock music. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): There were certain bands that we thought just had to be included and then songs that had to be included. Sometimes we would start with the song and then sometimes we would start with the band. We might say, “You know what? ZZ Top has to be in this game,” or something like that. But then we would say, “‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ has to be in this game.” It would come down to that and it really was personal preference in a way that I don’t think a lot of games […] get to express themselves. 

Of course, we would have those high school arguments about what band was better and what song was better.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): You know how musical taste is. People are very passionate about what they love and they’re convinced everyone else’s taste is terrible. They have these fantastic animated fights.

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): I have fond memories of arguing with Ryan Lesser about Kiss. […] I fucking hate Kiss.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): We would have conversations where if I said I wanted a Judas Priest song in there, someone like Greg would actually poo-poo it because, “Judas Priest is stupid and their songs are simple,” or whatever. And then we’d get in a giant argument because I’d be pitching something like Judas Priest and Greg would be pitching something like Boston.

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Because at that point, Boston had been off the charts for, like, 15 years. Nobody remembered them, but we were all teenagers when that record came out, which was an amazing rock guitar record. We were like, “I bet this would play awesome.”

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): You know, a Boston recording is just so lush and rich and filled with a bajillion parts that you can see how it’s the opposite of a Judas Priest song, but they both totally belong there. 

Both Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” and Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” made it into Guitar Hero

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I remember one debate with RedOctane where we were going to give a slot to Blue Öyster Cult in the soundtrack. They wanted us to include “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” because it’s Blue Öyster Cult’s biggest song. I remember being adamant that the correct Blue Öyster song to include was “Godzilla” because it was a better song. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): I lobbied hard for that. I was like, “We gotta have ‘Godzilla.'”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It didn’t matter that “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was a bigger commercial success, “Godzilla” was the song that would be a better song for this game, better song for gameplay, et cetera.

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): I was super psyched also to get The Donnas in there, because they were kinda new, which was awesome. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): They were pretty unknown. I would go see them play all the time when they would come through Providence. Compared to some of these other bands, like Stevie Ray Vaugn and White Zombie, they were tiny comparatively. But they were an awesome rebirth of, like, classic punk rock and roll, so I thought that they fit really well next to the Ramones and stuff, [and] Motörhead.

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): One of the most powerful things I thought about Guitar Hero in the beginning was that it was a game, so it was going to be putting all of this music in front of people that, by and large, had never been exposed to it, right? So it levels the playing field in a way so that my band and Black Sabbath and Aerosmith and The Donnas were all on the same playing field to these players. They hadn’t heard any of those bands, so their judgement then was they either liked the songs or they didn’t like the songs.

Demos

Just because Harmonix wanted a song in Guitar Hero didn’t mean it’d end up in Guitar Hero. In fact, there was an approval process that songs had to go through before they could show up in the game. Harmonix liaisoned with the music committee at RedOctane, which added its own input, threw out songs it thought were bad fits, and then worked to secure the licenses for the songs that made the cut.  

That last point proved to be difficult, to say the least. RedOctane needed to prove to reluctant record labels why they should allow their bands in this new, weird, then-unproven game. And then there were the bands to contend with, who weren’t always very welcoming. Luckily, Randy Eckhardt was there to help. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): So we had our group at the time—it was myself, Lennon Lange, and Kyle Rechsteiner, we were the leads on our team. [And we would talk to Eric Brosius]. Eric had put together kind of a master spreadsheet of songs, whether it’s song-length, difficulty, how many solos, things like that. We’d kind of pick through and then we’d pitch songs that we think would work well, they’d pitch songs that they think would work well, and then we’d just kind of work together on that side of things. […]

The primary things we were looking at were obviously song length, difficulty, because we had to have certain [songs for each difficulty option], you have to have some medium difficulty songs, you have to have some hard songs, so things like that. Those were the primary things. And then obviously, yeah, if it had swear words, what is the lyrical content, is the song about sex, that kinda stuff. Just from a ESRB ratings standpoint, we had to be cognizant of that kind of stuff.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): I would sit with a Guitar Freaks controller in my hands, and from my knowledge of how to play guitar, I listened to every song 30-plus times to figure out if it was going to be a fun song to play. […] I mean, literally sitting with a controller, and like, imagining exactly how this section would play, and throwing out songs that were super good but had sections of 30 seconds where it’s a sax solo.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I think [our list of desired songs] was in the hundreds. But we can have our top wishlist and then you actually have to go and license the songs, and then you run into real world constraints. Meaning you can’t necessarily acquire licenses for all the songs on your wishlist. 

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting): The song list was just massive. We went after everybody at the same time and just kept going down the list like, “Yes, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes, yes, maybe, keep going.” You know, that’s just how it goes. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): Obviously the big ones that we all quickly realized that no matter what we’re never getting would be the big boys, like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Metallica, stuff like that. Eventually after Guitar Hero became a thing people were interested, but at the time it was like, a lot of the big boys didn’t want anything to do with us, you know? They just didn’t understand what the project was or the game was.  

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): The labels aren’t the gatekeepers. They have to go to the band and the band has to approve it. Most of them would ask, “What does this game look like?” And we had nothing to show. So a lot of the time people would say no because they didn’t want to be associated with a bad product. 

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting): I sent them a one sheet that said, here’s the game […] it just had a photo of one of the characters and like, “Hey, it’s a music rhythm game using a toy guitar, so to speak, that pushes buttons.” You know, they’re probably like, “That sounds terrible. Why would we want to be involved?” 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We would get a lot of questions of like, “What the hell is this?” It was almost educating music people as to what a game is and then getting them to understand the whole concept.

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting):: I mean, [Jimi] Hendrix, we had five or six or seven other songs we wanted and the Hendrix family was just like, “Eh.” Finally, I think I came up with “Spanish Castle Magic” […] Hendrix was definitely hard and we ended up with the second level, well, I won’t say second level, but you know, a song that was not on the first set of lists, but it ended up being a great tune for the game. David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” that was hard because he had some various publishers that were involved. Ramones were never easy. You know, Ozzy never happens right away [laughs]. Just because, you know, his wife is smart.

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): He’d come back with this list of like, “Hey, we got permission for these songs.” We’d be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we got that. ‘Crazy Train!’ Oh my God, awesome.” 

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting): It’s like anything, you get a few martinis, you work the phones with those on your side. I mean, that’s pretty standard with any kind of deal when it’s a collective kind of thing. But EMI definitely gave us a lot of great support and had great people involved to help drive that. And then others definitely followed suit and everybody got excited about it. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): But then you’d deal with the record labels, so it’s like, “We’ll give you this song, but you gotta put this band in, put this song in.”

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting): I don’t remember exactly, but sometimes you got to take a couple things from people to get the bigger things [laughs]. You know, that’s what happens. In those days, it’s like, “Well, you’re gonna have to help us out with a couple bands if we’re going to give you the bigger ones.” 

Masters

Rather than include the real versions of songs, Harmonix and RedOctane opted to pay for re-recordings of all the tracks in Guitar Hero—except for the bonus song “Fire It Up” by Black Label Society. As they tell it, this proved to be a far cheaper route, as they only had to pay for the rights to produce covers, and not the original recordings themselves.

That meant someone had to record covers for all 30 licensed songs in Guitar Hero’s primary soundtrack. So Harmonix gave Will Littlejohn, the president and CEO of WaveGroup Sound, a call. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): I think the average price that we got for just the rewrites was like $10,000. Flat out. And it started to get just ridiculous—three times, four times, five times as much—once we were getting the actual songs [in later Guitar Hero games]. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): It was a lot cheaper to go that route. 

Randy Eckhardt (music consultant, music supervision, and strategic partnerships, Eckhardt Consulting): Yeah, the labels, the record labels themselves did not get anything out of this. I don’t know how you want to quote that or not, but you know, it’s definitely one of those situations where, you know, this wasn’t used at that time and we couldn’t afford it. They probably wouldn’t even let us take the songs. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We snuck in for Guitar Hero 1 and Guitar Hero 2 under the same royalty rates that every other music game [paid]. Whatever it was—Madden, Grand Theft Auto—everybody paid the same thing. It was kind of a standard industry [thing], and that’s just so you don’t end up negotiating a different contract for every game. 

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): [Harmonix] called us up and said, “Hey, you know, we’re doing this crazy thing, you guys want to be part of it?” And we’re like, “Sure, yeah.” I mean, we did five, six, seven projects with them before, and this one sounded really exciting. 

Lance Taber (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): You know what, it was very hush-mouthed. I had no idea what it was other than the name. I didn’t even know what it looked like or what it was going to look like. I didn’t have any imagination of what it was going to look like at all. I basically was pitched, I think I got a batch of three songs, and the first song they gave me was, and I’ll never forget this because it scared me to death, was a Jimi Hendrix song [laughs].

I was like, “Are you kidding me? You’re giving me this?” [laughs]

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): This is what I do remember and it’s been 15 years so you have to bear with me as I wade through this. A lot has happened in 15 years. I had a kid. Shit’s kinda crazy since then, but I do remember this. I remember sitting in the studio and I remember them coming back with screenshots of what the characters were going to look like from Guitar Hero and there was a rendering of Axel Steel, the dude with the denim jacket.

And I remember looking at Axel Steel and thinking, “This game is gonna fuckin’ fail so hard. Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”

So me and the engineers, everybody, we made a joke, we’re like, “We’re taking our names off of this.” Nobody thought it was going to be anything. We just thought it was one of those weird, pseudo-Guitar Freaks clones that wasn’t going to do anything ever at all. And we were just like, “Well, we’ll continue working on it and it’s cute and it’s endearing,” but that wasn’t the gameplay. We just saw a character rendering. 

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): I was never skeptical, I was always in the minute I heard about it. I even thought, “Hell, even if it isn’t successful, it would be an awesome thing to be a part of. So they didn’t really have to sell me or pitch me. They just had to say, “Hey, you want to be a part of this? And we’re like, “Yeah, we do.” And it sounded great. I immediately started thinking about how we would apply what we had learned and developed for Karaoke in terms of process to this kind of thing. I think within an hour I was already scheming about how we were going to record all this stuff.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Working with them was fantastic. Since they were re-recording the songs, we were able to have them add, like, little trills and little things that aren’t in the original song, but would make for great gameplay.

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): What we were trying is to get the real original energy and feel of those songs. Like, [if] you’re going to do an original Police song from the early days, it has to feel a certain way. There’s this intangible that comes along with doing everything from the recording techniques, to tone, to everything else to get this gut feel. So we were always going for the feel. We were never going for like, “I want to record exactly the same thing that was recorded before.” Because from my experience that doesn’t really give you what you’re looking for. That’s going for the wrong thing. Great music, and great rock music in particular comes from that genesis of people working together and the passion that comes out of everybody, and it’s distilled in this one thing. 

Lance Taber (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): I would say for me, probably the two [playstyles that were the hardest to try to reproduce] were both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan because they both were so organic. It was so “of them”. And plus then let’s put the pressure factor in there, too. Those are probably two of some of the most iconic names for guitar players and I have to play this stuff. And you know, I am going to get on a forum board somewhere and just be torn apart [laughs].

So those were probably the two that I remember spending time just trying to get it in my hands the most. All of them were hard because you’re trying to match a footprint, you’re trying to match a sonic signature sound, but those two I kind of remember being the most scared and nervous about.

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): Well, the guitar players, in many cases, were really tortured. You know because they’re like, “I have no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing.” They’d have to go and figure it out. And in many cases, it pushed them as musicians into places they never thought they would go, which I think was also a cool byproduct. I think back to Marcus, you know, he did a lot of heavy lifting in those early days, particularly on the metal stuff, and it was pushing him hard to do this stuff. 

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): I’d basically take apart and triage what the most difficult part of that song for me is going to be. Usually the solo or something. The rest of it can be figured out pretty easily. I mean, something like a Donnas song, you got a pretty straightforward riff or power chord-based verse, and then you get into the finer details. I’d do it in reverse. I’d do all the stuff that I knew was gonna give me fits early and then all the rest I knew I could handle by ear afterwards. […]

I remember one night I had “Unsung” by Helmet and I’m like, “I have no time to rehearse this.” I cannot fucking learn this song. So I literally listened to it in the car on the way there. It was like [imitates the song’s opening riff]. It wasn’t too difficult so if I am ever going to get away with one, it’s this one. And for some reason, I got away with it.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Marcus is phenomenal. I’ve watched him dial in tones. He would actually use, like, the right guitar that the artists recorded it with as much as he could. It’s not easy to have every guitar, but he would try to match the amps that they used, or at least an amp modeler that would mimic the exact sound. And really […] it sounded exactly like the original. Or as close as you could possibly get.

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): For me, it worked out perfectly because I studied at the altar of every guitar magazine from basically 1986 on. So I was a voracious reader, I would read about how players would use Dunlap .70 picks with a very specific Delrin kind of material or something and how they would angle it with their thumb. So I just had this mental database of about a billion little data points. And I was able to go:

“OK, yeah, this was recorded in 1983. He used a Marshall JCM800 but it was hot rodded and pushed through this specific compressor because this specific producer favored this specific outdoor gear. It was produced by Matts Norman.”

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Whenever I was giving interviews, they were like, “Well, how did you do it? Tell us about the music.” And then we would talk about WaveGroup, they were like, “Oh, so these aren’t originals?” Which just is a testament to how great they were.

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): I would geek out so hard and even the musical director was like, “Dude, you’re going way, way, way beyond what you need to do here.” But tell that to all the people who gave us the “Best Soundtrack” awards. 

B-sides

To cap off the soundtrack, Guitar Hero was filled with bonus songs. There was the aforementioned Zakk Wylde track, but also the song “Cheat on The Church” by Graveyard BBQ, the winner of RedOctane’s “Be a Guitar Hero” contest.  

Lastly, Harmonix filled the soundtrack with its own developers’ bands, which became a Harmonix tradition with all the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games thereafter. There was no way to know it pre-release, but for the small bands more-or-less thrown onto the game’s soundtrack for the sake of content, their music was about to be exposed to millions of people. And for some of those bands, that exposure would continue to pay off. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix) When we were done with the budget and couldn’t get more songs, it occurred to us we could have fun by putting more secret songs, unlockable songs that people have never heard before, and there were so many of us that were in bands that we put our own bands in. That’s where the whole concept of bonus songs came from. It was really pretty new at the time, we hadn’t really seen that sort of unlockable. 

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): It wasn’t like […] “We can promote your band,” or whatever. It was really just sort of like, “We’re scrapping for content here, can we get a song?”

Kasson Crooker (audio director, Harmonix): [I] was in a band called Freezepop and we had a song in Guitar Hero, and then we had another song in Guitar Hero 2. Those two songs transformed the band from this tiny little synth pop band into reaching this much larger audience.

For me, there was this shift at shows where instead of autographing CDs, people were bringing the Guitar Hero guitars to the shows. And we would play the Guitar Hero songs from Guitar Hero 1 and Guitar Hero 2, and there were people, like, holding their hands up in the air and playing the gem patterns—like, air guitaring the gem patterns—while we were playing the song.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): Oh yeah, it was super surreal. I remember thinking how weird it was to have lived a life of basically starving, traveling in a van across the country to clubs filled with anywhere between 200 [people] and one person, trying so hard for people to know my music, and now thanks to a video game, millions of people were listening to my song. 

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): And then as Guitar Hero became successful, what we saw was more Harmonix people were getting in bands [laughs]. Because they were like, “Oh shit, if I get in a band, I can put a song in the game and that’ll be awesome.”

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): By the end, I can tell you this in all honesty, and it warms our heart, but by the end of my time at Harmonix, and it still happens now, just not as much as it did, we were getting regularly contacted by kids from South America and eastern Europe on an almost daily basis that just, like, loved the music. And of course it’s a new school, right? 

We had some research done into this and basically they surmised that if one quarter of the people who downloaded our music paid for it, [my bandmate] Adam and I would’ve never had to work again. 

Syncopate

The final step of the music process was making each song in the game playable, which meant hand-authoring what Harmonix called “gems,” the onscreen prompts that correspond with each of the controller’s five buttons. 

Doing so required two different music tracks from WaveGroup, deciding which part of a song was the most engaging, and constantly iterating and testing the game’s songs to be fun, challenging, and a hybrid of arcade and simulation. 

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): The way that this worked in those days [is that] there are essentially two sets of tracks in the first Guitar Hero, which is the guitar part that you play, and everything else. It’s like a puzzle, you put those two together—and this is how Karaoke was done as well—you put those two parts together and that makes the song. And the basic mechanics are if you played the part at the right time, the guitar part would continue to be audible, and if you missed it, it would drop out. […]

In collaborating with Eric [Brosius], you know, we would figure out exactly what everybody played in every single second for every song, and then make those decisions. And then I did a bunch of technical stuff to make the guitar part that was separate beyond its own track. So in some of these songs, that’s a pretty wild journey. 

Let me pick one of the early ones, like, oh, the Boston tune that’s on the first game was one of my favorites. It was “More Than A Feeling,” I think? Is that the song? Yeah, I mean, it moves around, there’s a lot of guitar parts, and just figuring out what you should play at 50 seconds in, or whatever it is, was really fun. Just like, “What [is] the most fun part to play at this moment of the song?” And then helping to figure that out. 

Eric and I really worked on those little details so that every single thing you played was really, like, visceral and really elemental. That was really important to both of us, and to everybody, obviously. So I really enjoyed that part of that project, just literally helping to make those micro-decisions every split second. That one is the one I always remember as like, “OK, let’s play the 12 string part here, but I gotta jump to the lead on this note because that’s way more fun than the 12 string part.”

Eric Brosius (audio lead, Harmonix): I remember for myself, and I think Izzy too, I think there were only 30 songs, 30 licensed songs on the first soundtrack, I remember learning them all on a real guitar, just so I can [understand], like, you know, “Well, how do I play this song on the real guitar,” so that when we’re actually trying it out on the plastic guitar you can say, “Oh that feels way different, that doesn’t feel right.” Or, “Well, that feels about the same, so that’s good.” 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): We basically came up with a rule book of how authoring works and what are the limitations of the different difficulties. You know, only using three notes on easy and four on medium and not having certain jumps on hard. In some ways it was like a transcription job, because you just had to listen to the solo.

Eric Brosius (audio lead, Harmonix): We wanted to try to make the Expert mode as note-for-note as possible, meaning if it was at a fast tempo and the guy was playing 16th notes, that’s how we would author it. We usually authored that first and that gave us the kind of [template]. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I remember the very first song in Guitar Hero 1, I think it was “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, in the second measure of that opening riff, or I should say in anticipation, a note just before the second measure of that riff, there’s a syncopated note. It’s not surrounded by other notes, it’s sort of just out there on its own, it should be incredibly easy to play, and for all of us it was incredibly easy to play [laughs]. But every playtester we brought in just stumbled over it and played on the downbeat instead of that syncopated anticipation. Like, over and over and over again. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): I remember we went through almost the entire office trying to get the few non-musical people at Harmonix to just, like, “Please just play this game, it will be embarrassing, I’m going to watch every little thing you do, you’re supposed to fail, and that’s okay.” It challenged some assumptions we had. Like, we discovered moving from one button to another was much more difficult than playing a complicated rhythm. 

Kasson Crooker (audio director, Harmonix): [There] were lots of times we would put patterns in and then the QA department and playtesters would be like either “This is just, like, physically impossible,” or “There’s just something weird about the leaps.” 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): I started playing left handed to test Easy. […], just to do something to make myself awkward. And then the same thing happened! I started getting good at playing left handed [laughs]. So then I started testing Medium left handed. […] There were a couple songs I could get through on Hard. Not five star or whatever, but yeah it was like anything, you do it a little bit everyday and you get good at it. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): We would also take the game home a lot. Harmonix wasn’t too worried about, I don’t know, security issues of people playing games at home. Probably ’cause the games were really small at that point. 

I remember, I took all early builds of Guitar Hero back home with me to England on a plane and played them with my friends over Christmas. I brought a build of Guitar Hero back to play after we’d just put a newspaper review system in. There’s kind of an interesting story there, where I was getting my girlfriend at the time to play and she was playing with her friend Debby. They played “I love Rock & Roll” by Joan Jett, which is the first song in the game. They’d never played before, they were nervous, they were like, “I don’t know how to play this game.” [I’m] like, “No, the whole idea is that anyone can play, so you should be able to play. Try it.” And they failed, and they failed, and then eventually they got through, they finished the song. They were taking it in turns to play, and my wife Ryn, she got the results screen, she was so happy, but then the newspaper review came in and gave her a one star out of five. She’s like, “Nooo! What’re you doing? One star out of five? I was awesome!” And so the next morning, because I’d got so much flak from her about it, I changed it so that you couldn’t get one star out of five. The minimum that you could get was three stars, and it’s been that way [in] Guitar Hero and Rock Band since. 

PART 3: HOW TO ACCIDENTALLY CHANGE THE WORLD

Groundswell

In the lead up to Guitar Hero’s holiday 2005 release, the final six months or so, people weren’t really talking about the game. Which makes sense, all things considered. Though Harmonix’s previous games had reviewed very well, again, none of them sold well at all. And outside of harcore enthusiast crowds, RedOctane certainly wasn’t a known quantity in the game industry. Suffice it to say, Guitar Hero was not on anyone’s most-anticipated games lists. At least not initially. 

At the time, the game press, sites like IGN, GameSpot, and 1UP, had a lot of sway as tastemakers and influencers of what games would be successful simply by writing about them. In an attempt to get them buzzing about Guitar Hero, people like Corey Fong would email press members, begging them to play the game, hoping they’d like it enough to write about it on their site. 

And then there was the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, which at the time was the biggest video game expo in the world. It was where RedOctane could finally show Guitar Hero to the world.

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): I think the turning point was with IGN and Tal [Blevins, IGN’s co-founder and editorial director at this time]. I know he had a copy of the game, and I knew from Reverb [the PR company working with RedOctane on Guitar Hero] who had copies of the game to preview that didn’t agree to do previews yet. I remember focusing on IGN [and] GameSpot at the time because they were the biggest outlets. And I just begged them, “Please.” I’d email them, I told them, “All I ask you is take a look at the game. Just play it once, that’s it. I’m not asking you to do anything else, other than you play the game and then you give us your response.” He finally did it, I remember he emailed, he’s like, “Dude, Corey, you were right. Oh my God, this stuff is awesome.” And then like the next day he posted his video, it was with one other editor, they went all out, they dressed up like rockstars and they had wigs on and everything in their video. At that point, it was like a turning point where we got so much traction after that. Everybody was writing about it. All the people were saying, “Holy crap, it’s this amazing experience.” Everything took off after that.  

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): So that was core to our success as well, where we, again, went to places where the hardcore were and the tastemakers, influencers. Once they played the game and loved it, that was a huge component of our success, seeing the groundswell of positive feedback [about our] game. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): So E3, in the LA Convention Center, there’s two main big, huge hallways or convention areas, and then there was this, like, downstairs called Kentia Hall where all the, like, small-time “Hey we’re making CD repairs kits,” just all the vagabonds were down there. And that’s where we’d been when we were doing In The Groove and stuff, because you know, you’re talking millions of dollars to try and get into the main hall. 

So when we first displayed Guitar Hero, it was like this groundswell of a buzz that built up amongst the game media, because we weren’t showing it openly, we were only showing it behind closed doors. God, it was so hokey. We had this wonky projector set-up with a whiteboard—it was rough. But at the time, that was the thing, like, I’d go around the convention hall and hear gaming media, and they’re like, “Dude, have you had a chance to play Guitar Hero? Oh my God, Harmonix’s new game.”

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We actually walked into the GameStop managers conference and there was already a buzz about the game. And so we walked in wearing Guitar Hero shirts, and people went nuts. It was almost like we were celebrities. It was fucking weird.

Shelfspace

Getting the press talking about the game was one thing, but getting the game onto store shelves was a whole other, bigger challenge. It was a new IP that came in a big box that took up lots of shelfspace, it was $20 more expensive than other new games at the time, and it was a music game, which historically did not sell well. It was an uphill battle for RedOctane, a small, unknown publisher, to get any retailer interested in carrying the project. 

So, the marketing team got scrappy, and forced their way onto shelves.

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): Think about it, you have this unknown company coming to pitch them a product, a product that’s taking up probably, I don’t know, six games they could put up there. And now you’re asking them to also put up a game in a genre that doesn’t sell. A lot of them didn’t actually take the product in. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): Yeah, you’re right, the box itself was a huge challenge, given the shipping of it, the retail space, and even GameStop, [EB Games], I mean, those are tiny stores. So it’s just ridiculous that someone would try that.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We were laughed out of so many offices.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): I think a big box is less problematic in retailers like GameStop and Best Buy, just because of the way their shelves are configured. But when you go to Target and Walmart, everything is extremely regimented in terms of their shelfspace, right? And then in the video game shelves in those places, they were just like, “I don’t know how we’re gonna put these things on the shelves.”

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): [And then the] price point, that was just unheard of. And it mainly [was due to] the fact that manufacturing costs were high. It kind of had to be that for us to really make a profit that first time because we hadn’t gone back and started sourcing other parts.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): At that time, the other games, the DVD disc-based games were coming out at [$49.99], so we were coming out $20 more. There was a question mark for people [about] would people pay more money for a game. Even though we said, “Oh, but it comes with this controller,” they’re still like, “Yeah, but it’s still $20 more.”

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): The bundle I think started at $69.99 or something, it was ridiculously low. I think it should’ve been at $100 for the bundle.

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): I think we went conservative because of all the challenges. Especially with the retail buyers, we couldn’t go too high. They’re gonna be hedging, and they were hedging already. I think we launched at almost value-price, I would say, just to get people on board.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We were very much like looking to just make a solid product. Iit didn’t feel like we were trying to milk consumers until Activision came on board. Then it became more of a numbers thing.

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): We literally asked all the buyers, Toys R Us, everybody who would give it to us, everybody said no except Best Buy.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): I went and pitched the product to Best Buy, their game buyer and the peripheral buyer looked at each other and said, “Where does this belong? It’s half peripheral and half game.” And Kayse Sondreal, to her credit, just kind of raised her hand and said, “OK, I’ll take it on my shelf.” She had the confidence to take the product into the peripheral shelves and that’s how we got into Best Buy. 

Kayse Sondreal-Nene (merchant for video game accessories, Best Buy): In that meeting, they walked us through a high-level introduction of the game, and we were intrigued, but still a little skeptical as they gave us their pitch. Then, Charles Huang booted up the game…with a guitar. “I Love Rock n’ Roll” started up and the color streams started to come down the screen. 

Charles made it look easy to play […] I found it to be much less so for myself. Even when the in-game crowd booed me and my score was downright embarrassing, being able to pick up and “play” the guitar to a song I’d always loved, really felt magical.    

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): They were the first to kind of figure out that demos were gonna sell the product. I don’t know if it came from the corporate level or the store manager level, but we started seeing demo stations set up at Best Buy. At the time, they didn’t have a dedicated demo station in the game aisle, they took it and walked over to the TV set aisle and set up a demo in front of the TV. We started seeing these pop up in Best Buy and they did really well with that. 

Kayse Sondreal-Nene (merchant for video game accessories, Best Buy): Once I played the game for myself, I was sold. We just knew we had to bring it to Best Buy.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): She was a new buyer, very young, and it was kind of risk at the time. […] So Kayse was taking kind of a big risk on it and so I’ve always felt grateful to her for taking that risk. 

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): It could’ve [made or broke] her career as a buyer for Best Buy [laughs]. 

Kayse Sondreal-Nene (merchant for video game accessories, BestBuy): I was fortunate enough to spend 20 years within the gaming industry, and the launch of this franchise still holds up as one of the most memorable and exciting that I’ve had the opportunity to take part in. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): It really came down to getting it in people’s hands. That was pretty much our key for everything. Once we got it in someone’s hands and they strum those first couple notes, you just saw the look on their face of like, “Holy shit, this is fucking cool.”

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Walmart were really the first to give us actual data. In their software data for stores, they started noticing, like, “Hey, there are some stores selling 18 units a week and everybody else is selling two. What’s going on there?” They went and looked, and they said, “Oh, the ones that are selling 18, the store manager had set up a demo.” They decided, “We’re gonna do demos across all of our stores.” But that was really pioneered by Best Buy and then Walmart kind of, like, dug into the data and figured that out. Once they gave us that data we told all the retailers, “Hey, this is the difference.” That became probably the biggest marketing tool for Guitar Hero, was just the in store demos.

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): Actually GameStop back then, they were one of the larger ones at the time, and so that was our market. I sent an email to the buyer, you know, “Can we get permission to get demo stations in all of your kiosks at your stores?” He said, flat out, “No.” I’m like, “Oh, you’re killing me.” At that time I knew how they operated, too. I also knew he gives a lot of leeway to their managers from a store-to-store standpoint, and if they wanna do something in their store he’ll let them do it, he doesn’t interfere. At that point when he said no, it’s like, “OK, forget that, I’m going to go around you. I’m going to buy space.”

Because they offered us space anyway at the GameStop managers’ show, all we could afford—It was funny and pathetic and kind of a cool story too, because I didn’t have much money, I bought the smallest booth. The booth was, like, a 10×10 feet, or maybe it was smaller. I remember it being really small. All you could do was just stand there, right? So we go to the GameStop Managers [Expo], I think it was in Las Vegas that year, and we literally, like me, my assistant producer, and producer went together to demo and I said, “We’re taking names and addresses of stores. Our whole purpose here is to just capture names on [an] Excel sheet, and when we get back we’re going to have to mail it out physically ourselves.” They said, “OK.” All of us are like, “OK, let’s go do it.” […]

So that’s what we did. […] We capture all the names, we get back to the office the day after, and we start shipping out. Everybody starts pitching in. All the testers stopped what they were doing, I was doing it, we all got our Excel list of names and then we started sending demo discs out, demo discs along with controllers. Boom, boom, one by one by one. […] 

I think it was maybe three weeks later? I get an email from the same buyer that said no to me about getting demo stations set up. He’s all like, “Remember when we said no? I want demo stations in our stores now.” I asked him ” what changed your mind?” And he says, “Well, I noticed one store’s getting freaking 10 pre-orders a week and this other one’s only getting two. And so I went to go call up my managers at those stores, like, “What are you doing? Got a demo station set up.” I was like, exactly! 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): One of the things that I did without the company knowing, I don’t think I really talked too much about this, but I would drive all over the Bay Area with a TV, a test kit, and the game in my car. I would set up shop at like Guitar Centers, GameStops, anywhere I could that would let me set up to demo the game and to get in people’s hands. […] It started a groundswell, from what I saw. It went from, like, no one knew us to when I set up shop it was like the whole GameStop shut down and would be surrounded by my little makeshift rig set up. 

We just kept taking it anywhere we can because what I had seen is when we took it to shows or to media, to whoever we were taking it to, it was an instant  “Holy shit” once they got it in their hands. So that’s why I took it upon myself to just say, fuck it. I’m just gonna take it around on my weekends because I thought [of it as] my baby. This was like my dream game. So I spent all my weekends just working and traveling with it. I don’t think they knew that I did that. But, whatever.

Mortgaging the farm

Things were looking good for Guitar Hero, but RedOctane wasn’t out of the woods just yet. They had press interest, some retail support, and a hunch they could sell copies, but the company also had to physically get this game’s launch inventory produced. And while in retrospect that initial inventory seems modest, only 100,000 units, it was an expensive proposition for the small company because of all the hardware and plastic Guitar Hero would be shipping with. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We borrowed as much money as we could to fund the launch inventory. The timeline was: we showed the game at E3 in June, the game starts winning awards for “Best of Show,” I go on the road and I show all these retail buyers over the summer, Best Buy and GameStop gave us our orders, and then we had to go in roughly around September or so to manufacturers. 

As I said, we were so small the factories wouldn’t give us a credit line, we had to pay them up front, so we borrowed as much money as we could from the banks, we pitched a bunch of [venture capitalists] to try to raise money. Nobody would invest in our company, and we were only looking for $3 million and nobody would invest in us, so at one point my brother and I looked at each other and said, “Well, we’ve gotta do whatever we can.”

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): We did get incredible reviews from the gaming publications, there was a tremendous amount of demand from retailers, and we couldn’t meet the demand. Part of it—as Apple and any hardware-based business, or even Xbox or PlayStation—when you have any launch, when you have to build up the inventory for that initial demand, you have to plan that supply chain out very far in advance and get multiple suppliers. And the cost or that inventory is staggering, especially for a company that had very little credit.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We had maxed out all the company credit cards, all the personal credit cards, and then we finally decided, like, “Well, gotta mortgage the house.”

I went home and talked to my wife and said, “Hey, I think we should get a second mortgage on the house for Guitar Hero.” At the time I had two young daughters, they they would’ve been about five or six years old. She said to me, “Where are the kids gonna live if this game doesn’t sell?” My only response at the time was, “Well, I think the game’s going to sell [laughs].” Luckily she’s a very supportive wife. [She] let me take out a second mortgage and cobble all the money we could to try to pay for the inventory up front—inventory that we weren’t even gonna get for another 30 days. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): I remember a distinctive moment when we were in the warehouse bundling the game with the Guitar Hero peripheral, I remember Charles’ wife came over and asked me, “Is this game gonna sell? Is this going to do well?” Because obviously she was probably really worried. And I was like, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna do great.” 

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): They’d mortgaged their houses, so if this thing goes under, man, they’re gonna be homeless. Which was pretty funny, yeah. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): [Laughs] Honestly, the story sounds crazier than it was. Like, who in the Hell would mortgage their house? […] It sounds insane. But we did have already in the bag a bunch of awards from E3, the reviewers were starting to take a look at some of the earlier versions and we knew it was going to review very well, and so our thought at the time wasn’t that Guitar Hero was going to be this big success. I think it ended up being the second best-selling game of that Christmas season, and that was even beyond our expectations. Our thought at the time was, based on these reviews and the fact that we at least have Best Buy and GameStop, I think we can make our money back [laughs].

Packaging 

Because of its dance pad and rental businesses, RedOctane actually had its own warehouse at its office. Because of this unique setup, the publisher took it upon itself to hand-package every single Guitar Hero unit in the initial few orders. For a company of only a few dozen people, even a modest order of 100,000 units is a lot of work. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Most of the big game publishers just have some giant third party logistics company with big warehouses in probably Kentucky and Tennessee. We were so new at it we didn’t know, and honestly, we’d never did the volume probably to justify that.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Literally when we launched Guitar Hero 1, we set out tables outside and the whole company basically just shut down for a week and we sat outside and we packed every single live unit that went out into the market.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): I remember it was so busy that we would have to take shifts in the company because we still had our desk jobs during the day. We would break up into two shifts. Say, I would work in my office doing my regular job in the morning, and then the afternoon I’d go pack stuff. And then my brother might be just the opposite—he’s out packing in the morning and in the afternoon he comes in the office and does his job. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): We had no one and no money, so that literally when shipments came, we had to unload it from containers that were delivered at this place, unpack it, package it together, and shrinkwrap it. It was just crazy. It was just crazy.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): We even had a few funny ones come up because we’re seeing the labels of like who were shipping out to and one said Max Culkin and we verified that it was, like, Macaulay Culkin just ordered a unit. We’re like, “Oh, sweet.”

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): I guess I could let that story go now because I don’t think Sony’s going to do anything to them, because RedOctane’s not even around anymore. But we were literally violating a lot of Sony first-party guidelines [laughs]. When you bundle product and you’re packaging things like that, you have to be going through an approved fulfillment house approved by Sony.

And what we were doing, we were literally getting guitars from China, they were being shipped to us. Me, my producer, assistant producer, and the testers were in the back taking the guitars, putting them into boxes, and taping them up and shipping out to retail.

I mean, it was like such a huge no-no. If Sony wanted to, they could’ve totally fined RedOctane and stuff like that.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): No, we got the whole mock up of the box of everything and got all the approvals of Sony before we even started. We had to do that so that we can get the official license controller sticker. That was important to have it be a legitimate thing.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): There is a pretty long list of “Where exactly this sticker is supposed to go.” I think we did the best we could to follow this, but like I said, it was pretty ragtag sort of operation [laughs].

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): It’s hard to miss. Like, the taping job we did was so bad [laughs]. If you went to the store, it was like, ugly. 

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): Well, maybe the best way to put it is, yes, Microsoft, PlayStation, they’re very strict for everything related to the game. And what I’ll say is that, uh, retailers were also clambering for the product as soon as possible. […] So the best way to put it is that we did everything we possibly could to meet their requirements, but sometimes when retailers wanted it, and if we wanted to stay in business, we had to do what we had to do. 

This is gonna be big

Guitar Hero finally came out on November 8, 2005. Whatever Harmonix and RedOctane thought this game might do commercially, whether that be nothing at all or just break even, very quickly it was undeniable that it was a massive hit. In the just two months it made $45 million

Everyone I talked to for this piece has a story about when it occurred to them the game was a massive success—from seeing it pop up on TV or in music videos, to all the fans writing in about their experiences with the game. 

The flipside of Guitar Hero’s early success is that RedOctane wasn’t equipped for how quickly this game would sell. Overnight they became a small company trying to meet the demands of a product that was not only hitting the game industry hard, but leaving a sizable crater in pop culture. Everyone wanted Guitar Hero, but not everyone could get it. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): I remember the morning after we shipped Guitar Hero 1, we came to the office and our sign, we had this really kind of cheap sign out in front of our company and it said “RedOctane,” and somebody came and stole it. Somebody walked in that morning and goes, “Hey, what happened to our sign out front?” We were like, “I don’t know, it disappeared!” And then somebody said, ” I think we might have fans and [one of them] came and stole our sign.” [laughs].

Will Littlejohn (president and CEO, WaveGroup): You saw it everywhere, like, within a nanosecond. It was like, “Wow, OK. This is turning into a thing.”

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I remember when the sales numbers came in for December, then for January, and then February, and then March, and then April, and every month had twice the sales of the previous month. I had never heard of that before [laughs]. I’d certainly never experienced it before. It was like, “Oh my God, what is happening here. Like, people are just buying this game up and the retailers can’t keep it on the shelves.”

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): Literally, at one of our launch events, the Toys R Us buyer came up to me and apologized to me as a representative of RedOctane. I’m like, “What? What’re you talking about?” He literally apologized and said, “Because we didn’t take a chance on [Guitar Hero],” they left money on the table because they didn’t take our product at launch. I have never had that happen to me ever.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): YouTube was still a comparatively newish thing at that point, and I remember the first time I typed the words “Guitar Hero” into YouTube and just hundreds of videos came up that people had shot of themselves playing Guitar Hero. That was my, like, goosebumps moment where I really realized for the first time that something big was happening with the game. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): We had one guy that sent us a picture of how he did a big rock jump and landed on his glass coffee table and sent us this photograph of him with his blood on his ankles and holding the guitar [laughs].

Greg Lopiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Yeah like, cut themselves badly, was bleeding out, and wanted to finished the song [laughs]. 

Philip Winston: The email was something like, “I was playing Guitar Hero on Hard through whatever song, I jumped up on my glass coffee table, and it smashed and it cut my leg. When I finished playing the song, I had to go to the ER.” Something like that. Ryan, he underlines “When I finished playing the song,” and he’s like, “This is gonna be big.” 

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): I also remember the guy—I remember this one meme, I guess? This image of this big shirtless guy on a bed, with a bunch of guitars, and a snake or something, and our controller right there. You know what I mean? You know the one? Yeah. I remember thinking like, “Holy shit.” It was just interesting to see Guitar Hero pop up in the cultural lexicon, and I remember thinking this is a big deal. 

Lance Taber (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): In my neighborhood, I would walk my dog everyday and I would walk by this gazebo where all your skateboarders would hang out and it wasn’t uncommon for me to hear something like, “Dude, did you play on Guitar Hero?” That will probably be my epitaph.

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): [There] was a music video that came out, that now I can’t even remember what the band was, but they had recreated Guitar Hero out of, like, cardboard. The music video had cardboard Guitar Hero playing with their music as their music video. It struck me, like, “Oh my God, it’s moved out of video games and into other media.”

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): We had a couple of moments where we’d get stories back [saying], “Ooh, The Killers are playing Guitar Hero in their tour bus.” You know, these sorts of moments that kind of validated the experience in a way that felt really good.

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): I remember we had such a small team over at RedOctane [Henderson joined RedOctane as a consultant between Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2], there was a PR media lady there and she said, “Marcus, I want to show you this.” And I’ll never forget this, it was magazine, some fancy expensive, $12 an issue magazine. You know the good magazines that seemingly people never have access to but somehow people get?

So she had this big fuckin’ magazine in some full glossy color and she opens it up and there’s a picture, huge, full-bleed picture, of George Costanza, Jason Alexander, with a Guitar Hero guitar. And he’s got his tongue sticking out and he says, “Guitar Hero is the greatest video game that has ever been made. I have a wig that I put on at home and I go crazy and rock out.” And that one gave me chills. I was like, “Wait a minute. Costanza is fucking’ playing our game.”

Eric Malafeew (systems lead, Harmonix): The other thing I remember now is bringing it home at Thanksgiving. We were on the schedule, we put out a game every year so it would be ready to sell for Thanksgiving. When I brought that home, everybody, everybody, parents, young kids, were all transfixed by watching people play it [and] wanted to get in on it. That’s when I knew it was going to be big. Games do not cross generations like that very often. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): The moment for me that I started to see it as a real success was when people sent us photos of, like, their Guitar Hero parties. Like, dressing up and [with] their Slash wigs and hats and taking turns playing in front of the TV.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): These things that sort of grab the zeitgeist [are] always funny to look at. The game, I always felt, had a much bigger impact than just the sales numbers might indicate.

I mean, a billion dollars is impressive, but I always felt like [when] we sell one unit of Guitar Hero, I don’t know, maybe eight or 10 people play that game.

Whereas you can’t say that about League of Legends or Call of Duty, that’s pretty much a one-to-one ratio, probably. Guitar Hero was so much bigger in terms of its player base than its sales number indicated. 

For a long time, we didn’t appreciate what it meant. Guitar Hero 1, we sold maybe $50 million worth of Guitar Hero 1, but so many people were playing it that when you look at the sales, you said, “Ah, $50 million, that’s ok.” You stack it up versus other games, you say, “These other games sell more.” But I think they didn’t have the same kind of social circle, where every one we sold had a circle of maybe eight or 10 people who played the game and then got to know it just because of the nature of the game.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): So you couldn’t really find Guitar Hero much in the beginning, and I think it also gave this perception of it being a really hot game that was constantly sold out. Because part of it was that there just weren’t all that many copies around. Eventually RedOctane was able to produce more and more, which was awesome. Literally, [at first] they couldn’t keep up. The more they produced, the more it got sold. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): It was sold out so badly that a GameStop manager told us that their employees were getting so many calls that they started answering the phone, without even asking, they would just pick it up and say, “No, we don’t have Guitar Hero.” 

The dirty secret of it was that it was hard to find because we didn’t have the money for all that inventory [laughs]. That was really the dirty secret. 

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): It was literally impossible for us to have covered the demand. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): We went into that Christmas and we didn’t get high forecasts from the buyers. In fact, Best Buy, I think, told us that, “Hey, we think we’ll sell 30,000 units this Christmas season,” which is three months. And we were happy with that forecast. Kayse called us after the first two hours and said, “Hey, we sold 3,000 units in the first two hours, we need 8,000 units next week.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, these guitars are made in China and they come over on a boat. Next week we have 5,000 of them and you gotta split that with GameStop.” We went from telling her, she wanted 80,000, to, “Uh, you’re going to get two and-a-half thousand.” 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): They were just doing everything they could to funnel any cash they could get anywhere back into the business to make more units, but it was just very slow.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Each week we were probably producing about $75,000 to $100,000 worth of product. We’d have to pay that, then we’d sell our units to the retailers, and they don’t pay us for 60 days. So they build it, we pay them $75,000 to $100,000, it takes two to three weeks to get it to us, and then we ship it to the retailers, they pay us 60 days later, so you know, there was probably two and-a-half to maybe as long as three months before we got paid. And so that gap we had to finance ourselves through bank loans, that’s why we mortgaged the house. We were carrying maybe about 800,000 to 1,000,000 [units]—maybe as high as one and a half million—in peak season between inventory in our warehouse and inventory sitting in stores that we hadn’t gotten paid on. That really, honestly, for a company like us and Guitar Hero 1, that was probably one of the biggest challenges, was just trying to time, “Alright, we need to pay the factory, we need to get paid from the retailers.” I was constantly dealing with three or four banks. And yeah, it was a miracle that it all kind of worked out. 

Boom to bust

You can’t make a splash as big as Guitar Hero without people taking notice. 

According to the contract between the two parties, RedOctane commissioned Harmonix for one game and the option for a sequel and one more game. Those games were Guitar Hero 2, released in 2006, and Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80s, released in 2007. But their releases came at a precarious time. 

Behind the scenes, a break up was happening. Both RedOctane and Harmonix were being courted by other companies interested in making acquisitions. Both companies would sell, RedOctane to Activision, Harmonix to Viacom, and after obligating the requirements of their contract they’d never work together again. 

Both companies maintained a high level of success after the split, riding the rhythm game boom created by the first Guitar Hero. RedOctane retained the rights to the Guitar Hero series, bringing on Neversoft, then known for making the landmark Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, to head up development. The first Guitar Hero Neversoft made, Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock, became the first single retail game to ever break a billion dollars in sales. Harmonix went on to create the Rock Band series, which took the core idea of Guitar Hero and expanded it out to include instruments for a full band. Within two years of the first game’s launch in 2007, the Rock Band series also passed a billion dollars in sales. 

But success doesn’t erase feelings—and almost everyone we talked to for this piece has something to say about how Harmonix and RedOctane’s split went down. From it just being weird that they became eachother’s main competition in the marketplace, to bitterness over the way Acitivison handled the Guitar Hero brand.

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): Well, what was happening at the time was all of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of a very hot property at a time where we were definitely on to something big. We also knew that—a couple of things.

One is that, in games, you never know how long a trend is going to last. You certainly hope that it’s going to last a long time, but you also know that stuff—how should I say this? You also know that games can be really big one day, but then they fade the next day.

The other thing we knew was that in order to kind of maximize the potential of what we had, we needed a bigger partner. Keep in mind, Harmonix was this tiny little studio, and RedOctane was also a tiny little studio. As long as the two tiny studios were working together, that seemed fine.

But then we heard that RedOctane was bought by Activision—that happened in the summer of 2006. While that was certainly exciting for [RedOctane], for us, it actually made us kind of worried. Because now it’s no longer the small friendly publisher that we knew necessarily, it was now the large behemoth publisher Activision. I think all that meant for us was that we didn’t know what was going to happen. You know? 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Two things happened in 2006. The first is that in the spring of 2006, Activision bought Red Octane. And then in the fall of 2006, Viacom, or MTV Networks, bought Harmonix. There were a lot of—phew, that was a complicated year—but one of the factors that led us to break off from Guitar Hero and start working on Rock Band was that we very much saw the full band experience as the natural extension of Guitar Hero. We had already started working on the full [band idea]—the drums, guitar, bass, vocal four player experience, and that was really the direction we wanted to go.

In our early conversations with Activision once it was apparent that, you know, RedOctane and Guitar Hero were going to Activision, it seemed that the publishing execs at Activision just weren’t that interested in going to the full band experience.

They really just wanted us to stay focused on guitar for a while. For reasons that were all perfectly reasonable. They were all […] compelling reasons to stay focused on guitar, but we were just dying to go after the full band experience, right? So that was the first rift. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): Well, no. And honestly, this surprised us a little bit, we were not considered at all. We never even talked to Activision about it, so somehow this all happened without our knowledge. Certainly without us being involved. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): There was a very interesting thing. We were very quickly acquired by Activision after Guitar Hero 1, and not too long thereafter they were acquired by Viacom, by the MTV Music Group [part of Viacom]. Once that deal went down, we were told by executives at Activision that, “We don’t work with Viacom.” So apparently somewhere in the past, I believe there was some project that went bad between Activision and Viacom. I heard it was, like, a Star Trek project and the companies sued each other, so there was some bad blood at the corporate level. 

Honestly, we liked Harmonix. We probably would’ve continued working with them. I would like to say they would’ve done the same. But you know, we were owned by large corporations, I think Viacom wanted to take them, and instead of them publishing with us, them self-publishing through MTV. So I’m sure there was some financial—there was some corporate bad blood.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): [sighs] It was all done behind the scenes, basically. Yeah, like, we wanted to get, or they wanted to get bigger and like, just keep building upon the success. And Activision made an offer. And then it was pretty much, like, in a blink of an eye, they accepted the offer.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): The funny thing was, at the time, when Activision came knocking on our door, literally we got our first call from Activision the same day we got an investment offer for $30 million. Activison called us, we went down to visit Activision, and they said, “We’re interested in acquiring you if you’re interested in selling,” and we went down that whole road. 

Ron Doornink (president and CEO of publishing, Activision): In late 2005, hardcore gamers at Activision had discovered [Guitar Hero] and were addicted. So were my teenage son and daughter, after I gave the game to them for Christmas 2005. (I even caught my wife playing it behind closed doors.) Seeing this, it was clear that the game had huge potential. RedOctane did not have the global publishing infrastructure and resources (people & capital) to realize this potential. Activision did. I visited with Kai and Charles in early 2006; we hit it off and discussions began about a deal. Once a deal was worked out, I had the privilege of presenting it to Activision’s board of directors. All it took was a 10 minute demo and they were sold. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): When the offer came in, you have to remember a few months before that, maybe six, seven months before that, we were there mortgaging our house, so we didn’t have any money. We were trying to scrape together every penny we could to even get Guitar Hero 1 [out the door], then suddenly Activison comes and makes us this offer. 

Ron Doornink (president and CEO of publishing, Activision): As far as Activision is concerned, the acquisition of RedOctane and the Guitar Hero brand was a true “game changer” without which it would likely not have been able to merge with Vivendi’s game unit and combine forces with Blizzard. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): It was just this crazy spiral upwards from starting in September where we were trying to get money to ship the game and not being able to raise it and mortgaging our houses, to like, June when we sold the company. In that time, only like nine months had passed, and that was just a crazy thing to think about. When we finally sold the company, I said to my brother, well when the Activision offer came, so before the deal closed, I said to him like, “This is crazy. Six months ago nobody would give us $3 million. Then three months ago, someone wanted to give us $30 million. And now somebody wants to give us $150 million. This is just insane.”

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): It was super weird [laughs]. Basically we had two polar opposite emotional reactions operating in parallel. The first is that we loved Guitar Hero, it was like our baby. Seeing Guitar Hero sort of continue to blossom in Guitar Hero 3, which had an insane marketing campaign and was selling insane numbers—and we actually had ongoing royalties and financial participation in Guitar Hero long after we stopped working on it—so there were all these reasons that we were thrilled to see it succeeding in the world. 

Corey Fong (senior brand manager, RedOctane): They just kinda took their template of [the] Call of Duty type of a strategy and just slapped it onto Guitar Hero. That’s when it was like, internally it was like, ooh, so depressing. You know? The feeling was like seeing something—it’s almost like your baby. You know the potential of your baby and then your baby doesn’t reach its potential. That’s the kind of feeling we all had when Activision took it over. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Fucking Bobby Kotick. I actually went into that guy’s office asked him to not kill this game. […] I came in and said, “Hey, you’re killing my baby.” And he was just like, “This is the business,” and sent me out of his office. […]

Well, it came with just getting rid of—it became an IP, not a real, what it was. Like, it lost all of its soul. It didn’t matter what the songs [were], it was just whatever is gonna look good on the back of the box. They literally said that. So it didn’t matter. I fought so hard on music selection, and just they wouldn’t listen.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): At the same time, our new creative focus and our new business focus was on Rock Band. So, you know, we were taking what felt to us like an incredibly risky project to market. I mean, when we launched Rock Band 1 in fall of 2007, it was the most expensive video game in the industry—it was, like, a $200 bundle. Honestly, again, we loved the game, we were very excited to release it, but I remember in November 2007 when we were nearing releasing, we just didn’t know if anyone was going to show up to buy it. We were like:

God, Activison is a very big, capable, skilled, well-resourced publisher now publishing Guitar Hero 3. They’re going to be bring all kinds of thunder to market. We’ve got this game that costs $200. We’re working with MTV, they’re a big company, but they haven’t really done game publishing before. Did we make a terrible mistake? Is this thing going to be a wreck?

We were really concerned about that. And, you know, fortunately it didn’t turn out that way and then Rock Band went on to do very, very well. But we didn’t know it at the time, so it was hard for us to watch Guitar Hero take flight with another publisher and another developer while we were focused elsewhere.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): When we went and started talking to all the different Activision internal studios, there were several studios interested. But one, Neversoft, the first time we met them, they had already had a build of what a Guitar Hero game could look like. It was a build based on a lot of the tech they had built for Tony Hawk. It was very impressive how short of time it was before they had something up and running on their code. 

But beyond that, just talking to them versus others, because they had worked on Tony Hawk for so long, we felt like that was a team that was used to taking this cultural phenomenon, you know, skateboarding at that time, and putting it inside a game and being faithful to that culture. That was essentially the black box magic of Guitar Hero, was taking the rock-metal culture and putting it into the game in an authentic way. So we felt like there was a lot of overlap in terms of the sensibilities of the studio. That’s largely why it ended up going with Neversoft. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): It was funny meeting all the Neversoft guys, obviously being led by [co-founder and CEO] Joel Jewett, who is quite a character himself. Yeah, the one difference though I would say is when they pitched us taking over Guitar Hero—which to us made sense obviously, because if you go back to the Tony Hawk soundtrack, they had guys that got that scene and that vibe and that was definitely something we were going to—but whereas Harmonix would reference Spinal Tap, Neversoft kind of would reference… what was the Ralph Macchio [movie], Crossroads or something? That to me, I didn’t really get that at all. But anyways, that’s beside the point. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): The first time I went up to Neversoft, Joel Jewett has a shotgun, like a real shotgun sitting behind his desk. It’s not like a shotgun that’s safe and locked up, it just sits behind his desk so that he can pick it up at any time [laughs]. We’re like, “Woah, this guy’s crazy! He’s got a shotgun just sitting […] behind his desk.”

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): Once Neversoft got involved, they like, rewrote the code, and then all of a sudden their egos skyrocketed, and they were one of the shittiest developers I’ve ever worked with. Just cocky fucks. Sorry. […]

It was basically like, “OK, we’re just gonna clone what Harmonix did,” and feel like that was enough. They didn’t have any heart and it was very much just like, “Yeah, you coded it correctly. But the songs are just marketing-pushed songs.” Everything just felt flat to me.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): Well, I mean, Neversoft is an extremely skilled game developer. Right? It’s like obvious that they’re an extremely skilled game developer. They were new to music games, and I do remember us thinking that the fact that they were new to music games showed in some ways.

An obvious example that a lot of our fans were citing early on is just that the note charting was very unmusical.

It was made to be sort of like finger dexterity challenges and sort of like brutally difficult and stuff […] It was just something that jumped out, like, “Hey, these are not music game developers.” That said, it’s nitpicking. They did a fantastic job and the commercial results of that franchise can speak for themselves. 

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): I feel like Guitar Hero 3 is a really good entry in the franchise. My personal take is that the Harmonix team understood the brand in a way that—I feel like the franchise moved away from that super-crisp understanding, the nuanced understanding of what the Guitar Hero universe was all about. They made great gets with respect to soundtrack, and it’s such an awesome strong brand, but I feel like what Harmonix does really well is nerd out on the details that if you get the joke it’s awesome, and if you don’t get the joke it’s cool, it doesn’t matter. But like, those details, I think, matter. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): I actually thought Guitar Hero 3 was really bad. And I’m not surprised, it’s a hard game to make if you’re just a regular game developer. I do think that eventually they made really good Guitar Hero games. It took them a few games to get the hang of it. 

Guitar Hero 3 didn’t have the right feel, it didn’t have the right patterns, they didn’t have all the experience that we had in some of the in-house know-how of all these musicians. I just felt like it really showed. And that made me sad, because again, I would still be walking around and people would ask me about Guitar Hero, so I still had an affinity to the brand and the game, but it was sad for me to see that it actually wasn’t that good. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): I remember we were a little cranky, because they took over all the IP. Here’s an example—we put a lot of work into the characters, and I remember putting a lot of work into trying to nail the female characters specifically. We didn’t them to be kind of exploitative, we wanted them to be powerful, girl rock characters. Joan Jett style. Just the rendering and so forth. And then I remember when Guitar Hero 3 came out, we were all like, “Ah, they didn’t really stick to that.” [laughs] It was a little sleazy. And they put ads in it. There was a bunch ads for Buick and stuff. 

Just as a technical accomplishment, I tip my hat to the Neversoft team that banged out that Guitar Hero 3 in eight or nine months. That couldn’t have been easy [laughs]. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): I mean, I thought those guys did a pretty incredible job. Honestly, they had to make a game very quickly. I personally was not into their aesthetic. At Harmonix, we tried keeping things more—I don’t know what the right word is, but maybe like, family friendly? So our vibe was, I think, more about celebrating music. I think they were going for an edgier vibe that maybe was more appealing to young boys, so to speak [laughs]. That said, obviously they did really well with the game. 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): They managed to go in there and re-create the magic of Guitar Hero in their own engine in their own way. It was impressive. Neversoft is a fantastically accomplished game developer, so I was impressed with what it did. 

Chris Larkin (creative services specialist, RedOctane): I think the press chose sides more than we ever chose sides. Like, I was always cool with the Harmonix guys whenever I saw them after the game got released, and I think everyone was. I know that Kai and Charles still talked to Alex—maybe to this day, who knows? So there’s no, like, hard feelings or anything. They were definitely competition, but there was no animosity to that at all. It was just kinda funny, it’s like, “If you’re a Guitar Hero person, you can’t be a Rock Band person.” I enjoyed Rock Band too, you know?  

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Later on, people always thought that we were, like, mortal enemies because of Rock Band and Guitar Hero [laughs]. [….] We’d see each other game game shows and we’d show each other our builds. Like, “Hey, here’s what we’re working on.” They’d [go], “Oh, here’s what we’re working on!” We didn’t view each other as, like, enemies. I guess in my head—and perhaps naively—we were like this little publisher and this little studio that worked on Guitar Hero 1 that kind of shook up the world at the time. We always had a lot of good will, I felt like, because of that. 

Longer legs

Between 2005 and 2010, including spin-offs and mobile titles, 24 Guitar Hero games came out. Between 2007 and 2010, Harmonix put out 10 mainline Rock Band games. By the time it was officially discontinued in 2017, the RockBand Network, which allowed artists to publish their songs in-game for players to purchase as downloadable content, had more than 4,000 available songs from more than 1,200 different artists. What started as a game no one thought would sell at all became an entire industry. The small teams that sheparded that first Guitar Hero project grew to unwieldy sizes to meet demands for the new games and new content, in the eyes of some, losing the culture that made them special in the first place. 

By 2010, the music game craze that Guitar Hero kickstarted was showing diminishing returns. Almost as quickly as it all took off, as more and more came out, Guitar Hero and Rock Band games started selling less and less. In February 2010, Activision closed RedOctane. And while Harmonix has put out a few Rock Band games since, such as Rock Band 4 in 2015, which it’s supported with consistent DLC, and Rock Band VR in 2017, neither are the cultural juggernauts earlier games were. Harmonix has since gone on to pursue other projects. 

The unanimous opinion as to why this whole genre died out, at least according to the people we talked to, is over-saturation. It got too big too quick, and everyone rushed to make as many games as possible to meet the demand. And then they made too many games, and consumers couldn’t keep up, so they didn’t. 

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): By the time we got to Rock Band, there was over 300-something employees [at Harmonix]. At one point, in Central Square, Cambridge, they had to have two floors of an office building and then buy out a whole separate space across the street to fill seats because that’s how many people we had.

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): I mean, that was crazy. So our Weelys used to be just in part of the office in the lunch area, and eventually it got so big that people would be standing around the edges of the room and eating. At some point, they did rent out a space from the church that was across the street. You’d get a notification that it was Weely time, you’d walk across the street, and it’d be this army of people going over, and they had huge buffet lines for lunch every week. It was incredible. 

Back then it was, like, 400-ish people, so when you would give a presentation to the company it suddenly was like intimidating all the sudden. It used to be such a tight space. 

Izzy Maxwell (sound designer, Harmonix): I got really into it, actually, and tried to read up about culture and what happens. It was pretty fascinating to me. I read this great study on basically how big a community needs to be for crime to exist. And it was funny because there were people that argued all different numbers, but the average was about 150 people, which was about the size Harmonix was at the time I learned that. [I] just thought, “Ah, shit. Yeah. Here we go.” It got weird, man, when we hit, I think, almost 350 employees. Going from 50 to 350 in just a couple years was—I guess a few years, but still—that was way too fast.

Matt Moore (artist, Harmonix): There was a shift when you used to know everybody at the company. What is it? That magic number for company size is 120, I think? I think you could tell there was a change, right? I met somebody relatively recently that was like, “Oh yeah, I worked at Harmonix, too.” And it was from that period, and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that, I never saw you there.” 

Rob Kay (lead game designer, Harmonix): Clearly you can wring a good thing too much in terms of trying to wring too much value out of it. There were so many games released, in the Guitar Hero franchise especially, that I think it kind of just overwhelmed people a little bit and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways that it was going to be more of a fad than a permanent addition to the space.

Eran Egoy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): If you think about the sport franchises, the football games, boy, those just have carried on for decades. We were wondering if the same thing could happen with this, and the reason we were hopeful was because music is the element of these games that continually changes and continually can keep them fresh. So we were hoping that having a steady stream of new music would be enough to keep the games constantly exciting. It turns out, I don’t think that was true. At least not for a large number of people. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I mean there’s thousands and thousands of songs from Rock Band overtime, but the core play experience was the same. […] For a lack of better word, no creative agency or unpredictably in the game experience.

Meaning, if you watch someone play Rock Band incredibly well or Guitar Hero incredibly well, it’s the same experience every time.

Two of the greatest players in the world playing one of the hardest songs in the game, it’s like, “Well, it’s impressive. Like, wow, boy are they moving their fingers fast.” Right? But there’s no element of surprise. They’re just playing, they’re completing the sequence that the game [is asking of them]. And I think that the absence of creative agency, absence of the element of surprise ultimately is a serious encumbrance on the longevity of any one particular title in a franchise like that, or the longevity of a [series] like that. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): The big one, at least at the time, what I personally felt the demise of the genre was, was oversaturation—I think on a large part from Activision. And then, somewhat, just in response by us trying to stay up to snuff with our sort, I don’t know, I guess our enemy. I’ll use that word [laughs]. You know, too much stuff came out too fast. There were so many Activision games in such a short period of time, and they weren’t really that amazing and they weren’t offering anything new. I think people just got sick of seeing them. You know?

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): [Activision] had this philosophy of really squeezing as much money as they could out of a given franchise. And they really went at it. They were coming out with two or three Guitar Heros a year. It was, like, madness. And we kinda had to keep pace to satisfy retail and so forth. That was not that fun. So I think it did get burned. There was just so much product in the channel, and you know, it was this big gold rush that we did not really instigate [laughs] or necessarily agree with. I would’ve been happy to just refine it over longer periods of time, but hey, it was what it was. That’s how it played out.

Keith Smith (quality assurance, Harmonix): Here’s the thing: you’re either cool or you’re not.That’s just what it is. I think Harmonix was cool all the way up until around Rock Band 2, and then after that we were trying to be cool. Again, that’s just trying to survive, because Activision were being dicks! Like, realistically, there’s no other way around it [laughs]. It’s clear if you sit back and look that Activision decided they would rather sink the ship than share the ground. Do you know what I mean?

Jason Kendall (artist and animator, Harmonix): We always felt that when Activision got a hold of it, they were just going to plunder it and kill it. And you know, they know how to make money, and I think a lot of us thought at the time that [bangs fist] constant, constant, constant iterations, just hammering on the same thing would kill it. You know what I mean? That’s what we thought. 

Marcus Henderson (contract guitarist, WaveGroup): Anytime you put out six games in one year, you’re clearly stating that you don’t see any long-term revenue plan for this IP. What Activison did is what Activision always does and that’s try to extract every nickel they can so they can make sure that their quarterly reports are hot and the investors get theirs. You know, the real gamers. Take care of the real fuckin’ people here. Let’s make sure that all of the important people get theirs.

Remember how I said I wasn’t going to be negative? [laughs] Here I am: Fuck Activision.

No, seriously though. I think what happened was you had a shining star, it wasn’t going to go forever but it’s found second life in like Score Hero and kids play this game every single day. It wasn’t designed for long-term commercial enjoyment because I think all the good songs had already been used up.

Dean Ku (vice president of marketing, RedOctane): Once Activision took over, I understand from the business point why they wanted to expand the brand and extend it as quickly as possible, so I understood that from the business side. I think it was also a little bit sad, because it did feel a little bit like they were trying to milk it. I mean, that part was kind of hard to see, but I guess I could see why they did it.

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): The first two games, I literally, I call them my baby. The amount of stuff I was able to do and put into that game was so amazing. And then once Activision stepped in and they walked around and promised us:

‘Nothing’s gonna change, we want you to be independent,’ and each month it would change and it would change and it would change and then turned into literally all they cared about was numbers.

And I threw a fit. I tried to tell everybody that I could, but no one fucking listened.

Ron Doornink (president and CEO of publishing, Activision): [Activision] struggled to maintain the momentum of the franchise and it is debatable whether that was a function of gamers moving onto other games/genres, or the result of some of the decisions that were made. 

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): Honestly, looking back, we had nobody to blame but ourselves for kind of [burning] through the category so fast by just pumping way too much into the market. […] I think that was the worst part of the competition, I felt like, was that we ended up kind of flooding the market. That music game genre should’ve had longer legs, if it wasn’t for us being caught up in that.

The crater

The peripheral-based music genre burned fast and hot, and fizzled out almost as quickly, but you can’t deny the games’ legacies. Guitar Hero and Rock Band turned a lot of people onto bands they’d never heard of, reunited bands, and affected music sales. At the height of its popularity, a song featured in a Guitar Hero game could boost its individual downloads by as much as 843-percent.

But more importantly, these games made new musicians. As recently as 2017, artists like Post Malone, one of the biggest musicians in the world right now, were citing Guitar Hero when talking about their careers. For a studio like Harmonix, that’s the true legacy of Guitar Hero. Not the money, not the success, but the kids that picked up real guitars and started their own bands. 

Greg LoPiccolo (project leader, Harmonix): Just the fact that we were able to turn people onto the joy of rock music, I’m super proud of that. It was worth doing. It was fun to do and I’m happy it came out that way. So that’s what I would say. It was a good ride, no complaints [laughs]. 

Lennon Lange (associate producer, RedOctane): I’m so proud of the amount of times that I still hear, because now I do just on the side, I mentor trans youth, like suicide watches and all that stuff, and the amount of young kids that I meet that are guitar players that literally every single time they go, “I started playing guitar because of Guitar Hero.” Oh, that’s amazing. I have heard that so many times. And honestly, from the get go, that was what I was hoping for. I really, when I chose the music and chose how the notes should be played and how it should feel, the end goal was pick up a fucking guitar.

Dan Schmidt (game systems programmer, Harmonix): You know, for a while I’d be able to drop the fact, like, “Oh yeah, I was one of the people that made Guitar Hero,” and people’d be like, “Oh my God! Really?!” [laughs] It’s a little less exciting to people now than it used to be, but you know, that’s fine, too. Things come and things go. 

Eran Egozy (co-founder and CTO, Harmonix): The way I kind of view this is just through certain specific anecdotes, or certain specific moments that I recall. For example, I don’t know if you know this now, but I’m at MIT now, a professor of music technology, and I have a class that I teach which has a lot to do with Harmonix and the games that we made. 

I remember I had a student who took the class, and she said to me, “I don’t know if you realize this, but playing your game gave me a different perception of who I was as a person, because it made me realize that I could play music and I could perform music.” When I heard that, that’s when I thought like, “Ooh.” I mean, maybe I’d heard stuff kind of like that before, but hearing that was — how do I describe it? I mean, it was humbling and I was a little awe struck. Even this was many, many years after the games had come out, but hearing someone relate a really personal story like that to me was very moving.

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): I don’t know if you’re familiar with this band The Warning. These Mexican girls who were kids, they were like ages four, six, and eight or something like that when Rock Band first came out, and they all started playing music together in Rock Band. They are now [an] international touring band, based in Mexico but touring all over the world and signed. And you know, they basically got their start as rock musicians in the game. It’s just, like, adorable and awesome. They’re fantastic. 

Ryan Lesser (art director, Harmonix): You know, this wasn’t originally our goal—our goal was to make people feel like musician—but what would happen, we would start hearing that guitar sales, and then later things like drum sales for Rock Band, were picking up because people were graduating out of Rock Band and graduating out of Guitar Hero and wanting to play the instruments for real. We would hear from the actual instrument manufacturers, saying that they saw upticks in their sales. That became really important to us, too, now that we knew that we were making more musicians.  

Daniel Sussman (producer, Harmonix): Here’s the resonant story that I take away from Guitar Hero 1. I was talking to someone about the soundtrack, and they were telling me a story of their, like, eight-year-old daughter coming down to the breakfast table singing “Blitzkrieg Bop.” This Ramones punk song from the fucking what? ’70s. Mom’s like, “Honey, how do you know that song?” And this little girl was like, “It’s one of my favorite songs from Guitar Hero [laughs].” And like, I basically just started crying, right? It was this moment where I’m like, OK, wait a minute, we are sort of relighting this legacy of amazing content, that certainly didn’t go anywhere, but we’re creating relationships between people and songs.

Charles Huang (co-founder and vice president of business, RedOctane): You know, Guitar Hero took a lot from the music industry. No question. But I think in many ways we gave a lot back to the music industry as well. We reunited legendary artists, like the Sex Pistols [for Guitar Hero 3]. We only found out, like, eight or 10 years later that we inspired future legends like Post Malone. 

I think there are very few games that have that kind of impact and gave so much back to people who didn’t even play our game. I felt like in the area of music, that was part of our legacy. We didn’t come and just license a bunch of music and just took from the music industry, we gave back a lot to the music industry as well. 

Alex Rigopulos (co-founder and CEO, Harmonix): There was no data in the history of video games to suggest that this should have worked. Often publishers, their process for deciding what to fund is based up on [comparable company analysis]. Looking at the history, what has worked in the past, and how can we use those lessons of what has worked in the past to decide what to fund for the future? Of course they do that. It’s a completely sensible, responsible business person thing to do. But what that […] neglects is the possibility of creating things that just don’t fit any molds, that the world wants but they don’t know that they want yet. 

Special thanks: AJ Moser, Michael Leri, Jacob Geller

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