Everyone knows about the wild success of Massachusetts-based game company Harmonix Music Systems. They developed the original Guitar Hero, the Rock Band series, and have entered the body movin’ genre of dancing games with their latest title, Dance Central. Most recently, they re-joined the ranks of independent developers when they were sold to a private owner.
Harmonix as a company is no stranger to fun, and remains committed to supporting their games and delivering quality content to their customers.
After running into him at Umloud!, I persuaded (read: badgered) Harmonix Community Manager John Drake into an interview through the power of the internet. Drake is also the Rock Band Network Manager and drummer for The Main Drag. Read on for some great insight into all things Harmonix.
Game Rant: How did you get started working for Harmonix?
John Drake: “I was working in Boston playing in bands and booking shows. One of my bandmates (Matt Boch, now a designer for Dance Central) began working as a production assistant in the hardware engineering department. When there was an opening in the PR realm, he recommended me. I worked my way up from boxing RB1 bundles for press to working with the great team we have now.”
GR: What does a normal day of being the community manager entail?
JD: “We’re lucky to have a team of folks who specialize in different areas of communications. Aaron (HMXHenry) and his team are community managers in the traditional sense of the word: they oversee the huge population of folks on RockBand.com and the growing scene on DanceCentral.com, manage the conversation of folks on Facebook and Twitter (to the best of their abilities). Other members of our team work on special events like PAX and E3, while some oversee customer support issues (FAQs, support emails, work-arounds).”
“I basically try to help hold it all together. We kick our day off around 10, dig in on the topics of the day, and keep our noses to that grindstone until we clock out. And even then, the persistent world of the internet continues to follow us around.”
“Where it gets crazy is when we’re called upon to travel and do product demonstrations for sales, community, marketing and more. It means that one Tuesday we’ll be sitting in our pit working on our computers and the next we’ll be flying across the world to play Rock Band in front of a huge audience. It’s super weird, but pretty awesome.”
GR: What is the process and length of charting a song? Has the inclusion of the Pro modes made it longer?
JD: “The process of charting a song for Rock Band is pretty involved and utilizes a team of dozens of people.”
“First, our music licensing and audio teams reach out to labels, managers and publishers to ask about the availability of songs for inclusion in the game. We then get ‘stems’ sent to us: audio tracks for Guitar, Bass, Drums, Vocals, Keys and backing tracks.”
“Our audio guys then make the mixes you hear in the game and begin the process of assigning notes on expert for each button you’ll press in the song. We call this ‘authoring’ or ‘charting.’ We use MIDI data for Rock Band and Rock Band Network, so we begin by charting expert, then copying it down an octave and reducing notes for Hard, then Medium, and finally Easy.”
“After that, we have a killer team of artists who set the venue and animation cues for the songs, giving it that extra polish that makes you feel like you’re at a rock show. Our testing team goes over the files and makes sure they’re up to Harmonix snuff and finally, our producers bundle things together and submit them to ‘first party’ (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo). A few weeks later they arrive hot off the presses in the Rock Band Music Store for your consumption!”
“Pro Modes definitely add another layer of complexity and do add some time to the process. Keyboards add another instrument to chart, but Pro Guitar and Bass (from what I’m told) can sometimes take as long to author and QA as an entire song package. This is why we only do full pro upgrades for a portion of the huge Rock Band library, but those songs are definitely worth it. Get your learn on!”
“Rock Band Network streamlines that process to allow bands and musicians to get their tracks into the game and on sale, providing a DIY path to Rock Band awesomeness.”
GR: Favorite song you’ve charted personally?
JD: “I think that this is a 3-way split decision. My first is authoring ‘You All Everybody’ from the TV show LOST. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and we managed to squeeze the track out on RBN before the finale. It also involved doing authoring on a flight from Sweden to Boston.”
“Second is ‘Warmachine’ by The Sex Generals. This was a charity track that was auctioned off by Penny Arcade at the Child’s Play Charity Dinner in 2009. When all was said and done, I ended up producing the song, co-writing it with Jerry (Tycho) from Penny Arcade, and performing on it with members of The Main Drag. It was super fun and for a great cause.”
“Last is ‘Don’t Let Me Down (Slowly)’ by The Main Drag. I authored two albums of Main Drag content, but this is probably my favorite to play. Go buy some Main Drag songs now!”