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!"
GR: With the release of Rock Band 3 and how feature filled it is, what do you think is next for the franchise?
JD: "Right now, people are still exploring and conquering the huge world inside of RB3. We’re still cranking out DLC, listening to fan feedback on the forums and spreading the good word to bands around the world about Rock Band Pro! Rock Band 3 is a living and breathing world of musicians and performers and we’re excited to see how players choose to use it!"
JD: "We’re proud of the work that we’ve done with Kinect, which really is a crazy and cool device. We’ll have to see what the future holds, but for now Rock Band 3 already has plenty of craziness in it without motion gaming being added in."
GR: Since Harmonix has, more or less, the rhythm/music genre of videogames in its pocket, care to postulate what could be in the future of the genre?
JD: "One thing that we’ve learned from Rock Band and Dance Central is that people love connecting to music in a meaningful and, often, social way. We do our best to be innovative and keep pushing great experiences out into the world."
GR: With the inclusion of Pro Guitar and Pro Drums mode, have you heard of an increase on players picking up real instruments? Alternately, how has the reception been for players who already play the respective instruments?
JD: "Since Rock Band launched in 2007, we’ve heard anecdotal evidence that folks who get sucked into the addictive world of rhythm gaming are more likely to try the real thing. We’re hopeful that people who try Pro Keys, Pro Drums and Pro Guitar/Bass will jump into real instruments, and we can’t wait to see what people do with the Squier Stratocaster when it comes out March 1st."
GR: How has Rock Band Network been doing? Has it been meeting its goals and expectations? Are there any plans to expand RBN in any way?
JD: "RBN is marching along and doing really well. We’re lucky to have an unbelievable community of authors, peer reviewers and musicians continuing to pump out amazing songs every day from artists of all sizes. We recently released tools to those creators for Rock Band Network 2.0, which adds support for Keyboard authoring (Pro and Keys mode), vocal harmonies, and a bunch of smaller improvements. We’re fortunate to have had this push to allow us to eclipse 2,000 songs available, and we can’t wait to see what this crew does next with these new tools."
GR: Anything upcoming for either Rock Band or Dance Central that you're excited about?
JD: "I’m really looking forward to some amazing DLC that we haven’t announced yet for both titles...and I’m looking forward to seeing if anyone from the journalistic community can actually step to me on the Dance Central leaderboards..."
GR: Given the large number of Harmonix employees who are part of a band, is there a super group of Harmonix workers? If not, who would be in it?
JD: "There’s a lot of bands at Harmonix that blend talents from different departments into musical badassery. Megasus is a great example of one of those. Projects ebb and flow and, because of the talent pool we have, often folks help each other out, assemble great 'Harmonix Bills' at Boston clubs and fill in when necessary."
"Otherwise, the true Harmonix Supergroup would be made up of some of our Senior Managers — Greg LoPiccolo (VP Product Development, formerly of Rock Badasses Tribe) on Bass, Alex Rigopulos (CEO) on Drums and Eran Egozy (CTO) on lead clarinet. THAT’S RIGHT, LEAD CLARINET."
John Drake is definitely a great character to be around. He lends an energetic tone to any event he shows up to, and does a great job at getting the party going. Game Rant would like to thank John for taking the time to speak with us. You can follow him on Twitter at johntdrake.
Rock Band 3 is available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii.
Dance Central is available now for Xbox 360.