When was the last time you were inspired? When was the last time a product inspired you? When was the last time a history of a company inspired you? At the DICE conference this year, Alex Rigopolis, CEO of Harmonix, gave a truly inspirational talk about the history of his company. Using the pallid medium of text, I will retell the story here and try to convey what makes it truly inspirational.
Harmonix was founded on a vision: making the joy of playing music possible for millions of people who can’t or won’t learn the craft of making music. It’s a common dream shared by millions of people who sing along with the radio or play air guitar when no one is watching. Harmonix struggled for years to make this vision real. With its first product, AXE, you could make music with just a joystick and a PC. The company built complex software with sophisticated algorithms so the music would sound good. It tested the product, and people liked it. But sales were very, very disappointing. However, music-inspired games like Dance Dance Revolution were catching on in Japan, and the mighty Sony Corporation asked Harmonix to make a new music game. In response, it developed Frequency. When it was tested, users were wildly enthusiastic. The company released the game, and it won design awards. This time around, reviewers were even more enthusiastic, describing Frequency as addictive as heroin. The team at Harmonix was jazzed; they thought that their vision was close to reality. Again, the sales of Frequency were disappointing. All this took place over several years, and Harmonix had “burned” through a pile of venture capital and had seen its vision repeatedly rejected in the market place. The great reviews and the positive test results only left the company frustrated. Then Sony asked Harmonix to develop another product for a camera called the Eye Toy; at the same time, another publisher, Konami, was interested in a karaoke-based game. Harmonix was faced with a hard choiceabandon its dream and develop for the Eye Toy, or stick with its dream and build the karaoke game. It decided to do both, and both products had moderate, but not outstanding, sales. Now Harmonix was offered a new choice. A tiny company called Red Octane asked it to develop a game for a new device, a “guitar” that would allow users to play along with music. And just like before, a major publisher asked it to develop a different product at the same time. The major publisher had all the advantages that guaranteed commercial successgood marketing, good distribution, and lots of money. In contrast, Red Octane was a tiny company without any of these advantages. Would Harmonix follow its dream or take the safer route? It chose to develop Guitar Hero. Again, the product tested well; people loved it. But Harmonix had seen this before, so it dared not be too optimistic about Guitar Hero.
This time, fate intervened. Best Buy bought a few copies of Guitar Hero and put them on kiosks in their stores. These sold out immediately. More were ordered, and they sold out. Soon there was a backlog of orders. Red Octane couldn’t make the guitars fast enough. The product was a runaway success. The vision had become real.
This is a great story, and a true one. After years of pursuing a dream, Harmonix was an “overnight” success. Here are some lessons I took away from the story:
This is a great story, and a true one. After years of pursuing a dream, Harmonix was an “overnight” success.
- Successful products come from a vision combined with dogged persistence and financial support.
- The vision needs to be expressed in such a way that a mass audience can understand it. Harmonix’s previous games, Amplitude and Frequency, expressed that vision. Users loved them and critics praised them, but the vision just did not come across to the broad audience. On the other hand, playing air guitar is a common experience fueled by the fantasy of playing a real guitar to make rock music. Guitar Hero, with its guitar controller, conveys that vision to everyone.
- You have to be lucky. If Best Buy had not put Guitar Hero on a kiosk, it might have remained undiscovered.
- Persistence enables luck. If Harmonix had not pursued the vision for so long, there would not have been anything to put on the kiosks at Best Buy.
- Testing can be misleading. As Harmonix noted, people in the lab loved Frequency. But the test procedure required them to use it for a period of time. Harmonix didn’t test whether the box was appealing enough to pick up in a store. It didn’t test whether the game was easy enough to use so that people would continue until they started to have fun.
- Sometimes you have to abandon reason and follow your passion. All reason would have pointed away from choosing Red Octane as a publisher and making Guitar Hero. But Harmonix followed its vision and succeeded.
This column is a pale shadow of the inspirational, funny, and humble presentation that Alex gave at DICE. Check out the real stuff at: http://www.dicesummit.org/speakers.php?sp_id=109 and http://www.gamespot.com/news/6165734.html.
Rock on, Harmonix; you truly deserve a future of success.
Microsoft Game Studios
About the Author
Dennis Wixon leads a team of over 20 at Microsoft Game Studios which provides consulting and research to make games fun. He is also a member of the User Experience Leadership Team, a corporate steering group. Dennis previously worked at Digital Entertainment Corporation and has been an active member of CHI. He has authored many articles on methodology and co-edited Field Methods Casebook for Software Design (John Wiley & Sons).
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