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Gamer's Piece: A brief history of Harmonix

By Joe O'Leary
On February 19, 2013


Monday brought sad news to the official "Rock Band" forums, still buzzing more than five years after the original game in the franchise came out and more than two years since the final disc release in its run. Though downloadable songs for the game have been released almost every week since the game's release in 2007, the game's developer Harmonix announced through its forum that April 2 will bring the final new content to the series, likely forever.

More than 4,000 songs have made it onto Xbox Live, Playstation Network and the Nintendo E-Shop in that time, most by famous artists. Their combined sales number over 50 million for Harmonix; considering that individual songs were $2 and packs of them were offered at only a slight discount, there's a lot of money in those numbers. But as the company built on music gaming pulls away from music gaming (except for "Dance Central," which they develop for Microsoft), it's worth seeing where they've come from and where they're going.

MIT students Alex Rigopulous and Eran Egozy originally formed the company in the mid-1990s, though it didn't see success until their first video game, "FreQuency," was released in 2001 for the Playstation 2. The game was a precursor to the "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" series, utilizing a lane of scrolling notes played in time with a song using the shoulder buttons of the Dual Shock controller. Its 2003 sequel "Amplitude" built on the first game, though its abstract designs kept it from being a major hit. 

2004 brought Harmonix's first major hit, "Karaoke Revolution," which took the gaming world by storm for a few years in the mid-2000s. The USB microphone singing game drew praise for its vast songlist and pitch-detecting gameplay, paving the way for the company's biggest hit... "Eyetoy: Antigrav"! No, just kidding, their game for the ill-fated PS2 camera paled in comparison to the mother of the modern music game, "Guitar Hero."

Yes, the "Rock Band" guys created "Guitar Hero." It took a while for a developer to take a chance on the game, but once Harmonix joined forces with RedOctane, the game became a sleeper success after its November 2005 release. A growing underground fervor over the next year primed the market for "Guitar Hero 2," which truly broke the series into the mainstream once it hit Xbox 360 in early 2007.

Of course, the then-small title was purchased in 2006 by Activision, which no one expected to morph into the giant it is today. However, the corporate bigwigs hitched their wagon to RedOctane, the creators of the instruments, while Harmonix, the developers and keepers of the magic, were kicked out to the dust. A furious ten-month development cycle and an uneasy partnership with EA/MTV Games led to 2007's landmark "Rock Band," which hit stores shelves to rave reviews and people assuming it was a ripoff of "Guitar Hero." Oh, the irony.

Of course, the market soon became saturated. "Guitar Hero 3" begat a flood of "Guitar Hero" spinoffs: Aerosmith, World Tour, Metallica, Band Hero, and even a DS version. Sure, "Rock Band" was overexposed somewhat too, with the two sequels joined by LEGO, Beatles, Green Day and AC/DC flavors, to name a few. The glut of the market and most consumers quickly growing tired of the series led to rapidly diminishing returns over the next few years, causing the franchises to slowly bleed out. "Guitar Hero" was the first casualty, going down unexpectedly early in 2011. Harmonix shifted resources to "Dance Central" and other app-based content, but a team of workers diligently made "Rock Band" tracks out of every group from A-ha to the Zutons until now.

Other games like "Rocksmith" have attempted to widen the instrumental niche, but it looks like music games' newest craze are motion-based dance games, as in "Central" or "Just." That being said, one of gaming's biggest stories from the last generation needs to be remembered. The rapid rise and just-as-rapid fall of the instrument-based music game is a cautionary tale for gamers everywhere to remember. Depending on what our next systems even look like, who knows if something similar might play out next generation? 

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