The music game pioneer talks about what's ahead for "Rock Band" and why he's still optimistic about the future.
Given how music videogame sales have tanked during the last two years, being the face of the genre may not carry the same bragging rights it once did.
But it's a badge Harmonix Music Systems co-founder/CEO Alex Rigopulos wears with pride.
Rigopulos has been at the helm of Harmonix at every stage of evolution in the music-game market, from its creation of the pioneering "Guitar Hero" franchise in 2005 to the launch of "Rock Band" and "Dance Central" following MTV's 2007 acquisition of the company and Harmonix's subsequent sale to a group of private investors last year.
In that time, music videogames have gone from being a hot new source of revenue growth for record labels to a rapidly shrinking business hampered by a glut of titles and a lack of innovation (Billboard, Feb. 19). That precipitous drop in fortunes culminated in February with Activision's announcement that it is shuttering its "Guitar Hero" business unit.
Now Harmonix has come full circle-back to being an independent videogame developer with something to prove. But none of this fazes Rigopulos, who studied music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and remains an avid drummer and gamer. In his first interview since MTV sold Harmonix, he talks to Billboard about what's ahead for "Rock Band" and "Dance Central," whether the recording industry played a role in the downfall of music games and why he remains bullish on the category's prospects.
Are music games dead?
No, of course not. Band games are a very specific subgenre of music games. Many people point to the explosive expansion of band games and precipitous contraction that happened over the last two or three years. They say because band games have shrunk, music games are dead. Music games as a category is much, much more diverse than that. Dance games are an example of that. There's tons of additional creative terrain under the umbrella of interactive music that have nothing to do with band performance simulation.
[Band games are] a much smaller business than they used to be. At the right scale, it's a healthy business that can be cultivated over the long term profitably, and it's Harmonix's intention to do so.
What accounts for the rapid rise and fall of band games?
In the big swell of band games in 2007-2008, it was a very new experience that was particularly appealing to people who didn't consider themselves gamers. There are core gamers that were and continue to be passionate devotees of the game. But the swell came from casual and non-gamers that were drawn into that world. While they arrived very precipitously, it's just as easy for them to move on to new things that attracted their attention just as quickly.
Did the music industry kill the golden goose by charging too much for music licenses?
The recorded-music business has its business interests to attend to and videogame developers and publishers have their business interests to attend to. Sometimes those interests can be in opposition to one another in determining how to divide the proceeds. But that's a natural business tension that exists in any business where there's collaborative contribution of intellectual property to an entertainment product. I don't think it's fair to say the recorded-music industry contributed to the contraction of this business. Frankly, they, like we, have had to adapt to that change.
Harmonix was the original developer of "Guitar Hero" before Activision acquired the franchise. How do you feel about it being shut down?
To see a franchise we played a role in creating either shuttered or put into hibernation . . . certainly there's a pang of loss there. But honestly, we're not really that preoccupied with the past. Our attention and energy is more focused on the future. Our first reaction to that news was one of sympathizing with a lot of excellent people at Activision and the participating studios that were put out of work as a result of that move. More than anything else, we viewed it as a bellwether for the demand for evolution and reinvention in the category. That demand excites us on a pretty profound level. It's a sign of the times and a sign of the evolution where we're called upon to do something new and big.
What's the future of the "Rock Band" and "Game Central" franchises?
There are short-term considerations and long-term considerations. In the short term, "Rock Band 3" continues to have quite a lot of unrealized opportunity. It's a huge product with a huge feature set and we're going to continue to nurture that title for some time, both in the form of expansion content-meaning there's still incredible music content that has not yet made its way onto the "Rock Band" platform and we'll continue to bring new compelling content there-and the potential for the Pro feature set, [which] has not at all been fully realized yet.
In the longer term, what's clear given the way the world has evolved is that the marketplace is demanding reinvention, and that's a demand we welcome gladly and we're excited about. Obviously there's not much I can say about that at this stage. But we remain very much committed to this franchise.
What about "Dance Central"?
That's at a very different place. It's at the beginning of its life cycle. It's done very well at retail. We think there's a lot of creative opportunity left unexplored in that franchise and a large addressable market we've not yet reached as the Kinect just launched. We think there's a great opportunity to get millions of millions of people dancing that we're pretty fired up about.
With MTV no longer leading the licensing negotiations for your music games, how is that process working now?
A lot of that responsibility has now shifted to Harmonix. If you rewind the clock five years or so, MTV played an absolutely invaluable role in laying the foundation for partnerships with the recorded-music industry that didn't exist in the videogame business prior to that. But at this stage, videogames have blossomed into a material profit center for the music business. Whereas five years ago it was hard to get the record companies to return our phone calls, we're at a point now where the music companies recognize the importance of videogames as a profit source. So Harmonix certainly has the standing to collaborate with our music partners with our new projects going forward. We're in the process of reaching out to our music partners and establishing new relationships right now.
What's the future for music games?
To the degree that we can continue to create experiences that deepen people's connection to the music they love, there will always be tons of creative and business opportunities for music games. That said, there's also a demand for constant evolution and invention. That's a big part of our reason for being and we'll continue to rise to that challenge. One immediate representation of that is "Dance Central." What you'll see from us over the coming years is a continuing interpretation of what music games mean. You'll see music games will be a permanent fixture in interactive entertainment going forward.