So You Wanna Be a Rock n Roll Star
A Brief Chat with Harmonix Music Systems’ Daniel Sussman
As the developers of the original Guitar Hero games and now the driving force behind the Rock Bandseries, Harmonix Music Systems, Inc. is one of the key architects of the current music simulation video game phenomenon. Director of Hardware Development, Daniel Sussman has been with Harmonix since before the first end-user ever picked up one of those tiny plastic guitars and began playing along with the classic rock tracks featured in the first Guitar Hero.
“Huge Gateway Potential”
“Harmonix has a history of trying to bridge the gap between technology and musical creation,” says Sussman. “A lot of our design stems from the idea of giving people the sensation of creating music; people who, for whatever reason have not had the opportunity to study music.” Does he feel that simulators such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero lead to folks stepping away the gaming console and picking up an actual six-string? “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, but very little hard data that I’m aware of,” Daniel says. “We do get tons of gushing e-mails from fans who traded in their plastic guitar and drums for the real thing. I think that games like Rock Band are gateways to musicianship. They expose people to a powerful sensation and bring people into a pretty deep connection with the music. That’s the real value.”
That deep connection and the staggering popularity of the games has been enough to convince a slew of heavyweight MI suppliers to jump on board – Rock Band 2 is partnered with Fender, Ludwig/Conn-Selmer, DW, Pearl, Shure, Sennheiser, Zildjian, E-H, Ernie Ball, Gretsch Drums, Pro-Mark, Vater, Vic Firth, Roland, EMG, Z. Vex, and SJC Custom Drums.
“Rock Band is not a music education tool, per se – we don’t actually teach you how to play guitar or drums – but we certainly plant the seed,” Sussman asserts. “That’s really the biggest sell to the MI companies when we talk about licensing arrangements. We make a mass-market product and sell it primarily to non-musicians. That product, however, features music, music history, and musical instruments. The fact that the game-play is really addictive and the barrier to entry is low (i.e., absolutely anyone can play) makes that feature pretty strong. Early on, it was a hard sell, but I think that everyone saw the potential pretty quickly. The fact is, music games offer a great outlet for exposure for MI companies. A lot of people buying the games don’t really know they want to play music. These games have huge gateway potential.”
Made by Musicians, for.. Future Musicians?
When designing Rock Band, which offered a more true-to-life music making experience via its drum set peripheral, how much thought was put into whether or not such a change would be more likely to inspire gamers to consider taking up an actual instrument? Does something like that even come into play for the guys making these games? To hear Daniel tell it, the answer is an unqualified “yes” – and given that many of Harmonix’s founders and employees are, themselves, professional and semi-pro musicians (I’ve played on bills with at least eight “Harmonix bands” in Boston area clubs over the past few years – Ed.) the statement rings true: “We take authenticity really seriously as it applies to the game experience and all aspects of the game design and art direction. While the guitar is a pretty coarse simulation of real guitar playing, we figured out early on that there was no way we could make the drum game the same way. There was really no way we could make a drum game without teaching you the rudiments of drumming. Once we realized that, we got incredibly excited about the fact that we were bridging the gap between simulation and actual musicianship.
“I’m totally supportive of using Rock Band to get people interested in music and as a platform to sell musical instruments. I am looking forward to working with the MI industry to come up with new ways to bring music and music creation to people. We’re all gear-hounds at Harmonix – it is kind of funny how exciting a thing it is for us to have the opportunity to work with the likes of Fender and Gretsch.”