Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos Talks Rock Band 3, Entrepreneur Advice, and What’s Next for the Firm

After you’ve saved rock and roll, what do you do for an encore? OK, Harmonix Music Systems’ chief executive Alex Rigopulos might disagree with that premise, but it’s a valid question for his company. The answer, for now, seems to be Rock Band 3, the newest release in the hit videogame franchise, which will roll out on October 26 in North America (for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, and Nintendo DS).

Harmonix is the Cambridge, MA-based company behind the best-selling music videogames Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, and the billion-dollar Rock Band franchise. Its games are often credited with helping bands get wide distribution, as well as getting consumers to experience and participate in rock music in a new way—and pay for it. The company was founded in 1995 by Rigopulos and fellow MIT Media Lab alum Eran Egozy, who is chief technical officer. Harmonix toiled in relative obscurity for a decade until its breakout hit Guitar Hero was released in 2005.

That’s when life changed for Rigopulos and his team, who went from being heads-down gaming and music geeks to hobnobbing with rock stars eager to get a piece of the action. In late 2006, Harmonix was acquired by MTV Networks (part of Viacom) for $175 million plus earnouts. But with the economic recession hitting videogames and entertainment particularly hard, you have to wonder if the success of music-playing games is a fad. (The latest Guitar Hero, a competing game released this week by Activision, has been met with mixed reviews.)

Alex Rigopulos

So I asked Rigopulos (left) about how crucial the new Rock Band game is to the future of Harmonix, and how it fits into the broader evolution of gaming. Not surprisingly, he called Rock Band 3 “a big leap forward” for the franchise. He touched on how it bridges the gap between music games and real musicianship (partly to address haters like me who rarely play the game).

Rigopulos also talked about the company’s next big release: Dance Central, an immersive dance game for Xbox 360 with Kinect (Microsoft’s Project Natal)—which uses a camera system to track full-body movements—due out in November. Lastly, he gave his top advice to entrepreneurs and first-time CEOs, and relayed a personal story about an encounter with a true legend of rock and roll. [Disclosure: The author is in a band with Harmonix senior software developer Dan Schmidt and Rigopulos’s brother, Chris. Their band, Honest Bob & the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives, has songs in Harmonix games.]

Here’s a transcript of our e-mail Q&A:

Xconomy: Can you highlight in your own words what’s new and unique in Rock Band 3, and what you’re personally most excited about?

Alex Rigopulos: First of all, there’s a new instrument: the keyboard. This is important partly because it adds new gameplay, but also because it makes a whole universe of keyboard-focused music suddenly relevant to the platform. For example, the Doors are making their videogame debut … Next Page »

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