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 in RB3. Also, with the addition of the keyboard, plus 3-part vocal harmony, RB3 supports up to 7 simultaneous players, which is awesome fun in a party situation.

Second, there’s a massive new set of features under the label of “Rock Band Pro,” which collectively aim to bridge the gap between music simulation and real musicianship. There are Pro modes for all instruments, but the flagship is the Pro Guitar mode, wherein players can play the game using a real electric guitar. It still has all of the fun, accessibility, and addictiveness of a videogame, but as you spend time getting good at the game, you’re simultaneously developing skills on a real instrument. It really works, and it is awesome. Beyond that, there’s an incredible soundtrack, plus dozens upon dozens of improvements to every dimension of the Rock Band experience. It’s really a big leap forward for the franchise.

X: How does Rock Band 3 fit with the broader evolution of social and casual gaming?

AR: One of the cool features of RB3 is the number of ways that it interfaces with the outside world beyond the console. For example, through rockband.com, you can create custom set lists and issue challenges to your friends, and the results of those competitive challenges are then trackable on the site. Furthermore, we allow players to selectively broadcast their game accomplishments out to social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, which helps foster the competitive dynamics among friends.

X: How crucial to your business is the new game’s success, and what’s coming next?

AR: Rock Band is our kingpin franchise, so obviously its success is important to our business. Given how strong a product we believe it is, we’re pretty hopeful that the marketplace will embrace it.

At the same time, we also have a brand new game coming to market this fall, Dance Central, and we’re extremely optimistic about its prospects for success; it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Of course we have other ideas in the works as well, but it’s too early to talk about those!

X: What’s your number-one lesson you’ve learned in running the company for 15 years? What would be your top advice to a tech entrepreneur or first-time CEO?

AR: This is a supreme cliché, but it’s still absolutely true and worth repeating: the single most important priority in building a successful business is finding awesome people. Market conditions change, competitive landscapes shift, industry dynamics evolve, and no one set of strategies or organizational methods or practices is uniformly well-suited for dealing with the churning universe of possible conditions. But when you have awesome people, you can successfully adapt and weather the changes around you. I should also add that it’s not enough to find people who are talented and driven; it’s also vitally important to find people who have integrity of character and self-knowledge, because without those attributes, organizations with plenty of talent and drive can rapidly deteriorate into dysfunction.

One last piece of advice: Entrepreneurs tend to have a proclivity for stubborn optimism. And god knows they need it, given how much the odds are generally stacked against them. But a consequence of this optimism is a tendency to turn a blind eye to potentially fatal flaws in their thinking, to chronically shy away from the “bad news” from the outside world that calls into question the viability of the venture. It’s vitally important that entrepreneurs run towards the bad news, do everything they can to aggressively confront the holes in their thinking, so that they can either plug them or change course. Otherwise, years can be lost and ships can be run aground because storm clouds were optimistically ignored.

X: What’s your favorite/craziest rock musician story that you can share?

AR: This doesn’t qualify as a “crazy” story, but it was a moving one for me. It was the second time I met with Paul McCartney, early in the process of producing The Beatles: Rock Band. And it was the first time I was meeting him to present some of the creative ideas we’d been developing for the game. As you might imagine, I was more than a bit nervous about it, and the demonstration was rather nerve-wracking. Fortunately, it went reasonably well. Afterwards, as I was preparing to depart the meeting, Sir Paul handed me a few sprigs of lavender. He explained that he’d just cut them fresh from his garden, and that he finds that the scent of lavender helps calm him at stressful moments. It was a surprising gesture under the circumstances and helped set the tone for the rest of the project.

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