Today marks the five-year anniversary of the release of the very first Rock Band! To commemorate the occasion, we've compiled a bunch of stories from Harmonix developers about the production of Rock Band and how Rock Band has affected them. Read on!
Rock Band, Pre-No-Fail Mode by Fish McGill, Graphic Designer
I vividly remember opening the Rock Band box at my cousin’s house where I lived at the time. I had just started at Harmonix and they graciously gave us a bundle which I gave to my cousin as a present. We got to play it before it was released to the world and we attacked that box making a huge fun mess in his living room. Eventually we stopped designing characters to look exactly like each of us and got down to business playing the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and unceremoniously failed the song 4 times before getting through it... this was before No Fail Mode (d’oh).
Rock Band and my Wisdom Teeth by Jessa Brezinski, Community Manager
Most of my experiences with traveling for Rock Band 3 are those types of stories that you have to be mentally and emotionally exhausted to find as hysterical as they were. So instead I’ll go back to the very first time I played Rock Band.
I’d just had my wisdom teeth out and there’d been some complications and I had at this point been on heavy drugs for I think four days. I was laid up at my parents’ house, sleeping on the couch and occasionally watching Lord of the Rings marathons on TV. My little brother had just got Rock Band and kept having friends over and my mom kept having to yell at them to keep it down because I was passed out in the living room. At some point I went in search of the heavy banging I was hearing and found my brother and his friends in his bedroom, door closed, lights down, shades drawn, completely engrossed in this full band game. They may have even been playing it using the projector on his bedroom wall (my memories of this are a bit fuzzy, for obvious reasons...this may have been the most truly rock and roll day of my life).
I’d just gone to see what they were doing but when they asked if I wanted to try, I immediately pointed to the drums and told them to crank it up. When Mom came to yell at them shortly after, reminding that I was sleeping, she opened the door to find me rocking out. I have no memory of how I was on the drums (probably terrible), but once I got too tired for that, they let me switch to guitar. I destroyed their scores. My brother insisted it was because I “actually play the guitar” (I can kinda play the acoustic guitar...) and that gave me the advantage over them and that’s why I was able to beat their guitar scores while sight-reading. These sight-reading skills definitely came in handy when later traveling to demo Rock Band 3 and having to, onstage in front of tons of people, try not to fail miserably at songs I’d never heard before. Thanks for bearing with me everyone!
Rock Band Changed My Life by Eric Pope, Community Manager
Five years ago, I was employed as a workaday schlub in the financial industry. It wasn’t a bad job, but it most definitely did not fulfill me, and I spent my after-hours engaged in all sorts of extracurricular pursuits just to stay happy. In short, I was not really happy. Through much urging by my wife, I started to look for opportunities to break from that job into something more interesting. By the way, that’s a really hard thing to do when you’re making a decent salary without much effort.
When I met former Harmonix Community Manager, Sean Baptiste, at a party, I spent the entire night needling him for stories about working in the game industry. By the end of the night I had pretty much set my mind on finding a job at Harmonix, however I could. Sean was super great about encouraging me, too, which I’ve always been hugely thankful for.
Based on previous job experience, I was actually qualified to work in Quality Assurance, which is a common first step into the industry for folks. At Harmonix, it seems about half of our senior staff and leads began their careers in QA. My first interview was a couple weeks after the release of the original Rock Band, and, like any good job-seeker, I did my due diligence on the game. The day before my interview, I went out and bought Rock Band, then marathoned through it all night long. So, my first experience with this super social party game was playing single player on guitar for about 8 hours straight. And I loved every damn second of it. (I didn’t tell my interviewer I’d only just crammed and played it the night before, FYI.)
I didn’t get hired after that interview! I was told they liked me but they didn’t have any spots for me at that time. What followed was, no joke, about 6 months of back and forth between Harmonix and myself. I had a weekly reminder for myself to email and check on the status of the job openings. While that sounds awful, and likely would not fly in today’s modern, professional Harmonix, my perseverance actually paid off in the end. I started on April Fools Day 2008, working on the European version of Rock Band. They made me sing that French Pleymo song in front of a bunch of QA department strangers, who soon became my closest friends. I also clearly remember there was a bug logged that day, which was a cleverly embedded Rick Roll. REMEMBER RICK ROLLS YOU GUYS?
In over four years since then, I have never once woken up and felt like I didn’t want to go to work. Every day here is a potential ridiculous adventure. Because of Rock Band, I’ve worked at the MTV Movie Awards, played The Beatles Rock Band with Tom Hanks, spent multiple days inside Abbey Road Studios, and ingested numerous cases of PAX Pox. It’s all been an incredible pleasure, and my life is most certainly for the better because of that crazy popular shockwave that is Rock Band.
Rock Band, itself, is just a game. It is because of the thousands and thousands of amazing, dedicated fans that make up our community that Rock Band the Phenomenon hit the heights that it did. That likely means you, the reader of this rambly piece, can take some ownership of that. That also means, by the transitive property, that you, dear reader, are in part responsible for changing my life for the better, and I thank you for that. Rock on.
Interviewing Rock Stars by Christine Jandreau, Web Editor
I'd been a Rock Band fan before I was hired at Harmonix, just weeks before the launch of Rock Band 2. One of my first jobs at Harmonix was transcribing all the interviews that were already on the website. I'm a fast typer and it was really interesting to listen to interviews with all these Rock Band bands. And I jumped at the chance to do my first interview for the site. But it was a trial by fire. My very first interview for RockBand.com was with the singer my absolute favorite band at the time, Breaking Benjamin, a band I had wanted to see in Rock Band since the very first time I'd heard of DLC.
I learned how to use the audio recorder, wrote my questions, and then tried not to squeal when the manager told me we were doing the interview on the tour bus. I was unbelievably nervous, and the freezing cold weather outside the tour bus in Lowell, MA in February wasn't helping my shivering. You can listen to or read the interview on the site, but the part you won't hear or read is when Ben Burnley asked me about "those real instruments you're working on"...the Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar that hadn't been announced yet but had been rumored. I had to sit there and lie to the singer of my favorite band to keep our super secret new guitar a secret. I like to think I channeled John Drake when I replied, "Well, we'd obviously love to make playing the Rock Band instruments more like playing real instruments. The vocals and the drums are pretty dead on already. So..." and moved on to the next question. But I still feel a little guilty about lying to him.
I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to interview Ben, and then go on to interview Corey Taylor of Stone Sour and Slipknot, two more of my favorite bands. It's a crazy thing for a fan to get to do, and we've always tried to let fans interview the bands they're passionate about (see also: HMXHenry interviewing Less Than Jake and Mr. Pope interviewing Reverend Horton Heat). I've always felt very lucky that I've been able to work on these games as a fan. I'm still a huge Rock Band fan. I still get just as excited about new DLC announcements as all the other fans...I just get to see them a couple of months earlier. And I played my heart out in Score Wars in Rock Band Blitz like everyone else even after working on promotional plans for the game all day. This game, and this company, are very special to me. And I'm excited every day that I can come to work here and spend time with the Rock Band Community.
Being a Guinea Pig by Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, SVP of Publishing
Happy anniversary Rock Band! Thank you for making ME feel like a rock star! You see, as Senior Producer on our first Rock Band, I was one of the very few leads on the project who wasn't a "real" musician. So when we started to figure out how we were going to teach people how to play drums and the complexity of three limb independence, I got to be the guinea pig. If Tracy could learn how to play drums, well then, we could teach the world. All around me on the dev team were true life musicians making a game for all of us "wanna-bes". One of the best memories was being in my internal Harmonix Rock Band band each week. We made the dev team break up into bands to play the game through out development and give feedback to improve the game. My band "the Stupid Babies who cry all the time" was made up of three real musicians (two other producers and our writer) and me. Really there was nothing quite like rocking my Rock Band drums each week with Matt, DeVron and Hellion in the Star Chamber. Playing drums was a phenomenal stress reliever as I contemplated how the hell we were going to get this monstrosity of a game out the door on time. (Oh yeah, we did!) And once we shipped the game, there were my musician- husband, and musician-daughter finally accepting me into their world as we rocked "Won't Get Fooled Again" in our living room…of course, me on drums.
Developing The Beatles: Rock Band by Alex Rigopulos, CEO & co-founder
Developing The Beatles: Rock Band was a dream project, but it was also one of the most difficult and stressful projects we’d ever done. Near the end of the project, when I saw the final ending cinematic (set to “The End”), it was so beautiful and uplifting, tears welled up in my eyes, which was the first time a videogame had ever provoked that reaction in me. And I just remember in the moment feeling incredibly proud of the team and incredibly excited to release the game into the world.
Reflections on Rock Band by Greg LoPiccolo, Chief Creative Officer
Development recollection: I remember going to Microsoft to demo the drum gameplay for their hardware and software teams – we had one set of hacked-together drums that barely worked, with wires hanging out of them. We managed to make it through the demo before they collapsed but it was a close call.
Random thought: we always put a lot of thought into the song list for each title. We all have our own divergent tastes here at Harmonix, but we had this strong sense of mission to fairly represent all the different styles and eras of rock and roll, so we would try to come up with songs that covered all those bases. The best analogy I can come up with is Jack Black’s History of Rock blackboard diagram in School of Rock – that is kind of how we thought about the song choices in the game, and it was always really exciting when we would clear the licensing for a song that we thought was important to the overall story of rock. I remember getting "Suffragette City," then "[Enter] Sandman" like the next week – good times!
Reflections on the franchise: I still meet people (especially kids) on a semi-regular basis, who started playing Rock Band, then went on to play an instrument, and credit Rock Band for the inspiration. This was our highest aspiration for Rock Band; that people would play the game, realize that they could be musicians, then go out and do it. For a lot of us at Harmonix, playing music is just built into our lives, and we have always wanted to pass that on. For me, that has been the most satisfying aspect of working on all the Rock Band games – connecting a ton of people to the music that we love.
Me and RB by Kurt Davis, Office Manager
When Harmonix decided to follow up the surprisingly huge success that was Guitar Hero with a full-on all instrument and singing juggernaut that would come to be known as Rock Band there were many in-house bands clamoring to get in the game. My band [The Konks] was one of the lucky ones that were released on disc. I thought that was pretty cool, but I took it all in stride. I was psyched, but not giddy or internally smirky or overwhelmed, just sort of, “Oh that’s cool we got on there…”
After Rock Band had been out a month or two we had the Harmonix Rock Band Release Party and during the party there were photos of the game in various stages of production being projected on the walls of the venue. It was there, standing in the line for a drink (or coat check, I can’t remember which, but DRINK sounds cooler, so let’s go with that) that I saw the boxes and boxes and boxes sitting in port waiting to be shipped out. Then and there, It suddenly struck me: my band's song is in every single one of those boxes! Every. Single. One. Holy crap! It just hit me. Like, literally being shipped out to millions of homes, in millions of games. I will be in millions of living rooms, family rooms, rec rooms, college dorms, etc. all around the world. It was pretty powerful once it sunk in.
It was also surreal (and hilarious) seeing people “perform” our song on YouTube.
One other short story about my experience with the awesomeness of Rock Band:
Before the game was released we had set up play spaces throughout the building for HMX employees to play the game. We had “bands” composed of our fellow co-workers that would get together and play once a week. At one point we had a play space set up in what is now our mail room, which is only about 6 feet wide. There was a fairly large TV in there and it was pretty loud. I went in there and we scrolled through some of the recent songs that had been added and Sean Baptiste belted out an AWESOME version of “Timmy” from South Park! I think I was playing the fake guitar. Standing in that little room with Sean belting that out while I was cracking up at this awesomely ridiculous song in this game was just amazing!
It was a thrill for me, a humble office manager, to get some of my artwork in the game, too.
My family, friends and I have had many, many hours of fun playing Rock Band over the years and it’s so cool to be a part of such a cool and fun phenomenon.
Adventures in Playtesting: Draw Us a Dinosaur by Matt Studivan, Playtest Coordinator
On 4-19-10 the playtest team held our first (and only) Patriots' Day* Playtest Invitational. We set up what must have been 7 or 8 rooms for thirty testers to come in and play Rock Band 3 for like 8 hours straight. It was going to be one of the first times outsiders would see the Pro instruments and we were salivating for data on them. The whole day was absolute madness but I have some incredible memories from it (cue Daniel Stern from Wonder Years v/o)…
One of the biggest hits was 7-player mode. As more and more people discovered it, our larger rooms got more and more crowded. At one point there were at least fifteen people screaming along to "Bohemian Rhapsody" – all instrument slots filled and the rest hovering around whatever mic was closest to them. Those who couldn’t find a mic just stood their singing as hard as they could, joining their voices to the din.
Every couple of hours, when the sheer structured insanity of it all drove me a little mad, I would duck into one of the back rooms and find a solo tester, playing the Pro Guitar tutorials over and over again. This happened multiple times. People were so determined to beatmatch their way to learning to play guitar. By the end of the day, there were a few determined testers, never having played guitar before mind you, shredding through the solo in “I Love Rock ‘n Roll.” As a guitarist who has also always struggled with the more intricate leanings of the instrument, I couldn’t help but cheer them on loudly.
To sop up all the extra data that thirty people produce (and two people have a hard time handling), Jyllian created a really awesome “Choose UR Own Adventure” style ‘zine that playtesters could fill out. On the last page was the simple instruction: “Draw us a Dinosaur.” And everyone did! The bad edited image below is what I put together as the title page for the Dev summary of results.
I still can’t get over how psyched everyone was to be hanging at HMX on their day off, playing the newest iteration of Rock Band, and generally being completely excellent to one another. I can’t quite remember the logistics of how the day ended, but I can remember that as a new Rock Band player and even newer Harmonix employee, I felt welcomed into a community of truly radical people.
Thanks Rock Band!
A Very Rock Band Wedding by Matt Kristek, Playtest Assistant
The tale of my love for Rock Band leading to something pretty damn wonderful has been well documented in the past. But here's a quick recap, with a couple notable updates… I was but a mere Rock Band superfan. So much so that I became an active member of the Rock Band community, posting frequently on the forums under the embarrassing moniker "mattitude." This led to meeting Helen McWilliams, or "HMXHellion," lead writer for Rock Band. We fancied each other. I met a few more Harmonix folks who were kind (or foolish) enough to give me an awesome job here. Shortly after, Helen and I got married. Our beloved HR rep Janet was our officiant. Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, founders of Harmonix, were our "flower executives." Several Harmonix coworkers and friends were among our wedding guests. It was awesome.
Eran & Alex, professional flower executives
Cut to today. I have a job that I love, at a company that I still have an absurd amount of respect for, working on games that I care about. And above all else, I have an amazing wife and a fantastic marriage. And none of that would be true if Rock Band didn't have such a profound impact on me five years ago. And for that, I'm truly grateful to Rock Band.
From left to right, Helen "HMXHellion" McWilliams, Janet "the best HR lady ever" Freed, and Matt "RB SUPERFAN" Kristek
You can still find me on the forums under my new, slightly less embarrassing moniker, "HMXmattitude."
Rock Band as Press by Nick Chester, Publicist
Like a lot of folks at Harmonix it seems, I started off as a fan of the games before I was getting a check and world-class health insurance. My earliest memory of Rock Band is from months before launch, where the game was being demoed at E3 in 2007. This was actually the first E3 I had attended as press – I’d previously attended as part of the “I totally have no good reason to be here, but let’s stand in some lines to play some video games!” retail crowd – and the site I had worked for, Destructoid, was relatively unknown at the time. Regardless, I talked my way into an Electronic Arts demo room we weren’t invited to, walked right past half a dozen other games, and headed straight towards a Rock Band demo stage.
I jumped at the chance to play the drums immediately, and we played Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I was terrible. I think I missed every note that first time I played, and I won’t even blame it on the calibration; I sucked, and I’ll own that. (FYI, I play on “Expert” now, thank you very much.) But I wanted to play more, and I took the opportunity to play as much as I could. At some point, someone handed me a microphone, and with no shame I went wild, much to the delight of the crowd who had been watching reserved gaming press mumble their way through songs all day long. I remember meeting Helen McWilliams for the first time here, too – she had been on stage doing the vocal demos all morning, and was happy to relinquish the microphone for a bit instead of singing “Wanted Dead or Alive” for the 1,000th time.
A wild Nick Chester in his natural habitat
Because I was loud, I guess, I was invited to a private Harmonix suite party later that evening, where more Rock Band was played with a seemingly endless well of alcohol. Watching an entire room of folks living out rock star dreams and folks not even signed in to any instrument singing along at the top of their lungs, I was certain Harmonix had hit on something special with Rock Band. Five years, it looks like this first, lasting impression was spot on.
See more pictures of Nick rocking the E3 demo at Destructoid.com.
Rock Band Across the Globe by Aaron "HMXHenry" Trites, Community Manager
I’ve played Rock Band in over a dozen states and four different countries, jamming with everyone from Tom Hanks to Sting, rocking from hotel rooftops in LA to beachfront resorts in Cannes, France. But some of the most fun I have ever had has been in a small club right downstairs from the Harmonix offices on nights when only 15 or 20 of our friends could make it out.
Our buds at Improv Boston in Cambridge have held Rock Band nights off and on for the last few years, and while it’s not the glitziest event we’ve attended, it gets progressively crazier every time we meet up.
I’ve seen men and women strip to their underwear on stage. I’ve seen things done to inflatable unicorns (and hirsute men in unicorn costumes) that I will never, ever be able to unsee. I have seen judges bribed with affection, beer and candy, and I have seen judges taunted with mayonnaise and Vibrams. I’ve seen back flips, front flips, juggling drummers, and singers that have left stage during the vocal break in AC/DC songs, gone to the bathroom, bought a drink, and returned before the vocals kicked back in. I have seen Crystal Math perform "Walking On Sunshine" with such unbridled enthusiasm that it restored my faith in humanity, and I have seen Douche Nozzle defile the stage and butcher songs so badly that I have doubted the existence of a higher power.
Rock Band Nights with Douche Nozzle, Photo credit: Becky Pineo
Rock Band Nights at Improv Boston are where I get to stop being a dev for a night and feel like a fan again, just like I did when I first started playing Rock Band five years ago.
* Patriots' Day is a holiday in Massachusetts commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It's also the day of the Boston Marathon.