Guitar Hero: Interview with Greg LoPiccolo (Harmonix)

I recently chatted with Greg LoPiccolo, VP of Product Development for Harmonix and one of the brains behind Guitar Hero, an innovative game with great reviews. The conversation:

Guitar Hero comes bundled with a mock guitar. What are the risks associated with creating a custom peripheral for a console game?

Well, there’s developmental risk. The peripheral gets made in China. Hardware changes happen slowly and over great distances, which can be a problem when you’re rapidly iterating through a game’s development. Most of our development is done in one-year cycles, which makes this especially challenging. You’re flying blind, developing game features for hardware that doesn’t exist yet. We specked the whammy bar on faith alone. Fortunately, things worked out great!

There’s also price resistance, which for the game industry is a huge concern. [Most AAA titles are ~$50; Guitar Hero costs $70]. But we’ve come to the conclusion that peripheral-based games have a future because they shatter design barriers. There’s something about giving you a specific kind of tool to hold in your hands; it pulls you into the experience in a really compelling way. People are willing to pay for that. Does it limit your audience? Sure it does, but that isn’t a big enough hurdle to preclude doing it.

In terms of retail, the box is bigger, which is a challenge both for the store and for the warehouse. Guitar Hero doesn’t fit on the standard shelf rack at Best Buy. You have to stick it underneath or on top. That’s a barrier to sale. But we’ve had good luck getting demos of the game into retail. You’ll be able to play Guitar Hero in about 700 Best Buy stores soon. In general, if a game is good and novel enough, I think you can get retail outlets to demo it.

Were you nervous about introducing a game at a $70 price point? How have sales been thus far?

We weren’t nervous about the price because games like Donkey Konga sold very well, and they are also more expensive than the average title. Look at DDR. Red Octane [publisher of Guitar Hero] has made a tidy business out of selling upscale dance pads to serious DDR fans.

I think this was also a particularly good time to release Guitar Hero. We’re at the end of the console cycle, when the installed base of consoles is really high, and lots of people are ready for new things and ready to branch out.

That’s funny; most game publishers are blaming lower revenues on the end of the cycle.

I don’t think that the advent of the new console generation is a problem; I think the inverse is true. The major franchises are all out toiling with their new dev kits, so there aren’t that many compelling PS2 titles out there, which is great for us! There are plenty of people who aren’t ready to shell out $400 on a new console but do want to buy a great Christmas gift.

So now a bunch of people own a mock-guitar peripheral. What can you do to take advantage of that, aside from selling “Guitar Hero 2”?

I can’t really say what our plans are, but you can sell people more music for the existing game, new features via expansion content, etc. A music game is content driven… just put out 35 more songs and there you go.

Are you concerned about the fact that the guitar peripheral won’t work with the PS3?

No, the installed base of PS2s is enormous.

Did you consider contacting any of the major music media companies (MTV, Sony, etc) to discuss embedding their brand within the game?

It doesn’t make sense for us to be contacting potential sponsors. We make the game – we’re not equipped to pursue other stuff. As an independent developer, we have to partner with a publisher who will get the rest right for us.

What was the single biggest design challenge in making Guitar Hero?

Making the peripheral feel like a real guitar; in fact, deciding if that was even the right thing to do. When you’re trying to innovate, you have to really respect the fact that you don’t understand the gameplay experience until you try it out on actual people. And when you don’t have the finished peripheral, that can be tough.

Do you feel that you’ve had to struggle to get innovative games onto the market?

You know, there’s a lot of people in the industry – journalists, developers – saying that publishers and giant game franchises are crushing innovation, which is partially true, but what people don’t realize is that a new, compelling game experience has a lot of risk associated with it, and if your goal is to make money and stay alive, you need to be careful.

Not everyone seems to get that you can make an awesome game, and there’s still a good chance that nobody will buy it. Innovation is a worthy developmental goal, but it doesn’t automatically lead to success, and it isn’t necessarily the fault of the “evil conglomerate” that innovation isn’t running rampant. Those conglomerates have learned the hard way that people are very conservative about what they spend their money on. If you’re 15 and you’ve been saving money for months to buy a game, what are you going to buy? Some people buy half a dozen games at Christmas but a lot more people can’t afford more than a few games a year. That’s why sequels sell. People know that their money is probably safe.

So are reviews not as important as people think they are?

They’re important, but they also aren’t enough. That said, good word of mouth and good reviews have been critical for Guitar Hero. But for the Sims, reviews don’t matter as much. A fair number of people aren’t using IGN to determine their purchases; they just go to the store and purchase whatever looks fun and safe.