Rock-and-Roll Fantasy

Article excerpt

Byline: Keith Naughton; With Patrick Crowley

Harmonix, creator of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, is changing videogames.

It's a warm Tuesday night at the Olde Fort Pub in Ft. Thomas, Ky., just across the river from Cincinnati, and the regulars are rolling in with the early spring breeze. The Reds game is on the big screen, but no one is watching. Kid Rock wails from the jukebox, but no one is listening. The pool table is lit, but no one is playing. Instead, the crowd is cheering on Casey Niehues, 23, as she rips off a blazing guitar solo on Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle." But Niehues isn't really playing guitar; she's playing Guitar Hero, the wildly popular videogame.

As a virtual GNR plays on the flat screen behind the bar, the petite blonde supplants Slash by pounding colored buttons on the fretboard and strumming the plastic "string" on her ax, a game controller more akin to Fisher-Price than Les Paul. But don't try telling these revved-up rockers they're playing a game. "It's just totally different," insists Clem Fennell. Barmaid Rachel Wallingford hollers over the din: "It makes you feel like a rock star."

But as the band Boston (a Guitar Hero act) might say, it's more than a feeling. It's a cultural high-tech phenomenon that is changing the way we interact with music. Listening and watching aren't enough anymore. Now we want to play along. Millions of us are doing it, including gray-haired gaming newbies who still think Grand Theft Auto is a felony. Since Guitar Hero debuted in late 2005, nearly 15 million copies have rolled out retailers' doors, according to market researcher NPD Group. An additional 1.83 million copies of Rock Band, a new game involving guitar, bass, drums and vocals, have sold since it launched last Thanksgiving. In each game, you play along by pressing color-coded buttons on your instrument in time to colored dots coming at you on the screen. The more dots you hit, the better the song sounds and the more points you earn to get deeper into the 58-song set list. Together, the two multiplatinum hits represent a $2 billion market, analysts say.

Behind this rock-and-roll fantasy is Harmonix, a Cambridge, Mass., game developer staffed by rock-star wanna-bes and game geeks. The creator of Guitar Hero, and now Rock Band, was founded in 1995 by two quirky artists, who turned their musings as MIT Media Lab partners into a booming business. Today, these old college chums, Alex Rigopulos, 38, and Eran Egozy, 36, oversee a staff of more than 200 in the former offices of Harvard's Russian Studies department, where spike-haired and tattooed employees zip around on Razors among the detritus of musical instruments, both real and simulated. "It looks like we're having band practice," says online community manager Sean Baptiste as he strolls past a giant gong used to call staff meetings to order.

Harmonix's history is the classic "Behind the Music" story of the 10-year "overnight" sensation, complete with career setbacks and band breakups. In fact, Harmonix lost the Guitar Hero franchise when game giant Activision bought it, along with the game's plastic guitar maker, two years ago. So Guitar Hero III, the latest version, is now playing for a different company. But Rigopulos and Egozy hooked up with MTV, which acquired Harmonix in November 2006 for $175 million and bankrolled Rock Band. MTV, part of media giant Viacom, gave Rock Band the star treatment, with promotions at the Video Music Awards and even its own "Behind the Music" episode.

Having created a monster market in musical pantomime, the challenge for the gaming glimmer twins is topping themselves. But Rigopulos and Egozy don't seem daunted. Lounging on couches inside the "Star Chamber," a soundproof room where Rock Band plays on a continuous loop on a massive TV, CEO Rigopulos (a rock drummer) looks goth in his black hoodie, while chief technical officer Egozy (a classical clarinetist) looks preppy in his chinos and button-down shirt. …