Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney (minus the bitter split), like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (without the tragic deaths) and like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (less the legal drama), the duo of Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy may one day leave their indelible imprint on pop-music history. When it comes to music games, however, the founders of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Harmonix have already secured their place in the pantheon. Their work on Guitar Hero I and II, which invigorated the music-videogame category in the United States, would have been enough. But in November, the company again reinvented the genre with Rock Band, pairing a faux drum kit and a karaoke microphone with a mock guitar for the ultimate ersatz group. "Our original mission statement was to bring the joy of music making to everyone out there in the world who may not necessarily have all the experience that comes from having learned a real musical instrument," says Egozy, a talented clarinetist. "We had no idea that it would become this huge."
The two met in the early '90s as graduate students in the computer-music department of MIT's renowned Media Lab, with Yamaha and Sega serving as corporate sponsors of the division's efforts. That pairing of patrons might have foreshadowed Rigopulos and Egozy's future success, but Harmonix's first product (a 1995 joystick-controlled music-improv program called The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock) was a critical hit but a commercial failure—a pattern with which Harmonix would become intimately familiar in the years that followed. In 1999, inspired by Sony's PlayStation title PaRappa the Rapper, they scored a deal directly with Sony Computer Entertainment to make a pair of semiabstract music games, Frequency and Amplitude. And once again, they met with great reviews and soft sales. "It was a really hard lesson for us to realize that making a fun game just isn't enough for a game developer," says Rigopulos, an accomplished drummer. "We had to start thinking about making games that were easier to sell."
In a rule-breaking moment practically crafted for VH1's "Behind the Music," Harmonix teamed up with Red Octane, a tiny company that specializes in videogame peripherals, to make a music game that would be bundled with a guitar and sell for $100. It should have bombed at that price, but it went multi-platinum, leading to Harmonix's acquisition by MTV and paving the way for Rock Band. So while Guitar Hero III (owned by rival publisher Activision) is this holiday's best seller, the strong buzz and sales for Rock Band are proof that lightning can strike twice. And thanks to a slew of patents, Harmonix still benefits from Guitar Hero III sales.
Having just released a game for the iPod as well, Harmonix's frontmen are now focused on cutting deals for music that players can download into Rock Band, á la iTunes. Already locked in for 2008: the appropriately titled "Who's Next" by The Who. Rigopulos says: "A lot of artists who previously wouldn't touch videogames, they've started to see what we're doing is a legitimate, creative medium for them to allow their fans to connect with their music on a deeper level." Consider us connected.