Arts & Minds (Part 4 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009

Arts & Minds

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Peter MacDonald: lead artist for Rock Band, Harmonix Music Systems

Photo by Elliot Clapp.

Photo by Elliot Clapp.

Rock Band is one of the incredibly popular videogames developed by Harmonix Music Systems, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts (others include Guitar Hero and Amplitude). In Rock Band, you and your band play gigs in clubs across the country and around the world, move up from van to tour bus, from simple chords to whole songs, from Seattle to Shanghai, doing everything (musically, at least) that real rock bands do, including hitting the camera. Playing these games, you navigate intense, intricately detailed visual and acoustical worlds. Peter MacDonald’s first job after college was as an architectural draftsman; after a year, he left that field to develop games.

Deborah Weisgall: Your industry has gone from cutting edge to mainstream in about 15 years. What was it like to invent games when you started out; how does it compare to what it’s like now?

Peter MacDonald: A small cadre of game developers has been plugging away since the late ’80s; I joined the industry in 1995, working for a startup. It took five or six years to publish our first game, and our team was a pretty scrappy, disorganized bunch. Everyone had a wide swath of responsibility and a lot of room for creativity because we were making up our own intellectual property as we went along. I was an environmental artist, applying some of what I’d picked up from architecture and a lot of what I’d picked up from fantasy novels to create a virtual 3D world. It was pretty fun, but in retrospect, we wasted a lot of time and didn’t really know what we were doing. Most of us were right out of college. In 1995, you couldn’t find experienced developers in Boston; there was a lot of talent coming out of the schools here, but not a lot of leadership. The whole company might be 20 or 30 people, mostly young, white, nerdy males.

Now the games I work on have budgets that are 10 times larger, and the teams and the company I work for are all 10 times larger. When I joined Harmonix four years ago, we had roughly 30 employees; now we have roughly 300. The game industry has matured; we have adopted standards and practices from other creative industries, and we strike a healthier work/ life balance. We’re making better games in a shorter amount of time and without as much stress. One downside, depending on how you look at it, is that an individual’s creative bubble of ownership has gotten smaller. On my first game, as an inexperienced artist, I created a whole world, almost entirely at my own whim. A junior environment artist on my team now will be able to build a handful of interior spaces under very close supervision.

Deborah Weisgall: How important is the location of Harmonix? Do you benefit from the critical mass of musicians and artists and high-tech people here?

Peter MacDonald: Absolutely. Harmonix was founded by two MIT graduates. Our art director went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I went to UMass Amherst. Many of our artists went to MassArt or RISD. However, most of the game industry is on the West Coast. In Seattle, if you were to go into a Starbucks and announce that you were starting a game company, you could be handed the résumés of several experienced developers before you finished your latte. Here in Boston, you need to attract a mix of raw talent out of all the universities, plus experienced developers who are willing to move back here. It’s kind of tough to find the people you need, but this is starting to change because companies like Harmonix are meeting with success and growing. I hope that young people in school in Boston will start looking locally before jumping on a plane to Seattle right away.

Deborah Weisgall: How do environments and characters grow?

Peter MacDonald: Harmonix’s games are unique in that the character and environment design are not closely integrated with the core gameplay. They have a supporting role. As a result, the artists have pretty free rein. We collaborate in small groups: five or six character artists on a game, with one leader and somebody like me overseeing all art. In terms of process, it’s pretty straightforward. We determine our needs, start drawing concepts, do group critiques, then more formal orthographic drawings to guide the 3D production. We hook up all the technology that will control the art assets, then it’s tested and fixed. By the time the consumer sees the game, dozens of people have “touched” it.

The technology is our medium, but technology does not dictate our aesthetic goals.

Deborah Weisgall: Perhaps you can talk about the scale of your audience, their attention span, turn rate: the kinds of things you think about when you make games.

Peter MacDonald: The biggest games sell millions of copies every year; when you think about architecture on that scale, you’re talking bridges, airports, and stadiums. Big stuff. I had a very small role on the design team for FedEx Field in Maryland. The stadium took perhaps 10 years from conception to opening day; Rock Band took one year. Then there’s the lifespan; we hope that the Rock Band franchise will last for decades, but that’s not typical in the games industry.

When we develop games, we spend a lot of time discussing the player experience. We use terms like “difficulty ramp,” “play cycles,” “hardcore,” “casual,” “stickiness,” “story-driven,” “achievement-driven,” and whether something is “family-friendly” — or not. We try to identify a target audience, though if you are working in an established genre, the audience has already shown itself. We spend a great deal of time on the core musical interface and experience. Every little detail is debated. How fast do screen elements move? How saturated are the colors? How much information is too much? We basically operate on the knife-edge of human sensory cognition. That’s how the game becomes challenging. If it moved any faster, or required the player to parse one more piece of information at the hardest levels, then it would become impossible and cross over from fun to frustrating.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you combine art and technology?

Peter MacDonald: The technology is our medium. Our products are experienced via a television screen and audio system, and interfaced by an instrument-shaped controller. That structure and the available technology define our limits. Technology is constantly changing, so we have to be adaptable; we are constantly learning. We try to exploit any new technology that might improve our game, but technology does not dictate our aesthetic goals. We might paint or draw characters that appear more detailed than we could achieve in the game for real, but it gives us a direction to aim for. The artists collaborate closely with the engineers who write our graphics software. We ask for the moon, and they work to give us the closest thing to the moon that the hardware can manage.

Rock Band 2 screenshot courtesy Harmonix Music Systems, Inc.

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