January 14, 2008

Greg LoPiccolo chat transcript

Monday's guest was Greg LoPiccolo from Cambridge game studio Harmonix. Greg has had not one but two jobs that many would consider "dream jobs" ... making some of the world's most popular video games with Guitar Hero I and II and Rock Band, and living the rock 'n' roll dream in the late 80s and early 90s as bassist for the Boston band Tribe.

Boston_com/Monster: Greg is here today to chat about the game industry, Harmonix, his band days, selling audio equipment, and anything else you feel like asking him about.

Boston_com/Monster: Welcome, Greg.

Greg LoPiccolo: Nice to be here!

Boston_com/Monster: Greg is here until 2 p.m. Take it away, Greg!

smp17: Hi Greg. I was wondering, as a musician turned-game developer, what was your role in the design of Guitar Hero I & II and Rock Band? Input/advice, or were you very hands on in simulating the guitar experience?

Greg LoPiccolo: There was a small group of us (me, lead designer, art director, audio director, senior coder, a few others) that worked collaboratively in a very hands-on way to get the core gameplay together. It was basically a small group just cycling on a prototype.

Rygar: Hi Greg -- ever think about what you'd be doing if not in the games industry?

Greg LoPiccolo: Occcasionally, but I never come up with anything very interesting. I'm very happy about what I get to do, so I don't have much reason to speculate on other paths.

sporeiff: OK, I'll ask: What did you think of Guitar Hero III and, more specifically, Bill Gates rocking out with Slash as the CES?

Greg LoPiccolo: I think Neversoft did a solid job in a tight time frame, and it appears to be selling quite well :) Obviously, we can point to things we would have done differently, but thankfully we've got our own game to obsess about. It's their franchise now, and we wish them well in developing it.

maxjive: When can we get our Phil Lesh on!

Greg LoPiccolo: It's on the way! The dates haven't been announced, but it is in the pipe for sure.

DDogg: Did you make more bucks playing for Tribe or with Harmonix? Can you give us some idea how much?

Greg LoPiccolo: Tribe was a labor of love, but didn't really pay much at all. Very few rock bands make any money at all, unless they are the .001% of bands that break into the big time. It's not a good career choice if you value financial stability. Harmonix actually pays me to show up, which is cool.

Chris: Greg - are there any plans of making a version of Guitar hero that is more of a teaching tool for the real guitar?

Greg LoPiccolo: Well, technically, I'm not the right guy to ask about future GH developments, since Harmonix is no longer involved with that franchise. I can imagine a version that detected frets on a real guitar, but it's kind of a big leap. Who knows? Maybe someone will end up pursuing it.

maxjive: Any chance we'll see a 10 song, Jazz Band, add on....? Great drum work, walkin' bass lines, vocal standards, and cool guitar chord combos?

Greg LoPiccolo: One of the cool things about the Rock Band framework is that the DLC feature (downloadable songs) lets us explore music that might not appeal to a mass audience, but is of interest to a smaller group of people. That could totally stretch to Jazz as long as the instrumentation matched up (guit/bass/drumx/vox). I wonder, though, if a Jazz audience would consider such a thing impure. It's a video game, after all. Do jazz fans play video games? No idea, just asking.

Evil_Eddie_C: Greg - I'm a big fan both of Tribe (Pinwheels and Abort being particular faves) and the Rock Band game. Unfortunatelt, the guitar that came with the bundle we got at Christmas has stopped working properly. Any word on when I can get a replacement guitar, or if there will ever be the possibility of my Guitar Hero guitar working with Rock Band on my PS3?

Greg LoPiccolo: EA has a good warranty program. If you go to and follow the links, you can arrange to have them ship you out a replacement guitar very quickly.

doug: Wha was your major in college? Did it preprare you at all for what you do today? And would you ever consider going back to school?

Greg LoPiccolo: My major was German of all things, and didn't help me at all in my chosen profession. However, college was where I discovered that I loved music and music tech, so it all kind of worked out karmically (sp?).

KMT02138: Hi. Big Tribe fan here. Saw you dozens of times. So happy for all your success in the gaming world. I believe you are still working with Eric and Terri. True? Do you know what the other Tribe members are up to?

Greg LoPiccolo: Yup, Eric is Harmonix audio director, and heads up the staff that does all the song authoring and sound design.Terri has done some freelance writing for us in the past, and works for other game developers as well (plus she was the voice of Shodan in System Shock). Janet is in New York; I think in publishing. Dave (drummer #1) lives in Vermont, and Mike (drummer #2) is still an active drummer, doing sessions and tours.

smp17: How were the set lists selected for the games? Any personal favorites, or songs on Harmonix's wish list for future games?

Greg LoPiccolo: Song selection is the most fun aspect of all the games we've done. We always try to go for a mix of different genres and eras, but then we get a chance to root for our personal favorites. I was relentless about getting BOC's Godzilla into GH1, and finally everyone gave in and agreed. Woohoo!

dan: Hi Greg. Nice to see you online. I was wondering as a graphic deisgner, video produer animator etc- what is the best way to break into the market. I have been doing alot of corporate work (in fact contacted Harmonix for potential work) but not sure if my work was considered. I do quite a bit of work- even some in gaming. However, I am looking to get a jumpstart in the market. I have run my own design agency for over 10 years. What is your recommendation?

Greg LoPiccolo: I don't have a simple answer. Most of my insight is pretty obvious stuff, I think:

Greg LoPiccolo: 1. Have an awesome reel or portfolio, filled with relevant stuff.

Greg LoPiccolo: 2. Be resourceful and relentless. If your stuff is good and you are easy to work with, you can't lose. Sooner or later the law of averages kicks in and you get your toe in the door. Once you do, then it's just a question of doing consistently good work. Does this help at all? Really, I firmly believe that it is all about the work.

zeb: Greg, with the success of the GH/RB series, does Harmonix approach music publishers/labels for songs to include, or do they approach your team, asking for inclusion?

Greg LoPiccolo: Some of both. We have stuff we know we want, so reach out to certain acts, but we now get approached by a lot of artists as well.

Chuckster: Greg, just a quick thank you for producing some fantastic music with Tribe back in the day.

Greg LoPiccolo: Thanks! It freaks me out a little bit that people still remember our band. It seems like such a long time ago.

DDogg: Greg, when did you first realize that you had musical talent? What made you pursue it as a career, then switch to the gaming industry?

Greg LoPiccolo: I never realized that I had musical talent. I just wanted to write songs and play them. I couldn't tell if they were any good, so I tried not to worry about it. The shift to games was pure chance. I got an opportunity to write some game scores through a friend in the industry, and one thing led to another. It was n't a conscious choice at all; it just sort of happened.

jesse: Hi Greg -- quick story: one night, after a 6-hour marathon session of Amplitude in which I couldn't beat Slipknot on expert, I threw the PS2 controller, it hit a cement block, and broke. I then took a hammer to it to make sure it stayed broken. Question: What is the best story you've heard of someone getting frustrated with one of your games and breaking something?

Greg LoPiccolo: Awesome! That story fills me with a warm glow of accomplishment. We had a great report (with pictures!) from a guy who was playing GH, jumped up on his glass coffee table with his best rock move, shattered it and cut his leg us pretty bad, finished the song, and had his friends take him to the emergency room. Now that's committment!

i_miss_tribe: so when are we going to hear about a Tribe reunion?

Greg LoPiccolo: I am sorry, but it is very unlikely. We treasure our Tribe memories, but we've all moved on to other stuff.

dvsguy: Greg: What advice would you give to someone just out of college with a degree in new Media looking for their first job in the computer game industry?

Greg LoPiccolo: IMO, the most bulletproof method for breaking in is: make games. Find other people, band together and make indy games. Developers are always looking for talent, game dev tools are available, and if you can demonstrate that you can actually make a game that is fun, someone will hire you. However, it is a ridiculous amount of work :(

eric: love both of your products you have put out. any chance in the future of offering expansion packs for 360 available via download?

Greg LoPiccolo: Not sure I understand the question. We put out new songs for download every week for Rock Band. Are you thinking of something else?

maxjive: Is it concievable for a Rock Band to make a compiling program that would allow us to convert our own bands songs into playable Rock Band tracks?

Greg LoPiccolo: It is conceivable, and would be awesome. We continue to talk about this possibility. I can't commit to such a thing at this point, but would love to tackle it if we could find a way

eric: What is your Rating on Jordan on expert?

Greg LoPiccolo: Stinky. I'm not a super-wizard GH or RB player by any stretch. I'm good enough to have fun, but that is about it.

someone_musicbiz: Hi Greg, I work in the music industry now for a major label. Things are scary on this side. You work on a side of the industry that many of envy since it's growing and not whithering on the vine. Can you give some insight into your idea of the future of the industry?

Greg LoPiccolo: I don't have the space to really do this question justice. It's pretty clear that music gaming is here to stay, and we at Harmonix believe that it is going to be an increasingly important outlet for artists to expose their music to a new audience. Most of the labels and publishers we work with seem to get this now.

ak: and do the bands get any performance/publishing royalties?

Greg LoPiccolo: We pay royalties to whoever owns the publishing rights to the songs we use, and separate royalties on the recordings in those cases where we use the original masters. In some cases, that is the original act (if they held onto their publishing) and in some cases it is not.

Dan1: What is the status on a patch for the PS3 to play the Hero guitar on Rock band? Also, love the game. Knowing the words and the songs makes me relevent to my kids when their "band" needs a mic guy!

Greg LoPiccolo: Activision (GH publisher) has objected to our releasing such a patch, so it doesn't look like it will happen anytime soon. However, we'll have Rock Band standalone guitars in the marketplace pretty soon, which should help.

thisandthat: How has being bought out by MTV changed your work? You see time after time small, great companies being bought out and then turning to crap. You all seem to be doing ok though!

Greg LoPiccolo: Creatively, they have left us alone to make the games we want to make, which has been great. Also, they have the clout and connections to get us in touch with the artists that we want to feature, so that has been a really good outcome of the acquisition. Really, we've got no complaints; it has gone very well.

Buz: Hi Greg - huge Tribe fan so I was glad to see you were involved with my favorite games. Congratulations on Rock Band! A bunch of us who play are former musicians and I gotta say that it's easier playing the real instruments. What do you think??

Greg LoPiccolo: If you know the real parts, it can be weird to play the dumbed-down parts featured in the game, but for most people, I think the game is easier.

sitar_hero: Anything you can share with us about what might be next? I never imagined the amazing leap from the GH series to Rock Band (particularly the vocal/pitch aspect). Are we anywhere near getting a game that would adapt to a user's own music collection, or is that permanently stuck with copyright issues?

Greg LoPiccolo: Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to talk about stuff that we haven't announced. I will say that we are working on improvements that are obviously missing from the current version of Rock Band, as well as some crazy stuff that no one will expect, but promises to kick ass.

zeb: I remember reading an article where Eric talks about listening to the masters of some of the tracks you guys put into RB/GH. That must have been an incredible experience - I've always wished to have a chance to listen that closely to the tracks. Including Tribe's (hint, hint!).

Greg LoPiccolo: Yes it's amazing all the little details that you can hear in the isolated tracks; mistakes, little vocal asides. It's like a little window into rock history. Total job bonus perc!

maxjive: Will Led Zeppelin see the light of day any time soon?

Greg LoPiccolo: That is a tough license to acquire, and that is all I'm gonna say.

Boston_com/Monster: OK everyone, Greg can only take a couple more questions ...

r1ggs: Are there any plans to come out with a 80's Rock Band game for the Xbox 360 like guitar hero rock the 80's for the PS2?

Greg LoPiccolo: Anything is possible, but most of the specific eras and genres we plan on covering with downloadable songs, which we release every week.

dan: Without trying to seem arrogant, (and I believe I am being very objective in saying this-- especially because I know the industry and I have a degree in art and design), I believe my work is good- I am wondering if perhaps I am not doing something right/appropriate in terms of my resume and/or cover letter. Do these items matter a great deal when companies like Harmonix look at a persons portfolio of work? What is the best way to make an appointment with a company like Harmonix?

Greg LoPiccolo: Resume and cover letters totally matter. We rarely consider a candidate who can't put together a well-organized grammatically correct resume and cover letter. One possibility to remember is that we (or whoever) might not have an open slot at any given time, or might have just filled it. Persistence is key.

dino: How abotu releases for Rock Band on other platforms? IT feels like the Wii is being overlooked.

Greg LoPiccolo: Stay tuned! We are psyched about the Wii, and would love to bring our stuff to the Wii audience.

Russ: Do you see yourself back making music eventually (once you've retired from high tech)?

Greg LoPiccolo: For fun: yes. For a living: no. No one will pay me to make music.

kittymartini: Hi there, Greg. Thanks for Rock Band, which has taken over my life and given me the chance to pretend that I am the drummer I always wanted to be. (Fabulous song selection, too!) My question to you is this: I saw on the Harmonix site the job for the QA tester, and truth be told it would be a dream come true to get paid to play awesome video games, but does it pay well? (My guess is no, but I just had to ask.) Thanks! Keep up the good work!

Greg LoPiccolo: It doesn't pay great, but it is a good avenue into the industry. We have a number of folks in very senior positions who started in QA.

Boston_com/Monster: Alright -- great questions everyone! There were a lot of questions Greg just couldn't get to, but thanks for sending them in!

Boston_com/Monster: And thanks a lot to Greg for joining today!

Greg LoPiccolo: OK, I'm out of time. Thanks for your questions, everyone! This was fun!

Boston_com/Monster: Thanks Greg!

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