The “Guitar Hero” Will Now Take Your Questions

Alex Rigopulos started playing video games at 3 years old on a Magnavox Odyssey console, and has been an avid gamer ever since.

He earned his B.S. in music from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his M.S. from the computer music group of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory. In 1995, he co-founded the video-game development company Harmonix with the goal of letting even the most musically challenged people experience the “unique joy” of music making. He’d been obsessed with this idea since writing his master’s thesis on “encoding the essence of music into software.”


Today, Harmonix’s best-known games,
Guitar Hero
and Rock Band, are played in basements and living rooms worldwide; some say they are even helping revive the music industry.

In addition to running Harmonix with co-founder Eran Egozy, Rigopulos rocks out with his brothers in the real-life rock band Yeast. This year, Rigopulos and Egozy were named in Time‘s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Rigopulos has agreed to answer questions from Freakonomics readers, so have your way with him. As always, we will post his answers here in short course.

As someone who grew up playing lots of air guitar (or, more precisely, tennis-racket guitar), to everything from “September” (Earth Wind and Fire) to “Train in Vain” (the Clash), and then spent a bunch more years playing a real guitar and having an absolute blast, I cannot wait to hear your questions and Alex’s answers.

Finally: happy holidays. I am guessing at least a few thousand of you will be caressing a new plastic guitar before the week is over.

Addendum: Rigopulos answers your questions here.

Paul Martin

What is your favorite song to play on GH?


Do you find it ironic that my roommates would be well on their way to learning how to play a real guitar if they had spent half as much time practicing as they have spent holding a plastic toy while playing a video game?

Do you worry that people will be so amused by the illusion of musicianship that they will view the view the "real thing" as unnecessarily difficult and time consuming?


A friend of mine and I have debated this at length so you can help us declare winner finally:) To create the notes that are played for a given song, is there any automated preprocessing of a song. I imagine there is some hand tweaking to make it just right. But the question is for the first pass of a song, does a computer anaylze the notes to produce a first pass of the song. Thanks!

Keith Weintraub

I have played guitar for 37 years.

I have played Guitar Hero a few times and I have two observations:

1) I think I would be better at it with the sound off as when I am playing with a song I know the "fingerings" needed to do well in Guitar Hero are not the what would be needed for the real song. For example what should be 2 different notes (at least at the level I was playing) used the same finger.

2) I can't think of a situation where I would rather play "Guitar Hero" rather than play the guitar.

Neither of those is a question. But this is:

Do you find that guitar players are more likely than the general population to like to play Guitar Hero? Do they like it better than other games?

How about players of other instruments?

Now to be really geeky: any idea of what that breakdown would be by sex? By string vs non-string instruments?


PS My daughter plays guitar and she likes to play the game with her friends.



I think it should be made clear that Harmonix is no longer associated with the Guitar Hero series, including the new "Rock Band" wannabe version "Guitar Hero World Tour". So you might not want to ask Alex about the current and future development of the Guitar Hero series as he isn't involved.


When designing the controllers, how hard was it to strike a balance between realism and accessibility? (e.g.: a real guitar w/ strings on one extreme vs. a simple motion type control a la Wii Music) Are you happy with the compromise you reached?


Is it true that there will be a Beatles version of Rock Band wherein we get to play Beatle's songs in autobiographical order as we unlock each level?


Why don't you guys make a Classical version of Rockband wherein there will be keyboard, string, wind and brass section and everyone has to cooperate to play Beethoven's 5th? That way, kids and adults will learn about the good old classics and parents just might promote the use of such video game! :)


Do you think there's a possibility that there will be partnerships between games like Rock Band/Guitar Hero and programs like itunes, through which players could purchase single songs - hopefully from a large and frequently updated database - for a per-song fee? What about the possibility that users could create tracks for the game that could then be accessed by others? I love the games but hate that there are such a limited number of songs available.


It was recently announced that Harmonix would be releasing a Beatles version of Rock Band in time for Christmas 2009. Could you take us through the process of how this idea came about and what allowed it to come to fruition? Additionally, do you foresee other versions of the game focused on specific groups in the future?


Hi Alex! A few questions for you...

We already have pure instrumentals in the game, but can we expect music lacking some of the other tracks? Say, songs lacking drums or a bass line?

Are there any bands that have been already featured in the game who have said "no more" when you've gone to them for other tracks? In a similar vein, have there been any bands that have regretted licensing music to the game after the fact? You don't have to name names.

Right now there seems to be kind of a perception among players that if a band has already had one full album appear, we won't see another one from them. How likely would you say this is?

You might not be able to comment on this, but a while back IGN posted an interview with the band Foreigner wherein they revealed that they had given the masters to Harmonix for several songs. Can you give us any kind of hint on when we'll see them?

Finally, is it possible to get an official statement from you on whether or not the songs originally licensed from Metallica by Harmonix way back are still in play to be released, or if Guitar Hero: Metallica has closed the door on that particular opportunity?

Also I'm very glad to finally see some more Deep Purple in the game! I got into them because of the early Guitar Hero games and Rock Band, so it's nice to see more of them. I hope to see more in the future! Thank you for this great series, and for helping to broaden my musical horizons.



Can you give us a hint on what the black port on the back of the RB2 drums will be used for? It's not for a second bass pedal or the cymbals, so I'm pretty curious.


Did you get any hate mail from the likes of Bono or any other 'rock stars' for making it so easy to 'rock out' in GH?


In your early days studying for your B.S. and M.S. - did you have to lie about being an avid gamer to get girls to go out with you? Do you still have to lie now?


Have you met any real life rock stars and, if so, what do they think about your games? Like 'em or loathe 'em?


I play GH avidly and I credit the game with inspiring my whole family to take up various musical instruments. However, I can't picture myself learning as rapidly without an interface like the one used in the game. Are there viable prospects to extend the interactive learning methods used in GH and RB to the learning of real instruments?


What is your impression of Wii Music and its fuzzier but more freeform approach to music gaming, and how might that possibly affect your future designs?

@ Keith - I think the appeal of Guitar Hero and similar games is that there simply isn't all the time in the world. I've played piano for twenty years and have plenty else on my plate, so a little instant gratification as far as other instruments go is fun now and then. I don't think anyone actually believes it comparable to the real thing- that's not the point. It's a game, through and through.


For #13 (Mike): I don't see too many people of color "rocking out" in real life so I think Guitar Hero is actually a pretty good representation. If you go to a rock club, it's mostly whites.


Are you particularly averse to games molded around one specific band (Metallica/Aerosmith) as opposed to an over-arching game (Rock Band/Guitar Hero: World Tour) as they focus on one band and do not provide an overall experience?


Does it bother you anymore when people complain that these games discourage playing actual musical instruments?

Why aren't the guitars compatible from game to game?

Are these games popular in Japan? Do you see Drum Master (Taiko no Tatsujin) as a threat?

Lloyd Knox

What did Pi Studios do for Rock Band? My son wants to know. We love the games. Thanks!