Harmonix is a company all about the music. Don't believe me? Well consider this: When you walk into the men's room at the Cambridge, MA headquarters there's a ghetto blaster on the floor so you can listen to tunes while you do your business.
We're all eagerly anticipating Rock Band, but yesterday morning Harmonix delivered one more thing: A surprise iPod music game called Phase. So I jumped on the phone with lead producer Kasson Crooker, who told me about whether Steve Jobs has played it, if we can expect an iPhone version, and, most interesting of all, whether the beat-detecting technology in Phase could soon be applied to a game like Rock Band.
Kasson: We have soundtracks, downloadable content, and this is the next step: re-experiencing your own music in a game. We wouldn't be able to separate out all the instruments and what not, but I think you'll see this kind of technology used in other Harmonix products down the road.
Read the full interview with Kasson after the jump. Geoff: Hey Kasson, thanks for taking the time to chat. How did this project come about?
Kasson: In the past all our games have forced you to play with a certain set of songs. We've always wanted to do something that would let you pick what kind of music you want to interact with and go from there. Of course the challenge is to come up with technology to analyse a user's songs and turn them into an actual game. About 18 months ago we started working on that technology to look for events in songs, pick up the tempo, the rhythm, and turn all of it into something fun on the fly. We started prototyping based off that technology with no idea where the game would show up. Would it be a console game? A flash game? A cell phone game? It was just about 8-10 of us working on it.
Geoff: So when did the iPod come into the mix?
Kasson: A couple months into it we got introduced to the iPod games guys and it just seemed like such a natural fit. The iPod is where you keep all your songs and it's a piece of technology that everybody has, so it really was exactly the right platform for a game like this.
Geoff: So do we know if Steve Jobs plays Guitar Hero? Rocka Band? Or has he even had a chance to check out Phase?
Kasson: I honestly don't know! His relationship with games is a little bit in question I think. I haven't heard about it if he has indeed played the game.
Geoff: How long did it take to develop the game?
Kasson: About a year. First we had to come up with the beat matching gameplay. It was important to take advantage of the unique interface of the iPod, so that's where we came up with the idea of moving your thumb around the clickwheel to catch things.
There have certainly been a lot of challenges too. We're used to working on consoles with a lot of memory and graphics horsepower. The iPod was never intended as a game device so there's a lot we couldn't do. The graphics are pretty simple. And we couldn't do things like put some audio filtering over the songs to tell you how well you are doing.
Originally the game was just going to be for the 5th generation iPod Video, but once the new Nano and Classic were announced we scrambled to get it to work on those too.
Geoff: This is an obvious question, but any plans for a version that works on iPod Touch or iPhone?
Kasson: Yeah, we've thought about it. One of the things that has been really important to Harmonix is the concept that our games are more platforms than just one-offs. But what I will say is that I don't think we'd ever just port Phase to the iPhone. Every interface dictates something new. There's no click wheel but you could glide things around on a touch screen and interact with the music in different ways. We'd want to re-sculpt the game around that interface.
Geoff: Any plans for a little mini-guitar peripheral that plugs into your iPod port? I had to ask.
Kasson: Not a bad idea! But no plans right now.
Geoff: One early complaint about the game is that you have to create a separate iTunes 7.5 playlist and convert songs to work in the game. In other words you can't just randomly select a song on your iPod and play it.
Kasson: We had a lot of discussions about the right solution and worked really closely with Apple since the conversion software is actually part of iTunes 7.5. When you convert your songs it creates a small little data file on your hard drive. But we didn't want to force people to convert 10,000 songs in their iTunes library. And the iPod isn't powerful enough to do that analysis on the fly by itself. But if you really want every iTunes song to work in Phase you can just convert them all and transfer them over.
Geoff: Now that you've developed this beat detection technology, could we see it applied to Rock Band? I'm imagining a mode where you put a CD in your Xbox 360 disc drive, the game rips the song and then let you play along to it.
Kasson: Totally! We have soundtracks, downloadable content, and this is the next step: re-experiencing your own music in a game. We wouldn't be able to separate out all the instruments and what not, but I think you'll see this kind of technology used in other Harmonix products down the road.