Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet John Drake of Harmonix

In my continuing mission to expose the great and good of the videogames industry, this week I called in on John Drake of Harmonix Music, the developers of acclaimed franchise Dance Central, party favorite Rock Band, and recently, on iOS, the total nonsense-fun app, VidRhythm. John is responsible for heading up everything public about Harmonix, as well as being a generally easy-going, yet always enthusiastic, guy.

John Drake is the Direction of Communications
and Brand Management for Harmonix.
What exactly does a Director of Communications and Brand Management do?

I work in our internal publishing team helping oversee pretty much everything “outward facing” about our games – PR, Community, Marketing, Social, and more. It’s 100% a team sport. Mostly, I get the chance to hang out with really creative and smart people and try to come up with crazy ideas to get our games in front of more people. I also help coordinate our publishing efforts with outside partners.

You studied English at Harvard, right? How did you wind up where you are today?

I did! “English and American Literature and Language.” Along with two of my bandmates in The Main Drag, I stuck around Boston after college to play music and book shows. When my contract at my other job was up, I heard about an opportunity at Harmonix helping out with their PR work. Requirements were solid writing skills, ability to problem solve and experience playing the drums. I took an entry level job and just worked my way up! (I suspect that 14 years of drumming experience played more of a role than I’d have liked it to.)

Harmonix has had an interesting few years, moving from being an indie to a semi-major and now you’re independent again. How has that gone for you? Has it affected your role?

It’s been a wild ride. At this point, we’re in a really great place. Our team is cranking along, working on Dance Central 2 and the ongoing Rock Band franchise. For us, not a ton has changed – we’re still here to engage with the fans, get people excited about the games and try to help out wherever we can. It’s actually nice to be a thread of continuity for folks! For all the drama that’s happened, our audio team continues cranking out amazing Rock Band DLC every week and Dance Central 2 is the highest rated Kinect game to date on the platform.

“Our games are designed to get inside your brain.”

Harmonix has notably strong brand awareness, thanks in part to the instantly recognizable look and feel of its games. How do you think this helps you out as relatively big fish in the indie pond?

One of the greatest legs-up in building awareness about our games is that word of mouth is inherently in-built to a party experience. The team works hard to make sure that what you’re doing – be it rocking, dancing or making a weird music video – you’re engaged in a moment that you want to share. Our games are designed to get inside your brain.

Beyond that, there’s people’s visceral connection to music. Nothing cements a moment better than the perfect song – whether that be a Lady Gaga track to dance to or a great sing-along to Bon Jovi with friends. Add the amazing look our art team pushes forward with every game and you have a pretty readymade formula for awesome.

I feel lucky every day to represent games that I legitimately think are amazing. A lot of folks in this sector get jaded quickly when they’re saddled with something they don’t believe in – I don’t have any experience with that.

Dance Central has been a runaway success
When developing a title like Dance Central 2, who picks the songs, and what is the process from ‘So I heard this great track on the radio’ to ‘This is now in our game’ ? As a company, do you choose the content? Is there marketing/placement involved much, if at all?

There’s a recurring meeting at the beginning of the project that goes on for a while called “song fight.” In that meeting, the audio leads, choreographers, producers, designers and others gather a list of songs they’d love to have in the game. From there, our music team goes out and works with labels and publishers to see what’s available to be licensed. We have a longstanding relationship with labels and artists from our work on Rock Band and the original Dance Central, so in that sense there is ‘placement’, but it’s much more about what will work best for the game.

That process goes back and forth a few times. Tracks get authored up for the respective game as they come in and tracks that don’t make the cut either get scrapped or pushed off for DLC consideration.

All in all, it’s a fascinating process – people have to justify their arguments both artistically (as it fits into the game’s arc), stylistically (as it works with the medium, choreography in this case), and marketwise (if the audience will like it). Luckily, our team here is passionate about music beyond all else. I think we’ve ended up with hands down the best soundtracks in games, year after year.

What sort of skills would you say are required to carry out your role?

Someone who wants to work in communications needs to have a strong writing background, a passion for games and lots of patience. Being a fan is a great start, but being thoughtful about other types of fans is even more important. You need to embrace gamers of all types and create an environment where they can coexist happily. Oh, and you should be willing to live in an airport, because it’s basically a given at this point that I’ll be there once a week.

Don't make John angry.
You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
As someone who deals with customers and clients no doubt daily, what did you think of the recent Ocean Marketing debacle?

Working with consumers can be challenging – if you eat, sleep and breathe a brand, sometime it can be hard to have your opinions about why it’s so great be contradicted, or to put up with criticisms that seem uninformed or repetitive. But at the end of the day, if someone is taking the time to ask a question, send you their thoughts or demand a feature (no matter how impossible), they’re showing you that they’re passionate about your product. They deserve a response and they definitely deserve your respect.

The whole thing is messy. Part of being a front facing person is keeping a smile on your face, even as someone screams in it. I wasn’t party to the situation directly, but the argument being made by the consumer seemed pretty straightforward, and the reaction he got seemed pretty unwarranted.

We strive to have people leave an experience with us more likely to buy our product or play our games. Usually, it just involves giving them the information they’re missing or pointing out a detail they may have missed; occasionally, it involves letting them vent to you. At this point, it just seems like a silly thing to keep talking about it, though. I think it became a big enough issue that it might help prevent bad consumer interactions in the future in our industry, so I guess there’s something positive to take away from it.

Prince is yet to make his Dance Central debut.
Do you have a prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?

As a music geek, I have a prized album – a signed LP of Prince’s Purple Rain. It hangs in my home studio, constantly humbling me with its awesomeness in both style and composition.

As a gamer, I still have all my old consoles at home, which I dust off from time to time, but I think my favorite thing I have up on display is more recent – an Eddie Riggs statue from Double Fine’s Brütal Legend. It is simultaneously so nerdy and so, so metal.

Finally, John, can you tell us a bit about you’re working on at the moment, both personally and as a company?

We’re currently working on a few projects, most of which we can’t talk about just yet. I’m split between the ongoing marketing for great Dance Central 2 and Rock Band 3 downloadable content and planning for some unannounced projects. It’s a really exciting time to be a fan of games and it’s an awesome time to work at Harmonix!

Dance Central 2 is currently available on Xbox 360. You can read our review of it here.

Dance Central is certainly one of the more unique games on the Xbox 360

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