Crispy Gamer

Intern for a Day, Vol. 1: Harmonix Music Systems

[Welcome, readers, to what I hope will be a regularly occurring feature on CG. The idea here is to spend one entire 10-to-6 workday as an intern inside a developer's offices, getting a sense of the sights, smells and sounds that routinely constitute their lives. My goal here is to take at least some of the mystery out of game development, to humanize the process a bit. (Yes, even as a 30-something-year-old gamer, I'm still very much in awe of the Glorious People Who Get to Make the Games.) Anyway, happy reading. -S. Jones]

harmonix logo

Home: Boston, Massachusetts. Specifically, in Cambridge's Central Square.
Net Home:
Number of Employees: About 270 (and rising).
Makers of: Rock Band and the upcoming Rock Band 2; Guitar Hero and GH II; Phase; FreQuency and Amplitude; EyeToy: AntiGrav; and the Karaoke Revolution series, among others.
The Backbone(s): Alex Rigopulous and Eran Egozy founded the company in 1995. The two met while they were students at nearby M.I.T.
Their Big Idea: To make the experience of making music accessible to people with little to no talent and/or discipline.
The Office: Second floor of a two-story building; situated above a Walgreens.
Approximate Number of Feet to Nearest Dunkin' Donuts: 60
Approximate Number of Feet to Nearest Bar: 40
Time of Visit: Early August, a few days after a big Rock Band 2 crunch.

9:45 a.m. Showered. Put on nice shirt. I want Harmonix to be proud to call me their intern -- or, more accurately, "intern" -- for the day. I want them to say, "Hey, look everybody; this is our intern!" Begin trek from Union Square to Central Square. In case you're not familiar with Boston, the city's founders were more than a little obsessed with squares.

Walgreens, street picture
Welcome to Central Square. Home of rock and roll ... and Walgreens.

10:04 a.m. Lost. Have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Instead of winding up in Central Square, I'm in some other Mystery Square
(Davis?). I get bad intel from a girl waiting for a bus. Central Square isn't where she told me it would be. I spot a 7-11: The fresh drinks and bright lights make it look like an oasis. I'm sweating like mad. Boston in August is always difficult. Two nice ladies emerge from the 7-11 and point me in the right direction. I realize I'm only an "intern," but am worried that even "interns" can be "fired."

10:05 a.m. Very much regretting the 9,000 or so beers I consumed the previous night (P.A.'s Lounge in Somerville. Don't go near that place unless you want to sucked into a beernado.). At the time it seemed very punk rock to arrive at the Harmonix offices with a hangover. But wandering lost and sweating and hungover through Boston's various squares on a muggy August morning? Let's just say there are better ways to start off your day.

10:14 a.m. I finally arrive. Security is tighter than expected. The guard picks up the phone on his desk and insists on announcing my presence. "But they are expecting me," I say. Then I add, very sheepishly, "It's my first day, you know."

He's not impressed. He calls upstairs. Says something into the phone. A few minutes later, I hear boots coming down the stairs. It's Helen McWilliams, Writer/Producer/Heart/Soul/Spokesperson/and Occasionally the Conscience of Harmonix. She's also the lead singer in a band called Vagiant. She's also the scariest and loveliest person I've ever met.

I ask her what the deal is with the high security. "We get the occasional crazy, trying to get upstairs," she explains.

Harmonix banner at Front desk
The front desk: If you want to rock, you must first appease the front-desk troll. He enjoys cough drops and old eight-tracks of Johnny Cash.

10:20 a.m. Helen leads me to my "desk," which is really just a cluttered little area next to her desk. I ask her what some of my tasks will be for the day. "You have to give me piggyback rides and go downstairs and buy me candy whenever I tell you to," she says. I can't tell if she's joking or not. "But you can start off by restringing that guitar for me."

She points at a nearby electric guitar.

I tell her that I don't know how to restring a guitar. She seems disappointed, and makes a little mark on a piece of paper. "Well, do you know how to fix a car?" Again, I say no. She makes another little mark.

"This isn't going very well so far, is it?" she says.

10:21 a.m. I ask if Alex [Rigopulos] is around, hoping he might have some kinder/gentler tasks for me. "I haven't seen Alex so far today," Helen says. "But he might be around somewhere." Helen takes me on a tour of the office.

10:32 a.m. The office is absolutely massive. It sprawls, and then sprawls some more. When you think you've reached what has to be the end of it, suddenly a small set of stairs appears, and a new level of offices opens before you.

Game box on table.
This is pretty much what 90 percent of the office actually looks like.

The office was formerly occupied by some distant branch of Harvard. The carpeting is industrial gray. The walls are a businesslike white. Some of the offices still bear the tiny nameplates of former Harvard employees (complete with the Harvard insignia). I'm not sure what I expected -- disco ball? a 24/7 open bar? an on-site tattoo artist? -- but there's no other way to put this: The Harmonix offices, considering what they do there, are shockingly banal.

10:40 a.m. "We moved into this place not too long ago," Helen says, explaining the banality. The company's old office, which Harmonix still uses, is across the street. They've had plans to redecorate the new place, but pulling together Rock Band 2 with only a six-month development window apparently got in the way of their redecorating plans. The place is functional. It's serviceable. But that's about all it is, really.

10:49 a.m. The nerve center of the office is a cafeteria-like lunch room where company-wide meetings -- called "Weelies" -- are held on Friday afternoons. Each purple chair in the lunch room represents an employee. I ask if when someone is fired, they're told to take their purple chair and leave. Helen laughs. "No," she says. She's quiet for a moment. "But that's actually not a bad idea."

Weelies, I'm told, have been a part of the company since the very beginning. (Note: Throughout the day, I hear employees say to one another, "Hey, were you at the Weely on Friday?" or "Did you hear what happened at last week's Weely?" or "It seems like we have one really good Weely and then two lame Weelies after that. Which means we currently have a one-to-two good-Weely-to-lame-Weely ratio.")

Conference room
The Weely Room: Where so much magic happens on Fridays.

I ask Helen: Why Weely? "They used to be called 'Weekly Meetings,' " she explains. "But one time a memo went around with a typo on it. Ever since, we've called them 'Weelies.' "

11:01 a.m. As we tour the office, I hear it: off in the distance, the familiar, haunting tap, tap, tap-tap-tap of a Rock Band drum kit. And I hear the low, mournful moan of groups of people singing quietly into microphones. "We're getting close to the QA area," Helen whispers, as if we're coming upon a particularly rare breed of animal at a nature preserve.

And suddenly, there they are: a series of cubicles holding kids in their 20s (and some "kids" in their 30s) QA-ing (QA stands for Quality Assurance) upcoming Rock Band downloadable content.

They look like normal, nice kids … mostly. A few yawns here and there. But normal. Playing Rock Band eight to 10 hours a day isn't the picnic it sounds like. I spot some bloodshot eyes. I watch a guy, feet up on his desk, guitar across his lap, rip through what looks to be an almost disturbing amount of notes, hitting buttons, and shredding solos that I can only dream of doing.

One thing is clear from their banter: The last thing QA people want to do at the end of their workday is -- you guessed it -- play more Rock Band. "My friends will sometimes be like, 'Come on, man! Play with us! It'll be so fun!'" one of them says. "And I'm like, 'Alright, guys, I've got to be heading home. So long now! Bye!' "

Window sill with plants
The sad, stumpy little cacti of Harmonix. Does no one love thee, little cacti?

It also becomes clear why QA is positioned at the far end of the office. It seems that in addition to your downstairs neighbors, even Harmonix employees get tired of the off-key singing and the tap-tap-tappity-tap of the drums. "When they were testing 'Psycho Killer' was the absolute worst," Helen says. "You know the 'Oh-oh-OH-OHHHH-ya-ya-yaiiii' part? You could hear it everywhere you went in the office for days. It was awful."

I speak with Senior Tester Keith Smith, former singer of Anarchy Club, who's now in charge of the QA department. He recalls his job interview at Harmonix. "They asked me during the interview, 'Beatles or Stones?' "

"We ask everybody that," Helen says. "It helps us get a sense of where your music sensibilities are coming from."


scary helen vs. friendly helen
"Scary Helen" Versus "Friendly Helen." Round one: Fight!

11:20 a.m. The refrigerator in the cafeteria/Weely room has inexplicably been moved this morning. Helen instructs me to 1. figure out where it moved to, and 2. guess which drink in said fridge she prefers. I locate the fridge (it's been moved to an out-of-the-way area near the front desk). Out of the drink selections inside -- Vitamin Water, Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, etc. -- I settle on a bottle of lemon-flavored Poland Springs seltzer. "Jackpot!" Helen says when I return to her office. "Finally, you're doing something right."

11:42 a.m. Helen sends me downstairs to the mailbox with today's Harmonix mail, including a wedding RSVP and her Netflix returns (which, she reluctantly admits, consist of several "Battlestar Galactica" DVDs).

11:50 a.m. Returning to the office, I again keep an eye out for signs of Alex. I ask the intern at the cluttered front desk if he's seen him. "You know, he might be here," he says. "Then again, he might not. I honestly don't know. A lot of people are taking comp days just now." He's referring to days off that people earned after "crunching" to ship Rock Band 2 the previous week. I'm beginning to suspect that an Alex sighting is akin to a Himalayan Yeti sighting.

Speaking of crunching: Though some people will admit to late nights at the office, there is no official "sleeping room" in the Harmonix offices. Sleeping rooms, f.y.i., are fairly common in the industry, offering beds and showers to weary, um, crunchers.

12:35 p.m. Lunch. We head downstairs to The Field, one of those ubiquitous Boston-Irish bars that forever smells like bleach and pee and stale Guinness and 500-year-old french fry grease. If you're in Boston, and you want to actually see a real, live Harmonix employee, The Field is without question the place to do so.

Lunch attendees include John Drake (PR coordinator), Dan Teasdale (lead designer), Matt Kelly (producer), Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom (director of production) and, of course, Helen.

The Field
The Field: Some refer to this as just another skanky Boston bar. And others refer to this place as the true Harmonix office. You'll have to visit to see for yourself.

Over cheeseburgers and Cokes, I listen to their banter about videogames, music and their favorite (and least favorite) game journalists. (Alas, names shall not be named. Sorry.) Helen, I learn, was tickled by Roger Daltrey backstage at their E3 concert at The Orpheum last month. I also hear a story about the unfortunate problem with newbies inadvertently hitting the Xbox button in the center of the drum kits, which, as you know, stalls out the game. (Their workaround: taping a water bottle cap over the button during demos.)

More than anything else, what I realize in this moment is that I genuinely like these people. Despite the alchemy that making videogames sometimes seems to be, the people that work on them are, after all, merely people. They're smart, funny, passionate people, but really, they're just people.

And despite the success of Rock Band (everyone at Harmonix, truthfully, still seems a bit stunned by the game's popularity and by how quickly the company has grown), there remains a genuine humbleness at the core of the place. Everyone seems incredibly grateful for their success. Though they are growing exponentially -- I was told that the employee roster could breach the 300 mark by the end of the year -- the company still tries like hell to preserve its little-company-that-could roots via things like weekly Weelies.

I decide, in this moment, that I like this place, that I like these people. I decide that I wouldn't mind coming to work here every day. Even if it meant giving everyone piggyback rides and buying them candy and mailing off their Netflix returns.

Survailence camera, pic 1
The Laser: Even looking at this photo is probably giving you cancer right now.

1:29 p.m. Back at the office, Helen and I discuss the strange laser gun that is positioned in the window next to her desk, above a row of crooked little cacti. It has huge cables coming out of it, and LED numbers that constantly flash on the back of it. Helen explains that this laser wirelessly keeps the new office connected with their old office across the street. I peer out the window. There, in an upper level window in the building across the street is a tiny square where the other laser is positioned. I imagine all the code for Rock Band and Rock Band 2, all those colored notes, flying invisibly above Prospect Street between the two buildings.

"I think that thing is giving me cancer," Helen says.

1:48 p.m. Helen has assigned me the task of writing about a week's worth of "Message of the Day" updates for the Rock Band server. These typically consist of game advice, rock trivia and insider-like tips on band life. I check and see whose birthdays are coming up later this month. Kenny Rogers, I decide, isn't exactly worthy of a "Message of the Day" shout-out.

Instead I write: "Remember: There is nothing funnier than a smoking monkey. Keep a photograph of a smoking monkey in your wallet. Whenever you are feeling low after a gig, look at it, and you will feel better."

And I write: "If someone throws underwear on the stage, it's OK to feel flattered. But it's never OK to take said underwear home."

Helen seems to like them well enough, but they still need to go through their legal department before getting officially joining the Message of the Day queue.

2:18 p.m. Helen and I get called into a small meeting where we discuss TOTALLY TOP SECRET STUFF. Seriously, if I write about it, Helen will come to my house and kill me and my whole family. Which really only consists of two fairly well-behaved cats, so it wouldn't exactly be the tragedy that it could be, you see.

Office corridor
This particular hallway felt chilly. Probably because it's still haunted by the ghost of Guitar Hero Rocks the 80s.

3:45 p.m. Helen drops me off in QA for awhile and lets me bug test a couple of DLC songs. I take the guitar and put on the headphones. Not wanting to fail in front of bona fide Harmonix employees, I set the difficulty to Medium and start to shred. I'm playing pretty well, earning five stars ON A DLC SONG THAT I CAN'T WRITE ABOUT FOR FEAR OF BEING HARMED BY HELEN. (You'll hear about it in a couple of weeks. Trust me, it'll make you happy.)

I finish, without finding any bugs, and having five-starred the song. I'm waiting for the other QA testers to notice my accomplishment. Unbeknownst to me, a guy who's sitting adjacent to me has been watching the entire time. He says, "Dude, you seriously could not have looked more miserable playing that song."

Scribble Ballroom
Welcome to the Scribble Ballroom.

It's true; I've never been one to flail about like a jackass while playing Rock Band. I don't believe in overdoing it. Instead, I'm all business. I try to defend myself by explaining that if I were in a real band, I'd be the stoic, quiet, weird guy that everyone would be sort of frightened of. "Every band has one of those," Helen says. "It's called 'the bassist.'"

Everyone has a laugh at my expense.

3:59 p.m. I bug-test a few more top-secret songs, and sadly, still don't find any bugs. I say goodbye to the QA people, and Helen and I head back to her office, where we position ourselves underneath the laser thing again, letting ourselves get even more cancer.

Wall art
But kindly leave your penis drawings at the door. Thank you.

4:22 p.m. It's been a full day of serious interning so far. Mailing Netflix returns. Figuring out Helen's favorite beverage. Writing Message of the Day copy. Sitting in on meetings. Bug-testing some upcoming DLC.

Things are winding down. My time here is coming to an end. But before leaving, I want to leave my mark in some kind of tangible way.

Down the hall is one of the practice spaces/testing rooms called, oddly, the Scribble Ballroom. Inside the Scribble Ballroom I find a Rock Band setup, complete with plasma TV, and walls that are covered with doodles of every shape and kind.

I ask Helen if I can draw a penis on the wall. She asks around. The official answer is, "No." I wonder if the old Harmonix, pre-Viacom, would have permitted a penis drawing? It's hard to say.

A pink Spongebob
Helen's graffiti looks like a piece of zombie chewing gum that has come back from the dead.

Helen and I grab markers and make our G-rated doodles on the Scribble Ballroom's walls. As I draw, it occurs to me that this is an apt metaphor for Rock Band, a game that effectively creates the illusion of self-expression.

One question, or worry, that's been in my head all day is this: What happens once you've exhausted the canon? You know, once all the rock songs in history -- think Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, The Who, Dylan, The Band, etc. -- have been translated into little colored, scrolling notes? Does the entire genre simply … fade away?

Realizing there's only so much square footage on the Scribble Ballroom's walls, I ask Helen what happens when someone draws over my drawing. And when she answers, I realize she's inadvertently given me an answer to my larger question, too. What she says is this: "You'll have to come back and draw it again."


someone loves Helen
My graffiti: At Harmonix, it's OK to show your feelings. Really. Well, now that we think about it, this might be a little too much feeling.

5:42 p.m. I say goodbye, and head back downstairs to the madness that is Central Square, with its mix of upscale coffee shops and down-and-out homeless. I snap a few pictures of the office from across Mass. Ave. Do they make awesome music/rhythm games in there, or do they sell insurance? Because you really can't tell from the outside.

I pack away my camera, then head down Prospect, and into what's left of the muggy Cambridge afternoon.

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after my visit, I get an email from Helen, relaying some good and bad news. My "Message of the Day" posts? The one about the smoking monkey got nixed, sadly. But my underwear-on-stage post -- that one survived legal. So when you read that message later in the month, you'll know who to thank.