Harmonix fans may be funding a flop, and that's fine by us

Opinion

The Harmonix Kickstarter for a new Amplitude title looks like it could make it, but that outcome was much shakier even 36 hours ago, before the high-profile boosts from industry veterans such as Insomniac's Ted Price and Mojang's Markus "Notch" Persson.

With 30 hours to go, as of this writing, the company needs to raise only $75,000 more. The game's funding, which used to seem hopeless, is now within reach.

Still, this is a well-known franchise from a much-loved developer. Why was raising the money so hard? Shouldn't this have been one of those Kickstarter wins where the game is funded in a number of hours before going hilariously over goal, allowing the team to figuratively bathe in that "free" Kickstarter money everyone's been talking about?

A large budget, a commercial flop, what's not to love?

Amplitude was a critically acclaimed but commercially challenged rhythm game that focused more on electronic music over the rock and dance tracks that would later bring the Guitar Hero and Dance Central games to success. You play as a kind of DJ space ship that flies along a virtual road of notes, with each lane representing a single track of each song.

You hit buttons in each lane to make that track play, and as you moved through each level you "mixed" the song, slowly creating the full experience of the track.

There definitely seemed to be an attempt to bring in better-known bands with a wider audience than the all-electronic track list of Frequency, the game's prequel, but the music list was challenging for mainstream ears. Garbage, Run-D.M.C., Freezepop, Mekon, David Bowie and Herbie Hancock with Mixmaster Mike are all interesting choices, but it wasn't exactly what the kids were listening to back in 2003.

Harmonix is asking for a large amount of money to fund a sort of reboot to a game that was a hard sell even when it was released.

"In a situation like this — a project that's too expensive for us to fund on our own with our limited resources, a game that people want us to make, and a game where a publisher isn't willing to provide development funding — this is the scenario where we need the help of the fans to fund a game," John Drake, the Director of Publishing and PR at Harmonix, explained. "This is a passion project that needs support and backing to take flight."

Which brings us to the first challenge: Harmonix lacks the ability to bring the game to other consoles, a move that would broaden the audience for the Kickstarter. Sony owns the rights to the game, and they don't seem to be too willing to cough up the money to get the sequel made. But release a new one on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4? They're cool with that.

Harmonix is stuck working with a company that doesn't want to fund the game directly, and won't allow it, for the obvious reasons, to go to other platforms. If you're not a fan of Sony's consoles, you're not going to back the Kickstarter. Keeping a game with a budget of this size limited only to PlayStation consoles makes it hard to raise cash from a broad audience. This isn't a mistake made by Harmonix; this is just the reality of the situation in which they find themselves.

Neither Frequency nor Amplitude sold well when they were originally released. The games still enjoy a loud, dedicated following, but from a relatively small number of people.

"It was the beginning of us learning the process that you can't just make a good game; you need to think about the package, and be able to describe it in a few sentences," Harmonix CEO Alex Rigopulos told me during a 2012 interview.

He was honest about the problems with Frequency, many of which were shared with Amplitude.

"We thought that if we made something that was really addictive and really compelling and it was brought to market by a well-funded publisher that it could be a successful product," he stated. "We were insensitive to a number of critical factors, such as the very alien visual aesthetic. It was so hard to describe what the game was. What was the narrative conceit? Who were you as a player, what were you doing there? These were basic questions we didn't have concise answers for."

There was also that soundtrack. "The music was, you know, for the cool kids. It was niche, underground. We though it was great, but it didn't have mainstream brand appeal. All these factors made it an impossible game to market."

These factors also make it hard to ask for money from the fans. It remains hard to explain what the game is, Amplitude lacks the conceptual simplicity of Rock Band or Dance Central. Even the upcoming Fantasia, a title that allows you to step inside of Disney environments to "conduct" music using your body's movements, enjoys a solid and fun-sounding elevator pitch.

If you're speaking to someone who has never played Amplitude it can be a hard sell to get them to try it, much less invest in the creation of a sequel.

So you have a game that is only coming to one company's platforms, in a franchise that is profoundly anti-commercial and complicated, with no easy to promote musical hooks. The campaign's lack of early success isn't hard to explain once you begin looking at it through the cold hard reality of the modern marketplace; a gaming world that rewards high-concept indie games and easy to explain game play hooks.

So why do we care?

All these things paint a bleak picture for the game and its crowdfunding efforts, but Harmonix is suddenly riding a wave of support from fans, other developers and the media. The game may actually meet its funding goal, despite these rather huge problems.

What the hell is going on?

When you look at games like an analyst or an investor, you leave out certain big things that are harder to quantify. One of which is the fact that Amplitude was one of the best rhythm games ever made. The lack of easy hook meant that the game could be a purely figurative experience, you could simply become a part of the music inside this beautiful landscape. You weren't yourself, you weren't a guitarist, you just existed inside the song.

The fact the player had to juggle not only multiple "lanes" inside each song provided a challenge that could get much more challenging, and in some ways more engrossing, than what we saw in Rock Band.

Harmonixtraq

You not only had to nail each button press, but also think about moving from lane to lane to "construct" each of these songs. It's not as immediately gratifying and "cool" as pretending to play a plastic guitar, but it allowed the player to lose all sense of time and perspective.

The state of flow one enters during a good round of Amplitude, once you understand what the game is and what it's trying to do, is amazing. It's an experience that hasn't been replicated in any games since, which is why physical copies of the game on the PlayStation 2 are such treasured parts of almost any collection of rhythm games.

Harmonix used to test Rock Band on drunk players, to make sure the game was understandable in an inebriated state. Amplitude rewarded a more intimate approach and longer sessions, where one player put on headphones and got lost inside the music.

If Rock Band gave everyone implicit permission to become an extrovert, Amplitude was a game that proudly embraced the play styles of introvert, and in some ways mirrored the idea of a long DJ in a small room somewhere mixing records. Rock Band and Dance Central allow you to project outward, while Amplitude is a journey that asks you to look inward. It may not be marketable, but it's damned rewarding.

The game may not have mainstream names, but this new version benefits from a well-known group of talented composers who create music for video games. Things began to heat up; you can see the push begin on the chart embedded above, courtesy of Kicktraq. When things began to look dire, the fans and industry came running.

Harmonix has even tried to bring the formula back with Rock Band Blitz, complete with big-name songs and Rock Band branding. It was a fun game, but it felt like an experience that straddled two very different goals. Fans of the original don't want a few of those ideas inside a Rock Band game, they want the real deal.

"Amplitude is a game we're dying to make," Rigopulos told Gamaustra. "In some respects, I think Amplitude is the best game Harmonix has ever made. There's powerful chemistry in this game, and almost no one in the world has ever heard of it or played it, which we view as tragic."

"On the other hand, the first title was not commercially successful, which makes it a very difficult game to get funded through traditional means," he continued. "We really haven't been able to find a publisher financing option for this project, and it's too expensive to do ourselves."

"Amplitude, more than almost any game we've ever made, really did rely on audiovisual synchronization. You know, Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Dance Central, there's a lot of stuff happening to the music," creative lead Ryan Lesser told Polygon.

The games still enjoy a loud, dedicated following, but from a relatively small number of people.

"But Amplitude takes place in a sort of cyberspace that comes completely alive with the music. So having the new hardware will allow us to do even more of that than we ever have before." That sense of visual freedom is part of what made the original Amplitude so special, yet so hard to market.

It's not surprising that the road has been challenging. The amount they're asking for is high for Kickstarter, but low relative to the budgets of the sort of game they're trying to make. A game that is hard to pitch, hard to sell and tricky to explain to non-fans. A game that doesn't benefit from a huge built-in audience.

They're trying to make a sequel to a masterpiece, and who the hell ever claimed that was supposed to be easy?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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