Learn how some of the key members behind Harmonix got their start at System Shock developer Looking Glass.
As part of Polygon’s cover story on the history of developer Looking Glass, we’re looking at various projects and companies that spawned in Looking Glass’ wake. Here, we explore Guitar Hero and Rock Band developer Harmonix.
In 2005, a cultural phenomenon emerged. It was called Guitar Hero, and it started a franchise that would gross over $2 billion in lifetime sales. The music-rhythm genre was on fire, and in living rooms everywhere, wannabe rockstars strummed their plastic Gibson replicas in unison with their on-screen avatars.
Several Harmonix developers got their starts at Looking Glass. But before that, they were just three artists playing rock music together, and video games were the last things on their minds.
This was the time before Napster, YouTube and Spotify, when the local concert hall reigned supreme. It was a time of smoky bars, when five o’clockers left the office and walked to Boston’s Lansdowne Street, greeting the weekend with raised arms and deafening cheers.
The '80s were ending, but it was the golden age of local music, and Boston had an ecosystem of its own.
Several hundred bands vied for the top gigs each week. They played on Tuesday nights, and if they were good enough, they bumped to Thursday. If they were headliner material — most weren’t — they secured the top weekend slots.
A band by the name of Tribe climbed that ladder by playing weeknights when the crowds were thin and the applause lacking. But soon they had radio time, profiles in local music zines and coverage in the Boston Phoenix. They paid their dues, and soon they were headlining Avalon, a club in the shadow of Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
"There’s still a scene today," Greg LoPiccolo, a former Looking Glass developer, says. "But it’s just a fraction of what it was. There are national bands now, and they play good sets, but back then, it was something completely different, something everybody wanted to be a part of."
It’s 2014. Tribe’s former bassist sits cross-legged, dressed all in black, in his office in Cambridge. The furniture is spartan, with a director’s chair, computer desk and black leather couch lining the walls. The shades are open, and and a nearby tree shakes in the wind.
It’s been awhile since that golden age, but LoPiccolo’s time with music is far from over. He’s senior project director at Harmonix, developer of the aforementioned Guitar Hero and Rock Band and the more recent A City Sleeps. Harmonix introduced instrument-based music games to the public and never looked back.
LoPiccolo’s time with games started at Looking Glass. He traded metal strings and piano keys for soundboards and editing software, and because of those early days with Looking Glass, LoPiccolo sits here, in his office at Harmonix, in the same city where it all began.
"We’re not too far from Alewife, where Looking Glass was," he says. "It’s only a few blocks away."
A taller man passes the open office door, long hair swaying behind him. LoPiccolo introduces Eric Brosius, audio director at Harmonix and former lead guitarist for Tribe. Brosius says hello and strolls to his office two rooms away, all the while humming a song.
"Where was I?" LoPiccolo says. "Oh. So we were a really big band in Boston, but never outside of it. And after a while, we sort of lost momentum. In a way, that led to Looking Glass, which was a weird culture in its own."
At a Tribe show in 1993, two young men sat in the audience. They were Dan Schmidt and Doug Church, some of the earliest Looking Glass members, and they needed musicians for System Shock. They liked Tribe’s sound, and offered LoPiccolo an invitation.
He made the soundtrack as a contractor but joined the studio full time in '94, and later he brought on Eric and Terri Brosius, Tribe’s guitarist and keyboardist, respectively — Tribe disbanded in 1994, and they were looking for more work.
"Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic," Eric says, sitting in his own office down the hall. "We were willing to learn, because it was just an exciting time."
Through Eric’s window and across the Charles River, skyscrapers reflect the sunlight of a blue sky. It’s October, but autumn has yet to pounce on Massachusetts.
The phone rings abruptly, and a familiar sound travels from the other end — it’s the singer of Tribe’s song "Rescue Me," and it’s the malevolent voice of Shodan, the antagonist of System Shock and its sequel.
"Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic."
"Greg encouraged me to play this evil computer role," Terri says. "People tend to get freaked out when they recognize who I am." She laughs. "But it’s amazing to still be working with Greg and Eric. I wouldn’t be working on games today, games that I love, if it weren’t for my first development gig."
The musicians created soundtracks for System Shock, Flight Unlimited and Terra Nova, music as iconic as the games themselves. Their creativity stemmed from Tribe practice sessions — but it morphed into something new at Looking Glass.
Looking Glass gave them a new creative outlet in a fast-evolving medium that held promise for anyone willing to learn its intricacies. LoPiccolo, Terri and Eric all recognized that and developed new skill sets to keep their love of music alive.
And keep it alive they did — through several years and just as many releases at one of the most prolific studios of their time.
But they were getting older, and by November of 1998, after working long weeks and late nights to push out Thief, LoPiccolo was ready for greener pastures.
"Creatively, [Thief] was amazing," he says. "In terms of having a life, it was terrible. But it set me up to move somewhere more relaxed and equally ambitious."
Harmonix reached out to him with a job offer, and LoPiccolo accepted. With a wife, a child and another on the way, development crunch was no longer an option. Growing up meant moving on, even if it meant leaving some things behind.
Terri went on to write for developer Ion Storm and then worked on Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ first-person action-adventure title that reflected much of the design philosophy Looking Glass established. Its world is a stage for the player who can tackle objectives in a variety of ways.
"It was so long ago," she says of her time at Looking Glass. "But it’s still vivid in some ways. We were all young and uncertain, but we grew."
Eric stayed at the studio until the close in 2000. But before that, he collaborated with another developer that worked in the same exact building. It was Irrational Games, a small group that would lay the foundation for what would become a household name.
Outside Eric’s office, the wind picks up, rattling leaves and pushing clouds over the cold waters of the Charles. Eric glances out the window, in the direction of Alewife Station.
"Things could be stressful at times," he says. "But it’s awesome to look back and have memories of being surrounded by such creative people. It was a small world, a young and growing industry, and Looking Glass was the center. And things tend to grow from the center."
Tribe began, flourished and died in Boston, never transcending its humble beginnings. Its members still play their instruments at jam sessions and Christmas parties, but by and large, their musical glory days are a thing of the past.
But LoPiccolo and Eric remain at Harmonix with storied careers to show for it. The studio recently announced Rock Band 4, the first in the series in more than four years. Some of the creative minds that propelled music video games into the public eye are continuing their own legacy on a new generation of consoles. Terri still works on games too, her new project being Paul Neurath’s Underworld reboot, Underworld Ascendant.
Video games entered these musicians’ lives without a moment’s notice while they were still singing rock songs in smoky bars and two programmers happened to be listening. Tribe got their start in development at Looking Glass, and now, their influence far exceeds the Boston city limits.