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Rock Band night brings out the fans -- and game's creators

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March 16, 2008

On the last Tuesday of last month, Jeff MacIsaac leaned out of the window of the DJ booth at River Gods in Cambridge and announced it was time to start another "Rock Band" video game night. Many, many bars have "Rock Band" nights - it's been described as the new karaoke - but River Gods is the only one in the world that can include this in its announcement:

"If you want," intoned MacIsaac, who is in charge of the entertainment at the bar, "you can play with some of the makers of the game."

For the hardcore gamer, it's a bit like getting to watch "Star Wars" with George Lucas - a chance for cult followers to get geeky with the brains behind their obsession. By 10 p.m., when MacIsaac kicked it off, a capacity crowd of about 50 people, beers in hand, had already filled the sign-up sheets, ready to get their shot on the virtual stage of this three-hour rock fest.

To understand how a tiny bar on River Street came to host such a monthly ritual, a little background is in order.

Harmonix is a small video-game development company based in Cambridge's Central Square. Most of its 125 employees are young and hip and like music a lot, and River Gods is their local pub - the place they go after work to listen to music and drink beer. A couple of them take shifts at the turntables up in the tiny DJ booth atop the walk-in refrigerator.

In 2005, the crew at Harmonix released a game called "Guitar Hero" in which players use a guitar-shaped controller to "play" along with rock music - the player presses one of five virtual fret buttons on the guitar's neck and then strums along with the corresponding musical notes that are streaming on the screen. Maybe you've heard of it; the Guitar Hero franchise has done over a billion dollars in business and was dubbed a "cultural phenomenon" by people whose job it is to dub things.

"South Park" parodied it. Ellen DeGeneres played it on her show. Salon.com credited it with "saving guitar music" because it was motivating kids to try the real thing. And SportsCenter went crazy over it after Joel Zumaya, a Detroit Tigers pitcher, rocked out too hard and wound up injuring himself during the 2006 playoffs.

The success of Guitar Hero led to the company being purchased by MTV Networks in 2006. While another company took over the Guitar Hero franchise, Harmonix, late last year, took the video-game-rocker idea to its next logical level. Most of its employees are musicians themselves. They've spent enough time practicing their instruments alone to know that the real fun begins when you get together with your buddies and say, "Dude, let's start a band." So they took the Guitar Hero concept and added a drum and a bass guitar and a microphone and . . . voila. People who think a Fender is something you use to squeeze your car into a spot on Newbury Street could suddenly feel what it's like to play in a rock band.

The concept for Rock Band is similar to Guitar Hero. Each instrument has its own interface on the screen, and players must hit corresponding notes - the guitarists hit buttons on their instruments; the drummer uses actual drum sticks to hit one of four pads or steps on a foot pedal; and the vocalist's job is to sing along with the lyrics, which stream across the top of the screen, and match his or her pitch to the original vocal.

Harmonix held the release party for Rock Band at River Gods and started hosting a regular night - the last Tuesday of every month - at which hard-core gamers and newbies alike can strap on the axe and pick up the sticks with the people who started this cultural phenomenon.

Sean Baptiste, manager of community development at Harmonix, said that the reason for the night is simple: company employees love River Gods, and they really love playing the game they've created.

"Everybody in the company plays, and there's definitely some, how can I say this, friendly competition that goes on between the staff to be the best at each instrument," said the 30-year-old Baptiste, who claims he's one of the best in the company at the vocals.

"This is our bar, so this is where we come to play. But at the same time, the best way to streamline a video game is to play-test it with people who play it the hardest and people who have never played it at all, and this is the perfect environment for that," he said. A moment later, when he was asked if he'd show some new people how to play, Baptiste looked like a kid who gets to show off his Christmas presents. "Hell, yeah," he said.

As Baptiste went off to play drums on the Radiohead song "Creep," Brian Shandra sat at the bar alone, awaiting his chance to play. He's one of the people who play Rock Band the hardest, a serious gamer who posts on Internet forums devoted to the game. He flipped open his phone to display photos of some of his custom-modified guitar controllers. One looks like the fuzzy guitar used by ZZ Top. Another shoots fire.

"I've never had as much fun laughing out loud with my friends as I have playing this game," said Shandra, a 29-year-old Allston resident. "This game is made to be played in bars. It takes karaoke to a whole new level. And I think it's awesome how the Harmonix people come out and get in touch with their fans. I've never seen anything like this in the video game world."

The Harmonix employees say they love watching how much fun people have when they're playing their game. "Look at this," said Bill Cook, quality assurance coordinator at the company, as he swept his hand across a crowd that was rooting on each new band and each new song. "I've worked on a lot of games, but none get a reception like this one. It's amazing."

Harmonix employees don't make a big deal about their presence at the monthly event. They don't wear name tags. And, if you missed the beginning announcement, you may just think Baptiste, who seems to always be right next to the people playing, is merely an overly enthusiastic Rock Band fanatic.

"I love how we can just blend in with the crowd and experience it," said Cook. "There are some hardcore fanatics who, if they knew who we were, would probably freak out.

"But I'm just some guy drinking in a bar right now," said the 31-year-old, who, with his goatee and flannel shirt, looked like Central Casting's version of some guy in a bar.

Jeff Dell, a 26-year-old Cambridge resident, is another one of those hard-core fans who made his way to River Gods when he heard the Harmonix people would be there. Though he said he wasn't exactly freaking out to be in their presence, he admitted it was pretty sweet to have the opportunity to play with them. "They made an awesome game," he said. "And I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to tell them that."

Dell is very good at the guitar parts. He said he can get a perfect score on the expert level of some songs. What, then, would it mean to be better at Rock Band than the people who created Rock Band?

"It would mean I've got too much time on my hands," he said, and then thought for a second. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who think it's weird to spend so much time playing one video game, but isn't it better to spend your time playing a drum set than playing a regular video game like Madden," the popular football game bearing the name of longtime NFL broadcaster John Madden.

Baptiste thinks so. He said part of the goal of Rock Band was to create a new type of video game that forces people off the couch and encourages gregariousness.

"We wanted this to be a social game, not the kind you play alone in a basement. We wanted this to be: get your friends together and go nuts," he said, as four friends went nuts a few feet away, playing "Little Sister" by Queens of the Stone Age.

"Then," he added, "we want you to buy an instrument and start a real band."

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@gmail.com.

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