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With an unsophisticated musical interface, one action, like plucking a guitar string or pressing a piano key, results in only one musical note. Whoever wants to play a sequence of notes must know how to produce the exact sequence of corresponding actions. Together with friend, colleague and computer whiz Egozy, Rigopulos found the solution to that problem: an interface on which one action resulted in a string of notes instead of just one. All the player had to do was relay his musical intentions to the Seed Music System - from there, the intelligent software played sequences of notes according to pre-programmed rules of harmony, rhythm, melody and tempo.
At first, Rigopulos and Egozy tested the system with two joysticks. The player initiated a series of notes according to the direction in which he moved the left joystick, all the while making slight changes to the rhythm and harmony by using the right joystick. After that, the same system was tested again on a modified PC keyboard. "There was no talk of a plastic toy guitar just yet," Machover says.
That idea came into play about 10 years later, when the two founded Harmonix in order to create music applications based on their MIT research. First, they built their inventions into some rather conventional music games for PC and PlayStation 2 - a few Karaoke games and a music game based on Sony's EyeToy peripheral - which garnered mediocre sales. Then Rigopulos expanded on an idea that had been playing in his head for years: the guitar game controller.
On the surface, Guitar Hero is as simple as any of the other devices the duo had made under Machover's tutelage: The player presses one or more colored buttons situated on the neck of the ersatz guitar while simultaneously strumming a simulated string on the body of the instrument. Then the game's software translates that gesture into a recognizable rock guitar lick.
More fundamentally, however, Guitar Hero turned the principle of Rigopulos' original Seed Music System upside down. The game requires the player to produce the right intentional, semi-musical actions at the right time in order to stay in line with the music, not the other way around. "The core software of Guitar Hero, based on the Seed Music System, breaks an existing piece of music down into several music sequences," Machover explains. "It's still a matter of simple actions resulting in elaborate music sequences, but the player has to press the right buttons."
After Rigopulos and Egozy released Guitar Hero at the end of 2005, things went kablooey. The game was a sleeper hit, and by the time Guitar Hero II came to market in 2006, they had a multimillion-dollar franchise on their hands. In 2007, they caught the attention of music giant Viacom, who bought Harmonix for $175 million, making both of Machover's former pupils wealthy men. That same year, they released Rock Band, a competitor with their own Guitar Hero franchise (the rights to which they had conceded to former publisher Activision) that added drums and vocals to the mix. To date, they have shipped more than 13 million units of Rock Band, gradually catching up with the 35 million pieces their first invention sold. The battle is still raging: This season, we're seeing the likes of Guitar Hero 5, The Beatles: Rock Band, DJ Hero and Lego Rock Band hit store shelves.