He will rock you

As the co-inventor of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Eran Egozy didn't set out to save rock and roll - it just kind of happened along the way.

By
June 19, 2008 09:37
He will rock you

Eran Egozy 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

He prefers performing clarinet concertos to listening to classic rock tunes. But it's the electric guitar and drums, and not the jazzy wind instrument, which has hoisted Tel Aviv native Eran Egozy onto Time magazine's list of 2008's 100 most influential people in the world. Together with his partner Alex Rigopulos, the 36-year-old Egozy is the brain behind two of the hottest video games to ever hold captive the minds and dollars of Americans - Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Not such a great accomplishment, you might say, to warrant inclusion on a list alongside Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama or even Oprah Winfrey? Well, according to E-Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who wrote the Time essay on Egozy and Rigopulos and their 13-year-old Boston company Harmonix Music Systems, the duo "may have saved classic rock for generations to come" and predicts that Rock Band "may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs or MTV" in its importance in the time line of contemporary music. That's a lofty achievement for Egozy, but one that the MIT graduate turned multimillionaire arrived at through a sincere love of music, which he acquired in Israel, and wanted to share with the rest of the world. "The concept was to let everyone in the world enjoy playing music," says Egozy, speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the Harmonix offices in Cambridge, where he serves as chief technical officer. "Lots of people like music, but have no idea what it feels like to actually play music. Alex [who plays drums] and I know what it feels like to get up and play music before a live audience - it's an amazing feeling. We wanted to give that feeling to everyone else, that's the premise." So, how the heck does it work? Let's go to Guitar Hero aficionado 15-year-old Eitan, from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Eitan has been playing the game for four months, ever since a friend of the family brought it over from the US. "It's got five little bars on the screen with five different colors, and you have to hit the corresponding button on the guitar, so they match up," says Eitan, adding that he has rudimentary knowledge of how to play a real guitar. "You feel like a rock star when you're playing it, it's a lot of fun. And it's got great music," says Eitan, who says he plays the game around three hours a week, when his nine-year-old sister Shira is not beating him to the punch. "It also develops your musical knowledge," he adds, saying that among the bands he's become acquainted with courtesy of Guitar Hero have been punk/metal band Rise Against and '60s classic rockers Cream. Guitar Hero makes the user an instant Jimmy Page via a game controller in the shape of a guitar which the user employs to simulate playing music, represented on-screen by colored notes that correspond to fret buttons on the controller. Used with Play Station and Xbox, more than 14 million units of Guitar Hero versions I, II and III have been sold at about $100 per power chord. Rock Band takes the concept a few steps further - enabling players to perform in virtual bands by providing up to four players with the ability to play three different controllers modeled after musical instruments (a guitar and bass guitar, drums and a microphone) which are used to simulate the playing of rock music by hitting scrolling notes on-screen. Featuring classic rock songs like "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, "Learn to Fly" by Foo Fighters, "Suffragette City" by David Bowie and "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who, Rock Band has also flown off the retail shelves and Web checkout counters like a gold record. According to Van Zandt in Time, Rock Band breaks down walls by "allowing friends and families to rock out... in a living room, or four strangers to connect from four different countries." It's a far cry from old time social networking games like Twister or Monopoly, and for Egozy, the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band is sweet music to his ears after many years of trial and error. "We've had to have a lot of patience, and patience is not an Israeli trait," he laughs. For despite having left Israel with his parents at age 12, Egozy is first and foremost a sabra. "I definitely have that sense of if you want to get something done, you have to go out and do it, that's a very Israeli characteristic. I guess the bad word for it is pushy, but looking at it positively, it's driving things forward, getting things to happen," he says. "I think I have that as part of my upbringing. At the same time, I've been in the US a long time and have definitely mellowed out. If you put me in a room with a group of Israelis, I'm going to be the guy who's the most laid back." EGOZY'S JOURNEY from Tel Aviv to the shores of the Charles River had stops on the way in the unlikely pairing of Beersheba and Tennessee. When Egozy was a baby, his parents, chemists who had met at the Technion, moved to the South where his father worked for the National Research Institute of the Negev. "When I was going into first grade, we moved to Tennessee where my father got his PhD and did post-doc work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories - it's the only thing I found worthwhile in Tennessee," says Egozy. The family returned to Israel after three years, but only two years later relocated for good in the Boston area. The bouncing back and forth between Israel, the southern culture of Tennessee and the Northeast academic world helped to shape Egozy's character, he says. "My parents helped me out with English in Tennessee; I didn't know a word. Then when we went back to Israel, I had missed the first two years of school there, so I was also behind, even though we spoke Hebrew at home in Tennessee. I finally caught up, and just treated everything as a big adventure. It was definitely kind of hard, but I learned a lot about myself, and had to deal with all these issues," he recalls. For solace, Egozy turned to a musical instrument for companionship - the clarinet. "I started playing the clarinet in seventh grade, and it's because of a series on musical instruments I had seen on Israel TV. It seemed kind of cool, so when my parents asked me if I wanted to learn an instrument, I said, 'Sure, the clarinet.' "I've stuck with it ever since," he says modestly, for while he wouldn't offer the information, Egozy studied the instrument at the New England Conservatory of Music, and performed with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, the MIT Symphony Orchestra and the Newton Symphony Orchestra, as well as the MIT Chamber Music Society. He currently satisfies his live music fix as a member of the Radius Ensemble, which plays throughout the Boston area. Egozy met his future partner Rigopulos in the early '90s when they were graduate students in the computer-music department of MIT's Media Lab. Striking out on their own with Harmonix, the team's first product - a joystick-controlled music program called The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock - was a flop despite gaining positive reviews. Other misses followed, but Egozy thinks that it ultimately enabled them to succeed with Guitar Hero. "The road to Guitar Hero was a long one. We took a lot of baby steps, and I would say that with each development we learned the mistakes of the previous one and finally got to the point of making something that really worked," he says. "Even if it seems like an overnight sensation, it took a long time and was quite a struggle." While the Van Zandt accolades in Time might veer toward hyperbole, Egozy relates an anecdote about the influence Rock Band potentially has. "I just heard a story abut someone who started playing drum in Rock Band and was motivated to take actual drum lessons. He was able to advance quicker because he had the movement training from the game. It's actually quite exciting what's going on," he says. "We didn't set out as our goal to save rock and roll, but it's really gratifying to see people turning back to it, resulting in album sales and instrument sales going up. For instance, when we added a Metallica song to Rock Band, it became one of the highest selling downloadable songs in iTunes, and their regular CD sales went up too. That's true for all bands we've featured." With Egozy's focus in recent years being on work and music, Israel has taken a back seat in his life. But after a 10-year gap, he returned to his birthplace in January to attend a cousin's wedding, and he expresses surprise at the transformation he has seen. "There's been a huge change in the country. It's become so much more modernized, more hi-tech. It's what I'm used to seeing in Massachusetts every day, but it was nothing like when I was a kid," he says. Neither is Egozy's Hebrew, he discovered. "I still can get by, I still speak Hebrew casually with my parents and with some Israeli musician friends who are in the US. But being back in Israel demonstrated to me that my Hebrew is not quite what it used to be," he laughs. Luckily for him, when Israeli companies come courting Harmonix in Cambridge, the common language is English. Egozy says he finds Israeli technology on a world-class level in certain areas. "One field Israel is really at the head of is developing 3-D cameras. Two companies, PrimeSense and 3DV are both in a good space of trying to get a video camera to be 3-D - and they've both come and talked to us about it, so we'll see," he says. "Certainly, Israel does a good job of promoting that Silicon Valley comparison. Israel has exciting software startups, everybody knows that ICQ started here, and people who are involved in the industry are aware of what Israeli companies are doing." While Harmonix has no official Israel connection, the way Egozy describes it, the company is run along the lines of many Israeli startups - with young, dedicated staff, dressed informally, and combining their personal interests with their work until there's no distinction. "I think we might be the only company in the world that has a band practice room, where you can sign up and rehearse with your band," he laughs. "We have a running joke here, there's around 230 people working at Harmonix, and almost everyone's in a band. Yet somehow I'm the only one who plays in a classical music group." So, is Classical Music Band far off on the Harmonix horizon? Egozy just laughs. "About two people would buy that."


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