“The thing I personally think helped the most is that we regularly showed people what we were up to”
Ryan Lesser, creative lead on Amplitude, has been at Harmonix for 16 years, and has been a part of every game it’s ever made. He was lead artist and art director on Frequency and the original Amplitude.
Has an Amplitude remake been something that Harmonix was thinking about doing since 2003, or has it only recently become realistic? Pretty much every year, some subset of us would talk about it being a game we could bring back, but for a lot of reasons it was never the right time for it. But then over the past couple of years, as we started thinking about building games in different ways and utilising some of the new platforms, it started looking like a good fit. We wanted to try out crowdfunding, and on Kickstarter specifically. At the time, a few of us were sitting around talking about what kind of games we could do, and we thought maybe we should bring back a game we’ve wanted to make for a while, so that it’s something people are familiar with instead of something brand-new. That was funny because at the same time you saw one or two other companies come to the same realisation about Kickstarter. I championed Amplitude, it took off, and the rest is history.
What is it that changed that’s allowed Amplitude to come back now? A couple of things: the crowdfunding aspect was a big part of it, but also, when Amplitude originally came out, the landscape for music games was so different. It was so early. People hadn’t seen our interface – the threebeat interface with music represented visually, coming towards you. So when people were buying the original game, or just looking at the box in game stores, it seemed pretty foreign. A decade passes and people have become pretty accustomed to our style of music game, through Guitar Hero, Rock Band and so on. We thought it was a good time to bring Amplitude back, because while it got really good reviews, it didn’t sell like hotcakes. It became a cult hit, but it never really hit mass appeal. And a lot of us thought that it could, and it’s a shame that it never had the opportunity.
So having trained the world in this sort of music interface, and now having a platform like Kickstarter where we could basically see if people wanted to have this game before we put any investment into it, it just seemed like a smart time to bring it back. Its track record of not being a mega success doesn’t really point to it as a game that the company should remake. What we wanted was the players to tell us whether they wanted it or not. Kickstarter is a great way of doing that: if you don’t hit your funding threshold, then people don’t want it. But luckily they did! Was it a challenge to be accountable to backers? Was it difficult to keep them happy through the various delays, or were they understanding? If it were just me, if I were a individual, it would have been brutally difficult, because there was a lot of back and forth with the backers. But luckily, at the company we have a support function, so we had people who were able to really cater to and take care of the backers. We received very little dissatisfaction for things like delays – I think people know we do our best to make great games and that it sometimes takes longer than you originally thought.
The thing I personally think helped the most, based on backers’ reactions, is that we regularly showed people what we were up to. It wasn’t like we disappeared and people had no idea whether we were making progress or not, or how the game was turning out. We posted to Kickstarter very often, even showing the most broken, horrible versions of the game, even all the way back to when it was just flat polygons. And we played it with people at conventions, again really early on. The whole time, backers had an opportunity to either play it themselves or witness through videos and blog posts that other people were playing it, and were digging it, and we were making forward progress.
It’s a little nerve-wracking because even though we put our all into it and we’re hoping that this will be a big hit, it’s quite small on the scale of games that we would typically put out in the past few years, and it’s going to rely a lot on word of mouth and fan support. It doesn’t have a massive marketing budget or anything like that. But we’re hoping that the game still appeals in the cult way and that it will take off.
Harmonix has been through a lot since 2003 – do you think the return of Amplitude brought it full circle? It’s pretty wild, stepping back and thinking about it. I think we really feel that sense of a cycle because so many people from the original game are working on this one. That’s intentional. We put a call out to see if anyone wanted to help make Amplitude and a lot of people stepped forward who were actually on the original projects. That’s a cool thing about Harmonix – a lot of people have been here for five, ten, 15 years. It’s pretty unusual to have so many people around for so long. It was very cool for Amplitude: the audio lead was on the original one, I was on the original one, and so was the development lead. So we were able to reboot this game with actual experiential knowledge, instead of a brand-new team coming in and trying to make the game from scratch. We knew what was good and bad about the old one, so we could keep the good and shed the bad – which is, I think, exactly what we did.