As vice president of product development with Harmonix Music Systems, Greg LoPiccolo has played an instrumental part in the success of PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 hit series Guitar Hero -- no pun intended. The first instalment in the franchise launched in 2005, and followed releases from the company like rhythm games Frequency and Amplitude, and 2004's EyeToy title AntiGrav.
LoPiccolo's interest in games didn't start until the relatively late age of 32 -- for the most part, he was more focused on his career in Boston rock band Tribe. It wasn't until 1993 that he was exposed to the industry by a friend who worked as a programmer for LookingGlass Studios, which had just released Ultima Underworld II. The company was about to start work on System Shock, and LoPiccolo was asked to contribute to the game as a composer. "So I got a contract job writing the System Shock score," he explains, "which expanded into doing all the sound effects and speech recording. That was the beginning of my involvement in the games industry. I didn't really play much before that; I got involved in games by working on them."
The first person shooter was released in 1994; an event shortly followed by the dissolution of Tribe. "My band was together for about nine years," he explains, "and we had some good success: we made a couple albums for Slash/Warner Brothers, and we got to tour a fair bit. But after that amount of time, I didn't have any illusions about our prospects for stardom; not many bands break through to fame and profitability. I was sad to leave it behind, because it was a lot of fun. But bands have their own life cycle, and our band had run its course."
LoPiccolo decided to approach LookingGlass about a full time position as composer and sound designer, and was offered one immediately. "It was pretty simple," he laughs. "The day after my band broke up in 1994, I walked into [company co-founder] Ned Lerner's office at LookingGlass and said, ‘You need a full-time music and audio developer. Why don't you hire me?' He responded, ‘You can start tomorrow'. And that was that."
LoPiccolo describes the move into game development as a move into relative stability, noting that "show up at the same place every day, and have health insurance and the other perks of a steady job" was something of a relief after years in the music industry - though he adds that he did, and still does, miss playing live. Nonetheless, the new career path offered a number of interesting and exciting opportunities, especially with the industry focus beginning to shift quite seriously to CD-ROM development. LoPiccolo comments that there was a "powerful sense" that the company was "creating game experiences that were new and revolutionary", and the ability to work with speech, multi-channel effects was a big part of that. "Since we were figuring out how to do many things for the first time, we had a lot of freedom to approach problems however we chose," he says.
As the company grew, LoPiccolo was able to step into roles of growing responsibility, and soon found himself working in the role of project leader on the company's 1998 title Thief when the previous person to hold that position, Dan Schmidt, left to found a new company: Harmonix. LoPiccolo notes that he "pretty much learned on the job" in his new position, though he adds that it was also the first time that he really felt he had really found his feet in the industry.
"I think that working on Thief made the difference for me," he comments. "It was a very long, difficult, and perilous development process, and when we actually shipped a good game at the end of it, I felt like I knew something about game development."
As for whether it's easier to find work in the industry these days, LoPiccolo is not entirely convinced. "I don't know," he muses. "There are certainly a lot more jobs in the game industry now. I think that anyone who is talented and determined has a good shot at finding a role to play. The fact that you can hone your skills making mods and whatnot is a big boost for anyone with enough motivation to get involved in the community and build something."