Disney, Harmonix set to launch music game

Harmonix Music Systems Inc., the Cambridge company that launched the music video game craze with “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” is developing a new game inspired by the 1940 animated Disney classic “Fantasia.”

In the movie, sorcerer’s apprentice Mickey Mouse tries to conjure magic to a classical soundtrack. In the new game, “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” players will be able to use hand gestures and body movements to modify and remix classical music, as well as popular songs from artists like Bruno Mars, Queen, Kimbra, and Fun.

“ ‘Fantasia’ is a very ambitious title,” said Christopher Nicholls, the game’s executive producer at Disney. “We’re doing some really spectacular things.”


The game is set for release sometime in 2014. It will be available only for Microsoft Corp.’s upcoming Xbox One video game console and the Xbox 360 with Kinect motion-control technology.

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Kinect, which was introduced by Microsoft in 2010, lets Xbox owners control the console with body movements and voice commands. It has been a popular accessory for the Xbox 360, with over 24 million units sold.

An improved version of Kinect will be included with every Xbox One when that console comes to market later this year.

In “Fantasia: Music Evolved,” gamers become apprentices to a sorcerer who seeks to hone their musical talent. The players learn how to manipulate the rhythm and style of familiar songs by gesturing toward images on the screen.

For example, they can dial up a classical orchestration of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or have it played in a 1980s hard-rock style.


Other features let the player change the sounds of individual instruments, like the lead or rhythm guitars. Players can also use gestures to overlay a new melody onto the song.

But Harmonix spokesman John Drake said that these magical powers are carefully controlled to ensure that the results are easy on the ears.

“There are no sour notes,” Drake said. “We’re never going to make you sound bad.”

The game will include music tracks from over 25 artists, including “Levels” by AVICII, “Locked Out Of Heaven” by Bruno Mars, “Some Nights” by Fun, “Settle Down” by Kimbra, and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

And as with the company’s “Rock Band” games, the new game has plenty of room for expansion.


The company expects to offer downloadable files from every musical genre, so that gamers can test their talents against the latest hits or beloved classics.

While previous Harmonix games were conceived by company cofounders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, “Fantasia: Music Evolved” was dreamed up by Disney. Nicholls, a pianist and lifelong fan of the Disney film, believed that Harmonix could translate the concept into a successful game.

“They pretty much single-handedly created what we call music gaming,” Nicholls said.

Helping nonmusicians make music made Harmonix an industry titan.

In 2005, the company released the original “Guitar Hero,” a game that let players use fake plastic guitars to play along with popular songs. The “Guitar Hero” games and the follow-up series, “Rock Band,” generated over $3 billion in sales during the music game craze of the last decade.

After demand for music-playing game collapsed, Harmonix returned with its “Dance Central” games, in which players compete by dancing to pop tunes. That series sold several million copies.

These days, said Drake, nearly all of Harmonix’s attention is focused on the new “Fantasia” title, which has been under development for 18 months.

“We have an entire building basically devoted to ‘Fantasia’ right now,” said Drake.

Billy Pidgeon, an independent video game industry analyst, said it is unlikely that “Fantasia” will match the popularity of “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band.”

“I really see that growth in the rhythm game category as an anomaly that’s not really repeatable,” he said. But he said that the game does not have to be a million-selling monster hit to be a success; indeed, Pidgeon reckoned that the company could probably break even with sales of about half a million copies.

Pidgeon said that because Microsoft is eager to get plenty of new games for its upcoming Xbox One, the company may agree to generous contract terms that would give Harmonix a larger-than-usual share of game revenues.

The first public demonstration of “Fantasia: Music Evolved” will take place in mid-June at the E3 video game trade show in Los Angeles.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at