Design Lessons from Rock Band

Amy Jo Kim
5 min readMay 30, 2021

Have you ever played Rock Band? You know… that rhythm-action party game that turned your social gatherings into musical jam sessions…

Well, that musical magic didn’t happen by accident. The team behind that massive hit spent months testing and refining an early prototype with a small group of expert players who were (guess what)… NOT our target market!

I want to tell you. a story about the #1 lesson I learned working as a systems designer on Rock Band — a lesson that also applies to other improbable hits I worked on like The Sims, eBay, Netflix, Covet Fashion, and Happify.

Watch the video to hear the story (or keep reading if you prefer text)

As the social systems designer on Rock Band, my work involved studying our target market, and creating models and scenarios to try and understand their behavior and social patterns.

So I KNEW early-on that these hard-core gaming testers did not represent our target market. And at the time, I didn’t understand why.

It drove me crazy! 😜 And frankly, I drove my colleagues a bit crazy too…

But when that challenging project turned into a smash hit, I realized that I’d learned a key skill for successful innovation — one that’s now a cornerstone of Game Thinking

Before you build out your journey — or refine on-boarding — test & tune your core experience with hot-core Superfans

Let me tell you a story…

It was a sunny September day in Half Moon Bay, California.

I was sitting in my living room, listening intently to the brilliant visionary CEO of a hot gaming start-up tell me about this crazy idea he had for a multi-player music game… where people with no talent, playing simplified plastic instruments, would feel like they were in a band making music.

And maybe… just maybe… they’d develop their musicality and even get better at a real skill.

That crazy idea turned into Rock Band, that breakthrough world-wide hit.

And much to our delight, a few years later a scientific study confirmed that YES indeed — Rock Band players DO improve their musical perception, simply by playing the game.

The Paradox of Successful Innovation

Back in the early days, our play testing sessions were filled with hardcore rhythm-action gamers — people who’d mastered Guitar Hero & were eager to check out this innovative new multi-player game from Harmonix.

Later — during Beta, when the game was further along and more polished — we DID test our ideas with the casual rhythm-action gamers we were targeting.

But in the early days, it was those hot-core Superfans who helped us breathe life into the game.

They were our co-creators, our collaborators, able to see what our crude mock-ups and simple artwork could become, and give us actionable feedback on how to make it better.

Now, everyone on the team knew that for this risky expensive game to succeed, we’d have to reach a much broader audience of casual party gamers.

But what they taught me — and I’m now teaching YOU — is that to reach our target audience, we’d first have to capture the hearts & minds of our hot-core superfans.

And that’s the paradox of successful innovation.

The people you’re targeting — your addressable market — are not the same people you need to pull in when you’re bringing your idea to life.

By definition, successful innovations end up affecting the majority. That’s what makes them successful.

But it turns out that… in practice, they never start off by pleasing the majority.

As AirBnB co-founder Brian Cheskey says, “Build something 100 people love, not something 1,000,000 people kinda like.”

Wise words indeed.

In our early Rock Band testing sessions, we didn’t test the whole game.

In fact, we spent over 6 months testing just one song. We used these tests to refine the experience of playing a virtual instrument, and yes it took that long to get it right. I won’t lie — it was hard, grinding work.

But it was time well spent. Once we hammered it out, we set to work building out on-boarding, and a full customer journey that involved playing in bigger venues — with better gear — wearing cooler outfits.

And in the end we were able to deliver on our goal, and create a rhythm action game that let you feels like you are playing music with other people, and just for a moment — living out the life of a rock star.

I’m so proud of what we accomplished. And none of this would have happened unless we had gotten our learning loop right first.

So, when you’re designing YOUR customer journey — remember: test and tune your core experience with hot-core Superfans before your build out or fully design your full journey

If you want to create delightful, high-retention products — and build habits that stick — that’s your path to success.

Want more? Learn how to design a great customer journey for YOUR product, in our free 3-day Journey challenge, happening June 1–3.

➡️ CLICK HERE to learn more & grab your seat