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Rock Band 10th Anniversary Blogs - Sheila Porter

The first time I played Rock Band, it was at my friend’s high school graduation party. I loved it so much that I ignored the rest of the party to play the game with my friend Lauren, and then made him bring it to my high school graduation party the next week.

I guess I have him to thank for my career now. Mike, if you’re reading this, hit me up, I’ll bake you cookies or something!

Anyway, from that point, I was hooked. I didn’t own any Rock Band games, because I was a broke college student, but there’s a reason I spent all my spare time at a couple of friends’ apartment. (The reason is that those friends had Rock Band.) We played through the entire Rock Band 2 campaign more than once, including one run in which we decided our band was entirely made up of supervillains and spent a lot of time and in-game money styling them appropriately. There was a lot of leather and eyeliner.

After a few years, I managed to graduate with a degree in computer science and game development and trotted off to my first “real” job at 1st Playable Productions, where I made educational games for kids. I loved that job, and I loved my coworkers, and I still miss them every day.

But then I had to move to Massachusetts for personal reasons, and a little while later a friend at Harmonix let me know they were hiring, and my application was in their inbox less than 24 hours later.

Let’s backtrack a bit and take a look at 14-year-old Sheila, who was dealing with that annoying thing all teenagers deal with: adults who don’t know how to talk to teenagers constantly asking what you want to do as a career. She was never sure what to say, because she liked math and art and science and music, but the way all these adults talked about things, she’d have to choose one side or the other – science or art, math or music. Because the sciences and the humanities are opposites, right?

But eventually, she actually looked at the video games she’d been playing her whole life, and she realized they were art and science, and she knew what she wanted to do.

Working at Harmonix – THE studio for music games – is basically the ultimate intersection of all the things I love. Also, as we already discussed, I freaking love Rock Band. I usually don’t like it when people say things are a dream come true, because I like to pretend I’m tough and immune to emotions, but coming here and working on Rock Band 4 really was a dream come true – and it’s even cooler than I could have hoped.

Not only have I gotten to work on a game in one of my favorite series ever, I’ve gotten to do it with some really wonderful people. I’ve started playing with music again, something I stopped doing when my classes got hard in college. I’ve also made many (like, twelve) awesome friends online, people who only found me because I worked on Rock Band, who I talk to every day. Some of them I’ve met in person. Some of them are my coworkers now, making their own dreams come true. All of them are awesome.

…So much for being tough and immune to emotions. Let’s change the subject before I start crying on my keyboard.

Let me tell you the story of what is probably the most hilarious and mind-boggling thing that’s happened in my career (so far). It started as a quick stopgap because my coworkers were busy, and ended with my name in both the Rock Shop and in the “Art” section of the credits. (I am not an artist.)

This is the first time the full history of the now-infamous Rivals Star has been recorded. You are welcome.

So here’s a fun thing about game development: making a game involves a lot of people with lots of different skillsets, and as you might imagine, two people who are trying to work on a thing together might not always have their time line up perfectly. This is fine, and managing it is a skill just like anything else! One common example of this is coordinating code and art on a feature – it often involves several rounds of back-and-forth. Maybe an artist will build a bunch of… art things (again, I am not an artist)… and then pass them to a programmer, who will then write the code that makes them move around, or display the right information, or whatever. Then the artist might take it back and clean up the edges, make transitions smoother, and generally polish it up.

When we were working on the Rivals expansion, our user interface artists were EXTREMELY busy working on a visual restyling of the entire game, because they are awesome and terrifying. But we were also working on new features that required UI art! This is when temporary art – often called coder art, because we coders are usually the ones making it – happens. In my case, I was working on the music library, and I needed to mark which songs were part of the current Rivals Weekly Challenge, so the people working on Challenges could test them properly. We’d decided we were going to have little icons on each song, but none of the artists had time to design the icons.

As someone who’s perpetrated crafted a lot of it, I firmly believe that all good coder art follows two important rules:

  1. It needs to clearly convey what it’s supposed to be, even if it doesn’t look anything like what the finished art will be. Usually the point of coder art is for testing, and if testers can’t figure out what a thing is, you’ve just created more problems than you’ve solved.
  2. It can’t look too good, or people might forget that it’s only supposed to be a temporary placeholder, and the game might be released with your fake art. (Yes, this happens.)

…Basically this is a really convoluted way of admitting that I spent like half an hour on this:

The Rivals Star

Yeah, I’m pretty impressed with myself, too.

I made the mistake of posting this image on Slack, the IM client we use, when warning everyone that they’d start seeing this image in the game, and they should not send bugs to the poor artists, because it wasn’t their fault. I say it was a mistake because Slack allows you to create your own custom emoji, and about 30 seconds after I’d posted this horrifying neon star, it was emojified. And people used it. A lot.

It probably didn’t help that, because our artists were so very busy, this masterpiece remained in the game for almost two months.

But it did get replaced eventually, with the little icons you know so well. We finished up the Rivals expansion, sent it off to be published, and patted ourselves on the back, and I thought the gag – as wonderful and amusing as it was – was over.

I was so innocent then.

The Rivals Star was first revealed to the public in this tweet, which I personally fact-checked. I hadn’t actually realized how long it had been in the game until I looked it up for Josh – time flies when you’re making masterpieces like this, I guess.

A few days later we had our launch party to celebrate the Rivals release. To say I was surprised when I arrived would be a massive understatement.

You can thank Skye Poole, one of our wonderful producers, for these. At least, I’m pretty sure it was her. She ran away when I asked if they were her doing.

After that, though, everything seemed to be dying down. In fact, a month later, the Rivals Star was officially put out to pasture by Brian “BMez” Mesick, another programmer who was at the time working remotely from his farm.

Farm Photos

But apparently some folks were not willing to give up.

I would like to thank the following people, in no particular order:

  • Ryan Lesser, our Creative Lead, who coordinated all of this and also approved the changes to the credits
  • Lee Williamson, who actually made a professional in-game asset out of my terrible “art”
  • Dan Bruno, who wrote the Rock Shop description and told our localization team “no, this is not placeholder text I accidentally left in, I really do want you to translate this to several other languages”
  • Cara Kelly, who made sure that Microsoft and Sony knew that this wasn’t a bug, and we really did want it in the game
  • Josh Peckler, Robbie Russell, and Dan Bruno (again), and Cara Kelly (again), who all had fun with me in the comments when QA logged it as a bug, and finally made sure it got closed correctly so we didn’t get in trouble
  • And all my wonderful, silly coworkers who kept the joke running for over six months.

Because without them, we wouldn’t have this:

Sheila Art Credits


In conclusion, I’m probably the luckiest person in the world and I love you all. Keep rocking. <3

- Sheila