Pump up the jam!

Technology | Gieson Cacho 14 Sep 2020

Smart developers don't let good ideas go to waste. Instead of mothballing technology, they continue to refine it - and that's the case with Harmonix's new project Fuser.

The backbone of the music-mixing games comes from Dropmix, a card-based title that Harmonix made in conjunction with Hasbro. It never achieved the same success as its previous efforts such as Rock Band or Guitar Hero, but the potential of the project was intriguing enough that they saw a future in it.

"The evolution of music games maps with Harmonix's history," said project manager Daniel Sussman. "My sense is that the world is ready for a rhythm-action game, where there's more you can do than see button and press button."

With Fuser, players have creative agency as they play the deejay and mix music at festivals.

Players have four tracks tied to drums, bassline, vocals and instruments. Harmonix splits most of the tracks into these four elements and they let players drop parts of them into the mix.

The technology adapts the tracks and blends them to a coherent song. It's like magic. Tunes that may not go together suddenly find a shared beat where elements of the song bleed through.

That's the basis of both Dropmix and Fuser. But while Dropmix focused on competitive card contests as a way to discover mixes, the more straightforward Fuser follows a path comparable to Guitar Hero.

As a deejay in the campaign, players have to follow the direction of a promoter who fires off the requirements of a set. The promoter will ask players to drop the bass line of Don't Fear the Reaper into the mix or throw in two pop songs.

In the beginning, players have ample time to complete the request, but as the difficulty increases, they'll have a shorter time to complete the task.

Thankfully, adding tracks is easy as scrolling through a crate full of music using the bumper buttons, highlighting a song and using the face buttons to add it to the mix. Each face button corresponds to the drums, bassline, vocals and instrument.

As players get used to the concept, the game will require them to learn more advanced techniques such as adding a track on the downbeat. This lets the change-up flow smoothly.

At first, I had difficulty with it. The timing has to be precise and players will have to watch a beat bar and time their button press with the downbeat.

Fuser will require some calibration because the input lag between controller and screen will be noticeable and important to minimize.

The campaign adds more complexity as players get more fans and they're taken under the wing of a new promoter at other festivals. Further in, they'll add samples to a mix. They'll have to play a synthetic instrument by moving their cursor around a few square buttons while hitting A and X, and hopefully create a nice hook that's added to the song.

Players will also come across more complicated requests. Instead of asking for two pop songs, fans or the promoter may want an 80s track and a hip-hop track. If players know their music, they can find a tune that matches both.

For newcomers, the interface and the number of requests can be overwhelming. Players will have to keep an eye on the beat bar, shuffle songs, watch for requests and monitor the countdown, but the campaign is all about teaching players the systems.

The creative agency in Fuser lies in the fact that players will eventually have a library of more than 100 songs and they'll choose what to add to their crate. That's the songbook for each performance.

Initially, it's limited, but as they keep advancing, players will unlock more songs. Because the requests in each level are broad - promoters ask players to put on a pop song or country music - players have leeway to decide what songs to mix and those choices mean no two performances sound exactly alike.

Like other Harmonix projects, a player's performance in the campaign is scored on a five-star scale.

The scoring is determined by whether players fulfill all requests promptly and if they execute it by dropping the tracks on the downbeat.

"Half of your score is determined by meeting goals," Sussman said. "If you do that, you'll get a certain amount of points. The other half is a function of your skill. Meet all the goals. Time all your drops well."

Fuser also has a third element tied to scoring that Sussman calls freshness. It's a crowd response to the tracks and protects against players choosing the same four tracks over and over again.

"In deejay culture, the pace of your music has an impact. Are you fast and furious or let it ride? You do get points for dropping disc. If you drop too many discs, your crowd meter drains too much. You'll need to balance that. There's no hard score cap."

The campaign and its challenges allow players to unlock certain in-game elements. Their performances let them open up new visuals for their festival performances. They'll have new videos on Jumbotrons. They can grab more gear for their deejay.

In addition, each deejay has a plethora of body types and aesthetic options to customize their look.

The goal is to let players put whatever persona they want on stage.

Sussman said that every time players jump in the game or level up they get tokens to earn additional content. They also earn experience points for playing multiplayer or saving and sharing mixes.

The ultimate goal is the Freestyle. Once players master all the techniques in mixing, they can go into this mode and express themselves. Players will be able to mute certain tracks, lower and raise the volume, change the key and fiddle with other options to make their mix just right. They can even make long 32-bar samples and deploy them on the track.

Because of its nature, Fuser seems tailor-made for streaming. Viewers can drop in and enjoy a mix and visuals that the creator employs, but those who use Twitch or YouTube could run into copyright issues if they want to make money off their mixes.

"Fuser was designed to be shared, and we negotiated the rights for players to share non-monetized videos of their favorite mixes with friends and family," said Sussman. "Players who are looking to monetize their gameplay on platforms like Twitch or YouTube will need to abide by each platform's guidelines."

From the sound of its potential, Fuser can be a new evolution of the music genre. One that takes into account other transformative changes going on in gaming such as streaming an user-generated content.

Players will have their own turn at the tables when Fuser releases in autumn on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.

The Mercury News (TNS)

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