For a lot of folks, independent developer Harmonix isn’t just a music game studio; it’s the music game studio. With the utmost respect to Sony’s highly-successful weaponisation of karaoke with the SingStar series – or indeed the admirable legacy of one much-loved, two-dimensional rapping dog – Harmonix’s work laying the foundation for Guitar Hero and the subsequent creation of Rock Band really make it the big wheel down at the cracker factory.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band – each billion-dollar brands that left a permanent stamp on the decade between 2000 and 2009 with high sales and even higher revenue thanks to the added expense of their bespoke instrument controllers – really defined music games for an entire generation of players.

Now the Boston-based studio is looking to do it again.

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“I’m super excited about Fuser,” says Harmonix veteran Daniel Sussman. “It really does feel like the next big step forward in music games.”

“And if you’re a fan of the company you will be able to trace what you see back through all of our work. There are rhythm action elements; certainly this is a performance simulation on par with Rock Band or the early Guitar Hero games. There’s a lot that you will pull forward from Dance Central and the pop sensibility of those games, and then the music mixing mechanic which was first pioneered in Fantasia: Music Evolved and really developed as part of DropMix.”

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Certainly%20this%20is%20a%20performance%20simulation%20on%20par%20with%20Rock%20Band%20or%20the%20early%20Guitar%20Hero%20games”]An understanding of 2017’s DropMix will take you a long way to understanding what’s going on in Fuser. At their core, both DropMix and Fuser are about blending music together in fun, satisfying, and imaginative ways, and there’s arguably not a world of difference between placing physical NFC-enabled cards down on a physical mixing peripheral to dropping in-game samples onto a series of on-screen platters. The two games even use similar design language and colours to illustrate the individual parts of tracks available to use.

But there’s a new level of complexity to Fuser that seems to make it a lot more than just DropMix 2.0. Personally, the enjoyment I gleaned from DropMix was more about tossing down cards with little regard for timing and letting the software make it sound as good as possible. The results weren’t always especially elegant but you may be surprised at how many scenarios the iconic ‘ooh wah ah ah ah!’ from Down with the Sickness sounds great in (the answer is every scenario).

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Fuser is a bit different. While the music mixing tech ticking away under its hood seems largely similar from an outsider’s perspective, Fuser definitely seeks more care and craftsmanship from its players.

“I love DropMix in so many ways, and yet it always bothered me that the gameplay was so decoupled from the musical creative part of it,” says Sussman. “And that was intentional but, in hindsight, to me that feels like a miss.”

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=I%20love%20DropMix%20in%20so%20many%20ways%2C%20and%20yet%20it%20always%20bothered%20me%20that%20the%20gameplay%20was%20so%20decoupled%20from%20the%20musical%20creative%20part%20of%20it”]“It’s a thing that we’ve put a lot of effort into in Fuser. You are a DJ, you are performing on a massive stage at this larger than life music festival and, as part of your performance, you have to read the crowd, you have to follow the instructions of the promoter characters who are talking to you through your earpiece, and you also have to really showcase your skill as a mixer, play in time, and show your mastery of the interface and your knowledge of the content.”

Fuser, previously previewed in detail on IGN a few months ago, is not in any real way analogous to Activision’s DJ Hero. While the latter saw players navigating through pre-made mash-ups via button-matching gameplay inspired by the classic Guitar Hero note highway, Fuser is very different. Sussman describes a “heavy touch” on the individual samples Harmonix inserts into the game (and various other types of authoring below the surface) but any mash-ups in Fuser will be of your own making, and they can be dynamically changed at any moment to satisfy level goals or ad hoc requests that come in from the crowd during performances. You can even record fresh custom loops via a selection of virtual instruments to also insert into your tracks.

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How does it all work? Well, Fuser’s tech means the samples Harmonix has curated and assembled can change key and tempo on the fly, making it possible for even complete amateurs to begin to assemble mixes that don’t sound like competing car stereos at a red light.

“A lot of it starts with the song selection,” explains Sussman. “There are some things that we look for in terms of songs that will play well in our engine.”

“And some of it is kind of nerdy music stuff, like your flat seven is a note that doesn’t transpose between minor and major all that elegantly. And so chord progressions or songs that feature a really strong flat seven in the melody, we think about that. Now, that’s not to say it won’t work. It just might sound a little funky as you flip it around between different keys.”

“We have a very strong audio team and they do all of the authoring. We get stems from the labels and then we take those and we work them through our process. All of the transitions, those are actually authored; those are composed by our team. All of the mark-up to lay out where the pickups are and where the phrasing is, those are all authored by our team. So it’s a pretty heavy touch in terms of the process to take a song and convert it up to Fuser level.”

Harmonix has historically proven a willingness to commit to its most-supported games long term; Rock Band 4 is approaching its five-year anniversary and has been supplemented since 2015 with a steady supply of new songs every single week (and that’s after Harmonix ported all existing PS3 and Xbox 360 DLC to PS4 and Xbox One for no additional cost). So what does the perfect future for Fuser look like?

“Well, a few things,” begins Sussman. “One is that I feel like we are absolutely unencumbered by sort of the distribution headaches that made Rock Band such a pain in the butt for you and everyone in the South Pacific. You know, it was just a big box and it was expensive in Europe. It was really difficult.”

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%5BI%5Dt%E2%80%99s%20been%20very%20satisfying%20to%20develop%20a%20game%20that%20is%20peripheral-free”]“I spent a good chunk of my career at Harmonix designing and manufacturing the guitars and drums, and I think they added a lot to that experience and that fantasy, [but] it’s been very satisfying to develop a game that is peripheral-free. We’re talking to retail and there will be physical product, but this is a game that there’s no reason for us not to be able to distribute this everywhere in the world where there’s an audience, and that is super exciting. And then you extend that out to the relationship we have with music licensing in general for disc and DLC, I think for as long as there’s a group of people that are interested, I would be absolutely thrilled to continue to churn out music. And not just songs, but also instruments and other elements like that. And cosmetics; I feel like this is a game where there’s more of an opportunity than any other game that we’ve made to continue to kind of add options to the character creator and to the stage kit.”

“Personally I’m committed to working on Fuser for the next five years; maybe more, I don’t know!” Sussman chuckles.

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Harmonix’s Zoe Schneider has her own thoughts about the possible future impact of Fuser.

“I think that, and maybe this is a longer term trajectory, but I do think there’s a huge potential for learned skills, or a catalyst for those learned skills from Fuser,” she says. “For example, I played the original Rock Band – one of my favourite games; still one of my favourite games – and it’s the reason that I play some live instruments the way I do, because I was playing enough Rock Band drums that one day I was, like, ‘Well, if I just bought a real drum set and played half as long on that as I do on [Rock Band], I could be halfway decent.’”

“And I went ahead and did that, and I think Fuser even has a stronger potential to start to help people bridge those gaps and start to make those connections. I think that it’s just such an accessible way to feel a part of that festival, DJ music culture. But I think it will leave people craving more.”

“So I would not be shocked if Fuser, for a lot of people, was almost a wake-up call to something that they didn’t think they could thrive or succeed in, but ended up really thoroughly enjoying. And I think that’s something really special about a lot of video games, because it has you think about greater possibilities than your current circumstance.”

“The other component is that, socially, we’ve never had a stronger emphasis on learning and individuality and being unique and stylish, and I think that Fuser is just an amazing opportunity to really put that all on display. I think now more than ever, especially in youth culture, there’s more tolerance and acceptance for diversity than ever before. I think Sussman has previously made a really strong point about this when he talks about how Rock Band was by people who loved rock for people who loved rock, and then it just happened to be an incredible game, so people who weren’t in love with rock suddenly fell in love with rock. I think that Fuser could be something similar. I think that people are just going to feel really excited about bringing a piece of themselves into this entirely new world.”

Schneider is also extremely enthusiastic about Fuser’s ability to trigger people to think differently about how they consume music, exposing songs as tapestries and a new granularity about “the grand process that is music making.”

“The best part about music games is watching people engage with music culture in a way that people don’t always do if you’re just streaming or listening to Spotify,” says Schneider. “This forces you to form a more intimate relationship to the music, which for me is probably the thing I’m most excited about.”

Fuser will arrive with over 100 tracks to disassemble and reassemble.

Sussman firmly believes Fuser has the potential to be Harmonix’s next-big-thing in the music game genre.

“I feel like Harmonix has had the opportunity over the years to sort of define and redefine what a music game is,” he says. “And at the same time, when you’re talking about Rock Band, I kind of feel like you’re dating yourself as a music gamer. And I say that with a lot of love; this is a franchise that is near and dear to me. I still work with it; I’m part of the DLC team for Rock Band 4 and I love it.”

[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=What%20I%20look%20forward%20to%20well%20down%20the%20road%20is%20a%20generation%20of%20music%20gamers%20whose%20music%20gaming%20experience%20was%20not%20defined%20by%20Guitar%20Hero%20or%20Rock%20Band%2C%20but%20was%20defined%20by%20Fuser”]“And I think that the world is ready for something new. So what I look forward to well down the road is a generation of music gamers whose music gaming experience was not defined by Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but was defined by Fuser. And that this becomes sort of the new normal for what you can do in the music gaming space. Both in terms of the creative element, right? ‘Look what I made!’ And also the social element: ‘Look at all the friends that I made while I was making this cool thing.’ That’s the benchmark that we’re applying to success here.”

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Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter sporadically @MrLukeReilly. You can find him on Rock Band every long weekend and Christmas party.
Source: IGN Video Games All
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