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Harmonix Talks About Letting Players Get Creative With FUSER


FUSER, Harmonix’s next rhythm game, aims to give players a great deal of control over the music they play and create. Through mixing aspects of various songs together, players can creating compelling songs that let them express themselves in song as they strive to break high scores.

Siliconera spoke with Harmonix’s Dan Sussman at PAX East to learn more about what led to the studio taking rhythm games in this new direction, the challenges that can come from a more creativity approach, and the unique difficulties that come from licensing songs for such a unique music title.

Joel Couture, Siliconera: What prompted this exploration of being a DJ?

Dan Sussman, Harmonix: I feel like Harmonix’s special sauce is looking at how people are interacting with music and what’s going on in pop culture, then channeling that into an interactive experience. We’re done that multiple times over the years, whether you’re talking about the Guitar Hero phenomenon or Rock Band or Dance Central.

I think about FUSER as the next big evolutionary leap in the history of Harmonix. I started on Frequency and I see how it informed decisions we made about Amplitude, how that gameplay lead to Guitar Hero, and how that lead to Rock Band. I think about Fantasia: Music Evolved and how that asked the question “Can we do more with player choice and player agency?” Then, we reach DropMix, and here we are.

I feel like there are two really interesting things going on. One is that players and music fans have more access than ever before to everything. So, you think about tastes and what people like, and people have really broad, eclectic tastes now because they’re not boxed in by budget or availability. You can just go on YouTube and find whatever it is that you want. I feel like that is one huge element of the FUSER experience: breaking down the genre boundaries. You can say “Oh, I like Blue Oyster Cult AND Billie Eilish!” and that is normal.

The other part has to do with player choice and creative agency. I think that players now don’t really want to be told exactly what to do. They want to be able to express themselves and mess around. I think FUSER supports that in the context of a game. There is a lot of skill and we’re seeing that right now with our live demos, where we’re seeing staff showcasing their skills and ability to hit timing – make the right drop at the right time – and understand where you are in that loop. There’s a whole campaign that brings you in to that headspace.

That’s a long answer, but it’s a deep question. We’re here today as a result of twenty+ years of making music games and trying to understand what people want and how we give them that.

FUSER focuses on letting players be creative with the music. How difficult was it to create systems that allowed them to do this?

Sussman: It’s impossible [laughs]. Well, it’s not impossible. We’re doing it. That is the hardest thing: managing directed play on one side (which is critical for any game) with creative agency. The line that we try to walk is that we basically look at your skill as a performer as a function of objective scored gameplay. Are you dropping on the beat?  Are you leveraging the whole toolkit? Are you moving things out and into the mix and flow. That’s all stuff we can measure and give you a score on.

What we don’t want to do is say: “Your song sucks!” The game will never tell you that your mix is bad. It’s really up to you. If you want to put whatever vocals down, you do you. At the same time, we want to make sure players are getting into the content and getting into the interface and the framework so that they can make informed decisions. That’s kind of the split: the subjective part of your mix is totally up to you, and your objective scoring is all about your skill as a DJ.

Does that create any challenges with progression?

Sussman:  Yeah. I think progression in a game like this is critical. There’s progression as it relates to access to some of the second-order mechanics – things you can do, as well as the content you’ll earn over time.

What I’ve seen, in respect to Rock Band, is that songs are almost disposable. You play a song, you get your five-star score, and you move on to the next. Here, a big part of your skill as a FUSER player is really getting to know that loop. Knowing when the whistle comes in during the All Star vocals. When the DUH comes in during the Billie Eilish vocals. Being able to drop for that one moment. That’s a thing that happens over time. The pacing is really important in terms of our ability to really put you into these loops and make sure that you’re spending enough time with them to really understand the ins and outs. Then, when you get new songs, it’s super refreshing.

Speaking of that, I can’t tell you how happy I’m going to be to go back to the office and play a build that has more than these sixteen tracks [laughs]. [NOTE: The PAX East build contained sixteen tracks, which were played for the full four days of the convention]

After four days of the event, it’s probably getting old.

Sussman: I mean, it’s been really invigorating to watch people have fun with it. I feel like the other piece is that every performer that we’ve had on our PAX East stage, and every mix that’s happening in the PAX demo, is unique from every other one.

It’s fun. The soundtrack is going to have over a hundred songs. There’s so much variety and choice in the player’s performance. I think it’s going to take a long time for players to get bored.

I think it’s interesting that you have created a system where players can put a lot of work into perfecting their play, while casual players can also pick it up easily and enjoy its systems.

Sussman: The pace is very different from the other games that we’ve made where you’re thinking that you’ve just got to press the right button at the right time. I describe the gameplay here more as a plate-spinning mechanic; your job as a DJ is to pay attention to the crowd, pay attention to the goals and your objectives as a player, and also make it sound good. You’re managing a lot of things and if you get distracted on one thing, you might lose. But that’s okay. There’s a very different kind of skill curve to a game like this than there has been for a lot of our other titles.

It seems very welcoming for new players.

Sussman: Yeah! I think that a lot of our best work has reset the bar with respect to skill. I had this funny experience with Rock Band 4 back in 2015. It’s a new game, but it’s Rock Band with very traditional Rock Band gameplay. You watch people come in and fire up Expert, and they crush it because they’ve been playing this game for ten years. We’re not seeing that here. Everybody is coming in at zero skill level. They’re going to have to build that skill up over the course of the game, and everybody’s starting from square one. That, to me, is very refreshing.

Everything I’m seeing is showing me that the universe is ready for a new music game. I was talking about how people were interacting with music, and it seems like the way that people think about interactivity and gaming, with respect to music, has been kind of the same. When you ask people to define what a music game is, they’re going to go back to a rhythm action experience.  I feel like it doesn’t have to be that. What we’re seeing here is that people are really ready for something different.

I love rhythm action games and I’m not trying to take anything away! I just think it’s awesome that there’s something new. And we’re seeing the response! Our fantasy of performing in front of a crowd – spinning a set at this music festival – is resonant. I think that it’s something people relate to. I do! I relate to it! It’s a fantasy that I’m all in on, and it’s really fun!

How does FUSER add mechanically to what was in DropMix‘s party mode to make it a deeper, more engaging experience?

Sussman: I think what’s unique about FUSER is the degree to which the fantasy and the gameplay is directly in line with what makes FUSER so interesting. The gameplay is all about the music. The fantasy is all about the music. I worked on DropMix – great team, really innovative product. The gameplay and music were incidental. The point of the game was not to make a good mix. The point of the game was to get more points and defeat your opponent using strategy (maybe with a little bit of luck). It was a CCG, really.

I love the degree to which FUSER is doubling down on music mixing and gameplay and fantasy fulfillment. All of those support one another in a way I think is really awesome.

Will any of Harmonix’s house bands and original tunes be available in FUSER, or is purely licensed music?

Sussman: I’m going to give you a somewhat evasive answer on that. We’ve got sixteen songs here in the PAX demo, we have a soundtrack of over a hundred, and I will say that Harmonix has a long history and tradition of shining a light on some of our friends in the business, and this will be no different. We have a really interesting music conversation that will unfold over the next couple of months.

How did the deal with NCSoft come together?

Sussman: NCSoft saw this game early on, fell in love, and it’s been an amazing partnership. They’ve been awesome. They made our PAX booth and appearance happen. It’s gone extremely well. I feel that their skills and expertise is a really strong compliment to ours. They’re a big, super powerful publisher and we’re a super-talented developer. It’s a really good mix. And, for me, it all comes down to your passion for the product. They’re one hundred percent sold on what we’re trying to do here. As are we. It’s been really fun to work with them. It’s been easy.

How has licensing music changed since the early days of Guitar Hero and Rock Band?

Sussman: I mean, we’re the best in the business as it relates to music licensing. We know what we’re doing there. We have a staff that has all of the relationships. Still, this is a challenging game to license for because our ask is super aggressive. Not only are we asking artists to give us permission to mix their songs with other songs, but we’re also saving those songs and sharing them to socials. It’s kind of outrageous, and some people are really into it and others aren’t, and that’s just how it works. It’s been great.

FUSER is coming to Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC in Fall 2020.

Joel Couture
Joel has been covering indie games for various sites including IndieGamesPlus, IndieGames.com, Siliconera, Gamasutra, Warp Door, CG Magazine, GameDaily, and more over the years, and has written book-length studies on Undertale, P.T., Friday the 13th, and Kirby's Dream Land.