Guitar Hero. Rock Band. Dance Central. These were three of the games that established Harmonix as the harbinger of the 2000s music game renaissance. In more recent years, however, the Boston-based developer has struggled to land a mainstream hit with its music games.
Though 2018’s physical-meets-virtual music-mixing game DropMix was an intriguing riff on what it might feel like to be a DJ, it didn’t exactly take off. The Hasbro collaboration was ambitious, but it wasn’t enough to revitalise Harmonix as a household music-centric brand.
Enter Fuser, another stab at a DJ game. But this time, without all the superfluous elements that weighed down Harmonix games like Amplitude and DropMix – namely peripherals, cards and DLC. Launching this fall, Fuser puts players in the shoes of a festival DJ, and it’s designed to be a refreshing take on the music genre, something that Harmonix hopes will attract a wider audience.
“The act of making music is both super alluring and super mysterious,” Harmonix product manager Daniel Sussman tells NME. “My hope with Fuser is that some of that mystique is pushed away, that our players realise that the act of making music is not some exclusive thing only available to people who went to music school or something. Fuser makes it really easy to make something that you think sounds cool.”
In both spirit and execution, Fuser is a veritable successor to DropMix. Accessibility is a key feature of the forthcoming game. In Fuser, players man turntables across several festival stages that each demand a specific genre of music. To please their ‘fans’, players need to create remixes of pop hits by combining melody, vocals, bass and drums.
Although this sounds difficult, Harmonix has simplified the gameplay. All players need to do to create their very own banger is pick up four sample ‘discs’, throw them on a turntable and hit play. The fun lies in finding the perfect harmony between two songs – out of an initial batch of more than 100 – that seemingly have nothing in common with each other. Mix Cardi B with The Killers. Spin up The Weeknd with Rick Astley. The possibilities feel nearly limitless.
“My favourite moments are the unexpected ones – the combinations that shouldn’t work but do,” says Sussman. “I find new mixes just about every time I play.
“That said, I have a couple of go-to’s. For example, I find that the bassline from Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Don’t Sweat The Technique’ along with the synth from Rufus du Sol’s ‘Eyes’ builds a really strong foundation that I can build on in different ways. Where I take it really depends on my mood and how I’m feeling in the moment.”
But it’s not all about mixing songs with reckless abandon to make something totally new. Players have to stay on the beat. They need to cue up a song to have it on deck, and then flip it onto their setup in time with the beat. Only then will they get the crowd bouncing off walls.
“While Fuser is 100 per cent focused on entertainment, we have taken care to make sure that our approach is steeped in sound music concepts,” says Sussman. “Players will hear elements of familiar songs in new ways, will develop awareness of concepts like tempo and key, will be able to hear the difference between major and minor tonalities.”
Fuser features over 100 licensed songs, ranging from pop to country to hip-hop. The song list was curated to include tracks that, while dissimilar in genre and artist, mesh well together to help create the best mixes possible using a robust set of remixing tools.
“We have a target tempo range and a handful of technical elements that we consider when we go out for songs,” Sussman describes the song selection process. “The piece that took the most time and thought was making sure that we had a soundtrack that offered up a diverse variety of styles and eras while still supporting the festival theme that runs through the game.”
Fuser’s single-player campaign is a showcase of different DJ archetypes, from show-stopping artists who pack thumping beats to more eclectic, genre-fluid selectors. Once players hit the stage and start creating music that both they and their virtual audience – who will occasionally shout requests – find pleasing, they’ll begin to see why Harmonix picked a music festival setting for Fuser, Sussman explains.
“The festival environment felt really right for Fuser – not only is it the premier venue for electronic music and the DJ crowd, but it presents a really vibrant and expressive feel,” he says. “When you play Fuser, we want you to feel like you’re part of an active community of music lovers and like-minded creators. The festival environment lends itself to that feel really well.”
Floating off to an EDM festival while sitting at home is an escapist fantasy for the many music fans who have been starved of concerts and festivals since the pandemic began. And with no return date in sight, the thought of being able to participate in something even remotely close to a live event is comforting.
“Thinking about music games, we see people interacting with music more than ever before – even before the pandemic struck,” says Sussman. “My sense is that the world is ready for a new kind of music game. A game that reflects contemporary music culture. That’s what we’ve been working to bring with Fuser.
“In the context of a global pandemic, I think there’s a demand for positive, escapist experiences. With everything happening in the world, everyone can use something that is good, pure fun.”