My heart always flutters a little when I hear Harmonix is working on anything. After all, this is the same developer that pioneered the plastic instrument rhythm genre that dominated years of my life and oh so much space in my living room. Even beyond turning you into the next great plastic guitar-wielding hero and dragging your friends into your plastic rock band, Harmonix’s pedigree for music and rhythm games speaks for itself. Recently I got the opportunity to speak with the devs at Harmonix about their upcoming music-mixing project, Fuser, as well as get a pretty lengthy hands-on with the game myself.
Harmonix’s return to a standard console game comes after a few years of experimenting with other platforms, notably VR and mobile/tabletop. Fuser in an evolution from ideas curated in DropMix, the card-collecting music mixing game that used a mobile app and physical cards to let players mix popular songs together in a variety of ways. In fact, the goals for Fuser go back even further, with Harmonix wanting to give players the ability to have a lot of creative freedom, not just follow a formula. While it may be a lot of fun to hammer away on a plastic strum-bar while fretting a bunch of colored buttons, in the end it didn’t offer players creative leeway to make the music their own. DropMix was a step towards that, but still centered on a structured “gamification” that inherently limited the mixes players could make (not to mention complications with distribution of physical cards to expand the game).
Fuser then fuses (excuse the pun) these elements to make a game that both has an element of skill and rhythmic timing, as well as a lot of creative freedom for players to make the mixes that sound good, or at least that they think will sound good. And I have to give Harmonix a lot of credit here. No matter how many awkward and terrible mixes I tried to make, everything meshes well together. Some of it even sounded not just good, but a whole lot better than I could have ever imagined. Harmonix creates the ultimate player fantasy of being a great DJ, smashing together unlikely music from a variety of genres. Want a twangy country guitar to accent ’90s hip-hop vocals set to a classic rock drum line? Go for it. Speed it up. Change the key. Add your own effects and instruments. The game will adapt and make sure everything fits within the frame you define. There’s still an element of skill, whether it’s dropping discs on the right beat or meeting audience requests in time to keep the crowd happy, but the amount of creative freedom is staggering.
Fuser Hands-On Preview – This is My Show
Customization begins with the player, able to create their own DJ with a huge variety of options and a classic Harmonix style and flair. Everything from looks down to the personality of your DJ can be customized, and you can save multiple setups of your character, which you are free to switch between at any time. There really aren’t too many limits here, and Harmonix has even created a huge variety of body types and skin colors, including multiple vitiligo options. Your character also isn’t defined as “male” or “female,” rather you simply create the character you want using the deep customization. For a game so deeply about player choice and creativity, I’m happy to see this start at character customization.
Even before you get on stage, you can also customize what your stage setup will look like. From light shows to projections, and even what inflatable thing the audience bounces around during your set. It would have been easy for Harmonix to just create some canned stages for use and focus entirely on the music, but this extra layer gives players a lot of ownership over their entire set, both visuals and sound.
And of course, there’s the music. You get to customize your own crate, bringing 24 of what music you want from Fuser’s 100+ songs to the stage to get mixed and mashed. You’ll also choose your own virtual instruments and effects to take. Even with the limited 30 or so songs from my hands-on demo, it was fun to try and bring a bizarre variety of everything to the stage. Everything here is about making choices musically, not about following a rigid structure a la Guitar Hero or “solving” gameplay in an overly gamified manner. There’s still a game to play here and it’s certainly possible to either “fail” or “do well,” but it paints the broad strokes on player creativity. It’s a blend that I couldn’t get enough of. Nailing a 4 or 5 star performance on an entirely custom mix that I made myself was a thrilling feeling, as much or even more so than perfectly executing an Expert solo on a plastic guitar.
Much of this is about keeping your audience happy by not letting the mix get too stale or moving too fast through new elements. As mentioned earlier, dropping a disc on-beat leads to a happier crowd than just throwing down new records with reckless abandon. Timing elements come into play, as do some generalized requests, such as asking for a ’00s pop song’s drum beat or vocals from a rock song. Knowing what’s in your crate will be a valuable skill to nailing these requests and keeping your audience happy.
Finally, there’s the ability to share mixes, an important part of Fuser’s player creativity. Within Fuser itself, there’s a kind of internal community, with your profile showing what you’ve created and shared, as well as what else you are listening to. The Snapshot function allows you to instantly grab the setup of a particular portion of a mix to either use later or remix yourself. This applies to your own mixes as you create on the fly and other players’ creations. Multiplayer lets players both mix together and competitively. Collaboration, creativity, and fun are at the center of Fuser, while Harmonix once again focuses on their love and appreciation of music.
The most important aspect of Fuser to me was how much I felt like a superstar. Everything I was doing was mine. That rad mix I just threw together wasn’t previously designed or built. I didn’t just overcome a rigid and structured set of skill checks. I made music. That feeling is an enormous part of what makes Fuser so engaging. It deftly balances the freedom of creativity with making everything fit together. Anybody can make music and take ownership over the creative process, regardless of their own perceived talent or lack thereof.
Curious about potential copyright issues given the licensed music at the center of Fuser’s entire concept, I had to ask Harmonix how they are handling those concerns in an era of sharing and streaming. Agreements have been worked out that music shared within the context of Fuser will not get copyright strikes or takedowns, however, creators will most likely not be able to monetize anything involving Fuser’s music. They did tell me they see Fuser as an important part of an ongoing conversation about music games, player creativity, and how monetization and sharing will work in an increasingly social and connected age. For now, you can at least feel comfortable sharing a cool mix you’ve created on Twitter, but don’t expect to get Ninja-rich by streaming Fuser.
Harmonix recently announced both the Fuser release date of November 10 and 12 new songs, all of which were part of the hands-on demo I took part in. Trust me, mixing “Bust a Move,” “Any Man of Mine,” “Killing in the Name of,” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” in a variety of ways is an absolute blast. The possibility on those four songs alone is immense, and Fuser will have over 100 at launch. Here are the 12 new songs just announced:
- Ava Max “Sweet But Psycho”
- Bobby Brown “My Prerogative”
- Donna Summer “Hot Stuff”
- Eric B. & Rakim “Don’t Sweat The Technique”
- Grouplove “Tongue Tied”
- Justin Timberlake “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”
- Karol G ft. Nicki Minaj “Tusa”
- Rage Against The Machine “Killing In The Name”
- Rick Astley “Never Gonna Give You Up”
- RÜFÜS DU SOL “Eyes”
- Shania Twain “Any Man Of Mine”
- Young MC “Bust A Move”
While post-launch plans haven’t been detailed yet, Harmonix’s history speaks for itself. As long as there is interest in Fuser from players, you can probably expect Harmonix to keep expanding its catalog with new song packs and, if I had to guess, customization options. But let’s get to launch first. Fuser releases November 10 for PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC. It will be playable on next-gen consoles via native backwards compatibility, though Harmonix hasn’t yet detailed a dedicated next-gen version of the game.
Fuser preview build provided by Harmonix and NCSoft for the purposes of this preview.