2020 finally has an exciting music game on the horizon

ABOVE: The announcement trailer for Fuser.

"Seasons don't fear the reaper. Nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain." It's a song I've heard a million times—but I've never heard it like this. The classic Blue Oyster Cult chorus floats above the downtempo drumbeat from Post Malone's Better Now, the synth pads from J. Balvin and Willy William's Mi Gente, and a light piano flourish from Lady Gaga's Born This Way.

The result is haunting, a chillhop medley that sends goosebumps up your spine. Then it's over, or rather ruined, as Blue Oyster Cult's poetic ode to everlasting love is interrupted by the opening synth from Party Rock Anthem, and everyone in the room winces and then starts laughing. 

Today marks the announcement of Harmonix's new game, Fuser. It's a hell of a lot of fun, and I knew that as soon as I walked in to my demo last week—because I'd already played it. Well, sort-of. Except the game I played was called DropMix, and Harmonix released it in 2017, and it was—how do I say this—a $100 collectible card game that required a physical board, mobile app, and some kind of external speaker to play, on top of booster packs.

Fuser game

(Image credit: Harmonix)

Selecting a song and tapping one of the four face buttons will instantly swap the corresponding part onto the designated (color-coded) turntable.

"Fuser's got a lot in common with DropMix from a mechanical standpoint. It's got none of the headaches DropMix came with, having cards and boards and all that," as Harmonix's Daniel Sussman so eloquently put it during my demo. Harmonix made a fantastic game, in DropMix. One of their all-time best. The problem was nobody could find it. The required RFID-reading base station was hard to find, and the packs of cards that served as expansions were even more scarce.

Point being, if you were one of the lucky few who played DropMix then Fuser will seem very familiar. It's built around the same ideas and the same tech.

For those who weren't so lucky: Fuser is essentially a DJ simulation. The nightclub type, not the radio type. You play by building mashups on the fly from a catalog of seemingly unrelated songs, silently praying the whole time that the end result is magical and not simply cacophonous.

(Image credit: Harmonix)

There are four turntables across the bottom of the screen. They're color-coded (to match the Xbox face buttons), and ostensibly tied to one of four categories. There's one turntable for drums, one for bass or background piano/synth, a third for lead instruments like guitars and more aggressive synth melodies, and the last for vocals. 

Every song in Fuser's 100-song tracklist is split out into these same four components, allowing you to mix-and-match. Thus you can take the drums from one song, say The Clash's Rock the Casbah, and pair it with the vocals from another, like 50 Cent's In Da Club. Layer in the guitar from All-Star by Smash Mouth and you have an unholy creation that will haunt your nightmares.

It's a surprisingly harmonious nightmare though, because Harmonix built out some amazing tech for first DropMix and now Fuser. There's a lot going on behind the scenes. Fuser first needs to sync all four tracks to the same tempo, a practice known as beatmatching. But that's the (comparatively) easy part. Fuser also needs to make sure all four tracks are in the same key. That's simple enough when pitch-shifting from one major key to another, but Fuser also needs to contend with changing tracks from major to minor keys, and vice versa.

Fuser game

(Image credit: Harmonix)

Harmonix did confirm Fuser will support mouse and keyboard.

[Side note: If you're not up on your music theory and have no idea what I'm talking about, might I recommend listening to Rudie Obias's classic remix Smells Like Teen Spirit in a Major Key? You'll understand after about ten seconds, I promise.]

Having spent a lot of time making music in Ableton over the years, it's hard to overstate just how impressed I am with Harmonix's underlying tech. It's what drew me to DropMix in the first place, and Fuser both refines and expands the player's toolset. Dig past the press-a-button-play-a-track surface level and you can adjust pitch on the fly, or speed up and slow down playback at a whim, or even see where "interesting" or "noteworthy" parts of a song start before you press play—if, for instance, you want to switch tracks right as the chorus kicks off.

It's a music sandbox with a game draped around it. Fuser keeps the familiar five-star ratings from Rock Band, but points are a bit more ambiguous than just hitting the right note at the right time. Here, your audience satisfaction is a measure of "Freshness." If a track is on the turntable too long, the crowd starts to get impatient. You're encouraged to constantly switch it up to keep the masses appeased.

Fuser also provides opportunities for extra points, which conveniently double as ways to nudge the player in new directions. You'll take dynamically generated audience requests on a regular basis, like "Play more '90s music" and "I want to hear some rock." There are also broader skill-based tasks, like dropping discs on the downbeat or soloing a specific track.

Fuser game

(Image credit: Harmonix)

And maybe some people will get really into score chasing. Harmonix has definitely tried to accommodate those players—the ones looking for a more traditional videogame out of Fuser. 

As Sussman said to me though, "We've spent a lot of time thinking about what 'skill' in a game like this really means. It's not just about satisfying the requests. The real difference between a good Fuser player and a bad Fuser player is your ability to operate with intent—not just do everything the game's asking you to do, but to do it in a way where you're happy with what you're hearing."

That's where I landed after my all-too-brief hands-on time. Forget scores. Fuser's about the flow state, the point where you get lost in the game and in your own musical instincts. It's surprisingly easy to do here.

Earlier I mentioned that each of Fuser's four turntables is "ostensibly" linked to one of the four stem categories, i.e. drums, bass, melody, and vocals. That's actually an oversimplification. Selecting a song and tapping one of the four face buttons will instantly swap the corresponding part onto the designated (color-coded) turntable, but holding the button down lets you control where each disc lands, allowing you to place two drum parts and two synths, or three pianos and a vocal track, and so on and so forth.

If I did my math correctly, there are something like 25 billion combinations you can make with the core 100-song tracklist. A lot of those are probably terrible. For instance, you can layer four different vocal tracks on top of each other for an instantaneous headache. Every so often you strike gold though, and you get chillhop Don't Fear the Reaper, or a dance-ready Rock the Casbah in a major key, or Old Town Road except Lizzo interjects with "Feelin' good as hell" every few seconds.

(Image credit: Harmonix)

Fuser is a creative endeavor. You're making music, and it's as easy as tapping a few buttons. Layer two tracks together, you've made something new. Layer four tracks together, there's a chance you've made music nobody's ever heard before. Not even Harmonix. And that's before we get into pitch-shifting, changing the tempo, swapping back and forth between two discs on-the-fly, and all of the more advanced features that make Fuser more than simply a digitized DropMix.

There's a lot going on, and I found myself wishing I had a mouse to do it with during the demo. Harmonix did confirm Fuser will support mouse and keyboard, though it's ironing out the specifics. Still, when I asked about it Sussman did say "I think the PC audience is going to be really interesting to watch. I expect them to be a different breed from console gamers for a game like this." Playing to our egos perhaps, but I do think a mouse's precision and speed will come in handy.

A simulator this robust also begs for an audience, and luckily Harmonix is thinking ahead on that front. Asked about copyright regulations with Twitch and YouTube—always a thorny topic—Sussman said "We pitched Fuser to [musicians] as a super social game where players have the creative agency to make something and share it with the world through social and everything." 

Fuser game

(Image credit: Harmonix)

"The hitch is not on the music side. It's on the platform side," he continued. "We're working directly with the platforms to make sure that everything is handled in a way that's cool with the rights' holders, but it's complicated."

That's not exactly an all-clear, but hopefully Fuser facilitates a channel full of bedroom DJs when it releases.

"The Harmonix ethos is converting music lovers into musicians," said Sussman. "We want to present this creative musical experience to people that—they love music, right? And they love games, but they don't necessarily know they harbor a fantasy to be a songwriter."

I can't wait to hear what people create. Fuser is due out in 2020, though Harmonix didn't specify a date nor give any details about storefronts yet. Hopefully you have a copy of DropMix to tide you over.