It’s hard to forget your first time playing Rock Band. Hell, Guitar Hero II changed my life by making me want to pick up a real guitar, and I know I’m not alone in that. Harmonix’s biggest games have been phenomenons, so it’s no secret their music titles have had real impacts on players by providing a fun social music experience or even helping to awaken their inner musician.
But that’s a nearly ten year-old story, isn’t it? Since Harmonix released Rock Band in 2007 after splitting with Activision, the music gaming scene hasn’t broken much new ground. The studio is still most heavily associated with their older Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles from the two previous console generations. Despite this, the developer never stopped experimenting with bold ideas, be it with Rock Band 4, Rock Band VR or a remake of their less-remembered Amplitude.
This month will see the release of Rock Band VR before September brings us an even bolder step into uncharted territory: Dropmix, the developer’s new collaboration with toy giant Hasbro.
Officially revealed today, Dropmix isn’t played on a console or PC, but a physical board in conjunction with an app for iOS or Android. The game is about dropping differently-colored, NFC chip-carrying cards —each representing a song— into corresponding “Mix Slots” to create original mashups while battling other players for control over said mix. Green cards contain bass lines and harmonies, yellows have your leads (mostly vocals), reds play melodic loops and blues lay down beats. Each card has a power level between one and three, and the player’s goal is to score points by playing equal or higher numbered cards on top of their opponents’. You can also spin the “Equalizer” wheel to knock out a randomized level of card. Introduce a handful of wild cards into the mix, and you’ve pretty much got a sense of the game.
Last week at GDC, I played a round of Dropmix’s two-on-two “clash” mode with Hasbro’s Mona Ahn, Senior Designer at Harmonix Jonathan Mintz, and Lead Artist at Harmonix David Battilana. Teamed with Mintz, our goal was to reach 15 points before the others. Simple enough. Between the rock, hip-hop, pop and electronic decks, I unfortunately picked electronic because it was closest.
Really, I should back up a bit. As soon the game was described, though I understood its concept, there was a question I needed answered. How exactly does the game go about mixing songs together? Does it really instantly bend pitches and tempos of each song to fit together? Anyone who’s ever heard a shitty mashup should know what I was afraid of. Thankfully, Mintz put my fears to rest with a quick demonstration of the game’s tech. He laid down a red Meghan Trainor card, starting the mix with a hooky backing melody, followed by a Latin beat from a Ricky Martin card, topping it off with Ed Sheeran’s vocals. When the cards were dropped, part of each song would play perfectly in tune and synced with the rest of the mix. Each addition initiated exactly on queue and blended nicely. Still, I needed to see proof that the game could handle meshing radically different types of songs.
Our real game began simply enough, starting with my scoring a point with a Jason Derulo bassline, leading to the other team raising their score with vocals from the Weeknd that meshed easily with another Derulo song… then, about halfway through, Mona dropped a Disturbed “Down with the Sickness” card. We all laughed, but what I heard sold me on the game’s technology.
After a dubstep-esque breakdown to cover the huge tempo change, something weirdly incredible started to play: a successful instant mashup of “Want to Want Me” and “Down with the Sickness.”
You don’t need to understand much music theory to know why this is impressive: the Jason Derulo song is in a major key, meaning that it generally sounds “happy,” and the Disturbed song is in a minor key, making the song sound “sad” or “scary,” to put it simply. Normally, these sounds would clash badly. After heavily slowing the pace of Derulo’s vocals, it shifted the correct notes to put the song in a minor key, giving it a creepy vibe that fit well with the chugging metal riff.
That version of the mix lasted only seconds, and soon we were back to another club-ready pop mashup, spinning the Equalizer and winning a points back and forth… then the game ended. Apparently we’d been winning and hit 15 points first.
Honestly, I kind of forgot about the game component all together. I don’t think I looked at the iPad’s scoreboard once during the session. I was too distracted by the constantly adapting mix which, to be fair, is the game’s entire hook, right? The app even has feature that allows you to look back through your ever-changing mix to save and share its different states with friends.
As we wrapped up, Ahn told me that the game would retail in September for $99.99, with collectible card packs going for $14.99 and $4.99, and my conflicted feeling worsened. On one hand, Dropmix’s tech was really impressive. On the other, the game felt too passive and simple to warrant such a hefty price tag.
More expensive music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, while not requiring musical knowledge per se, ask of the player a certain level of rhythmic skill and engagement. There’s a reason people still pull out those big plastic controllers at parties. It’s fun to feel like you’re really performing. With Dropmix, the experience is more akin to listening to a really talented DJ perform rapid-fire mashups, which is still impressive, but maybe not enough to keep a full-fledged game afloat alone.
With little in terms of apparent strategic layers, I’m worried players will experience the game as a short-lived novelty before packing it away in a closet somewhere, even faster than they likely already shelved the more engaging Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles.
I hope that Harmonix and Hasbro end up putting my fears about Dropmix to rest, because I’m genuinely impressed with the machine the two companies have put together.