FUSER and the the big problems with the modern rhythm games

I’m Kinglink and this week I wanted to talk about music games and my love of Harmonix. 

If you don’t already know the name of Harmonix, this is the team who made Frequency and Amplitude, two of the best games on the PS2.  They made the fantastic Dance Central, as well as Fantasia: Music Evolved and…. 

Ok yeah, Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  Those are the games everyone will know them for, and sure they started both of those franchises and dominated the gaming with them, but they also have so much talent and made so many different games, it’s a shame they aren’t known outside of those titles. 

So as I said, I picked up FUSER, Harmonix’s newest game because I wanted to talk about my love of the music games and rhythm genre.  Unfortunately FUSER instead is better to highlight a lot of problems these games have.  

Before we dive in I want to quickly say that I’m going to try to make this video entertaining like always, but it’s going to be hard.  Almost every game that I’ll show this week is based on the music it produces, music that I honestly don’t want to risk playing because, well, copyright strikes. 

I’ll also be talking a bit about my taste in music so you can look forward to the comment section which will tell you how horrible my taste is.  Fun times. 

This video isn’t intended as a full review, but let’s focus on FUSER for a moment. What is Harmonix’s newest game about?  It’s essentially a DJ Simulator.  Players get four decks and can play music tracks from a variety of songs.  You might want to take the beat from Bad Guy, throw in the vocals to Born This Way the keyboard from Satisfaction, and then drop some Never Gonna Give You Up, because why not Rick Roll the audience, and don’t worry, I’m even afraid of doing that.  

Essentially, you’re mixing music to create new songs and honestly, FUSER does what it says, after a bit.  You see, FUSER’s biggest problem is that not everything is unlocked just by buying the game.  Players get some songs, with many more unlocked by earning in-game currency by leveling up, this is ok.  Yet the musical instruments and effects systems, as well as the basic tutorial of the game, are unlocked in the campaign. 

The fact you have to play through a tutorial isn’t bad, but having to play through an eight-hour campaign to unlock stuff is a little rough, though a bit par for the course in the rhythm genre.  FUSER’s campaign shows the limitations of the genre though. 

I could probably spend more than five minutes on this but the biggest issue is how the campaign works.  You are given both goals by the story, and requests from random people.  However, the campaign is done as a score attack. Satisfy more goals and requests, drop the music on the downbeat or special pickups, and you’ll do well.  

You can also fail the campaign because if the audience gets annoyed you can get kicked off the stage, but that’s hard to do unless you’re trying, especially because there are no difficulty settings here.  But the real problem with the campaign is it’s a stale corporate environment.  You’re told what to do and when to do it, but none of it, the score, the actions, the crowd is caring about your music.  If you change the song every beat, on the downbeat, you do better than letting a good mix play for a while. 

The problem is FUSER is both unable to tell players if their music sounds good, nor interested in telling them how to create good music, it’s just following the rules and you’ll earn a score, and it’s like it’s beating the creativity out of the player for those eight hours.  What a shame.

At least in Rock Band and Frequency, players are rewarded with music when they do well, and Rock Band is simulated playing plastic guitar, drums, or singing.  Sadly, I don’t have my instruments, so we’ll see more Frequency. 

The thing is once players get beyond the campaign, FUSER is good, it’s creative, it has a lot of tools, and hopefully, it will spark interest in some people’s passion so they go out and learn how to mix records for real.  People can upgrade to something Ableton Live, or Traktor Pro, neither of which cost that much more than the game and can produce music you can share yourself or potentially one day actually DJ events with.

But there’s also something else going on with Fuser, Rock Band, and a lot of Harmonix’s work.   

Fuser is set up to be social and you can play with other people.  You can mix cooperatively and share the stage, you can battle, you can enter events, or just vote on the previous week’s events.  So I heard this song and I kind of liked it.  It was someone mixing Apache pretty heavily.  But I like Apache by The Sugarhill Gang, why haven’t I dropped this record myself multiple times, especially with that beat?  

Oh.  It’s DLC.  Fuser released in November of 2020, which was three months ago as I make this video.  In just those three months, there are already 78 pieces of DLC content that is just songs. Each song ranges from 1.99 to 2.99, and there’s a VIP version of the game that costs an extra 30 bucks for 25 of those songs, I mean just in general this is a lot of content.   To buy all the DLC so far you’re talking 150 dollars.  This isn’t a game where you buy the sixty-dollar version and will be satisfied, it’s clear that Harmonix is hoping that people keep shelling out for new songs to keep mixing.  It seemed most of the top-rated mixes have some DLC in them because they’re new and fresh songs.

People raged pretty hard against Evolve when it came out because they said it was a platform for DLC, but these rhythm games are going in the same direction and getting extreme.  Rock Band was extremely popular but you can see where their mind is now.  When kickstarting the PC version of Rock Band 4, they made a special effort to call out the 1700 DLC tracks ready to buy.  That number is now closer to 2000, and by the way, that Kickstarter failed, so don’t go looking for it.  I’d probably own that if given the option. 

Of course, part of this is music selection, and Frequency was a pretty good game way back in 2001, it’s 20 years old now.  But what made it special wasn’t the ultra-famous songs, even if Ex-Girlfriend by No Doubt was on there.   It has a great techno soundtrack that broadened most players’ musical tastes, as long as they can accept synthpop. 

But to appeal to the widest audience, rhythm games have stopped making interesting and eclectic song lists and have moved towards more what’s popular at the moment to get fans.  The interesting and unique genres and music are now replaced by selections to get the most people excited for the game.  I can’t help but look at Fuser’s list and think this is the most popular yet generic music they can find.  

All-Star?  Really? 

This just feels soulless, like it’s a game specifically designed to get people to shell out money to buy DLC, but also the music here is to appeal to the most people at a very low level.  Going back to what I was saying about the campaign, it feels like the music here was chosen by similar criteria, not what was impressive or worked best for mixing, but rather, what would satisfy some goal or request from the corporate offices.  

That’s not even mentioning that while most of the music here is good, everything from the last twenty years lacks a timeless quality, and will slide down the popularity charts as new music gets created.

And while FUSER has some really interesting gameplay and an excellent social experience, it just depresses me, and I think it is a perfect example of why I’m pulling away from the rhythm genre.

But don’t worry, all is not lost.  You see there are other options.  While FUSER has become this way for the RIAA to sell music to people, it’s not the only choice out there. Back in the early 2000s, I was heavily into DDR or Dance Dance Revolution, and that’s an expensive hobby, but it’s also one that is limited by what machines are near you and how often you can get to the arcade.  Even in Boston the main DDR machine people played on was at an arcade at MIT, and that was just one mix. 

The good news is that there is another option in the form of Stepmania.  Stepmania is a video game that plays the same as DDR and is a rather good engine.  When you get Stepmania it only has three songs, but you also can load your stepfiles and simulators.  

There’s also Osu! probably saying that wrong, but it’s spelled O S U Exclamation point.  This is a simulator for the Ouendan Franchise, the most famous in America being Elite Beat Agent, but also has a mode similar to Taiko no Tatsujin, and another that plays like Bemani, or Beatmania, which was a keyboard simulator.    It also has this strange catch the fruit game which makes me laugh.

Both Stepmania and Osu! lets you load custom files and… listen, these become grey areas fast, but both games are a bit important because they aren’t about what song is the most popular on the radio but instead what plays the best.  Much of my favorite music came out of playing DDR and Stepmania where I found out about the genres of Super Eurobeat and Happy Hardcore.  Osu! actually has a featured artists list including my current favorite DJ S3rl (rhymes with Whirl, remove this when you say it, Frank) 

The thing is I probably wouldn’t find out about either of these genres if it wasn’t for Stepmania.  Without the ability to load my files  I also wouldn’t be able to play the music that meant something to me.  

Even games like Beat Saber, which is completely awesome, feel very limited until you load custom files, and my family played Beat Saber for hours, just finding new songs we wanted to try out.   Hearing music that matters to you enhances the experience.  But the biggest problem is getting games that have music you care about in it, not just the approved music list of the record labels.

A big issue with custom files is you are at the mercy of whoever makes the step files, beatmaps, or custom levels.  The quality level of the custom files will vary but that’s also part of the fun of trying out tons of new tracks because there’s a bit of pride to the people who excel at creating these files.  Though at the same time the idea is if you want to make your levels, you are fully able to and can make the steps anything you want to dance to. 

Of course, I feel the need to mention that all three of these games are completely legal, but the files most people will play with and the idea of custom files are… like I said, grey areas at best, and probably not as grey as people would have you believe.  While S3rl is a featured artist who does support it, many artists probably do not.  

But that’s a discussion for another day. I do want to talk about emulation and older games, but we will do that in another video.

So apparently we have two choices.  The RIAA approved game and the back alley engines, are there any other options. 

Before we go there, there is one other thing I want to talk about.  When I was younger and just was in the back of a car on a long drive, I would look out the window and think about driving along to music I was listening to and moving along the sound waves, doing insane tricks off the hills.  The music would become the level for my experience.

Visualizer existed, and everyone had one on Winamp but, no one made a game where you could play your music back then, and it’s been a long time, but there’s one series that tries to bring this dream to life. 

Audiosurf and Audiosurf 2.  These games try something a bit different, they allow the player to play their music.  Your music helps define the track of the level and you’re able to ride along with it and… I don’t know.  I’ll be honest, I disliked Audiosurf, and now that I’ve seen Audiosurf 2, I feel this is a great proof of concept that someone else needs to run with. 

The thing is while Audiosurf tries to do something with the music, the result never feels right. And while you are moving to the beat, your vehicles stop and start suddenly, and, in general, it’s not a very fun game. 

What’s important is that Audiosurf is based on MP3, and you can get those MP3 any way you want, preferably legally.  Perhaps ripping CDs yourself, or buying files online.  

Granted, in 2021, MP3s aren’t exactly the normal way to get music, but at least the concept here is good, and while I’m not a huge fan of Audiosurf, I feel like I have to bring it up because conceptually this is close to what I think would change this genre forever. 

I’ve struggled with this topic a bit because I don’t have a big bombshell, I don’t have a game that does everything right, I don’t have the solution, I’m sorry.  I feel like this is a problem that has yet to be fully solved.  Whether we need to wait for machine learning to figure out what sounds good, or someone to take Audiosurf’s idea and make it into the next big thing.  It’s become a waiting game.

But you know, there’s one last series, I do want to bring up, it’s perhaps the game that’s closest to what I think this genre needs. 

Beat Hazard and Beat Hazard 2, do something interesting.  It listens to the music playing on your system, analyzes it, and then generates gameplay based on it.  So whatever type of music you are listening to will give you a different experience.  

What’s important here is that the source of the music is no longer important.  If you have MP3s, just play them, if you want to listen to internet radio, it’s available.  Beat Hazard 2 opens up links in Spotify, for special daily events.  And it’s a game that tracks the signature of each song, so if you and another person play the same song, you’ll both be ranked on the same leaderboard. 

This sounds like what I have been asking for, and as I said, it’s pretty close.  But Beat Hazard lacks major changes with the music.  If you play with a hard bass track, versus a classic composition it will create a different experience and different speed to the game, but for the most part, your music is only one input to the game.

It also really could use an in-game integration with Spotify or other music sources.

Yes, Beat hazard isn’t a true rhythm game, it’s an action game that uses music to enhance its visualizations.  Though Beat Hazard is so much fun to play and the reason isn’t that it is some deep system, but rather that it lets me jam out to my music while playing a good game, and that music does at least add a little bit to experience the game. That’s really what I’m looking for.

But I feel like this, we’re approaching the third act of this story.  In the first act, we proved we can play in time with curated music.  Games like Parappa the Rapper, Bust a Groove, and even the recent Crypt of the NecroDancer are massive and work well.   Then we got the chance to emulate the musicians in a gamified way, whether that was dancing, or playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but I think in some ways we’re past that point.  Now what’s needed is the ability to let the user choose the music and give a unique experience based on the attributes of the song.  I think we’re close, as in this generation someone should be able to crack it, but I don’t think we’re there just yet. 

That’s what I have for this week.  So let me ask all of you. What’s your favorite music game or genre?  I’ve always had songs where I’ve thought “I want to play a game with this as the background track.”  So what song makes you say that? 

I hope you enjoyed this video.  I’m going to pop up my video from a couple of weeks ago about Open World games and why they’re boring, I go into a little of my game dev background there, and then I‘ll throw up another video for you to check out. 

Until then, I’m Kinglink, and thanks for watching.

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