Harmonix’s Chroma: A Musical FPS Aiming To Do F2P Right

By Nathan Grayson on February 18th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Chroma is, however, Harmonix’s first crack at free-to-play, which could spell disaster in less dedicated hands. But between a firm no-pay-to-win stance and a partnership with Defense Grid and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive developer Hidden Path, things certainly seem to be on the right track.

It kind of blew my mind the first time someone explained to me why Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon syncs up so well with The Wizard of Oz. “Because duh, you idiot,” they said, “music syncs up with everything.” And yep, sure enough, it pretty much does. Play a song over a video, and you’ll have countless moments where it sure seems like the two are working in tandem.

In other words, it’s not all that difficult to do things on a beat. Sometimes it just kind of happens on its own, especially – oddly enough – in combat. When people fight, whether in real life or in games, a rhythm forms. You find a groove and stick with it. Some of the most satisfying moments in games are born of rhythm, zen states of intoxicating motion and control. Bouncing from place-to-place at a perfect pace, nailing a perfect headshot without missing a beat, knee-sliding like you’re shredding through the ultimate cybertronic guitar solo in Vanquish (which I am devastatingly depressed will probably never get a PC port, because goddamn) – those sorts of things.

Harmonix and Hidden Path’s plan? To make that notion literal.

“The first [way we incorporate rhythm] is generative music,” explained Harmonix’s John Drake. “Weapons you fire are creating sounds, which sounds kind of dumb when you say it like that because yes, in video games weapons you fire create sounds. But we have a spray-and-pray machine gun in our assault class that you hold down the trigger and it shoots a lightbeam weapon out of the front of it. And that lightbeam is both musically reactive so it actually has the waveform shape of the thing it’s playing so you can actually see this cool lightshow coming out of the end of your gun that feels like it’s part of the song you’re playing. And it also plays back a sample that you can customize in your loadout.”

“Which by yourself is fine. You can hear your stream turning on and off. But when you’re playing with eight versus eight in a small part of the arena and you have multiple people shooting weapons that are all snapped to the grid so the sounds they’re playing back all feel musical, you can actually hear one team sort of washing over the other team. It’s like, ‘Oh, the Industrial team just swept into this area and crushed the House Music team.’ And you just hear the House Music slow, bits and pieces fall off as people die and de-rez and fade away. Suddenly they capture the point and their song pops up in the sky and it becomes their territory that they control.”

That’s just the beginning of the genre slurry, too. Think rock ‘n’ roll, tons of electronic styles, and – yes – dubstep, and you’ll be standing on the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, if Harmonix gets its way, the future holds licensed tunes and the ability to upload your own music. But if Chroma was simply a game of guns that bring noise and funk in addition to, you know, death, it wouldn’t be particularly unique. I mean, it’s a fun idea, sure, but Saints Row’s dubstep gun says hi. That’s where the beat track underlying the entire level enters the picture.

“The second is that rhythm matching/beat matching thing of, ‘Hey, you hit on the downbeat to enter the fast travel system we have, or to jump or to dash.’ There’s actually a crazy fast-travel system in the game. These jump pads that are beat-matching. They don’t work unless you jump on the downbeat. If you jump on the downbeat, you get launched into these tubes and then you can chain them together. There’s whole note, half note, and quarter note ones, so you’ll actually play a rhythmic pattern and ping pong around parts of the map around the outside.”

“And there are a few weapons that you have to beat-match to fire the weapon. There’s one class called the Engineer class where he has a Guitar Hero-style track going into the reticle with two notes and you Left Mouse Button/Right Mouse Button to the beat to fire. If you hit not on the beat, your gun doesn’t fire. And that’s incredibly difficult. It’s not a normal mechanic, and it adds a whole layer of difficulty. So if you’re a hardcore shooter player, hey, new hard thing for you to do.”

Alternatively, if you’re great at rhythm games and lousy at shooters, there’s also a lock-on option for that particular class so you can focus on conducting the ultimate bullet symphony sans hectic, heat-of-the-moment distractions. Other classes, of which there are five total (assault, engineer, tank, support, and sniper), might cater more to one audience than the other, or they might end up smack dab in the middle. That gets to the heart of Harmonix’s goal with Chroma: to appeal to both rhythm fans and shooter fans, to give both ends of the spectrum options to both revel in their skills and succeed without unbalancing the whole game. It’s one heck of a tall order, but when your heritage lies in games that have become household names, playability for all humans is kind of your modus operandi.

Which is not to say that Chroma’s going to have all the depth of a top-40 bubblegum pop song. Notes of music-infused nuance are this game’s heartbeat. Take, for instance, level design: it shifts in accordance with each song, as do spawn points and other chunks of game world that are typically set in stone. Sounds disorienting, right? Well, that’s the idea.

“We give you a little four-bar preview where we draw in some geometry in wireframe and at that moment, the geometry will grow out of the world and the beacon you were trying to capture is suddenly forty feet in the air and have a bunch of fortifications around it, or a sniper tower will spawn in the corner of the map,” said Drake.

“Which the first time you play it is completely disorienting and crazy, but once you play a map once or twice with that song you’ll know, ‘Oh, I have to be here at this point in the music.’ You start to hear the build-up to a certain section and you’re like, ‘I have to get to the southwest corner because I’m a sniper and if I’m there, I can get in that tower and I can own the next two minutes of the game.’ So you’ll see four snipers just meleeing each other in the corner trying to be the last man standing.”

Then imagine players learning of that tendency, preying on packs of preoccupied snipers, snipers adapting and forming new strategies around that, and well, you get the idea.

But of course, there is still cause for concern. The ominous horn dirge at this one’s celebratory announcement parade? Free-to-play. A console developer diving headlong into the trenches of PC risks stumbling into the barbed pit of haphazard microtransactions, but Harmonix insists that it’s done its homework.

“Because we’re not always the biggest fans of how free-to-play works out, it’s super not pay-to-win, no hard paywalls,” Drake offered earnestly. “We are not trying to make the game gross. We’ll do aesthetic options and customization for characters. One of the things we’re doing that I think will be different is the ability to customize your music loadout. Maybe you’ll buy packs like, hey you want to buy an Industrial pack? It’ll be a synth pad for your Support class, a percussion pad for your Engineer class, and a lead pad for your sniper or whatever. You can get your team sounding like they look. I think that’s a thing that most games have not gone hard at, but for this game it’ll be extremely important – the ability to establish your musical identity.”

“The monetization stuff is very secondary to the primary game mechanics right now, but I think beyond that: XP buffs, accelerants, and things like that, yes. But the ability to buy a golden gun that turfs a map and kills everybody? Fuck that.”

But what about musical genres with faster tempos or other more pronounced elements? Will those confer a power bonus? Will one genre rule them all, thereby allowing people to pay-to-win in a rather roundabout fashion? Not according to Drake, who explained that every genre will be equal in basic power. Harmonix is, however, still trying to figure out things like rhythm matching patterns with extra notes. “The question right now the team is working through is if it’s four versus eight, does each note in the four one do twice as much damage as the eight one? Or is it like, you can do way more damage with an eight-note pattern but it’s way harder, so there’s an added challenge to do that extra damage?”

But that’s hardly surprising, given that the game is still in a very early alpha phase. So, what’s a developer to do? If you didn’t just guess “Steam Early Access,” I want to change places with you and rediscover what it was like when the world still consisted of possibility and slyly beckoning mysteries around every corner. This is a real alpha, though. We’re talking missing graphics, barebones modes and systems, lighting that needs to be rebuilt – everything. It’s technically playable, but it still has a very, very long way to go.

However, despite only recently being born into the Harmonix family, Chroma is already picking up the pace from a crawl to a full-blown marathon sprint. Progress has been fast, to a point where Drake wasn’t even sure how much the version press got to see during D.I.C.E. would resemble the Early Access alpha that’s launching later this month. That’s encouraging, because a game of so many shifting puzzle pieces will almost certainly need to fall on its face multiple times before it can dust itself off and head in the right direction.

The short version? Maybe wait a tick before leaping into the alpha. And try to do it on a downbeat.

Note: This ended up being a dual interview with PCWorld, the full transcript of which those folks have kindly posted hereabouts. Give it a read if you enjoy jokes at the expense of Enya.

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40 Comments »

Top comments

  1. JanusForbeare says:

    “Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.”

    After watching 30 Rock, I’ve decided that I don’t want any wealth that may be found there. Explanation below.

    Kenneth: I remember growing up in Stone Mountain, my whole family would go down to the Chuckle Hut.

    Jack: That’s the local comedy club?

    Kenneth: Oh, no, sir, It’s a Chuckle Hut. You see, the chuckle is the part of the pig between the tail and the anus. But at night, the Chuckle Hut becomes the Laugh Factory. And that’s a comedy club.

  1. aliksy says:

    Being able to upload your own music sounded really fun, until I realized I would be playing with people on the internet. I know there’d be porn sounds and hate speech within minutes.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    XP buffs

    Agh, please no. I was really getting pretty hyped about this until the looming figure of persistent unlocks cast its joyless shadow across the piece.

    • Grygus says:

      Solution: view newbiness as a virtue and shun all experienced players. The Chuckle Hut server is for people with low XPectations.

    • aliksy says:

      Solution 2: Gaining XP makes the game harder. You start with a lot of HP/Armor/other perks i can’t think of now, and as you level up you lose your handicap.

      Mostly I just want to see “time = power” die an undignified death. Win from skill, not from grind.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Well, as he says, nothing’s set in stone yet. Maybe get in on the alpha and have a chance to influence things?

  3. JanusForbeare says:

    “Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.”

    After watching 30 Rock, I’ve decided that I don’t want any wealth that may be found there. Explanation below.

    Kenneth: I remember growing up in Stone Mountain, my whole family would go down to the Chuckle Hut.

    Jack: That’s the local comedy club?

    Kenneth: Oh, no, sir, It’s a Chuckle Hut. You see, the chuckle is the part of the pig between the tail and the anus. But at night, the Chuckle Hut becomes the Laugh Factory. And that’s a comedy club.

  4. Phasma Felis says:

    This sounds absolutely amazing and I am applying for the closed alpha immediately. Setting visual effects to a musical beat is such a powerful, visceral thing. I don’t understand why it’s relatively uncommon even in places where you’d expect it to be ubiquitous, like music videos.

  5. Phasma Felis says:

    Trailer was a lot of fun, too. I’m waiting for all the usual dubstep-haters to go into conniptions of joy at the image of the dubstep-gun-guy vaporized by a single piano note.

    • NonCavemanDan says:

      Is it wrong that I felt slightly smug at that moment? I’d love this to have a Classical team, purely for the fun of vaporising the opposition to the lilting tones of The Waltz of the Flowers.

    • particlese says:

      I actually like me a sprinkling of dubstep here and there, but yeah, I totally had a conniption of joy there. As NonCavemanDan said, I would love to be able to make a classical team. I might even attempt getting good at a multiplayer game for once, just for the shear joy of destroying ravers with my bassoonzooka of doooooooooom. Peter and the Wolf Grandpa ftw. Although I might very well recoil if the music is too recognizable…

      It reckon it will take a lot of doing to make all these genres work well together anyway, but if they can get classical in there, ho ho! Scout McMillan’s Polyhymnia (aka the music behind the SR4 dubstep gun) comes to mind as a potential result that does not displease me. Or I could even go for just some horns, which somehow made me love all the pop songs on Mark Ronson’s Version. :|

      • NonCavemanDan says:

        I don’t actually mind dub-step that much it’s just I realised that, what with public domain laws, you’ve got EVERY SINGLE PIECE of Classical, Romantic, Baroque etc. music up for grabs. Also, because a lot of older stuff follows classical musical structure a lot closer, it could actually be easier to fit it in with other genres and still be complicated enough to give enough variance to Chroma’s musically mutating map.

        I’m just going to put these as an example of mixed-up genres:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-izl6PECXWs
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOSIAKbXzE8

        (I’m slightly too excited as the possibilities of this game :D )

        • particlese says:

          HMMM! I hadn’t thought about the licensing aspect and the jiving of overall structures…definitely re-excited, especially since I really liked that Sky piece* and really didn’t like the violin one until I considered makin’ gibs to it (where it magically became excellent). I still don’t understand my own taste in music sometimes…

          *Vaguely relatedly: I went to a Boston concert in 2005-ish where Scholz rose out of a foggy stage in a cape and played the opening ~3 minutes of the Bach piece on a synthesized organ while a (fake) set of organ pipes rose in the back of the stage, and that segued into The Launch, which went into Cool the Engines…or something like that! I was too busy being blown away by the mini classical concert in the middle of an already excellent classic rock concert.

      • LionsPhil says:

        bassoonzooka

        If they don’t let people buy weapon-naming labels in microtransactions, they are missing a trick here.

        Also, holy crap, hadn’t heard the full version of the SR dubstep gun music. That’s beautiful. (Although apparently of disputed ownership?)

        • particlese says:

          That is a fantastic idea.

          Also, holy crap, hadn’t heard of the disputed ownership thing, and I think I kinda really like the KPM album it “actually” comes from…I say “holy crap” because you said it first (neener neener) and because my tastes in modern dance music are ridiculously specific — I can’t stand most of it, but I somehow cannot get enough of Klaypex’s music* and about five other songs all by different people/groups. Same with metal, but that’s ~off-topic.

          *Their own videos are a bit…*DO NOT WANT face*, but they’re the musicians behind Corridor Digital’s original Dubstep Guns, which is basically a sampler of their first album. And not actually dubstep, according to some…my favorite description I’ve seen is “complextro”, which fits some of their stuff perfectly and I’m going off-topic again. Good night.

          Edit: Just in case someone gets excited by this comment thread: Klaypex doesn’t actually have any classical instruments or melodies in it that I can think of, but it seemed relevant because of the guns wot spout dubstep.

    • Tams80 says:

      Don’t be silly. It would be vanquishing those dastardly dub-steppers to the dulcet tones of The Bieber.

    • Velko says:

      Why does “multiple genres” in music games usually mean “dubstep, electronica and hard rock”? I’m quite certain there won’t be a Big Band Swing team in this game, and that makes me so sad. Imagine blasting away to the tune of Take The A Train.

  6. Jenks says:

    “The monetization stuff is very secondary to the primary game mechanics right now, but I think beyond that: XP buffs, accelerants, and things like that, yes. But the ability to buy a golden gun that turfs a map and kills everybody? Fuck that.”

    So F2P done right is not selling weapon cheat codes (because “fuck that”), it’s selling level granting cheat codes.

  7. Gap Gen says:

    Defend the bass! No-holds-barred violins!

  8. steves says:

    “Some of the most satisfying moments in games are born of rhythm, zen states of intoxicating motion and control. Bouncing from place-to-place at a perfect pace, nailing a perfect headshot without missing a beat, knee-sliding like you’re shredding through the ultimate cybertronic guitar solo”

    Yes. YES!

    I was playing Borderlands 2, probably about the 3rd character, getting quite good by that point, had lucked into the perfect anti-robot weapon for the first proper mad assault, and then this music kicked in:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOzwPinlrjA

    and I swear to God I’m shooting, and jumping, and dodging and even *reloading* in time with the beat and I’M A GOD OF MOTHERFUCKING DESTRUCTION…if this comes close to that, they are on to a winner.

  9. particlese says:

    “wait a tick before leaping into the alpha”

    Balls to that! Many of these gameplay concepts have been kicking around in my Shower Thoughts for the past few years (since Aquaria, for some reason), and I’m absolutely ecstatic that someone with actual dev chops is doing something along these lines! The level mutation is my favorite bit, possibly because it’s the main thing that hadn’t yet crossed my mind, and it’s potentially awesome. I do dislike “rhythm games” in general as they always feel cheap to me (as well as completely useless when fed classical, jazz, etc), and I additionally dislike RockBand/GitHero for strongly associating certain visuals and actions with songs I like/recognize, but MAN I’m looking forward to this game now!

    Heck, I’m even hopeful about the f2p aspect I generally fear and loathe so very much. If the base game has some meat to it and there’s [insert impossibly specific dance subgenres here] and (I pray) horn rifs and classical…blurbs to wield, I can actually see myself throwing a few monies at it.

  10. Tams80 says:

    Finally something other than Audiosurf.

    I know there’s Beat Hazard, but I’ve never felt that the game was connected to the music other than volume wise and a little bit of the addition of ‘instruments’ through gameplay. Mainly the volume and if I wanted that I’d just play with the volume mixer.

    Edit: The UK under ‘GB – United Kingdom’ in the sign up. Really?!

  11. Geebs says:

    Hmm, everything on the downbeat, eh? Team Funk is going to have a hard time, and Team Reggae is utterly screwed.

    • NonCavemanDan says:

      When it talks about the fast-travel system of jump pads it mentions ones that are activated on the whole note, half note and quarter note (resist…temptation…to correct them…as…semi-tones and quavers!) so I assume Harmonix have got plans for genres that have more syncopation in them.

    • itsbenderingtime says:

      Sir, you give Team Funk too little credit. All we have to do is remember Team Captain George Clinton’s scouting report that “Everything Is On The One“.

      And yes, you’d better believe that This Funk Is Loaded. (lyrics on that one are a bit NSFW)

  12. The Random One says:

    Dubstep Gun, too short was thy kingdom.

  13. SuicideKing says:

    Imagine forcibly turning a 4/4 time signature to something like 9/8 or 13/8, just to fuck with the other team.

  14. strangeloup says:

    Team Mathcore for me. Fuck your traditional time signatures.

    Also, this sounds amazing, and will almost certainly break my previously established No Early Access rule.

  15. Nixitur says:

    They are constantly talking about feedback in the interview and that makes me slightly nervous. After all, when asked, people will generally prefer stuff they know over stuff they don’t know, even if the latter could be very exciting and fun.
    So, I do hope they’ll stick to their guns and won’t obey the community, taking out most of the musical elements.

  16. isailing says:

    Third wave ska team anyone? Knockin’ heads to the Reel Big Fish sounds mighty mighty (Bosstones) appealing….

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