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.