Image courtesy of Harmonix

Harmonix on how it created powerful yet accessible music-creation game FUSER

March 5, 2021
Daniel Sussman is a music-gaming veteran who has been at Harmonix since the early 2000s. When not serving as the FUSER product manager, Daniel obsesses over his doom metal vinyl collection and tries his hardest to keep up with the latest TikTok trends.
In a time when people can’t attend crowded concerts, rhythm game FUSER is doing its part to help fill that void. Engadget even asserted that it may be the “perfect pandemic game.” Developed by Harmonix, creators of fan-favorite music games Rock Band and Dance Central, FUSER allows anyone to be a virtual DJ within a digital music festival experience. Not only do players have access to more than 100 songs from popular artists like Billie Eilish, Coldplay, and Lady Gaga, but they’ve got individual instrumental drum, vocal, guitar, and synth tracks at their fingertips. Pushing mixes even further, players can tweak a song’s key and tempo, and then share their sessions online.

To learn how Harmonix leveraged Unreal to create an incredibly powerful yet fun and accessible music-creation tool, we interviewed Product Manager Daniel Sussman, who also elaborates on how the studio built upon its past rhythm game experiences to develop FUSER.
 
 
FUSER
offers a surprising amount of depth with an unprecedented level of musical player agency. Was this one of the big overarching goals coming into the project? 

Product Manager Daniel Sussman:
Yes! One of our foundational statements in development was to allow players in FUSER to create mixes that they would want to share. Unpacking that statement, we had to develop a set of creative tools and features that allowed players to create mixes that they felt proud of and would also be interesting to other players in the community. FUSER’s gameplay is all about creative agency.

Having worked on popular music rhythm games like Rock Band and Dance Central, were you able to take anything from those experiences to build on for FUSER?

Sussman:
Yes, absolutely. Every game we work on introduces new concepts, features, and tech that we frequently revisit in later releases. With FUSER, we really wanted to celebrate DJ culture and offer the gaming community a new, refreshing take on what a music game could be. At the same time, you can see how our experience designing epic stage shows and authentic character animation for performance and dance in Rock Band and Dance Central helped us build out the epic music festival space that FUSER is set in.
Image courtesy of Harmonix
Unlike many other popular rhythm games like Rock Band and DJ Hero, FUSER requires no extra peripherals. Was there a conscious effort early on to leave physical hardware out of the equation? 

Sussman:
I wouldn’t say that we made a conscious effort to leave physical hardware out. We always approach custom peripherals with an open mind, but as we were developing the game, we didn’t feel that extra peripherals would add to the sense of immersion or the functional element of gameplay. So, it made sense to develop FUSER for mouse, keyboard, and controller. 

FUSER's user interface has been praised for its elegance and accessibility, which is especially important when you're pairing it with such a powerful music-making tool. Can you talk about your approach to designing it? Was there a lot of iteration involved?

Sussman:
From the outset of development, we were striving to make FUSER a welcoming place for players to express themselves creatively. We went through several iterations over the course of development, focusing on how much information to put in front of the person at one time and how we could arrange items in such a way that made it easy to access the deeper controls quickly during play. Items like the song list were changed multiple times; we adjusted the arrangement, sizing, number of items, and the data displayed over and over until we came to a solution that felt the best.

From the color scheme to the font choices, we wanted to make the UI as easy to read and understand as possible. The bright color choices and rounded edges were intentionally added to make a very powerful music-making tool feel less intimidating. It is easy to make great-sounding music in FUSER, and we wanted to reflect that through the game’s UI while also preserving the toolset’s depth.
Image courtesy of Harmonix
FUSER has been praised for being accessible to musical newcomers while being deep enough to be appealing to DJs. How did you manage that balance?

Sussman:
We put a lot of effort into the first 30 minutes of the game, thinking about how to introduce the concept and fantasy to players. One thing here: I feel like our soundtrack is a really key element of the game’s accessibility. Being able to combine elements of songs you are super familiar with is a big contributor to the magical feeling you get when you play FUSER. Then, as you get more comfortable with the UI and the basic premise, the game unfolds with a ton of new content, including instruments and effects. But that initial hook needs to be profound.

FUSER features an incredible lineup of over 100 songs across varying genres with isolated tracks for drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and more. Can you talk about what went into selecting the game's musical library?

Sussman:
We’re incredibly proud of the soundtrack.  We knew going in that the soundtrack for FUSER needed to be way more diverse than any of our previous games. Rock Band is a franchise that celebrates rock music.  Dance Central is a celebration of dance music and culture.  While FUSER is a DJ game, DJ culture is not just about EDM or dance music – DJs often layer in surprising elements and mash up all kinds of unique sounds as they create their own thing. We wanted the FUSER experience to revolve around that, so we targeted a very wide set of songs, covering music across a ton of different genres and styles as well as time periods.
Image courtesy of Harmonix
Despite sampling different tracks for drums, guitars, and synths from distinct, popular songs that have their own tempos and keys, mixing music in FUSER works surprisingly well, making it almost difficult to create music that sounds bad. Can you shed some light as to how that works under the hood? 

Sussman:
We have some very smart people who put a lot of effort into our mix engine. We also think about the boundaries of our mix engine when selecting music – there is definitely a sweet spot tempo-wise as well as some musical elements that we optimize for, like time signatures, chord progressions, and more.

FUSER allows players to either make music cooperatively or play against each other competitively, which can then be voted on by other players online. Can you share your innovative approach to multiplayer? 

Sussman:
I don’t consider FUSER to be a particularly competitive experience, though, as with most games, it can be really fun to compare your skills to other players. The cooperative Freestyle mode is really all about that creative DJ battle – showcasing your style to the spectators in the session.  In our Battles mode, the game is really more of a straight-up battle of skills where players are demonstrating their mastery of the interface and their ability to find the right loop for the right moment. They are very different experiences. That said, one thing we wanted to make sure was present in all of our multiplayer modes (and across the entire game) was the music festival narrative and that sense of being your best creative self. FUSER is all about the music, whether you are collaborating or competing. You are a DJ on stage, mixing elements of some of the biggest songs in music history.
Image courtesy of Harmonix
Because FUSER lets players make and share music online, some sites like Engadget are suggesting it may be the “perfect pandemic game." How does this make the studio feel?

Sussman:
I feel like FUSER definitely fills a void – I know that I had tickets to shows and music festivals that were canceled (as did a great many people), and so I do get some satisfaction out of popping into the FUSER universe and getting a live music fix. I’m happy that other people feel that way as well.

Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for FUSER?

Sussman:
The engine did a great job at providing us with out-of-the-box coverage for all of our target platforms while still providing us the flexibility to adapt systems to FUSER's somewhat bespoke needs (such as the renderer and input systems). It also provided us with out-of-the-box networked multiplayer support, which our in-house-engine at the time definitely lacked.
Image courtesy of Harmonix
FUSER features colorful graphics, six epic venues, and a plethora of lighting effects and pyrotechnics that contribute to creating a lively, vivid show. Can you talk about how you approached nailing the look of the game?

Sussman
: We have a lot of people on our staff who know quite a bit about developing epic stages and light shows and authentic character animation for performance and dance. We wanted the stages to feel different from each other but also for each to be a showpiece of epic proportions. One aspect of FUSER that is unprecedented in the context of other Harmonix titles is the level of customization we offer in the venue space. Players can select their lighting palettes, the stage, crowd FX, the video screens that each stage features, and more. Players can also select the time of day. All of that customization informed the underlying tech that we developed to build out the stages, lighting rigs, and everything else.  

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about FUSER and Harmonix?

Sussman:
Check us out at www.fuser.com and also on the Epic Game Store.

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