Chroma from Harmonix: Why I’m Excited as a Gamer and Musician

Harmonix (the creators of Rock Band) are prototyping Chroma, a video game that utilizes the mechanics of both first person shooters (FPS) and musical games such as Rock Band and Audiosurf. At its core it functions as an FPS, but here the soundtrack takes center stage, literally altering the course of battle. Musical gameplay mechanics include rhythmically placed speed pads, beat-matching combos for increased damage, a constantly changing map based on the selected song, and last but certainly not least a gun that literally shoots music.

From a technology standpoint, this game is really something to look at. There are a ton of things happening under the hood to make each feature run flawlessly in each match. Continuous spectrum analysis, calculations, and data manipulation need to occur every second on top of all the nitty gritty programming that makes this game a game in the first place. It’s not only an example of how powerful musical analysis can be, but how it translates into signal theory and its analysis.

Looking at this purely from a gamer’s standpoint, an ever-changing map adds a cool dynamic to a match. Perhaps you as a player can learn the exact moment in a song when the map will change and even know where on the map the optimal position for cover will be when the shift happens. Perhaps the other team does as well. As that song approaches this transition, both teams will rush to the same part of the map and intense fight will ensue. Essentially, the flow of gameplay has been improved as a direct result of the music.

Another example: perhaps your team has a sniper who just so happens to be a drummer with perfect rhythm. You’ll get combos for days. I mean can you say, “BOOM, HEADSHOT?” If features like these are executed properly, the FPS community could have another arena style shooter akin to Quake and Unreal Tournament on their hands—except with more music, which we could totally get behind.

But it’s important to note (ha) that the musical elements add many pitfalls that need to be avoided. Having guns that produce musical tones could get annoying very quickly if they aren’t automated. Not only that, if players are penalized for shooting out of rhythm or in the wrong melodic context it would make griefing a player’s team far too easy. Think feeders in League of Legends except these heartless demons ruin the song (the primary driver of match dynamics) while they’re at it.  That would literally ruin a match. And how would song choice play into a match? The team who picks the song would have the clear advantage, especially if they know all of that song’s map transitions (see the song transition example above). Either the song choice or the way the terrain modulates needs to be randomized to maintain some level of balance from match to match.

An interesting decision made by Harmonix is the use of original music produced by the studio. If you think back to the days of Guitar Hero for a second, you can recall that you played along with music by mainstream artists. We’re not trying to knock the folks producing the music over at Harmonix, but the tracks have to be really killer to not get stale.  Obtaining song licenses is complicated, but it would be a huge draw to the game, especially if players were able to do battle to their favorite songs. Think about it. If you thought Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert was crazy, can you imagine that level of chaos except with guns and modular terrain? That. I want that to be a thing.

Chroma is looking to be a very interesting player in the video game scene. With games like Rocksmith and Audiosurf gaining popularity, it would appear that gamers of the current generation are intrigued by the use of game mechanics driven by music. We’re going to keep an eye on this as development continues, and certainly give it a shot when it releases. I’m already excited to fry a screaming 12-year-old with my dubstep raygun of death.