Chroma is the new musically-charged shooter from Rock Band studio Harmonix. Dave Cook quizzes the team on how, exactly, the game’s beat-maching mechanics will work, and much more.
(Note: All the images in this piece are from an alpha build, and do not represent the final game)
I first caught wind of Chroma back in 2012, after the name popped up on a trademark website. Rumours started flying around the internet’s underbelly that it was a shooter project out of Harmonix, and that got me feeling a little down.
“Alex Rigopulos had this feverish vision of a shooter built out of music and light. It has gone through a lot of twists and turns, and continues to – we are still experimenting at a pretty core level.”
I’ve been a fan of the studio since Amplitude – I was late to Frequency – and I didn’t like the prospect of Harmonix moving away from its music focus to pump out some weak military shooter. The presumption that the team was trying to keep up with Call of Duty or Battlefield in a world growing increasingly cold towards music games was perhaps a little premature, but little did I know that Chroma was nothing like I’d feared.
Chroma’s still a music game; a music shooter actually, and it’s a concept so utterly new and bewildering that it’s hard to ignore. At base level it’s an arena shooter similar to Quake 3, complete with jump pads, boost plates and of course, a shed-load of guns. There’s also a musical component that sees both teams pushing their tunes over the whole map one territory at a time, and a beat-matching mechanic that rewards shots in time with the music.
It’s such a foreign concept that blends two familiar genres into something fresh, and as such; it requires a bit of head-scratching to fully comprehend. We know that each of the five classes and the game’s ten weapons interact with the beat in different ways, each packing their own musical effects and beat-match patterns, together with different bonuses for well-timed, rhythmic blasts. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive collaborator Hidden Path Entertainment is still in the early stages of development, but it’s working with Harmonix to make everything work as it should.
I wanted to know more about how Chroma blends music and gunplay, so I fired off a quick set of questions to Harmonix over email. Project Director and the studio’s Chief Creative Officer Greg LoPiccolo responded and stressed that the project went through a long prototyping phase before both teams decided to commit to the concept, and that early work only really started about a year and a half ago. Full development started last summer and the alpha phase is accepting registrations today. It’s clear that Chroma is far from complete.
“The Engineer class requires full-on beat-matching, which is tricky under fire, but really satisfying once you master it.”
On where the bonkers but brilliant concept came from, LoPiccolo explained, “This was very much [CEO & co-founder Alex Rigopulos’s] idea – he had this feverish vision of a shooter built out of music and light, and he gradually talked the rest of us into it. It has gone through a lot of twists and turns, and continues to – we are still experimenting at a pretty core level.”
On paper the concept does sound quite nuts, but again, new ideas often appear quite radical at first glance. The musical spin really informs each of Chroma’s classes, as LoPiccolo was kind enough to explain for us. “Each player class makes a different degree of musical demand on the player. For instance, the Assault class [final class name TBD] requires very little music skill – you just hold down the button, and damage comes out.
“At the other end of the spectrum, the Engineer class requires full-on beat-matching, which is tricky under fire, but really satisfying once you master it. The other classes are somewhere in between, so players can start playing more or less like a conventional shooter, then pick up the music skills as they progress.”
I’m already wary of spray and pray tactics from the countless months I put into each new Call of Duty title, and right now it’s unclear what’s stopping those who just want to play Chroma like a shooter from lone-wolfing their asses all over each arena. Chroma’s a team-based title after all, so one could assume that those simply holding down the trigger without consideration for the music or objectives will be balanced down somehow.
“We would love to see some licensed content in Chroma, but we also want to give our players a lot of creative control over sounds and music that come out of the game.”
On the musical game modes; LoPiccolo added, “There are a few music layers: your team is fighting for a song that plays in territory that you control, while the enemy song plays in territory that they control. If you capture territory – or the cart in cart-push maps – you get to hear your song. In the meantime, all the weapon audio is synchronized to the tempo and harmonic progression of the underlying song – so even if you are in a big firefight, all the weapon sounds track the underlying song. It is still sonically pretty crazy – this will be one of the big areas of focus for the Alpha period, to try to wrestle the weapon sounds into shape.”
The concept of spreading your team’s music across the map by capturing objectives is a new and neat spin on territorial control. Each team will come bringing their own genre – from heavy metal to drum and bass – and to hear both sides pushing their own tune against the other sounds just like LoPiccolo suggested. It sounds ‘crazy,’ but therein lies Chroma’s appeal.
I kept Rock Band in mind while typing up my questions to Harmonix, because while the series is lying dormant for now, it did prove to be a resounding success for the team – at least in its earliest incarnations. I asked if Chroma could eventually feature licensed music as part of the studio’s post-launch content tail. After all; the team has a strong record of generously-priced and regular add-on content across the Rock Band series, and seeing as its shooter is free-to-play, it’s not a stretch to assume there will be a similar DLC stream once Chroma launches.
My assumption could be off the mark however, as LoPiccolo replied, “We would love to see some licensed content in Chroma, but we also want to give our players a lot of creative control over sounds and music that come out of the game. We are still sorting through the licensing details at this point.”
It makes sense, as I get the feeling bands like Metallica might get a bit – shall we say – ‘lawyeriffic’ should Chroma players start remixing The Black Album with Skrillex. They’d probably chunder their gullets if they heard that. To bring our chat to a close I asked LoPiccolo to address many of the concerns I saw voiced by gamers following the shooter’s reveal. I told him that many sceptics believe that the concept is either unworkable, silly or too ambitious to succeed.
He replied, “Look, there is serious tension between classic shooter design and the kinds of mechanics that we are introducing to make the musical aspect of the game truly meaningful. Innovation is no picnic – not every idea works out.
“Look, there is serious tension between classic shooter design and the kinds of mechanics that we are introducing to make the musical aspect of the game truly meaningful. Innovation is no picnic.”
“Players will make up their own minds when they get a crack at the game, and a big part of the reason that we are developing in public (so to speak) is that we want to hear from our players to help us strike the right balance while development is still ongoing. I can say that our playtesting is currently super fun, and feels true to both the shooter and music aspects of the game.”
Of course; no chat with Harmonix would be complete without a question regarding the return of Rock Band. Harmonix has never said that the series is finished, and has always touted its return once the time is right, so I wanted to see how Chroma development has shifted those plans.
Unsurprisingly; he said, “We still love Rock Band, and hope to do another installment when the time is right.”
Oh well, not to worry, because Chroma is still damn interesting from where we’re sitting right now, but we’ll have to get our paws on it before making any kind of solid judgement call. We’ll try to get into the alpha phase so we can give you all the low-down. Stay tuned until then.