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Deep dive with Harmonix's John Drake and Nick Chester: The full interview

I sat down with John Drake and Nick Chester of Harmonix recently to discuss the studio's upcoming game, Chroma—a musical shooter. Below is the full transcript of our chat. If you'd rather read my summary, feel free to do so here. Please note: this interview was conducted jointly with Nathan Grayson of Rock Paper Shotgun, so don't be surprised when you see his name pop up.

Chroma will enter closed alpha soon. To sign up, you can go to this website.

John Drake (JD): This is the best demo we've ever done. There's no gameplay. There's a sixty-second teaser trailer. And then us yelling at you.

In the middle do the words Bruno Mars appear on screen?

JD: [Laughs]

How big is the team working on this right now?

JD: It's about 25 people at Harmonix and about 15 people at Hidden Path. We're working with Hidden Path on the game, so they're doing—you know, they're the guys from Counterstrike: GO...

Nick Chester (NC): So maybe we should just start from the beginning. I mean, it sounds like you guys know a little bit about it already, I'm sure you've been talking to people.

JD: Word has traveled. So you know we're working on Fantasia which is for Xbox One and 360, and we have some mobile projects. We've been making music sims and sequelizing music sims for a long time. But this is the first PC game we've really ever made. We made The Axe, which was like a PC musical interactive toy, and that was eighteen years ago or something like that.

Since PC gaming has become a real, online networked thing that you can download digitally, we have not released a PC game. So we're pretty excited about it. It's rough right now. We wouldn't be showing it if we didn't want people to have some context for it because the concept is a little weird. If it was a normal shooter we'd just drop it and say "Hey, check our shooter out." Because it's a musical shooter and the follow-up questions are "What does that mean?", we figured we'd give a little bit of a prebrief.

chroma concept 02

We know that the art assets we have look like a really polished PS2 game. It's not like a high-end PC game yet. We'll get there. We have great concept artists and great teams working on what the art should look like. But we've been really focused on the mechanics and the fun for the alpha because we want to see if people like the idea of a musical shooter. What parts do they like? What parts don't they like? Making it beautiful is sort of a secondary concern for right now. By the time we get to open beta we'll obviously make it polished and pretty.

It's an arena first-person shooter all based around music. The hope is that music is meaningful to every moment of gameplay. You should always be able to think about the music and have some fun with the fact that that's in the game. Although, to be honest with you, the more we've played it this week the more it does just play like a shooter. If you're a completely a-musical person and you just want a different looking, different feeling shooter that's not another mod or brown-shooter coming out at the holiday—it's different. As someone who plays a lot of PC games that are not music games, it's nice to have something different to play.

So yeah, arena-based, multiplayer-focused, first-person shooter based around music. That's the quick high-level of it.

What kind of art style are you going for?

JD: I will show you a visual target trailer right now and you will see some of what we are talking about!

I would say it's a near-future—not full sci-fi but...

But it's not like Rayman Origins, like, "You're jumping on bongo drums!"

JD: [Laughs] No, it's not a dude holding a guitar like a cannon.

[Trailer plays]

JD: So yeah, the dubstep thing in its own right is a little difficult in terms of that trailer. The game is not a dubstep game. It makes it feel like it's that niche of music; it does have an electronica edge to it because we're talking...

Near future.

JD: Yeah, and it's twenty-minute matches that have a pulse underneath them, so that's sort of the best long-form music that we could use. But in the demo we have two teams. One sort of has a bit of a rock edge with more guitar stabs and acoustic drum effects and the other has a house music effect to it. We don't have a single weapon that does "the drop" basically is what I'm pointing out, but it feels a little like a game trailer trope to have a dubstep drop in your trailer.

Nathan Grayson (Rock Paper Shotgun): Could you combine your forces to create a drop?

JD: I have pitched similar features. Not in the alpha, but I would love to have some more monolithic things to do like that.

You also saw in the trailer, one of the things to mention from the Harmonix side is this is obviously for a core audience. We're shipping this on Steam, it's for PC gamers who like shooters, it's multiplayer-focused. This is not for like, your eleven-year-old cousin to try out—I mean, maybe they would, if they're good at shooters. But you wouldn't necessarily gravitate towards showing this to the family at Christmas.

But it's still important to us that the audience we bring to this, it's about music. And I get to be the marketing guy who gets to say "visceral" in a demo now. It has visceral violence. Like you do feel like you're shooting and blowing stuff up.

But in terms of viscera itself, it's not a blood and guts shooter. Alex, our CEO, his watchword when we started was, "It's not about human suffering. I don't want to see dudes getting ripped apart." There are plenty of games that do that. We play all those games. They're awesome. That's just not what this game is about.

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