Harmonix has sure had a run.
Though most will immediately think of them as the company that flooded living rooms with plastic guitars, I remember back to the time I spent with their opening gambit on the PS2, Frequency. Now, I’ve written about Frequency before and how it was a particularly special game for me, but its also notable for just how perfectly it represented the Harmonix mission statement as a whole, offering a gateway for music lovers to engage with it without having to actually be proficient at an instrument. This would, of course, carry through the rest of their catalog, making them a source of consistent innovation, even if said innovations didn’t always light the world on fire.
Unfortunately, Harmonix is long past that peak. Those same guitars now infest basements and thrift stores, reminding us of a music game hysteria that may never return. Still, they persist, even through years of rough turnover and a struggle to find their place in the modern landscape. Rock Band 4 felt like a last attempt to recapture the magic, a reunion tour of sorts for our aged virtual band long after the novelty had worn off for most. For a team with such a persistent vision, but unable to go back to those familiar hits ever again, where was music gaming left to go?
Dropmix answers that, in a way, but also leaves us with more questions.
Let’s get something out of the way first – Dropmix is incredibly cool. In fact, it’s one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played, introducing some mind-blowing new tech whilst at the same time taking me back to those memories I had of Frequency; when I would spend hours creating sonic masterpieces that only I would ever hear. It’s a game that you instantly want to show to other people (and in my case, rather persistently) because you need them to know that such a weird, awesome thing exists.
Then, of course, comes the part when you actually do try to explain it. In that moment, you likely have the same problem that Harmonix’s marketing team did.
Is it a board game? Not really. Is it a video game? Kinda. I mean, look, you just have to try it.
This is where the problems for Dropmix begin. It’s similar to VR in that way. You can tell your friends about how fun it is. They may even believe you, but they’ll likely still not care to put on that headset. Bringing a giant box to a social gathering and telling people you want to play a kinda-sorta card game is a tough sell. It’s why a lot of Dropmix owners will skip the “game” aspects entirely and just use it to be a virtual DJ. While the multi-player Clash mode is serviceable, the solo Freestyle feature is arguably the only thing you’ll ever need to have a good time.
Using a board with colored panels, every Dropmix card represents an instrument track, typically from a famous song. Connecting the board to the mobile app will then play whatever combination of cards you happen to put down, adjusting the BPM and key so that they all sound (relatively) good together. While some rare combinations will sound downright offensive, Harmonix is generally telling the truth when they say it’s difficult to make a bad mix, and have built a feature within the app to allow you to save and share your favorites. Once again, I’m reminded of my Frequency remixes that will forever remain unappreciated on my memory card, feeling somewhat vindicated that I can now spam my Twitter feed with 47 variations of Call Me Maybe.
By default, the game comes with 60 cards, though it’s important to point out that doesn’t mean 60 songs. You see, since each card is only one instrument track, the guitar and vocals of the same song, for example, would be two different cards. There’s a lot of variety, for sure, but it also means that the starter pack and the expansions are separated in a weird, arbitrary manner, loosely categorized by genre. One song’s individual parts could be spread across four different packs, some of which are retailer exclusive. You can begin to see the problem here.
Many of these retailers aren’t even aware they carry Dropmix, let alone where it can be found in their stores. My local Target had it thrown behind the Plug and Play machines in the gaming section, but had the card expansions over in the toy area. My local Walmart had it with the board games. My local Gamestop had it tucked under a pile of Funko Pops.
Granted, everything in Gamestop is tucked under a pile of Funko Pops.
So we have an incredible product that’s hard to market and hard to merchandise, and you can see why Dropmix hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. The price doesn’t help either, though Amazon has recently offered the game at a significant discount from its original $100 MSRP. The same can’t be said for the card packs, which are becoming increasingly rare. One in particular, Astro, is fetching prices as high as $40 or $50 in some locations. This is for 16 cards. This isn’t even taking into account the smaller five card “discover” packs, which are even harder to find. I’ve had some luck, as a savvy consumer going out of my way to pester every poor employee I could find, but the chances of a new customer stumbling into a display and buying Dropmix sight unseen are low, and it’s for that reason that I worry for the future of a game that only released back in September.
As it stands, Harmonix are still on schedule to release more expansions in 2018, including a pair of Country packs, but have nothing announced beyond that. I still play the game every day, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in a mad scramble to find cards because I worry the game could be discontinued at any moment. It’s a shame, really, because Dropmix, in many ways, is the ultimate realization of that Harmonix promise – a way to feel like a musician without any barriers for talent, only imagination.
Look, you just have to try it.