The Tyranny of Small Decisions

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To quote Bill Hicks

Matt Green
England
Horsham
West Sussex
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Microbadge: DropMix fanMicrobadge: Oh no! Not that woodworm again!Microbadge: There's always room for one more!Microbadge: I love BugsMicrobadge: Flicky Spaceships fan
Morning folks, it's a guest post from Matt. I'll try to keep it clean and keep it interesting. Those of you that know me know that second one is going to be the real challenge.

This is a story about what happens when something goes wrong.

One of the things I love about this blog and John's approach to gaming in general is that the line between analogue and digital games often blurs and this is taken in the stride of the narrative for TToSD without need for explanation. This is a stance I totally agree with. I want to play the best games out there and sometimes the best games are digital. There are many periods of time within my gaming history when I spent a lot of time enjoying a game in front of a computer screen. I'm a bit of a game mechanism junky; I like weird stuff that makes you consider what a game is or makes you consider a type of game differently. There's no reason the synapses I particularly like firing should care that I'm around a table pushing cardboard, online talking with a guild in a chat room or bashing mugs in time to sea shanties with strangers in a museum on the South Bank. It's all the same experience to me. If you want to know a bit more: it's here.

Board Game: DropMix

This is a eulogy of sorts to Dropmix- because life just isn't damn well fair sometimes and marvellous projects from passionate people end badly through no fault of theirs. Dropmix is a creation of Harmonix, a design and development house best known for musical computer games that partnered with Hasbro to release Dropmix in 2017. I first came across Harmonix on a now defunct web message board dedicated to a 90s indie/noise/shoegaze band called Curve, whom I had and still have a great deal of time for. At some point in 2000/2001 they submitted a track to a forthcoming PlayStation 2 game called FreQuency. Curve's track, Worst Mistake (...ah, the foreboding irony), was a locked track at the end of level 3 (of 5) on normal mode. Fair, you might think. Well, this was the first game from a new company and Harmonix are staffed by a lot of music geeks whom were obviously really very good at console games, by which I mean: you needed the reflexes of Mr Miyagi to play that game well. It's far from impossible, my daughter skins me at it regularly, but it took me a concerted month of play learning the four other tracks on that level to open the Curve track. After which I stopped, exhausted.

From gallery of mgreen02

FreQuency is a touch intense. You journey through a musical track on rails. Each rail is one side of an octagon that contains one part of the track, in this case the drums. With that in mind, all one has to do is push the buttons in time with the music and switch around the octagon to the next part of the track. This is the non-competitive single player mode, there's a two player competitive mode and you used to be able to play this online too, where the player base were absolutely inclusive and really looked to grow the game in a non-threatening nurturing fashion.

That was the only track Curve submitted to a Harmonix game, the feedback from FreQuency being that if you have to go to extreme lengths to listen to the track, few people will bother. Curve's history is littered with incidents of bad luck and missed opportunities and this is an example of both. There's an alternate universe where Guitar Hero featured a Curve track and they got enough mainstream attention to keep the wheels rolling for a little longer than they managed, but that's probably another story. I liked FreQuency a whole lot. I also like Rez (play it, it's incredible) and Shadow of the Colossus for similar reasons and I still have a PS2. I kept tabs on Harmonix afterwards but felt a little self-conscious about holding a plastic guitar in my living room.

Fast forward to 2017 and DropMix. I think I saw first mention of this in an Ars Technica article and it tripped a load of mental switches- I needed to investigate this. Grab a beverage- things are about to get incredulous and weird.

DropMix is a music game, this shouldn’t surprise you. It’s also an app-based card game that would struggle exist in any other form. The app links via Bluetooth to a ‘board’ or desk with five card trays that receive CCG standard sized cards that contain near field communication (NFC) chips that instruct the app to play a certain component of a certain song (the vocals from Call me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen; the guitar loop from It’s Tricky by RUN DMC et cetera). Players play cards onto the board that instructs the app to include or overwrite section of the mix that is created. There are several games that can be played with the components: puzzle modes, cooperative mode and a competitive mode and it is that last one I want to look at a bit more.

From gallery of mgreen02

A fairly typical DropMix card that contains an NFC chip that will result in the app playing the drum track of Emperor’s New Clothes by Panic! At the Disco. There is a subtly large amount of information on the card, all of which can be used by the game: it is blue and so can only be played in the blue trays on the deck; it is a level 3 card (top right corner) and so can be played on top of level 1, 2 or 3 cards but has a 60% chance of being removed on a drop attempt; it has an instrument type (drums); an artist name; a song title and a set icon.

As well as being a mixing desk and card tray the ‘board’ also has a single, chunky, slam-it-with-your-palm-with-panache DropMix button that gives you a chance to potentially drop the opponent’s cards out of the mix leaving your own behind. This is the gist of the competitive game: it’s a ladder race to 21 points with some cunning scoring options hooked up to a set of cards that are similar in their majority but have a fascinating fringe section that opens up a game that madly appeals to an old combo-loving CCG player. There are some cards that are not parts of songs; they are instead fragments or loops of music that have an effect on the game state. So, one might allow you to lay an additional red card, one might give you an additional point for every guitar card you have in the mix and one might give you an extra point for each component of the same song you have in play, and it is in these white cards that the competitive ‘Clash Mode’ game starts to take shape.

From gallery of mgreen02

DropMix Board. Image from Ars Technica.

If all the cards were the same vocals on yellow/guitars on red/drums on blue/keyboards on green type, the game would be trivial and dull. The joy in having a lot of DropMix cards is finding the weird cards, the edge stuff, the cards that look the same at first glance but have an icon in the 'wrong place'. The beatboxer with vocals on blue, the Dr Who theme with keyboards on yellow, the horns (trumpets/sax/…didgeridoo) that appear on yellow, red and green, and the insanity and masterful execution of the multi-colour cards. These suckers contain track component information from all four colours and have a different instrument type depending on the tray they are played in. You can play Jolene for the vocals in the yellow tray (and why wouldn’t you?) but you can also play the percussion track in the blue tray. This is where Harmonix’ brilliance in execution comes in: if the tracks were played raw it would result in a cacophony, the multicolour cards alter the time signature of the mix to fit it to the component of the track played. It’s nuts- outright witchcraft. It leads to some mixes of rare beauty and some of great comedy for which there is a save function handily provided on the app.

For those with a card-flopping history, the kinds of stunts you can pull with tuned decks of cards are fantastic. Players get a base of 2 actions per turn to either play a card or hit the button and draw 2 from their decks at the end of their turn. Start with four cards, hand limit of seven, bonus of two pints if you have control of all five trays. Have at you. Bring the noise. I’ll take on your Baker Street horns deck with my Black Eyed Peas track-matcher deck.

One place I didn’t see Dropmix in 2017 was at ToyFair. ToyFair is an industry exhibition of new toys and games held in London every January. I happened to be in London and wanted to pick up a copy of a game from a publisher (long story) so went along. It’s an industry event in the sense that when you book a ticket they ask you to tick a box saying that you work in the industry. This stringent check and the draconian enforcement of a ‘no children’ rule keeps out the riff raff and ensures a surreal experience of adults looking earnestly at talking toys whilst discussing stock transit options and potential increased footfall of Tasmanian Devil branded point-of-sale units. Hasbro signed an exclusive deal with GAME for DropMix in the UK, so it wasn’t on the ToyFair stand. GAME is the sort of utterly generic no-value-added computer game retailer that dealt with the writing on the wall by flogging pre-orders of triple A games with embossed boxes until they went bust leaving a few struggling franchisees in 2018. Obviously. This was the only outlet for DropMix in the UK for 12 months. Did I mention the distribution model for this game? I didn’t? Probably not- because it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and makes me want to cry.

Unfortunately the western world is currently overpopulated, media saturated and entrenched in capitalism. A direct result of this situation is that people exist who are employed in marketing departments. Their decisions are made on apparent whims that sometimes work and are ascribed to genius and sometime fail utterly whereby the originator takes a position at another company for the same money and gets another go whilst the technical team for the failed project carry the can before being laid off. A good few people hanker after a career in the games industry whereas I used to work for Wizards of the Coast and consequently am not one of those people. The Wizards marketing department went out for a lot of lunches and bemoaned the body odour of the customers. They didn’t find it necessary to learn how to play any of the portfolio.

Hasbro make Pie Face and Don’t Step in It! As premises go, whipped cream and faeces are concepts easier to grasp than music track composition and whilst I’m sure a lot of the folks responsible for getting DropMix to market thought the card doohickey was neat, I don’t think many really grasped the intricacies. But card game, right? They’re all collectible nowadays- that’s such a hot strategy right now, we sell that Magic thing that does well. We should totally do collectible for this. To lunch! And so it came to pass that a base set cost $129.99 (or £129.99, because….yeah) with 16 card packs with RRPs of $29.99 (or £29.99- you get the picture, but don’t worry direct ordering from Amazon US was cheaper) and 6x8 card packs sold in blind cases for $14.99 (what on earth…? Every different pack had the same barcode making it impossible to ensure complete packs of 6 were sent to each store). There were also exclusive packs sold through Toys R Us, Best Buy, Target and Amazon. The 30 card packs were packaged like vinyl albums which had a fierce amount of plastic packaging to display the cards that further drove the price up. Music licencing isn’t cheap and you are selling cardboard with disposable electronics in. What, in fact, happened here?

From gallery of mgreen02

Get that open without damaging the cards. Careful now

Absolutely wonderful. The packs contain different parts of the same song, incidentally. If the situation looked bleak for the UK from that set up GAME showed exactly why they were heading for the wall with their bleeding edge sales method of: putting it on the shelf.

What we have here should be textbook material for marketing case studies. After 12 months the hard discounting started and we are at the tail end now in the US. 5Below are clearing boards and packs for basically nothing. GAME stores and Amazon UK knocked out what they had last year for 75-90% reductions on RRP. The exclusive packs change hands for real money and the four promos given away at US locations also go for silly amounts on ebay. This thing is amazing. Yes, it is a neat-o little toy that plays music but it's also a entry point to understanding about music. Having got this I looked up what a major and minor key was (I know- I did science alright?), how time signatures work, the effect of BPM all of which you can alter in the app and how NF tags work (and work in a stack) and how does the game know which card is on top? There is an actual game in this worthy of the attention of gamers and muggles alike but it requires so much work to find the cards and then find the game amongst the cost and mess. If you get the chance, ask me for a game.

A rulebook in the box would have helped.
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