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How ambitious music-mixing card game DropMix escaped obscurity to become a modern cult classic

Harmonixed.

Harmonix is best known for its work bringing live concerts onto home screens (and plastic instruments into living rooms) with video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but the developer has also experimented with the board game universe. Released in late 2017, DropMix was part trading card game à la Magic: The Gathering, part music game in the vein of Harmonix’s digital jam sessions, mixing its own set of rules for a unique, vibrant hybrid powered up by an NFC board and mobile companion app.

In DropMix, one or more players place physical cards representing famous songs across all music genres into slots on the game’s board, and the near-field communication tech inside automatically detects them. Regular cards include one or more instruments; once several are set on the board they combine into a single track, the beats per minute and key of the song adjusting automatically - with often impressive results.

DropMix’s launch was rocky at best. Marketing was spread mostly on social media, along with the giveaway of a special edition card featuring Transformers’ main title song during PAX West 2017. Even though the game’s release happened shortly after, few people could get their hands on it. In fact, not many people knew what the game was about at all. While Harmonix was in charge of development, toy company Hasbro served as publisher, manufacturing and distributing the hardware and cards.

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In DropMix, players place physical cards onto a board to remix songs in real time.

The premise was a tad confusing. Trying to convince someone to spend over £100 on a new title by Harmonix that didn’t fall into the same rhythm game template as Rock Band, but instead seemed more akin to a board game that required a mobile companion app to work, was enough of a challenge. On top of this, only 60 cards were included in the box - while there were additional packs and boosters available during the original launch, they meant potentially spending even more from the get-go.

Availability was another central issue. As Kotaku reported shortly after launch, trying to find DropMix in stores was difficult, with a number of GameStop employees not even knowing about the game despite the US retailer promoting it with the Transformers card from PAX. Many shops reportedly had a hard time trying to figure out exactly where or how to display the hybrid game, with customers saying they had sometimes found the base set or booster packs in the toys section of supermarket chains such as Walmart.

Demo stations were present in big stores but, as one member of the DropMix community tells me, they were mostly found in video game sections with a price tag higher than most of the products on display except for consoles. There was also a lack of clarity when it came to additional decks, initially believed to be blind packs due to retailers like Amazon preventing buyers from choosing the set they wanted - Harmonix subsequently confirmed the discovery packs wouldn’t be randomised boosters, as in collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.

I genuinely think that the game is a great conversation starter.

“I had heard of DropMix a year ago, but never saw it anywhere in person or knew much about it. I had a friend whom I played Rock Band with tell me about it, and I decided to ask for it for Christmas 2018 just as me and a couple of friends were starting to really get into board games,” user SodaStorm says. “I opened it up and lost literally an entire day to it.”

They spent the subsequent weeks scouring every auction and garage sale to acquire a complete DropMix collection, which currently stands at 440 cards. As Toys ‘R’ Us stores began closing down - an event that occurred shortly after after the game’s release - significant discounts and clearances became fairly common. Both veteran players and interested newcomers were able to either pick up the remaining decks needed to complete their existing collections, including decks sold exclusively at Toy ‘R’ Us and Target, or start anew.

SodaStorm adds that very few games have had this sort of effect on their life. After playing together, their friends would usually go and hunt out a copy for themselves, usually hanging out to play on a weekly basis. At launch DropMix featured two competitive modes called Clash and Party, along with a Freestyle mode to play around with cards and create mixes without time limits.

“Just yesterday I showed [DropMix] to a coworker and now people at the office are talking about it,” SodaStorm says. “I genuinely think that the game is a great conversation starter.”

DropMix’s surge happened mostly in the United States, whilst demo stations over in Europe were close to non-existent, Amazon and GAME being the main retailers in the UK. People turned to the official DropMix subreddit to ask for a potential release window, with others voicing that the mobile app wasn’t available for them. Some had no other choice but to import the game from another country. In my own experience, all the way down here in Argentina, no official retailer offered DropMix at launch, nor during the months afterwards.

This initial scenario wasn’t ideal, but Harmonix pushed through. There are several videos on the developer’s YouTube channel explaining game modes, showcasing Freestyle mixes and, most importantly, broadcasting the internal tournaments that were held by the studio. Outside streams, players were able to include the game in competitive events or create their own, with the studio offering tools such as rules printouts and tournament brackets if you were part of the DropMix Insider fan programme. A Harmonix spokesperson told Dicebreaker that “there were never any formal plans to organise and host public tournaments”.

Although attempting to compete online seemed like an impossible task, a member of the community came up with a potential solution called DropMixin. The match took place on live streaming platform Twitch, using a bot as intermediary to input commands from the human players in order to play Clash matches over the internet.

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DropMix cards have a level and colour, representing the instrument they'll add to a track and which cards can be played on top of them.

DropMixin was achieved with an add-on for the Android version of the game’s mobile app that connected it to a web server. Jerrith then coded a Twitch bot that listened to private messages and the channel’s chat for commands, and would send these to the server in order to play cards to slots, navigate the menus as necessary and so on. It was basically the DropMix version of Twitch Plays Pokémon, and lasted for two tournaments, until Harmonix asked user Jerrith to shut it down in January 2018.

“Two people would submit their decks to the bot, which were basically a list of card numbers, and, once two people were ready, it would navigate over to Clash mode and start the match,” Jerrith explains over Discord. “You could play a fully automated Clash match with someone else, all via Twitch. There was also a queue if more than two people wanted to compete.”

Jerrith adds that the web interface could technically play all the unreleased Season 1 DropMix cards that were in the app, with the bot coded to disallow cards that weren’t available yet.

I feel like the concept had a lot of promise but there was obviously some sort of issue on the business side.

“I considered what I was doing reasonable - I had two full sets of the cards (which was enough for any normal scenario in the game) at the time and only ran a single stream - the equivalent of using my cards. Harmonix didn't see it that way though, and asked me to shut down the stream if I was using any modifications of their app.”

When approached for comment, a Harmonix spokesperson said: “We strive to provide players with the best licensed music in all our games and we have a strong partnership with the music industry. Unfortunately mods or customs often enable the use and/or distribution of copyrighted music without the proper rights, so we cannot support them.”

Even now, discussions around modding are prohibited in both Reddit and Discord. “Whilst I don't think it would ever have become that popular, asking for it to shut down killed any sort of DropMix modding,” Jerrith says. “I think they learned though, and did much better with the VR game Audica, which has quite the modding community.”

DropMixin wasn’t the only effort made by the community in order to maintain an active interest around the game. The Weekly Mix Challenge, in which user Cryptosporidium set conditions to combine specific cards or respond to a certain theme, ran for 105 weeks after starting back in January 2018. Dozens of users all over the world participated but, as Cryptosporidium explains to me over Discord, being out of college and starting in a full-time job led them to put an end on the challenge at least for the time being, right after DropMix’s second anniversary.

“As it is the last challenge I'll be putting out for now, I'd like to encourage everyone to create a mix this week,” they announced at the time. “Come together and show the creativity of the DropMix community and how much this game means to each and every one of us.”

Fellow player AdamNA came up with an online card template creator - though not without a series of disclaimers requested by Harmonix, along with a custom watermark so people wouldn’t mistake them for official cards. Another user, who goes by the name of TheJizel, created a DropMix deck generator inspired by both his experience as software developer and as a former employee of Harmonix during the Rock Band 3 days.

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Over 400 cards were released for DropMix, covering genres from pop and hip-hop to EDM.

The original idea was to use the generator to build decks based on harmonies. Ideally, this would have led to people competing in Clash mode using cards that were musically compatible. TheJizel says that this would have not only made the game competitive but also pleasing to listen to as you were playing.

“I did make an attempt at this at some point during development, but quickly found out that there were not enough cards and songs to make it feasible. Like many others, I feel like the concept had a lot of promise but there was obviously some sort of issue on the business side, either marketability or licensing, that made it not feasible to produce long-term,” he tells me. “I think one of the prevalent themes among the DropMix community is that Hasbro is to blame for this. Harmonix did a lot of the work not only managing the communities, but also being vocal on the marketing side and adding new features to the software along the way (like the single-player Puzzle Mode back in mid-2018).”

The factors surrounding what happened with DropMix are largely separated into two key events by the community. 14 people were laid off from Harmonix in October 2017, including community manager Josh Harrison, who is said to have been active answering questions such as international release dates and who left a goodbye post on Reddit that is remembered by members of the community to this day. The second event involved another round of layoffs that happened in late 2018, this time affecting Hasbro’s iPlay division, which was mainly in charge of manufacturing and distributing the game. This was announced by former employee Alex Howell on the DropMix Discord server when it happened.

In late 2019, Harmonix assumed control of the DropMix app and server support from Hasbro. A spokesperson from Hasbro told Dicebreaker that “whilst there are no plans to introduce new cards or boards, DropMix features and functionality will not change and the team plans to support the service indefinitely”.

A Harmonix representative reassured this, but also gave a more hopeful message: “The production of all DropMix products has ceased and there are no plans to start it back up. That said, we remain extremely bullish on the underlying music mixing tech that made DropMix so memorable and are actively experimenting with new ways to introduce accessible music mixing to an even larger audience.”

Despite the fact that the project couldn’t develop the potential that the community was hoping for, along with only seeing half of the intended Season 2 cards, many fans are still enjoying the game to this day, sharing personal anecdotes and favourite mixes on social media and community channels. Even in recent months, several players have discovered DropMix for the first time, and are seeking out packs and boosters wherever they can. Reddit, for example, displays dozens of posts sharing sales and clearance opportunities, and the same solidary sentiment can be found all over the DropMix Discord channel.

The ‘wow’ of putting a piece of cardboard on a piece of plastic and making an iPhone spit out Disturbed vocals over Carly Rae Jepsen strings isn't going to be there with mouse clicks or fingertaps.

Jon Farrell, a long-time fan of Rock Band who has been involved in Harmonix’s online communities for years, is one of many people who expressed their thoughts about what would happen if DropMix’s future relied on making the game a completely digital experience. For them, it wouldn’t be the same.

“If digital is the only path to get more content out into the world, then by all means I hope it does make it out there somehow. But I truly don't think it would feel the same. The ‘wow’ of putting a piece of cardboard on a piece of plastic and making an iPhone spit out Disturbed vocals over Carly Rae Jepsen strings isn't going to be there with mouse clicks or fingertaps,” Farrell tells me. “As cumbersome as the big colourful boxes were to retailers, I don't think an app amidst millions of other apps will get that much more attention. Ideally, I'd like to see a new distributor see what we saw in it and continue it just as it was, if that's legally even an option.”

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The music-mixing technology of DropMix lives on in upcoming video game Fuser.

In late February 2020, Harmonix revealed its fully digital successor to DropMix, moving the card game from the tabletop and mobile devices to video game consoles. Fuser is a video game that invites players to DJ live music performances, mixing licensed songs throughout different game modes - including Freestyle and online multiplayer - and sharing their mixes on social media.

The similarities between DropMix and Fuser are evident in the video game’s first gameplay trailer, showcasing requests from the crowd around timing and creativity when adding new tracks onto a mix, using the same instrument icons previously seen on the physical cards, a coloured DJ cabin representing the board, and more. In an announcement email sent to members of the DropMix Insider programme, Harmonix described Fuser as “the evolution of the technology behind DropMix”. Meanwhile, a member of the studio assured fans on the DropMix Discord Server that it “won’t become a Fuser server”.

Everywhere you look on social media and official channels, there’s a clear passion for DropMix from the community. Parents experimenting with cards with their children, people that had no idea of the game’s existence until recently and found themselves involved in groups that still haven’t given up, sharing mixes on a weekly basis and playing competitively in local bars and coffee places. The initial premise may have been a hard sell and, whilst the promise wasn’t quite fulfilled on the tabletop, fans still share the same excitement as the first time they mixed the Jackson 5 with Evanescence.

There were several entries in Cryptosporidium’s last Weekly Mix Challenge, which involved two objectives: to create songs inspired by the prompts ‘To the Future’ and ‘What DropMix means to you’.

SodaStorm created ‘Locked into an obsession’ for ‘To the Future’, in the hope of someone taking control of DropMix and creating more content for the tabletop game. As for what the game means to them, that’s preserved in ‘Sitting at the bar with an empty glass’, inspired by a happy accident with a stranger as they were playing Clash together: “We both smiled when it played and silently sat and listened to it for a couple of cycles before continuing our game. We play weekly now.”

Dadgumituh shared the thought process over their own To the Future entry, thanking Cryptosporidium: “This mix combines things that I often do when making challenge mixes. And then, in the spirit of Crypto’s challenges, doing something outside my comfort zone.” The track is called ‘The Final Credits’ and features The Final Countdown and a remix of the G.I. Joe main title song.

“It’s a ‘future’ mix because once you’ve completed all of a game’s challenges, what comes next? The closing credits.”

‘I Want More DropMix’ by spdy4 included The Black Eyed Peas and New Order, along with a message from the creator: “Pretty much what the title says, I want more DropMix in my life, and it means a whole lot to not just me, but other people in the community. I mean, how many games can you name that do the same thing as DropMix?”