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Harmonix’s Fuser wants to make you a DJ… but only up to a point



Enlarge / You can’t have Coachella this summer, but you can fake like a Coachella main-stage DJ “this fall” with Harmonix’s Fuser.

Late last decade, plastic guitars and motion sensors vanished from the console gaming landscape—and, coincidentally, the same goes for Harmonix. For years, the pioneering music-gaming developer has struggled to break out with a mainstream hit anywhere near the scale of Guitar Hero, Rock Band, or Dance Central.

The company’s last new-series stab, 2018’s DropMix, was a complicated gamble, as it required players to buy a bulky peripheral and a series of physical playing cards. DropMix had its aficionados, but for whatever reason—a smartphone requirement, or a “buy more cards to get more songs” gimmick—the collaboration with toymaker Hasbro didn’t pan out.

Harmonix is clearly still bullish on DropMix‘s music-engineering trickery, which revolves around letting players splice and combine existing songs’ separate elements (vocals, guitars, drums) and become “mash-up” DJs. This year, the developer is trying again with Fuser, a version made specifically for consoles and PC. Thanks to Harmonix, we were able to go hands-on with the game’s latest preview build ahead of its launch “this fall,” and our existing controllers sufficed—no additional hardware or cards are required. That’s good news, but does that mean Fuser is poised to succeed where DropMix failed?

The Carly Rae Pitbull creation of your… dreams?

As a base experience, Fuser works similarly to DropMix. Players manage a DJ platform and juggle a “crate” full of songs, each split into four elements (drums, lead melody, bass, vocals). As you splice and mix each element, you can create a variety of pop-music monstrosities. Make DMX rap over a Lady Gaga melody, then nudge a Fatboy Slim drumbeat into the mix. You have control of four sonic elements at a time this time, cut down from DropMix‘s quintet of simultaneous sounds, but you’re also freed to use any sound types on any “turntable.” Want to drill a moment down with two drum beats and two bass lines? How about four vocal tracks competing with each other? Go ahead.

Fuser adds one useful trick you might expect from a digital DJ platform: a “cue” system. Use this to assemble a quartet of musical elements “on deck,” then tap a button to transition the current mix into the new one. You can either have them all switch over instantly, or you can ask Fuser to turn on a “smart riser,” which switches the key and tempo to emphasize an element in the new mix. (You can also manually fudge with the key and tempo at any time.)

Should you seek more than a mash-up sound toy, Fuser has your back in the form of a campaign mode. On paper, this sounds like a no-brainer way to add challenge to the formula. Various “requests” will pop up during the span of your stage performance, with demands like “play a country drum beat” or “play only vocals and drums” for a certain number of measures. In the course of fulfilling these requests, you’ll also be expected to remove and add sonic elements according to a “downbeat” meter, which ticks along like a metronome.

A “crowd” meter changes how many points you score for either fulfilling requests or freestyling, and that crowd meter will grow so long as you maintain a steady level of sonic variety. Swap records too quickly or madly, and the crowd meter will shrink (which Harmonix says it’s doing to stop players from madly swapping records to the beat, which would arguably get a real-life DJ booed off the stage).

Chained to the master loop timeline

At first blush, all of this works well enough, mostly because each sampled chunk is time- and pitch-shifted to fit with the others. You can’t manually turn an individual element into a screeching mismatch with the others.

The thing is, my hands-on time with the pre-release game went beyond the usual 20-minute E3-styled demo thanks to an unlimited timer. And that left me pretty quickly grasping for creative straws.

The kind of song and genre variety you can expect from <em>Fuser</em>. Is that enough for you? Will roughly 70 more songs make up for anything missing here? That remains to be seen.
Enlarge / The kind of song and genre variety you can expect from Fuser. Is that enough for you? Will roughly 70 more songs make up for anything missing here? That remains to be seen.


One glaring example comes from a new “make-your-own-element” panel, which lets you tap on a 16-button panel to create a new, synthesized element for your mix, like keyboards, saxophone, or drums. The trouble is, Fuser only includes pre-made loops in this section, which you can slightly tweak in terms of tone and texture with that 16-button panel. When I saw the panel, I thought I was getting something like a pure sample trigger, the kind that established DJs use to make their own on-the-fly beats. Fuser taps those creative brakes.

Worse, the popular songs in this game are, for the most part, firmly constructed as 128-beat loops. The campaign’s focus is on adding or removing sonic elements with button-tapping precision for high scores, so it expects you to swap tunes on a regular basis and enjoy the surprises that come from mixing and matching these fixed loops. But you can’t guarantee in a given moment that you’re inserting, say, the catchy “Hair down, check my nails” vocal line from Lizzo’s “Feelin’ Good” or the snare-tapping, build-up moment from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop.” You’re chained to the master-loop timeline.

And then there’s the song selection, whose 34-song demo selection doesn’t appear to benefit from the tighter genre focus we got from Rock Band or Dance Central. If the soundtrack revolved entirely around one musical archetype, we might have gotten a more interesting mix variety to work with—like a deeper breakbeat crate, full of classic jazz and funk samples, or a wider, zanier variety of rock subgenres (grunge, new wave, metal). The dissonance of attaching Nelly’s voice to a Billie Eilish melody runs out of steam a little faster.

A DJ’s unique creative process

Fuser trailer, June 2020 edition.

The rub, of course, is that Harmonix is trying to make a game where you feel like a DJ superstar without requiring real-world DJ abilities, much like Guitar Hero let people fake like a rock star with only a few buttons. Slapping an entire “make-your-own-music” system around Fuser might defeat that purpose, right?

But unlike other classic Harmonix games, which ask you to pantomime your favorite bands, Fuser opens players up to a DJ’s unique creation process. The game’s latest pre-release demo, made available exclusively to press, fakes that sensation up to a point; when you follow the campaign’s opening instructions, the resulting songs are catchy and full of compatible elements, and this is aided by the game’s sneaky, automatic tweaks to tempo and key when new elements land in the mix. From a “baby’s first DJ” gameplay perspective, this beats the pants off of the tap-to-the-beat weirdness of 2009’s DJ Hero.

But even when playing Fuser‘s campaign, as opposed to the “freestyle” creative mode, the game constantly reminds you that variety matters, as opposed to blindly following a pattern of notes (these reminders come in the form of the aforementioned “crowd meter”). And in its current implementation, Fuser already needs more variety once the first-blush bluster wears off. Players can’t trigger customized samples. They can’t experiment with unusual time signatures. And they can’t access elements from included songs outside the 128-beat meter.

Harmonix tells Ars Technica it won’t add music-creation tools for users unless they ask for it: “If the cry from the community is to get tools for bands and DJs to put their stuff in, then, you know, I’d be thrilled,” one of the game’s developers tells Ars. (When I suggest that Beat Saber is beloved in part because of its built-in custom-music options, the Fuser team replies bluntly: “We are advocates of licensing music at Harmonix.”) The devs also aren’t ready to confirm plans for future paid DLC, beyond saying the game is “architected” to support add-ons but that its “100-plus” song package is meant to offer “value out of the box.”

We’ll keep an eye on Fuser to see how it evolves before launching on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PCs “this fall.”

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How Zelda fans changed the ending to Ocarina of Time on a vanilla N64



Enlarge / This… isn’t supposed to happen in Ocarina of Time. Here’s the story of how some fans made it happen anyway—all on a stock N64 with an unmodified Ocarina cartridge.

Summer Games Done Quick

Shortly after our guide to Summer Games Done Quick 2022 went live, the event hosted an astounding demonstration of a classic video game—one that has since crowded that Ars article’s replies. If we want to split hairs, this run through the 1998 N64 classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not a “speedrun,” but it’s another example of the “TASBot” concept transforming games in ways we would never have dreamed of 24 years ago.

The team of fans and programmers responsible for this week’s “Triforce-percent” demonstration have since revealed how they achieved the feat with nothing more than a stock N64 and an original Ocarina retail cartridge—though the secret involves controller inputs so fast and precise that they cannot be performed by anything less than a computer.

Nothing stale about this run

An early 2020 video that explains how stale reference manipulation works. You may want to watch this before watching the SGDQ 2022 video, embedded further below.

The 53-minute demonstration (embedded at the end of this article) opens with an exploit previously unearthed in late 2019, which the community dubbed “Stale Reference Manipulation.” This exploit takes advantage of a vulnerability in the game’s original 1.0 version, which allowed players to manipulate numerical values assigned to specific objects in the game’s memory. The breeziest explanation for this complicated technique can be found in a YouTube video from early 2020 (embedded above), as it spells out the various numerical values assigned to each object in the game, such as their X-, Y-, and Z-axes and their rotation.

Savvy players can make values overlap or overwhelm the game’s original code so they can be manipulated as players see fit. The technique we see in this week’s run requires Link to pick up a rock while going through a “loading zone,” a hallway used to disguise loading pauses on N64 hardware, and to do so in a way that the game was not designed to handle.

Initially, this exploit was a speedrunning tool, as it could trick the game into loading the final credits sequence and technically count as a “completion” within only a few minutes. But the Triforce-percent run goes much further.

RAMming new content into a classic game

Hey, wait, that doesn't belong here... but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from <em>Star Fox 64</em> was left in the original <em>Ocarina</em> cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.
Enlarge / Hey, wait, that doesn’t belong here… but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from Star Fox 64 was left in the original Ocarina cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.

Summer Games Done Quick

By picking up and dropping specific items, then making the game’s hero Link move and perform maneuvers in a specific sequence, the TASBot team opens up a Pandora’s box of what’s known as arbitrary code execution—the type of vulnerability used by hackers the world over to make a closed computer system run whatever code they want. What’s more, the TASBot chain of moves and commands begins to tell the N64 to accept button input from all four N64 controllers as if it’s code.

This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.
Enlarge / This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.

Summer Games Done Quick

At this point, a computer takes over all four N64 controller ports and sends a rapid-fire series of button taps, as if it were a zillion-finger superhero equivalent to The Flash. The glitched-out Ocarina cartridge has instructed the N64 to accept each button tap in a way that corresponds to specific code strings. Once enough of this payload has been sent, the team can return normal control to the “player one” port, so that a real person can play through an entirely new sequence of content—all being dumped into the N64’s random-access memory (RAM) by the other three controllers’ incredibly fast input.

These on-the-fly patches can do many incredible things that, combined, resemble a fully blown patch of a cartridge’s read-only memory (ROM), though the TASBot team restricts itself to changes that specifically apply to the console’s RAM: tiny changes to existing code, total file replacements, or commands to tell the game to ignore content that it would normally load from the ROM. As a result, this exploit can glitch or crash if players go outside the expected path that this exploit is optimized for.

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Diablo Immortal is bringing in over $1 million a day in microtransactions



Use cash to buy orbs.

Despite backlash from some players, Diablo Immortal‘s free-to-play, microtransaction-laden game design seems to be working out just fine for Blizzard’s bottom line. Using data from mobile analysis firm Appmagic, estimates that the iOS and Android versions of the game brought in $49 million in earnings from just over 10 million mobile downloads in the versions’ first 30 days of availability.

Those estimates, which are based on public charts provided by the mobile platforms, don’t include the PC version of the game and, thus, may actually be underselling the scale of its financial success. With PC players included, Blizzard announced that Diablo Immortal hit 10 million installs after just over a week, well ahead of the mobile download pace estimated by Appmagic.

By way of comparison, Diablo III took nearly six months to sell 10 million copies after its troubled launch back in 2012. But that game sold for a $60 MSRP, making it hard to compare directly to a free-to-play game that has so far brought in an estimated average of less than $5 in earnings per download, according to Appmagic.

The long tail

While Diablo III‘s earnings were front-loaded on initial sales, though, Diablo Immortal seems well-positioned to bring in additional revenue from its existing player base for a long while. As of Monday, for instance, the game was still the 34th highest-grossing app on the entire iOS App Store, despite having fallen to 134th in terms of new downloads.

Many of those initial Immortal players (and payers) will eventually fall away from the game, of course. But that process might happen slower than you might think. Estimates of Android app retention from analysis firm Quettra suggest an app that launches in the “top 10” on the Google Play Store (as Diablo Immortal did) can expect to keep close to 60 percent of its initial users after three months. And public data from mobile hits like Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush Saga suggests that roughly 10 to 20 percent of all players who had downloaded those games were still regular players a full year or two after launch.

That all suggests that Diablo Immortal will have millions of active players well into next year and beyond. And while the vast majority of those players will never spend a single cent on the game, the top-end whales could easily spend enough on the game’s confusing sets of currencies to keep the revenue rolling in for Blizzard for a long time.

Blizzard has already promised that the upcoming Diablo IV will limit microtransactions to optional cosmetics. But the early performance for Diablo Immortal helps show why the free-to-play business model can be so appealing for a publisher like Blizzard, even if it can be annoying for many players.

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The best game-exploiting speedruns of Summer Games Done Quick 2022



Enlarge / All four of the mascots seen in this SGDQ promo image appear in various speedruns hosted over the past week.

Summer Games Done Quick

The Games Done Quick series of charity events has long been a favorite among the gaming fans and critics at Ars Technica since it combines classic, beloved video games and carefully studied methods to break them apart in search of high-speed exploits.

This year’s summertime installment is particularly special, as it’s the first in 2.5 years to take place at a physical venue—albeit with some of the most stringent masking and distancing requirements we’ve seen in a livestreamed public show in 2022. (GDQ’s organizers appear to read the news, which makes sense for a series that benefits the likes of Doctors Without Borders.) Even with precautions taken, its combination of players, commentators, and crowds in the same room has brought excitement back to its broadcasts, which is why we’re pulling together some of the best runs from the past week, as archived at GDQ’s official YouTube channel.

The event is still ongoing as of this article’s publication, which means you can watch it right now via its Twitch channel. The event’s final runs, dedicated to Elden Ring, will conclude in the late hours on Saturday, July 2.

Tunic speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Tunic, 2022, “true ending” run

If you haven’t yet played Tunic, we recommend you pause before watching this game-breaking, spoiler-filled romp through many of its biggest secrets. (My March review of the game has far fewer spoilers.) But if you’ve already collected the game’s slew of hidden “instruction booklet” pages, consider this a must-watch, because it includes a compelling guest on real-time commentary: Andrew Shouldice, the game’s lead designer, programmer, and artist.

He’s joined by a member of the Power-Up Audio team, which worked on the game’s soundtrack, and they divulge tons of information about how the game was made—including confirmation about how many of the biggest exploits were intentionally left by the devs in the game. At one point, Shouldice watches a trick begin to play out, telling the crowd that he programmed it to be a possibility but could never personally trigger it. Moments later, the speedrunner demonstrated the trick, allowing him to warp through a wall and bypass a ton of tricky content.

Halo Infinite speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Halo Infinite, 2021, “no tank gun” run

Many classic games’ speedruns include multiple categories, and the most broken ones are known as “any-percent” runs, since they allow players to use any tricks and skip any quests that they want. In certain games’ cases, these kinds of runs can be boring to watch, and the infamously glitchy Halo Infinite is no exception.

This speedrun begins with a demonstration of the “tank gun,” which bolts an unlimited-ammo gun to Master Chief’s feet. That’s too much assistance for speedrunners’ tastes, but this SGDQ demonstration still includes a ton of wacky tricks that combine geometry clipping and otherworldly physics exploits—all boosted by Chief’s immediate access to a new grappling hook item. Sure, the hook makes players move much faster through the world, but it also figures into a wild glitch that makes players bounce off explosive barrels in ways that defy gravity.

Thunder in Paradise speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Thunder in Paradise, 1995, all-cutscenes run

We’re not sure whether this is GDQ’s first speedrun dedicated to a full-motion video (FMV) game, but it’s certainly one of the dumber examples of the mid-’90s CD-ROM genre. Thunder in Paradise is based on the short-lived TV series of the same name, which starred Terry “Hulk” Hogan alongside Jack Lemmon’s son as a crime-solving action duo on the beach, and it was as bad as that sounds. The video game version, relegated to the CD-I console, forces players to watch excruciatingly bad live-action footage between light gun shootout sections.

In most video game speedruns, players skip as many cinema scenes as possible, but GDQ elected to show this game’s filmed footage in its entirety while cheesing the gun gameplay parts as quickly as possible. Strap in, brother.

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