Harmonix is one of the first developers most people think of when it comes to music-based games. No studio has understood what it means to feel the rhythm in games quite like they have. Years after they decided to go the independent route, 2014 looked to be a banner year for the Boston-based developer, particularly with Disney's Fantasia: Music Evolved hitting stores today. With next-gen consoles came a rejuvenated Harmonix, ready to bring their unique grasp of the music genre to the Xbox One.
Prior to E3, Shacknews checked out Harmonix's Xbox One slate. On top of Fantasia, the Dance Central franchise was set to make its return in December. Harmonix appeared to be in high spirits, ready to face the months ahead with two games set to take advantage of the Xbox One's Kinect sensor, a tool that Microsoft made clear was the centerpiece of their next-gen console experience.
Fantasia showed great potential with a vibrant world that came alive with the aid of music, not unlike the classic Disney film. The setting was whimsical, the music remix idea was a novel one that encouraged multiple playthroughs, and co-op made for a genuinely intriguing couples activity. It wasn't a perfect experience, because of some issues with Kinect readings, but the concept appeared to be solid. It had also shown considerable improvement, from the time I saw it at last year's San Diego Comic-Con, to the day I went hands-on again with the game during this year's Game Developers Conference, to the most recent GameStop Expo when I tried out a near-finished copy. With a mix of a beloved property and an experienced studio, Microsoft had something uniquely suited to its peripheral.
Unfortunately, days later, Microsoft pulled an Xbox 180. After a year of hyping up the capabilities of the new Kinect sensor and pointing to it as the justification for the Xbox One's $499 price point, the publishing giant did a major about-face and announced that future Xbox One packages would come without Kinect for $100 less. In an instant, the Kinect went from essential must-have for the next-gen Xbox One experience to a glorified paperweight. Instead of taking gaming to the future, Microsoft quietly condemned their creation as a mere gimmick.
Former Harmonix PR director John Drake's tweet that was issued at the time of the announcement said it all. As Kinect's biggest supporter, nobody stood to lose more from this announcement than Harmonix. Microsoft wasn't about to help out, either. They were quick to distance themselves from Kinect, to the point where Gamescom came and went without a single mention of the ill-fated sensor. Consequently, both Dance Central Spotlight and Disney's Fantasia: Music Evolved were quietly shuffled out with little to no fanfare. Harmonix was essentially left to fend for itself.
At the end of the day, however, the studio stands to grow stronger.
Harmonix will continue to support Dance Central and Fantasia with DLC, but their Kinect obligations are now largely behind them. This means they can now move forward with a clean slate, free to explore other gaming avenues. The studio has not allowed itself to be pigeonholed, as evidenced by other games on their docket. The iOS autorunner Record Run released earlier this year to tap into the mobile audience, while A City Sleeps applied Harmonix's musical talent towards the world of bullet hell. Though they've acknowledged that it needs a significant overhaul, Chroma eventually aims to bring music gameplay to first-person shooters.
Then there's Amplitude, which was funded nine days after the Kinect announcement. The reboot of the beloved franchise will indeed live again, with Harmonix recently releasing a gameplay video to show their progress. Amplitude not only represents a return to a past success, but because it was fan-funded, it gives them the total autonomy that they so greatly desired when they bought their own rights back from Viacom back in 2010.
Of course, one can't discuss Harmonix and the past without discussing their greatest success, Rock Band. Rumors of the series' triumphant return continue to persist, with PR communications lead Nick Chester addressing the series as recently as this past weekend in an interview with Forbes. Chester reiterated that the series would return "when the time is right," but that time may be looming closer than ever. Dance Central Spotlight has already cracked the nut of handling past-generation DLC by re-constructing it from the ground up and offering it to past buyers for free. A new Rock Band may not be coming tomorrow, but with a solid foundation of games in place, the developer is now in a far better position today to start thinking about the future of that franchise.
Who knows? There's still a chance Microsoft might do right by Harmonix in the end. With Black Friday a month away, there's always a chance that a standalone Kinect bundle with downloadable copies of Dance Central Spotlight or Fantasia may be in the cards. Whatever happens and whatever song comes on next, Harmonix remains standing with a bright future ahead.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Opinion: Why Disney's Fantasia is a turning point for Harmonix
Unfortunately, days later, Microsoft pulled an Xbox 180.
Really Ozzie? Come on man, you're better than this.