|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||2002 [7.14]|
|Artist(s)||Sander Berg, Vance Kelly, Jeff Lowry, Eric Nyffeler, Kate O'Hara, Jerome Vogel and James Weinberg|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
I’m going to say right up front that I don’t think you should run out and buy Dropmix. Not at the £120 RRP price point at which it was released. It’s not really much of a game, even though it purports to be one. Dropmix is more of a toy – a weird and inventive music-based scratchpad that lets you Drop Phat Beats with sonic Pokemon like you were the DJ at Ash Ketchun’s second divorce party.
On the other hand, if you can pick it up for £25 like I did? Yeah, maybe give it a whirl. Maybe.
Here’s how it works. You take possession of an electronic console that pairs up with a smartphone app. The console looks a bit like what happens when a Speak and Spell becomes a sullen, resentful and lumbering teen. It’s all gangly plastic and comedy retro buttons.
It’s marked with various bays for cards, and each bay is linked to sets of colours. Those show the legal assignments of the musical snippets that make up your deck of cards. You’ll lay these down on the console, and the console will in turn lay down the beats.
So, the first problem is this – the console has all of the weird connectivity and syncing issues you’d expect with technology at the cutting edge of gaming. It is only occasionally reliable. That’s frustrating, made more so by the curiously disjoined nature of the app. The game doesn’t come with a rules manual (thanks XCOM for pioneering that particular and spectacularly cheap move). Instead, it directs you to videos on the smartphone app, and these are not actually directly integrated into the software. In my experience, as soon as you go to one of these videos it’ll immediately disconnect the app from the console. You’ll then go through the occasionally frustrating exercise of trying to get the two to talk to each other once again. You’re often presented with a game experience that feels extremely inelegant.
Assuming you get past that, the game offers several modes for play. There’s a party mode where everyone is playing downs collaboratively to create a Sick Tune. There’s a head to head mode. There everyone is trying to claim maximum control over the console by playing hooks of increasing intensity and variety so as to prevent anyone else singing or playing over them. There’s a freestyle mode, which in my view is the only one with which it’s worth actually doing anything, where you just lay cards down and see what they do. The game modes are… strictly adequate. They give you a thin veneer of gameplay which accomplishes the basic goal of giving you a reason to focus on the console. They are absolutely not worth your time as games. They are easily the least interesting part about the package. They’re not a reason to play. They’re an excuse to play about.
And that’s fine, because that’s really what you should be doing with Dropmix – puttering about with it like it’s the weirdly specific, niche and eventually forgetable toy you desperately wanted as a kid at Christmas. You know, like a Possessed Furby or a Luke Skywalker with real, glowing angst. Dropmix excels as being a novelty item, and probably one you’ll be happy to bring out for company more often than many of your other games. It’s instantly a centrepiece of attention because while the games are pretty workaday they are layered on top of a really fascinating experiment in algorithmic adaptability in music. It’s actually really cool.
The thing that Dropmix does that makes it so interesting is that it blends together often quite disparate tunes, genres and keys. Not seamlessly and not without occasional weird and discordant riffs and fills. But it blends well for the most part and it creates an environment for musical experimentation that is borderline hypnotic. Forgive the incredibly poor-quality video of what’s about to follow – I had difficulty in rigging up a tripod that would capture the console working in the way I needed. Instead, you’ve got shaky footage of me trying to show you how it works using nothing more than a mobile phone. Also, apologies for the app also being on a phone, but I couldn’t actually get it to work with either of the tablets I had available. And I’m sorry it’s in portrait. Really, it’s all a bit of a disaster.
Man, remember when all we used to have was a computer and maybe a laptop if we were engaged in some weird corporate activity mysteriously centred around ‘the City’? Madcap days. Now I have more computing power in my phone than is needed to conduct a land-war in any four continents you choose to name. There’s even an app for that, but it’s £9.99 and so it’s outside the acceptable mental price-point for mobile based software.
What you can see (hear) from this video is the way that Dropmix works. As cards from different songs, artists and instruments are dropped on to the console they contribute to a unique and tailored mash-up. Each of those cards adapt themselves to the key, tempo and pitch of the combination. Some cards have special effects on them that might dramatically change the way every other card works and the entire effect is extremely good. You can hear an example of a clumsy drum fill as it segues from one vocal hook to another but by and large it consistently meshes everything very well. Most combinations are at least melodic even if they’re never going to hit the charts. You rarely end up with a truly unpleasant combination of elements and that’s pretty remarkable. It’s also what makes it a potential crowd-pleaser at a party… nobody can really object to the music because everyone has had a role in creating it. It’s like a mix-tape designed in the era of sampling and crowdsourcing. It’s super cool.
Unfortunately, that ‘super cool’ comes at a cost and the first of these is… the cost. I have seen these consoles being aggressively discounted of late, perhaps because nobody was willing to risk £120 on a gimmick. Certainly not in the numbers that would sustain the endeavour. However, all that makes me do is think that they’ve given up on the experiment and they’re looking to get rid of stock. Great if you want to tinker, not so great if you want to really commit yourself to Dropmix because…
… remember how I mentioned that this was a card driven game? Well, those cards come as expansion content. DLC, actually. If you want a big library of banging beats, you better be prepared to pay for it. Especially since there is a secondary market for the cards that is currently pushing their prices considerably higher than retail. It’s a weird dynamic – as the game itself gets cheaper, the cost of playing it optimally gets higher. Make no mistake – the first hit might be free but the sustaining enjoyment of this toy comes with a subscription box model and there are, as best I can see, dozens of them to pick up. As is often the case with games like this, you’re going to need them too – using the provided deck of sixty for too long feels awfully like having the Proclaimers stuck in your tape deck for a long road trip.
But the thing is too that you’ll go through so many of these in even a casual session that you’re going to drain the novelty out of even new cards with depressing rapidity. Sure, it’s neat to hear the violin chords from Call Me Maybe meshing seamlessly into Superfreak but… how many times is it going to be neat and how often are you going to end up hearing it? Dropmix ekes a lot of novelty out of the cards by reinterpreting combos pretty liberally but even so – it’s still Call Me Maybe every single time. You’re going to want to cut that familiarity with something new on a regular basis. And ‘regular’ here might mean ‘every couple of games’. That’s an astonishing amount of churn and it’s hard to see how anything short of a direct link into Spotify could realistically meet the needs.
And that then leads to the real problem here – is this a sustainable product in a market like this? If the recent plummeting price is a harbinger for discontinuation then the mandatory market of additional cards is going to become very limiting very quickly. I’m not even convinced a secondary market can even work here since I’ve had brand new cards that absolutely refused to register after only a few light shuffles. There seems like there’s going to be an entropy curve that becomes pretty steep pretty quickly. All things end, all good comes to pass.
However, I’m not quite ready to write this off as a bad investment for the long term. What’s really going to drive Dropmix, and I can see this happening if the install base gets big enough, is a homebrew scene. A scene where sufficiently dedicated hobbyists can make their own cards and sample their own music. It might sound like wishful thinking but the artificial scarcity of Nintendo’s Amibos has led to them becoming incredibly easy to get if you’re willing to bend the rules. Ignoring the massive piracy that such an endeavour would encourage, there’s a whole load of free and CC music out there that would be ripe for conversion into Dropmix cards. Or rather, Dropmix compatible cards. That’s going to need people keen enough to develop an app that will support new, unsanctioned expansions, and that seems like a tall order. Not an impossible prospect, but an unlikely one. On the other hand, it’s difficult to predict what is going to capture the imagination of a software hobbyists and I genuinely could see Dropmix attracting some thoughtful consideration.
For my part, I really feel like I sucked the juice out of Dropmix in about five or six hours. That’s fine for something that cost me £25 – still a better return on investment than a night at the cinema, and cheaper too. Had I spent the RRP or anything approaching it, I would have been left feeling a great deal sourer about the experience. That sourness would intensify in line with my worries regarding the support we’ll be able to expect in the future. It seems unlikely that the game will continue to be produced and sell for bargain basement prices. It seems that it has to be one or the other. The problem is I can’t recommend it much at either price point – at the high end it’s just too much money for too little entertainment. At the low end, it’s just hard to believe that you’ll ever be able to find and afford a sufficient number of cards for a discontinued product. As a one-off toy that you might play with for a bit and then forget, then sure – but I’m not keen to encourage people to buy things on the basis of their affordable disposability.
If a homebrew community springs up though, well… all bets are off. It turns out really that Dropmix isn’t a really a game so much. It’s not even a toy in the traditional sense. In the end, Dropmix is a gamble.