I Can’t Stop Playing DropMix (And Other Reasons Gaming Hardware Is Coming Back)

DropMix is a music mixing game that’s talked about way too little. Though developers Harmonix have gone and bagged themselves a SXSW Gaming Awards nomination, there’s still headway to be made before the game is truly mainstream.

If you haven’t already heard of it, DropMix allows players to mix their own music using individual tracks from today and yesterday’s top hits as well as play competitive and cooperative game modes. Individual tracks are coded onto a chip placed inside a game card which can then be dropped on the DropMix board to be read and played on your iPad or iPhone. It sounds small, but it’s insanely fun and I had to snap it up as soon as it hit the UK market this year.

4 players playing dropmix party mode

It surprised me, then, when I realised I’ve been playing this game more over the last month than I have my PS4, PC, and Nintendo Switch combined. That’s insane.

DropMix isn’t your conventional video game. It’s primarily a collectable card game, but with video game components that make it feel more connected. Power ups, AI challenges, a rulebook defined through the technological means of its expression – on paper it’s all there. But sitting at a kitchen table with a fist full of cards and a physical board, watching your opponent make their next move across from you feels far from the video games we’ve come to rely on in recent years.

It’s a hybrid of the virtual and real, a pattern that many gaming companies are taking with the advent of augmented reality and the commercialisation of that technology. The company I work for is a brilliant example of this, we create gaming robots that use augmented reality to stage real life battle experiences in your living room with your real life pet robot at the centre.

What Is It About Real Life?

Yeah, yeah. Screens are bad for your eyes, controllers give you RSI and rock and roll will condemn your soul. But what actually is it about this physical aspect of play that speaks to those who have picked, and fallen in love with, games like DropMix? Perhaps its the nostalgic feeling of organising real life collectable cards, having favourites and being able to hold them in your hand.

holding pokemon cards

Maybe it’s the dopamine hit of going into a shop and buying physical objects that will enhance your gameplay and give you more options in your playstyle. Maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the advent of game streaming,  subscription-based downloads, and the fear that all of your games will soon become obsolete with a new console release in which players are just happy to actually own something that will be with them until they decide to get rid of it.

There’s a lot going for gaming hardware experiences in 2018, and when they merge this physical presence with the unbound potential of digital technology there’s really little stopping them.

What Won’t Work?

AR board games are rapidly creeping up on us as well. HoloGrid lets you battle AR monsters on your coffee table using connected iPads, and more and more iOS game apps bring your real surroundings into the virtual experience. There are still a lot of questions surrounding AR board games – that linked post is from August 2016, and still represents a lot of unconquered technical issues.

HoloGrid Monster Battle gameplay product image

Ranging from issues with length of play (how long will AR glasses be comfortable for / how long can an iPad hold its charge constantly running AR), to what happens when we remove the imagination aspect that so many board games run on and replace it with digitised figures, it seems this particular model of liminal virtuality gaming hardware is a few experiments away yet. An AR Jumanji would be epic, however.

Where Do We Go From There?

There are plenty of other ways to bring the virtual and the real together through gaming hardware technology. DropMix has proven that people will go out and buy the physical accessories required for an original gameplay experience, and then enjoy that experience when it is presented well. Rather than diving straight into AR gameplay, then, perhaps a more streamlined connection between the physical and the virtual is in order.

dropmix cards and gameplay

PlayFusion recently announced their ambitious 2018 plans to bring their popular collectable card game to the digital world. Slated for a June launch, players will be able to scan their physical collection into the digital version of the game to take their tactics online. Here then, we see a physical game using this hybridisation strategy to augment their existing experience and bring new dimensions to their product.

Perhaps this is where we’re at at the moment. After all, DropMix could have easily been a digital-only affair, the physical aspect serves to supplement and make that experience more personal, bringing the advantages of tangible ownership to the capabilities of the technology in the game. PlayFusion already have that physical install base and want to use the virtual world to augment their game experience in similar ways.

man wearing ar glasses

It’s likely we’ll see more companies jumping on this union of the physical and virtual to gain the benefits of both and take advantage of renewed interest in gaming hardware since the removal of many aspects of game ownership in recent years. Following this discussion, therefore, it would be reasonable to expect smaller companies with an established install base to go down the route of using select digital technologies with physical gameplay as we have seen with DropMix and PlayFusion, meanwhile bigger companies take on that AR elephant in the room.

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