A cornerstone of the demographic explosion in video games, SingStar is five years old today. What better time to take a look at why the series is stronger than ever. Will Freeman sat down with three of the developers in charge of the franchise at Sonyâ??s London Studioâ?¦
Karaoke games are hardly a new concept, and date back to the NES, but until the team behind EyeToy created SingStar, the entire genre had remained little more than a curious novelty.
Back then, in May 2004, Sony published the first SingStar title to a less than rapturous reception. Despite the slow start the brand and its reputation rapidly gained momentum, and quickly the series became a champion of PlayStation 2 sales. While many felt Okami would be the console’s swansong, it seems in reality that the PS2 has plenty of voice left as a bastion of post-pub gaming.
THE PERFECT OPENER
In-house developer SCE London Studio actually began work on a prototype of SingStar around March 2001, after seeing an internal tech-demo at Sony that let users sing along and see if they were in key.
”I saw that demo, and I went away and thought about it,” reveals London Studio principle designer Kevin Mason. “Then I played Who Wants to be a Millionaire? with my nan, on the PlayStation 1. She had real problems with the controller, even though it’s just up, down, left, right and select. She used to ask me to take control of the game and answer for her.
“So I got to thinking about a game that my nan would play, whilst also thinking about this technology that I’d seen, and came up with a really weird idea for a karaoke game that featured singing animals.”
That game was called ‘Singalong Safari’, and was inspired by the surreal excess of light-gun title Point Blank. “It was to a certain extent wonderfully naïve,” admits Mason. “But if we hadn’t made that game we wouldn’t be sitting talking about SingStar being a success now. It would have died on its arse really.”
The team at London Studio seems to look back at the early history of SingStar with jovial self-deprecation, but in reality the opening chapter of the series’ development continues to define its success.
“There were a lot of key good decisions at the beginning of the title’s development, which meant that it got out there and then got popular,” explains London Studio executive producer Dave Ranyard.
Add to that a number of factors intersected one another at the right time, and the developer was in a prime position to harness a new market. Having just worked on the then-popular EyeToy series, London Studio had formed a number of relationships with hardware manufactures, and was feeling ‘very confident’ about developing accessories. Meanwhile, the public were rediscovering a love for performance as programs like Pop Idol continued to dominate television schedules, and Sony had a keen eye on consumer trends.
CHECK ONE, CHECK TWO
”I think the key thing was when we introduced recognition for two microphones,” says Mason. “That was a really important part of it, as it became a social game. We found very early on that using one mic made the game very daunting for people.”
“Getting the microphones within the cost of the software was essential, as was using original artists,” adds Ranyard. “And of course the PS2 was at the right point in its life cycle too. There were lots of them out there, and we could sell product to people other than the person who had originally bought the console. The brother or sister or mum were a fantastic opportunity for us.”
With 70 million PS2s sold at the time, and with SingStar bundled with two microphones for the price of a normal game, London Studio had everything needed to make the brand a huge success, but getting songs onto disk meant the team had to tackle a number of issues beyond building the game’s core technology.
“What was truly a challenge was the business side,” admits London Studio development director Mike Haigh. “Just talking to the music industry and letting them know we’re planning on taking SingStar online and letting people make videos to their music was a real challenge. The content in SingStar is owned by other people, so convincing them we will treat their property with reverence, and won’t mess about with it: that was a challenge. Of course, being with Sony gave a great deal of credibility to us in those early meetings.”
Then there’s the process of selecting and preparing the tracks, which can mean overcoming a number of obstacles such as re-editing adult content from videos, before using the internally developed tech to implement chosen songs into the gameplay system.
“We were really very privileged because we’re a first party developer working for PlayStation, which means we’ve got close ties with the hardware group and the service groups, and in the US and Japan. So we have a lot of opportunities other people might not necessarily have,” adds Haigh.
One of those opportunities is working with Sony Creative Software, which creates specially tailored Virtual Studio Technology plug-ins for its Sound Forge professional audio editing suite, which are used by the SingStar team on the PlayStation 3 iterations of the series. Adapted to run natively on the consoles, the VST plug-ins are optimised for the SPU media processors.
Additionally, SingStar ’s vocal signal chain includes a high pass filter, wave hammer compressor and Sound Forge’s reverb set with a 1.2 second decay. The game also makes use of ADRes technology, designed by Dr Dan Barry of the Dublin Institute of Technology, which allows for the isolation of instruments in a stereo mix. While much of the information on ADres is confidential, it has been revealed that the technology filters frequencies and works on stereo width and position.
Beyond core tech, choosing the songs is in itself a complex process and having a London Studio email address can mean you get a great deal of requests for inclusions from a range of sources including the all-important SingStar community, which developed as a result of the series’ move to the PlayStation 3 and subsequent reinvention as an online entertainment experience.
“In terms of getting the music onto disks, we get lots of wish lists from people, internally, across the globe and from the SingStar users,” explains Mason. “So we do get lots and lots of wish lists. We have to evaluate them in terms of suitability, not just in terms of how fun they are, but for things like long instrumentals that ruin the experience, suitable videos in terms of age rating and a number of other considerations.
“If it’s all OK then we have to request it from licensing, and then we’re into putting it onto disk and making our list, checking if tracks are balanced in terms of a good mix of male and female lead tracks, and then tweaking the difficulty, along with other evaluation and balancing considerations.”
That entire process is one increasingly dominated by both the input of the community and observing user behaviour. This has turned SingStar into something that is in some respects always in production thanks to its regular updates.
“From a development point of view, having that close relationship with the community is very beneficial to us as we can see people doing things,” admits Haigh. “An example is that there’s one editing function for making user-generated content, and that’s just the pause button. Just with that people have made some amazing videos, and not just one person, but lots of people. That’s emergent behaviour from the community.
“I think the key word there is emergence. You can’t plan emergence – you have to listen to your community, and put tools in place so you can easily listen, so that there’s no barriers or other influence from external forces. Watching how people use video and the pause button gives us good indication as to what to do next, and that’s a hint at what we might be doing in the future.”
Confident that they will be making SingStar games in another five years, the team continues to add to what has become its leading brand with continual updates including the long-awaited wireless mics. Innovations in hardware are at the core of the studio’s success, and that is largely thanks to a self-sufficient development model Haigh has proactively encouraged.
THE EYETOY OF THE BEHOLDER
“I’ve established a studio here that is set up on shared tech that is itself based on mature EyeToy code. SingStar uses the foundation of EyeToy,” reveals Haigh. “Everything that is built around SingStar or around EyeToy product is wrapped back into that technology so everything here benefits from it.”
Those benefits are clear, and five years after launch London Studio is bustling with activity, pumping out a steady supply of boxed product and continually updating its online offering. SingStar is without doubt a household name, and thanks to a design ethic firmly rooted in awareness of popular culture and consumer trends, things look set to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Under the Wire
As a hardware-driven product, the release of wireless microphones was an essential step forward for SingStar as it embraced the PlayStation 3, but some felt the recently released accessory was a little too long coming.
Truth is, London Studio had in fact opted to not rush out the wireless microphones, as it had always attributed much of the success of the original incarnations of the SingStar concept to the affordability of the wired accessories.
“We really did have to try and work out the best route to entry and price-wise things were something of an issue. Also, we worked for a long time on quality,” explains Haigh who, along with his team, invested a huge effort in trying to make Bluetooth a viable solution for freeing SingStar fans from the tether to their performance that the wires had become.
Citing latency issues as part of the reason for abandoning Bluetooth, Haigh reveals: “The final motivation for our choice was to get rid of the cost of the receiver, as that’s actually the most expensive component. You wouldn’t know it but there’s a lot of chip technology in there to convert analogue to digital.”
Top of the Box
Despite the fact that SingStar long ago introduced an online element where players can buy new tracks and join an active community, London Studio has continued to bring out a number of boxed products at a fairly rapid rate.
At a time when downloadable content appears to be mounting an unstoppable assault on high street retail, the SingStar franchise is still committed to physical product, and not just because players can’t purchase the mics without a trip to the shops.
“From a consumer point of view, we want to appeal to people who haven’t seen this product as well as the people who have already got,” says Haigh. “If you’re just online you’re not going to have the opportunity to do that. You need to have presence at retail.
“We rely on the shop front to sell our wares. We want to keep supporting the people who are attached to it through the online bit, and we don’t want to spend money where it’s not necessary, obviously, but certainly, as far as the boxed product is concerned, that’s the thing that people who have never seen SingStar before usually see first.”