Interview: Paulina Bozek

Interview: Paulina Bozek
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

December 6th 2010 at 3:00PM

Former SingStar chief talks Facebook, smartphones and the future of music games

Whether you’re partial to the mic or prefer to show off your skills on a plastic guitar, music games have become a social norm.

The genre began its rapid ascent with the launch of SingStar. Since then the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band have spread a new kind of social fun, and sold millions in the process. But recently music games on consoles appear to have peaked.

BAFTA-winning director Paulina Bozek is responsible for making SingStar what it is today during her time at SCEE. Following a short appointment at Atari, this pioneering director set up INENSU earlier this year to produce innovative social games for the connected generation.

Ahead of her coming Evolve in London session, we asked Paulina to tell us more about her independent studio, impart some social gaming wisdom and share what the future holds for music games.

What can attendees expect from your session at Evolve in London?
I’ll be looking at music games: what’s new and what’s next. Music games such as Guitar Hero, SingStar and Rock Band accounted for nearly 15% of global game sales in 2008 and emerged as one of the key genres attracting new mainstream audiences to games. They also grew into a major source of new revenue for music artists. 2009 saw a steep decline in sales as the music game market reached saturation. Yet it’s a universal concept that can move young and old. I’ll cover music games on console, social networks and smartphones to look at what’s new and what’s next.

Why did you decide to form your own independent studio, particularly when UK developers are facing such rough times?
Traditional developers may be facing rough times but there is a lot of opportunity for small developers at the moment. We are focused on new digital platforms like social networks, web and smartphones where the barrier to entry (in terms of capital) is lower. People often say that starting a new business in a recession is a good thing - more talent and more thinking outside the box. We feel optimistic about the future. There is so much change happening in media and entertainment industries, it’s a great time to start something new.

What are you currently working on and what stage is the project at?
We have two projects in development. We’re working on Closet Swap, a new fashion community web site, plus iPhone and Android apps in collaboration with Channel 4. This is all about celebrating personal style over disposable high street fashion and encourages teens to think ethically about their fashion choices. Innovating in the fashion space with an experience that is part social network/part game across multiple devices is very exciting.

We are also working on a music platform which is all about fans. This has been in development for a few months and we will launch an early 1.0 version in the new year. We’ll be able to talk more about that closer to the launch.

Having helped to capture new demographics with the creation of SingStar, you’ve become an important figure in the social game space. In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes to social games in the past five years?
I think the most significant changes have been: the rise of social networks and a new type of ‘distributed social’ where you are not in the same room as others. The philosophy of social gaming on social networks shares a lot of with social on console but the experience is also very different.

The rise of games as a service means we think differently about production, business models and content.

User-generated content is still a big influence. At INENSU, we almost think more about building the community and the engagement amongst users than the product. The community is the product.

Gaming on mobiles and social networks has exploded in the recent years. What new opportunities and difficulties have these platforms opened up for social game developers?
Social networks have the massive advantage of being on the web and accessible to pretty much everyone. The potential audience is very large and you can build for friend networks immediately. Distribution and marketing through friends and virality is of course an advantage, although this is no longer free or a given as Facebook has modified their viral channels.

Both social networks and mobiles have low friction payment gateways. People can spend a little bit of money quite easily. But these advantages have not gone unnoticed and it is much more crowded in terms of products out there! Getting noticed and marketing is almost a bigger challenge than development. There is also less consumer loyalty on these platforms. Users can click away at any time so the challenge becomes about maintaining users and keeping them active over time.

Do you see PlayStation Move and Kinect encouraging developers to make new social experiences for their respective consoles?
Yes, I think Move and Kinect augments the social experience in the living room and offers developers the opportunity to re-imagine social/physical games we’ve already seen and invent new ones. The technology makes the multiplayer experience more robust and makes for richer entertainment.

The downturn in music game sales on consoles suggests that the genre has reached saturation. Is it time for developers to rethink what music games could be on consoles?
I think dance games bring new life to the genre and will continue to be popular for the next year at least. Just Dance demonstrated the appeal earlier this year and this Christmas we have several more strong offerings. Dance games also perfectly illustrate the Kinect and Move experience. It can also attract young and old alike: just imagine all the possible dance genre sequels out there! Beyond dance games, yes, I think it is time to re-imagine music games on console.

Who is innovating in the music game genre today and in what ways?
We’ve seen some great innovation on the iPhone and iPad in terms of using the touch and motion interfaces to create and interact with music. But we’ve seen mostly single player experiences. The iPad, by virtue of being a larger and living room device, has the potential to make it social again. I believe the key ingredient to the success of music games on console was the fact that it was Music + Social. We haven’t seen the same social party-game magic on iPhone or iPad yet, but I think it’s coming.

Where do you see music games going in the next five years?
I think the potential to blend TV shows with game experiences in the living room is pretty close considering that web TVs are around the corner. Every household in the UK has X Factor judges sitting on their couch. These shows take UGC and package it up with production values and narratives, so imagine when the home audience can be part of that in a bigger way.

Beyond that I think there are big opportunities to ‘gameify’ various aspects of the music experience. People don’t value simply access to music itself any more, which makes it an exciting time to create new interactive experiences around music.

On a practical point, we need to work creatively and in partnership with the music industry. A lot of young start-ups are staying away from music because the perception is that licensing is complicated and expensive. The waning of music games on console will impact the music industry in terms of diminishing royalties. We need to work together to find the next big thing.

Find out more about Paulina’s work at www.inensu.com.