Why implement an in-game commerce system? "I personally believe if you can, you should," SCEE London lead programmer Richard Bates began, as he presented a case study from his experience with SingStar, which he describes as a "competitive social singing game", at the 2008 Game Developers conference.
SingStar launched in 2004 in Europe, Australia and Asia. It appeared during a mature time for the PlayStation 2 and arrived right on time for the rise of social gaming and new more mainstream audiences. "These games attract a really wide audience," Bates said. "We were pretty excited when we got mentioned in Cosmopolitan Magazine... apparently now hosting SingStar parties is a sexy thing to do, so we're quite pleased."
Thus far, over 70 SingStar SKUs have been produced in the PAL territories. "Although music is universally popular, there were huge regional variations; we couldn't sell the same discs in each country," Bates explained. "We also produced bespoke titles for particular regions."
Bates continued, "We knew that we would launch a lot of discs, so we quickly saw the importance of having processes in place to allow for rapid production and localization of titles... we hoped that people would buy more than one disc. Not all of them, because people's tastes vary, but to build up a collection of Singstar discs the way you could with music albums."
Once players have acquired these collections, Bates continued, they tend to want to play at parties with songs from different discs. So they developed a system by which players could swap discs without interrupting the gameplay.
How did the team come to make a store, then? Now on PlayStation 3, the team wanted to continue innovating. "But we knew that more than anything, the audience wanted more content. But more than that... it's not forcing people to buy the songs they don't want," Bates continued. "Genres still have a huge wealth of sub-genres within them, and we can't cater to those really, really niche genres."
So the game's SingStore works as an in-game store for downloading songs. Additionally, My SingStar Online is a feature that allows players to upload and rate user-created videos. And finally, wallpapers let players skin the game's UI to reflect their own personality, and like the songs, these wallpapers are offered for sale.
Bates highlighted the differences between an in-game storefront and the main platform store, as in the PlayStation Network, as he demonstrated the SingStore download center integrated with the game. Users can browse by artist, album or song, and can even preview the tune before purchasing. The interface itself is consistent with that of the PlayStation Network, but has a look stylistically unique to the SingStar brand, and with more game-specific details.
Having a unique in-game store has several benefits: "The appetite for new songs in SingStar is almost limitless," Bates continued. The store can be continually updated with no need for the players to wait for disc releases. "You can advertise new content," adds Bates. "Over time, players become familiar with what's shipped on the disc and will have a craving for something new. No matter how many songs we have on a disc, you're going to exhaust them pretty soon."
Notably, Bates says, having a separate store rather than using the main platform store reduces barriers to purchase for the user. Given that SingStar is broadly considered a casual game, having a native store means the player won't have to use the PlayStation's D-pad or other controls that might be intimidating to those who are most familiar with the SingStar scheme. "Having a consistent interface between the online and offline portions of the game really helps the user to feel comfortable navigating it," Bates added.
It also means that SingStar tracks won't have to fight for space with the latest demos and downloadables for other games. The separate store also lets SCEE track purchase patterns, quickly gleaning information they can use to determine future content. "It just removes a barrier to going and buying new items. You also get to design how the content is presented to the user."
Finally, the ability to search and filter among available SingStar tracks is much easier for the consumer in a native store that presents only those products -- it's easier for consumers to see what's available. Additionally, they can add additional search and display options that the PlayStation Store interface doesn't have, with users able to customize the results returned on any given search.