In a lecture held at Game Developers Conference Europe on Wednesday afternoon, Sony Computer Entertainment senior producer Paulina Bozek presented a detailed lecture tracing the evolution of SCEE's microphone-based karaoke style title SingStar from early prototype to game franchise.
In the talk, she focused on key decisions that helped make the PlayStation 2 product a mainstream success in Europe, where various SKUs of multiple SingStar titles have already sold more than 2 million copies, and explored how design principles were used to shape the game's development.
SingStar - WhoStar?
In starting out, Bozek briefly defined exactly what the SingStar franchise is - a sensible move, since some in the audience was from outside Europe, and thus far, SingStar has only debuted in Europe and Australasia, albeit with great success in those territories.
Essentially, the title is a competitive singing game in which the player is evaluated both on your pitch and your timing. The game provides score and real-time feedback, and overall has a strong emphasis on mutiplayer games and social play - it's sold with 2 handheld USB microphones at a UKP39.99 price point, with stand-alone discs retailing for UKP19.99. The history of the SingStar franchise is as follows:
SingStar - May 2004
|Paulina Bozek, SCEE Senior Producer|
[Includes 30 songs, including some pop, and lots of 'classics' - Bozek specifically mentioned titles from Motorhead to A-Ha, calling them "fantastic, charismatic kinds of songs that twenty-somethings could get into. In retrospect, Bozek believes, there was a very slight bias to a younger audience.]
SingStar Party - November 2004
[Created as a pure antidote to the 'more songs please' problem, this update focused on a slightly older audience, and re-affirmed that SingStar is all about social gaming by introducing the Duets feature, in which players take turns singing.]
SingStar Pop - May 2005
[This version, called SingStar PopWorld in UK, where it was co-branded with a TV show, introduced rap technology to allow the scoring system to deal with speaking, and, rather self-evidently, concentrated on pop music.]
Singstar '80s - November 2005
[Actually mastering on the day of the talk, this '80s music compendium was devised very much to allow players to switch back into a party kind of theme for the Christmas holidays.]
Out Of Somewhere
A good starting question, Bozek suggested, is where SingStar was actually birthed from, and it turns out that the game was developed from technology created in the prototyping department at Sony's London Studio. Sony London's prototyping teams work in groups of 8-10 people, and raise some interesting questions about who takes 'charge' of the concept after it moves into production, according to the producer, but this initial experimentation was focused on developing a pitch detection system, and then developing game concepts geared towards a children's audience.
In particular, these two concepts were 'Songlines,' a third-person adventure game in which the player would make the world come to life by singing, exploring and unlock new environments through song, and 'SingAlong Safari,' where young players could sing along with animals to complete their singing missions.
However, after some time in the prototype phase, there was a design direction change, transitioning from singing as entry into an elaborate virtual world to singing as the main gameplay. Bozek explains that the team decided to move toward themes and concepts that are more accessible, and that people could relate to regarding popular music, but retaining the main game mechanic of singing and evaluation.
At this point, Bozek switched to a PlayStation 2, where she showed an early prototype of SingStar technology, which simply had pitch detection technology, a very basic interface display, a scoring system, and some sample (and at this time unlicensed) contemporary songs.
In a similar way to the final game, the prototype had a graph where players could sing and their voice is 'drawn' on screen - something Bozek described as " an immediate, visceral connection with the game." She also revealed the names of the first ever 5 'test' songs, which were The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows', Destiny's Child's 'Independent Women', Kylie Minogue's 'Spinning Around', and R Kelly's 'I Believe I Can Fly', as well as Oasis' 'Wonderwall'.
From there, the lecture showed a short video of the first 'public', albeit Sony internal demonstration of the product. This came as part of a Team SCEE conference held in Paris, and to demo SingStar, the producers got the help of people working in the Sony London studio. In this case, there were 2 girls willing to sing Destiny's Child on stage, and two guys to sing Oasis, set up as a girls against boys showdown, with each singer taking turns. There were even props to help communicate the experience - the girls got Destiny's Child styled glamor get-up, and the guys got parkas and presumably some eyebrow pencil to help portray Oasis.
SingStar's Design Principles
Before the Paris demonstration, Bozek argued, people were largely playing SingStar in an introverted way, locked in a room. But not only was the demo to Sony internal employees a big success, Bozek suggested that: "Intuitively, we captured the high-level vision of the play experience."
What she means by this is that the development team was then able to map the high-level design principles from the demo to the actual game - that the title should be 'social, competitive, authentic.' The cooperative part of the demonstration was particularly important, since it underlined the social experience - people should play against each other.
Therefore, one of the key game decisions was made - the necessity of custom hardware, in the form of 2 USB handheld microphones. Although Bozek noted that the SOCOM headset could have been used, and the team did evaluate it, it was technically not quite right, and the SingStar team felt it was key to the authentic experience to have a real handheld microphone, even if it was an expensive investment.
As for SingStar's music, it needed to be "authentic and aspirational," which is why the team licensed original recordings of popular songs alongside music videos, for an 'MTV style experience.' Visuals are, Bozek indicated: "Young, fresh, urban, trendy, global," with strong illustration, composition, and typography, making for an easy to navigate type of experience. Why? Well, SingStar's target audience is really aimed beyond gamers, and into 2 main groups - a youth market (ages 8 to 15), whose appeal for the game stems from popular artists and their music videos, and the social gamer of all ages, who is looking for a fun, social experience as a party game.
Picking Songs For SongStar
Bozek continues by pointing out that, for SongStar, song selection is crucial, and over the multiple SKUs, Sony has licensed over 300 songs to date - there are about 30 spots on each disc, and localized versions being particularly eclectic, as Bozek explains later.
The basic song selection criteria is simple - any selected song must be both popular and fun to sing. Popular, conceptually, is easily quantifiable through charts, sales, airplay, and surveys, but fun to sing is a little more difficult to narrow down. The Sony producer noted that having lots to sing is important (no instrumentals!), there should be melodic variety throughout song (a memorable hook!), there shold be fun song features, and ideally a lot of 'to and fro' between lines (good for duets!).
On the other hand, features to avoid include too much harmony, excessive ornamentation, unpitched songs, and those with overlapping melodies. Bozek mentioned, amusingly, a request from someone within Sony for Daft Punk's 'Around The World', which has just one repeated lyric for the entire song, and was deemed somewhat inappropriate by the SingStar team.
One of the most intriguing elements of Bozek's talk was the extreme level of localization that SingStar goes through. As of its first release, the SingStar team forecasted for 16% local content, but they now localize 50 to 90 percent of the disc for different territories, adding a massive amount of locally-specific content. Apparently, the localization started with France, Italy, German, and Spain, and the team have now added Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Belgium to the list.
Bozek particularly noted that Sony kept thinking that they would find a central key for European music knowledge, but ended up needing to build an infrastructure where there's people in each territory, generally product managers to start with. This adds challenges, since Sony London can potentially lose some control over product integrity, but the end result, for them, seems to be worth it.
Microphone Feedback - 1, 2, 3
Finally, Bozek covered how the developers gauged the game's reception and what changes they should make to the SingStar series, both at its inception and going forward. This was accomplished by usability studies, focus testing, and surveys, and Sony London worked, in particular, with external agency Amberlight for the former.
Since there was a short production delay of 3 months for the first SingStar (purely related to when Sony wanted to release the product), there was time to test user expectations of product through multiple sit-down sessions, including feedback on titles and names, scoring system, and the overall experience, as well as user interaction with the interface, testing Sony's design assumptions, and seeing whether they match the user experience. In addition, song preferences were probed - what are the most popular songs and why? What songs cross over between different target audiences and age groups? What makes a song difficult?
In fact, some pretty interesting results were arrived at, according to Bozek. For example, SingStar had a life energy bar for which quite some time had been spent 'perfecting', and many people didn't know it existed. Bozek commented: "How am I doing? That's all people could cope with!", in many cases.
The consumer testing survey was done via email survey in January 2005, after the release of SingStar and SingStar Party. There was an email invitation to 12,000 registered users across 15 different markets, and a total of 3,372 respondents. The objective was to understand the audience better - who is buying it, what do they enjoy, what do they want more of? One particularly notable fact was that those replying were 49% male, and 51% female - Bozek noted that the team didn't set out to create a girl's game, although girls obviously like to sing, but she's pleased that the game also doesn't alienate a male audience.
Bozek wrapped up her talk by taking a couple of questions from the floor, and although the obvious question of why the North American market hasn't received SingStar didn't come up, the Sony producer referenced "business reasons internally", in part, for a lack of Japanese release, also noting that karaoke is not anything particularly new or necessarily anything the Japanese might want to do at home in front of the console, in her opinion.
In addition, she addressed, in an answer to a question, what she saw as slightly unfair criticism from some game journalists reviewing SingStar titles, who have a habit with "getting more deeply involved" in games, and therefore mark down titles such as the SingStar sequels for having no new design features, even though, Bozek claims, Sony doesn't get that feedback from our consumers, who simply want more songs in different styles.
In her view, small design upgrades are what's going to improve the game, not radical redesigns, and considering the success of the franchise thus far, it does indeed seem that Sony London have a good handle on appealing to the semi-mythical 'mainstream', hardcore journalists be damned.