SingStar: The Business

Mike Haigh, Kevin Mason and Dave Ranyard discuss the importance of free mics... and how their contacts made it possible

Tomorrow SingStar celebrates its fifth birthday, and to mark the occasion sat down for a chat with three of the people that have helped make it all happen - Mike Haigh, now development director at Sony London Studio, Kevin Mason, principle designer on SingStar, and Dave Ranyard, executive producer.

Following an exploration of the franchise's roots in part one, here in part two we investigate the business side of the game's background, and in particular how the team's contacts enabled the title to be bundled with microphones at no extra cost to the consumer.

Q: Bundling mics in for free - obviously the success of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Wii Fit and so on tells us that consumers are happy to invest in peripherals now, but that wasn't the case five years ago. Sony's a hardware company at heart, so how did developing that hardware work out - did it go hand-in-hand with the software development?

Mike Haigh: It's a really interesting point - it's completely at odds with your first perception. You're right, we're a hardware company first and foremost, but actually PlayStation is a software company, and both the camera and microphones were developed almost exclusively from within this studio.

We knew very well that when you're developing a piece of hardware that it needs to be software-led. Because if it's hardware-led, the software is a slave to the hardware, and it can't be that way - as far as the experience is concerned it needs to be tailored according to the user. So the user is the one that drives the software, and in turn that software drives the production of the hardware.

We didn't have all the frills that, if you looked at it from a hardware point of view, you might want to put on. So from the point of view of the camera, when we did EyeToy the average camera was around 1-2 megapixels, and if we'd gone down the hardware route we'd have ended up with an extremely high resolution camera - which would have been absolutely crap at doing anything to do with detecting motion, because it just wasn't fast enough. That's a small example of why things need to be software-led.

Certainly in the case of pricing, when you come to do something that you want bundled with the package, you can't afford to have expensive LEDs for the sake of it, or a higher resolution than you absolutely need, because we just wouldn't be able to afford to put it in the box.

We wanted to make sure that the consumer wasn't hit by that experience - we want the consumer to not necessarily care what the peripheral is that they use, we just want them to be able to buy it, and it to work out of the box. In order to do that you just need to give the hardware away. We're presenting an experience, and you need this - so we'll give you the hardware to make that possible.

There was a lot of work that went into manufacturing and getting costs down, and making sure that the hardware experience was completely tailored for that software experience. In doing so we struck up really good relations with a number of hardware companies during the manufacture of the EyeToy, and we just used those experiences.

As luck would have it, one of the people I knew that was manufacturing components for the camera, his father ran a factory that was making a karaoke box. Well, the microphones weren't as good as we'd have liked them, so we did a bit of work and they came on board. Because of the quantities they were supplying anyway meant that we could come in off the back of their quantity and get the price down.

We got them to work for us in a major way, and said that if we could speculate that the success of SingStar would be equal to the success of EyeToy, then you could amortise some of the costs - because the numbers were millions - and as it turned out it paid off for them.

In turn the wireless microphones were slightly higher, because there's a lot of technology in there that isn't cheap to anyone. I wouldn't even hazard a guess at the sort of price Microsoft is paying for their cordless mics, but I would say they're probably taking a hit there.

But we managed to do it - it took a little longer but I was prepared to take a bit of time to get the quality and price right, and make sure it wasn't a hit to the consumer.

Q: But people obviously are willing to spend money now on peripherals, so it's interesting to see that people are happy to see games not just as a disc-based product, but something that sometimes needs more investment in.

Mike Haigh: I think from the consumer's view it's a perception of the value of the experience is. That's all it equates to. If I told you to spend GBP 100 on something that you had no idea about, and therefore didn't know you wanted... but as soon as you used it you thought there was value in spending GBP 100 on it, then it's a no-brainer.

But before that, convincing somebody that they'd want it is kinda hard. So you've sort of paved the way there, and as soon as people have your confidence... It was unfair criticism that PlayStation had in the early stages of the PlayStation 3 - which was a Blu-ray player, wireless connection, all of the features that you now know... I couldn't go down and get an iPod Touch for that price. Really, they were comparable in terms of price, and it's people's perception that gives value or non-value.

Q: That perception is all about where the budget comes from. If it's justified from the household budget because it's there to entertain people when they come round for dinner, somehow that's more justifiable than if you - as a games-player that's part of the household - was to purchase it just for your own entertainment.

Mike Haigh: You're absolutely right - it's the mental process. If you equate it to how many times you go to the cinema - and when things are tight with budgets maybe you don't want to spend as much... so you work out that in the next six months you're going to spend this much taking the family to the cinema, but for half that you can get Rock Band with the drum kit and we can spend the next six months playing that...

Also, if you've got iterative content that comes out regularly - you might not go to the cinema to see the same film six times in a row, but you might go and see six films by the same director, if you can equate it to that. But there is an element to do with that.

Q: People are buying the hardware now, with the expectation that it will be good for a while. The risk will be if companies start to decide that they need to continue to monetise instruments, etc, on the same level that they have been and bring out a new range of expensive peripherals next year - that's where the backlash may come.

Mike Haigh: It should be a progressive iteration, rather than some revolutionary progression, because people just get ostracised and then it's not worth it. I'm not sure how long the bubble will last with all these music-type peripheral games, but there seems to be a lot of me-too-type product out there. Before long what tends to happen is that it dilutes, the audience gets confused and isn't sure which one to go with, and they end up stopping buying.

I think we're very fortunate to have been there from the start, and to have become - certainly in Europe - and household name. It's a bit like Apple with the mp3 player.

Kevin Mason: In Norway, if people are going out to karaoke, they say "Let's go out and SingStar" - it's like the Hoover.

Dave Ranyard: I think one of the things that helps us is that we've concentrated on singing, and singing - as a group like that - is a tradition. People have been doing it for hundreds of years, and yet in some ways it seems to have fallen our of favour in the last 20-30 years when Hi-Fi came into the home. It's actually more of a return to traditional behaviour, sitting around a piano and banging out some tunes... people have been doing it for years. I think we're developing that experience for the 21st century, and that gives me a lot of faith.

Mike Haigh: I think the two things have collided - people don't necessarily have the time to learn to play piano or guitar, but they want these dip-in experiences, and feel like they're a pop star.

Mike Haigh is development director at Sony London Studio, Kevin Mason is principle designer on SingStar and Dave Ranyard is executive producer on SingStar. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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