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SingStar: The Beginnings

Mike Haigh, Kevin Mason and Dave Ranyard reflect on the roots of SingStar ahead of its fifth birthday later this week

Later this week SingStar celebrates its fifth birthday, and to mark the occasion GamesIndustry.biz 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.

Over the course of this three-part feature we'll look at the concept of value, the challenges of bringing hardware to the market at no extra cost, and the various issues facing the fine art of the music licenser - but here we begin with the origin of the games, how the idea came about, and how it could all have been very different with a game called Sing-Along Safari...

GamesIndustry.biz SingStar clearly caught the imagination of a lot of people - but was there an element of right place, right time about it?
Dave Ranyard

Definitely - it was the right time in the PlayStation 2 life cycle, in that it was ubiquitous, and easier to create a more mainstream experience.

Mike Haigh

Absolutely - when we launched EyeToy there were 70 million units out there, and at that point it was a real understanding that, as far as social experiences were concerned, were required. There were 10 million sales in the first year, and clearly there was an untapped market there - so the idea the following year to produce another social experience title in SingStar was a no-brainer.

Kevin Mason

Having the microphones ostensibly free with the software was a really good decision, along with having two microphones, which really reinforced the fact that it was a social experience.

GamesIndustry.biz So where did the idea for the game come from?
Kevin Mason

Well, the early concept came out in about 2001 and was based on some new technology that we'd been working on in the studio which was on the PC. We had the song London's Burning - you could sing into it using a microphone and it would tell whether or not if you were singing in tune.

I think even at that point, just playing it on a PC, it was quite daunting to sit there and test it in an office. We were interested in the technology, but it didn't really have a game. I'd recently played Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with my family - my mum, dad, cousins and nan were round. I handed the controller to my nan to answer a question, but she was completely baffled, so I had to take control, ask her what the answer was and then steer for her.

Looking at this technology, thinking about that experience I'd had with my nan, there was obviously the need for a game that, basically, my nan could play. So we came up with this idea for a karaoke game that would rate you, give you a score and tell you how good you are at singing - because everybody knows how to sing.

The result was this almost child-like game called Sing-along Safari, very influenced by games of the time, such as Point Blank, but it was cool - this idea of singing and judging. When we prototyped it and had people coming along and playing, we found that it was very daunting to have one person standing there and singing alone, so the decision was made that two mics were needed, I think that's absolutely integral to the success of SingStar, and is what makes it a social product.

There was an important thing that we'd learned when making EyeToy as well - don't look back to traditional games for inspiration. There was a real debate about EyeToy as to whether or not there should be a rewards structure - so maybe at the start three levels were open, and you unlock others as you progress. We didn't think that suited the audience at all, who just wanted to buy it, play it and have fun, and maybe return to it for a party a few weeks later.

I think the same is true of SingStar, but I think EyeToy really trail-blazed for SingStar and allowed it to come on, because it had already covered a lot of really good decisions. It made sense to follow that kind of template, it was important.

And the last thing that was really crucial was abandoning the Sing-along Safari concept, or at least the setting of it...

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